The Long View: The Coming Caesars

Riencourt's book makes the argument that America is literally the second coming of Rome. In this, he follows the views of many of the American founders. I stumbled on this idea when I was reading about Cincinnatus, the Roman who was twice elected dictator, and twice resigned his imperium. One of the books I read was a detailed study of the art and iconography of revolutionary and post-revolutionary America, and it was pretty clear the Americans saw themselves as Romans.

Also, the form of government selected by the founders was a republic, in imitation of Rome. The founders saw a republic as a mixed government, following Polybius, blending monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Of course, the Roman Republic eventually became the Roman Empire, which is the transition everyone is interested in, including Riencourt.

In 2003, this book was out of print, but now a new edition is available. In this book review, John talks about keeping track of Spengler's successes and failures at predicting the future. Spengler had a pretty good track record, although some of his successful predictions might have surprised him.

I think the same is true of John. Here is an interesting prediction: American political parties are less ideological constructs than vehicles for charismatic personalities seeking office.Interpret as you will.

The Coming Caesars

By Amaury de Riencourt

Jonathan Cape, 1958

384 pages; Out of Print




Since Oswald Spengler first published The Decline of the West at the end of the First World War, a main attraction of the comparative study of civilizations has been the prospect of predicting the future. As more and more of that future has passed, this attraction has only increased. It's not that Spengler was a perfect prophet. Even when he was right about the future, he was right in ways he did not foresee. Still, though taking Spengler too literally has never done anyone any good, there is something to be said for keeping track of the successes and failures of the great doomsayer.

The Coming Caesars was published just 40 years after the first volume of The Decline appeared. It was much discussed by the intelligent Right in its day, perhaps in part because Arnold Toynbee's Study of History was still on people's minds. However, The Coming Caesars does not even mention that enormous work. The author, a Frenchman with extensive experience of the United States, adheres closely to Spengler's views and methods. There is one big difference. Spengler hoped that Germany would play the “Rome” of the future. Riencourt makes the most detailed argument I know for the proposition that America does not just have a Roman future, but an essentially Roman culture.

This review was written about as long after the publication of The Coming Caesars as that book was published after The Decline of the West. Surely it's time to take another look. Whatever the book's merits as prophecy, what we have here is the finest collection of alleged American mental problems since Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.


From Culture to Civilization

The Spenglerian model is only incidentally about wars, revolutions, and the evolution of the international system. The transition to what Toynbee called a “universal state” is only one aspect of the general turn of a society toward its final forms. “Civilization,” in Spengler's usage, is the “late” phase in a society's life. It follows the period of “Culture,” when society creates its characteristic science, religion, art, and politics. The French Revolution is roughly the cutoff point for both Spengler and Riencourt between Culture and Civilization in the modern West. In Greece, the Revolution was less localized, since democracies tended to replace oligarchies everywhere. The important comparison is that Napoleon and Alexander the Great are “contemporary” as transitional figures in their civilizations' histories.

The transition to Caesarism began in the Victorian Era, which Riencourt identifies in part with the Hellenistic Age. Both were “the beginning of bad taste and ostentation, of insincerity in art, of pomposity, of grand and ornate pseudostyles”; yet also of “city planning, hygiene, and comfort: of modern pavements, and improved sewers, aqueducts…fast-expanding networks of world-wide economic relations”; not to mention “pedantic scholars, critics, grammarians, commentators, and editors.” The age of Plato passed to the age of Aristotle, as the age of Kant passed to that of Hegel.

Culture is pioneering, aesthetic, and fertile. Civilization is sterile, extensive, practical, and ethical. They are related as systole and diastole. Riencourt multiplies oppositions like that, but here are the important ones: Greece was the youth and maturity of Classical civilization; Rome was its old age. Similarly, Europe was the youth of the West, and America is its old age.

There are complexities here. For the purposes of macrohistory, apparently, America and Great Britain are the same country. Riencourt lays great stress on the fact that America developed, not just under the influence of British ideas, but behind the shield of the British Navy. It is impossible to imagine the United States developing as it did during the 19th century if the country had not been, in effect, a protectorate of the British Empire. In the 20th century, the relationship began to reverse. After the Second World War, Britain has functioned as America-in-Europe.

In outlining the transformation from Culture to Civilization in the political dimension, Riencourt often sounds like many another member of the French Right since 1789: “[E]xpanding democracy leads unintentionally to imperialism and…imperialism inevitably ends in destroying the republican institutions of earlier days…the greater the social equality, the dimmer the prospects of liberty…as society becomes more egalitarian, it tends increasingly to concentrate absolute power in the hands of a single man.”

Riencourt is not forecasting the appearance of a mere Anglophone Napoleon, however. Modernity has a terminus quite different from that of the ancien règime: “Caesarism is not dictatorship, not the result of one man's overriding ambition, not a brutal seizure of power through revolution…It is a slow, often century-old, unconscious development that ends in a voluntary surrender of a free people escaping from freedom to one autocratic master.”

Note that, although this language is cast in terms of a general law of history, it simply restates the history of the Roman Republic. Spengler himself took care to elaborate parallels with other civilizations, where democracy had never been an issue. Except in an Appendix and a few asides, The Coming Caesars treats of parallels only between the ancient and modern West. The bulk of the book, in fact, is a history of the United States, spiked with more or less apt references to supposedly comparable events and persons in Roman history. Riencourt is particularly interested in the evolution of the office of tribune in ancient Rome and that of the American presidency, but we will get to that presently.


God, Space, & the Law

Every book about America has to deal with religion, and this one is particularly concerned with the American mutations of Calvinism. (Was there a Roman “Reformation”? Indeed there was, in the form of Orphism, which culminated in Pythagoreanism. Go ask Spengler.) According to Riencourt: “But Calvin's doctrine as applied at Geneva was based on a spiritual legalism, mechanical, stern, without compassion and without appreciation for art, inhumanly practical, and in many respects iconoclastic. In Geneva were sown the spiritual seeds of what was to become the New Rome of the West.”

This is not to say that American religion itself has retained these harsh features. After the collapse of metaphysical theology, American religion became notoriously emotional and sentimental. Prayer was replaced by good works, not as payment for salvation, but as a sign of election.

The secular versions of the Calvinist virtues became the bases for American politics and commercial culture. Thus, no matter their confessional affiliation, Americans are like the Biblical Jews: suspicious of beauty, with a characteristic tension between the knowledge of God's will and Man's inadequacy. Similarly, Rome's gods, like Rome's later civilization, were austere and impersonal, unlike Greece's warm pantheon. (Spengler discountenanced this opposition, by the way. He pointed out that the peculiar cult of each polis was darkly numinous rather than colorful. The “Greek Pantheon” was late and literary.)

In addition to religion, every study of America has to consider the role of space. Both America and Rome, in Riencourt's telling, were “frontier” societies, on the rim of civilization. America, famously, could dispense its dissidents to the west. Rome could do likewise, to the north, into the Po Valley and Cisalpine Gaul. In both cases, easy expansion into a sparsely peopled hinterland facilitated political stability at a time that, elsewhere, was an age of revolution and counterrevolution.

The English-speaking world in general is characterized by a tradition of compromise under law. This legalism, like Rome's, is the product of a remarkable sense of continuity. It's not that American's are particularly law-abiding; they are law-minded. Combined with their ancient Biblicism, they have turned the Constitution into a sacred text. The system works because the scripture of the law requires interpretation. Lawyers are hierophants, interpreting the mystery of the law. The effect is conservative: unlike the legal codes of Europe, mere logic is not enough.

America and Rome were both “urban” from the beginning, despite the fact both had overwhelmingly rural populations for much of their histories. Their farmers were not peasants, but citizens. This was somewhat less true of Virginia, with its attempt to transplant England's gentry. However, southern culture was eventually overwhelmed, ideologically and economically. Perhaps more important was that Virginia set the pattern of a conservative, aristocratic east, versus the democratic frontiersmen of the west. The east demanded enough centralization to keep the polity together. The west acquiesced, but only if they were allowed freedom of action: “thus started the fateful, unintentional, and unplanned expansionism which, in less than two centuries, was to establish the frontiers of American security well into the heart of the European and Asiatic continents.” He makes the same argument about Rome's expansion, starting from central Italy.

Unlike the rest of the Classical world, Rome had a knack for the judicious extension of citizenship rights, which Riencourt compares to America's power of assimilation. Rome did suffer the “Social Wars,” conflicts with its Italian allies about the franchise, just as America suffered lapses like the Civil War. He also makes the interesting suggestion that the importation of slaves into Italy was a real immigration. Manumission was normal in the Roman world, so that slave families often became citizens after a generation or two. In contrast, slavery in America resulted in a caste system that has yet to be dismantled.


The American Psyche

The key to American psychology is the position of America in world history: “America's destiny is conditioned by the fact it is an old and not a young nation, as far as essential age goes…America represents, in world history, the old age of Europe…This essential oldness is rooted in an eighteenth-century atmosphere where optimism still survives in America and wears the mask of youth, but has disappeared in Europe as outdated.”

According to Riencourt, Americans are naturally conformist, compared to Latin peoples. He even says that Americans are “natural socialists.” In many ways, America is like what Americans say about Japan: “a far higher average than in Greece and Europe, and yet an almost complete absence of great creative personalities.” He says there is an American saying: “To be different is to be indecent.” Americans are self-disciplined; even more so than the Germans, who at least have the option of intellectual “inner migration.” The key to America's tribal collectivism is to be found in the fact that America has come almost full circle in social development. Foreigners often note a strange similarity between Americans and Russians. That is because the Last Man of Civilization resembles the First Man of the pre-Cultural period, which is the state of Russia in comparison to the West.

Freedom in America does not mean what it means in other places, or what it meant in the West in the past. American freedom is a legal notion, unlike the French liberté. “Where, then, does freedom reside in America? Mostly in the fact that the individual American is physically more independent of other human beings than anywhere else in the world.” Americans are notably lacking in jealousy and resentment. Conversely, the rich are rapacious, but not selfish.

There is an upside to this. Americans can make good use of individualistic philosophies, such as that of John Locke, which created chaos in continental Europe. Atomistic English economism, with its emphasis on property rights, soon made the English-speaking world the most conservative area on earth. It is a progressive and enlightened conservatism, however, a sure defense against both revolution and reaction.

None of this should suggest that Americans are gullible or obtuse. “American Civilization is successful because of the remarkable American gift for psychological understanding…When they choose political or business leaders, Americans do so on the basis of their general human qualities rather than their technical proficiency.” Americans have an expert's distrust of all experts.

The author makes a remarkable equation of Americanism with Classical “Romanitas.” Both value organization, efficiency, and earthly success. Also, “in a chaotic world where sensitive men are baffled and often despair, [Americans] are not easily baffled and never despair.” The American mind is not cultural or aesthetic, but moralistic. It deals with extension rather than depth, especially temporal depth, but it eschews abstraction generally: “Americans think in pictures.”

Despite America's non-metaphysical cast of mind, it is far from mere materialism. Riencourt establishes the point with a fine display of non-falsifiable dialectic: “Since every coin has two sides, the necessary counterpart of an extreme utilitarianism bent on concrete achievements is an equally extreme idealism of a more abstract nature than any put forth in the Old World.”

Riencourt returns again and again to the topic of Americans' essential conservatism, for which he finds an explanation in gender dominance: “It is this fundamental conservatism that gives Americans in the modern world a position almost identical with that of the Romans, a conservatism bolstered by the complete ascendancy of the conservative-minded sex – women.” The author makes a great deal of this point: “All this links up with the best-known characteristic of American life: the hen-pecked nature of American men…the childish desire for love that Americans display in their contacts throughout the world is a direct consequence of the absolute predominance of the female principle…[I]ntimacy, familiarity, lack of reverence have become the dominant themes of American life. Nothing leads more implacably to Caesarism than these traits.” Noting that the emancipation of women was also a feature of the late Roman Republic, the author asserts that a democratic electorate tends to become “feminine,” emotional, eager for leadership. A feminine public opinion looks for a virile Caesar.


Russia & Communism

In the 19th century, during the age of high imperialism, practically the whole world was controlled by European powers or European settler-states. Again, the Hellenistic empires in the east, and the Greek settlements in southern Italy and Sicily, are often cited as analogies. Riencourt, following Spengler, says that the Greeks did not properly distinguish between the different classes of barbarian societies. Some, like the Egyptians, belonged to ancient, fossilized civilizations. Others were mere primitives. Yet others, in the east, belong to a “young” Culture that would eventually overwhelm the Classical world. Much the same thing happened in modern history: “The Nemesis in the Classical world was the rise of Parthia and the…war against Mithridates – in the context of our won [20th] century, the rise of Soviet Communism and World War II.”

Communism in Russia was a western import that was part of the “pseudomorphosis” of Russian culture, comparable to the superficial and transitory Hellenization of the east that occurred after Alexander. However, the effect of the Soviet Union was to drag Russia back to its Mongolian-Byzantine roots. The origins of the Soviet and Parthian threats were similar, too. The Romans helped to overthrow the Hellenistic empire of the Seleucids, but then simply withdrew, allowing the unhellenized east to recover. This was pretty much what America did after the First World War and the collapse of the Habsburg and Czarist empires. However, this new class of threat is not merely military, and not merely external: “This deep-rooted antagonism that springs outside the area of a given Civilization always coincides with a social disintegration inside it – with a period of revolutions and social upheavals that always accompany the collapse of a Culture and symbolizes the loss of that precious self-confidence of former times.”

The Coming Caesars repeats familiar conservative critiques of FDR's policy toward the Soviet Union: the sick old man was duped by Stalin's oriental cunning. Additionally, since the American mind is analytical rather than synthetic, American statesmen were slow to see the need for a grand strategy to counter the Soviet Union. However, even with the best negotiator and a coherent worldview, the outcome of Yalta and Potsdam might not have been different: “Behind the armed might of Soviet Russia lay another active force in the realm of ideas and passions, the religion-like force of Marxist philosophy extending from France to China…And behind Marxist philosophy a deep distrust of Western Civilization as such. In this the rustic patriotism of the Russians joined the widening revolt of Asia's crippled civilizations against the West.”

Riencourt rather doubts that the West will ever be free of the Russian menace. Though the Roman Empire at its height was perfectly secure against Parthia, the East nonetheless eventually overwhelmed the fossilized Classical civilization. On the other hand, a Third World War is far from certain; there really is progress, and the modern world is less brutal than the ancient world.


The Necessity of Empire

The coming universal state is not founded on mere degeneration. Speaking of the world after World War I, Riencourt says: “The problem, which no one could as yet formulate, was that the Western world was longing to get beyond an outdated nationalism and a vague internationalism that solved nothing, longing for a new political conception of organic cooperation that would preserve what was best in local patriotism, but transcended it at the same time.”

Sometimes the author equates the 20th century with the 2nd century B.C. In those days, when Rome had no serious rivals but wanted nothing more than to be left alone, it sent commissions all over the world to mediate disputes: Carthage and Numidia, Egypt and Cyrene, plus any combination of Greek states. Since Romans took no responsibility, their efforts often made things worse. When, in the 1st century B.C., Rome finally established regular structures of governance, “Roman domination at first was heavy and harsh, but it was a crude world that could respond only to crude treatment. Our twentieth century is far more sophisticated and the reorganization of our own world has to be carried out with a far greater discretion.” The model imperial official would resemble Douglas MacArthur. Not simply occupiers are needed, but statesmen committed to a long-term, conservative, social revolution around the world.

America had yet to understand its full vulnerability, the author implies. Rome was terribly dependent on the world outside Italy for manpower and grain. America might seem self-sufficient, but in 1955 “the United States absorbs 10 per cent more raw materials than she produces, whereas at the turn of the [19th to 20th] century she produced 15 percent more than she needed.” He suggests that much future history might concern access to Malaysian tin and Arabian oil.

Reviewing Europe a little over ten years after the end of the Second World War, Riencourt is much impressed by the success of the Marshall plan. In contrast, he finds the idea of independent European unity chimerical: “If unity is to come, it will have to be from extra-European sources and take place within a much larger framework. It will have to be based on the only unity that has any concrete reality: the Atlantic Community, the geographical unit of Western Civilization.” Noting the extent to which American and European bureaucracies interdigitated during the postwar emergency, he suggests that something similar might happen in the future: “European political structures will not be brutally abolished; they will simply atrophy and die.”

Obviously, there is considerable opposition to this outcome in Europe, both political and psychological. Riencourt finds it anachronistic: “Instead of looking upon America as she is – the New Rome – the puzzled and embittered Europeans prefer to see a new Carthage – soulless, exclusively dedicated to the pursuit of wealth, vaguely hypocritical, the land of sharp and ruthless Yankee businessmen. They fail to see that America today, and alone in the world, has the necessary ingredients of a stable civilized order: moral ideals and ethical purpose.”

World order is an old dream, the author notes. Different versions of it appear in different civilizations: the Caliphate of Islam; “All under Heaven” in China; and of course the Roman ideal in the ancient West. In the modern West, a new version is likely to have something to do with the United Nations, starting with a universally valid international law.

Before the First World War, the world still had regional empires with universal pretensions. When they disappeared, chaos followed. The League of Nations failed to end the chaos, but it was an instructive failure. The United nations, which followed, was largely an American initiative; certainly it was designed with an eye to American constitutional history. It quickly became paralyzed between two international blocks. The UN, after all, was supposed to institute democratic procedures on a world scale, but one of the opposing blocks did not believe in liberal democracy at all. The fundamental flaw with the UN, however, is that it embodies the parliamentary system in an age that is becoming sick of parliaments. What the world needs, and wants unknowingly, is an international presidential system. This could be democratic: rights under international law would be extended to individuals, even if that diminishes state sovereignty.

According to Riencourt, the UN will probably become the second layer of the “Roman” commonwealth of the future. The core will be the Atlantic Community. Such a world system will work, if the masses are given sound administration. Just as important, the system must give the world's elites full scope for personal development.

Sometimes Riencourt suggests that the final phase of Western Civilization is, in some sense, the final act of history. He points to the similarities between the apocalyptic anxiety of the early nuclear era and of the Mediterranean world around the time of Christ. In both cases, he suggests, people were onto something: “Man…is not merely going through a change of historical phase but…in the coming centuries, he will be stepping out of history altogether into a new 'geological' age…He is becoming, for the first time, a planetary phenomenon.”


Tribune, President, Emperor

Riencourt emphasizes the conservative nature of the American Revolution. The Founding Fathers were “men of the transition, a last link to the past, conservative engineers of a healthy reaction.” What would have surprised them was the evolution of the presidency they created, an essentially weak office, into an organ of popular sovereignty.

The mass politics of the Hellenistic and modern eras is a struggle between the people and Big Money. In that struggle during Roman times, the tribunes were created to protect the people. Over time, however, the struggle becomes less and less about class, or even economics. What begins as the struggle of the Populares against the Optimates becomes a contest between the Caesarians and the Pompeans; that is to say, a conflict between personal parties, mere cults of personality and systems of patronage. In contrast to their European counterparts, American political parties were already more like vehicles for personalities seeking office than like ideological organizations.

There was in fact no precise counterpart to the presidency in the Roman constitution, but the office of tribune showed the ability to evolve in that direction. The tribunician power included personal inviolability, the right to summon the Senate and to direct its debates, the right to nominate candidates for some offices, the right to arrest even consuls, and, most famously, the right to veto the acts of all magistrates. This list of negative rights ensured positive power when combined with some other source of authority, such as military command, or even mere popular approval. The tribunate was the legal basis for the office of emperor.

No doubt inspired by the characterization of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a "traitor to his class," the author observes: "Rome's outstanding democratic leaders, from the noble Gracchi brothers to Caesar [a period of about 90 years], whose ancestry was as old as the dawn of Rome herself, were all blue-blooded aristocrats who turned against their narrow-minded peers and led the aroused people against them…Thus, what made the democratic evolution of America relatively peaceful was the self-immolation of the founding oligarchy."

In America, politics are aggravated by a public opinion that is volatile on matters of foreign policy. Thus, American policy lurches from crisis to crisis, throwing up a strongman to meet each new emergency. But again, the authority of the Caesars is only incidentally military. Speaking of the Grant Administration, but with perhaps a glance at Eisenhower's, Riencourt notes that "professional soldiers are not the stuff that Caesars are made of." He characterizes Franklin Roosevelt, the first proto-Caesar, as “like another typical American creation, the master-mind sports coach who bosses his team, devises its tactics and strategy, switches players and substitutes at will.”

Riencourt attributes the role of the presidency in American politics in part to a growing "father complex" in America, though he also observes that, throughout the West, publics are increasingly disgusted with parliamentary incompetence.

To a large extent, the Roman Republic was destroyed by a change in political psychology. The early Caesars kept trying to give real authority back to the Senate, and the Senate kept refusing to take it. Responsible people lost the knack of operating a republican system. Candidates no longer presented themselves for important offices. Finally, all posts were filled by appointment, and became part of the imperial bureaucracy.

After its founding, the politics of the empire will have a predictable trajectory: “The transition from Sulla to Caesar and from Caesar to the absolutism of Vespasian was partly the result of the growing orientalization of Rome and the decline in the prestige of elective institutions. In the modern instance, it is clear that 'democrat' Roosevelt was not half as much repelled by Stalin's views on strong executive power and the absolute supremacy of the great powers as 'conservative' Churchill was.” In the author's telling, the Caesars became monarchs in Rome because they were monarchs abroad. Caesar Augustus, for instance, because he was also the titular King of Egypt, did not dare retire. The Egyptians would tolerate being ruled by him, but not by some bureaucrat in the name of a faceless “republic.”


When the Future Becomes the Past

Speaking of the would of the late 1950s, the author judges that Russia and America were evenly balanced; they were the tiger versus the shark, each safely dominant in its own domain. Inevitably, he cites Tocqueville's famous prediction that the Russians and the Americans each seemed destined to “sway the destinies of half the globe.” He remarks: “Tocqueville would have been unable to forecast the complex state of the world as it was in 1926, yet he was able to prophesy what it would be in 1946, 20 years later.”

That is almost precisely my experience of this book. I first read it in 1982; my marginal comments say that this or that trend will have to reverse if the author's thesis is to hold up. Writing this in 2003, I see that many of them did reverse. Doubtless they could all reverse again. Meanwhile, some new ones arose that he did not foresee. I know of no book that illustrates the limits of prediction better than The Coming Caesars. It bears rereading, at suitably long intervals.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Coming Caesars
By Amaury De Riencourt

The Long View: Tribe and Empire

This book review probably ought to be read in counterpoint with John' earlier review of The Twilight of Democracy by the same author. The Twilight of Democracy overlaps thematically a bit with Tribe and Empire, but the earlier work has more of a Cold War grand strategy feel, while this work is somewhat more speculative.

I would say that anthropology and archeology have been changing rapidly of late, but what I really mean is that abundant evidence is now available that vindicates one pre-existing model over another. One of the critical advances is the ability to sequence human remains and determine how different peoples are related to one another. This gives valuable information about the way people spread into new areas, and also helps us understand what happened to the people who already lived there.

Usually, what happened is that one people moved in and killed or subjugated the previous residents. By looking at DNA, you can tell which of those two things happened. What didn't happen is a peaceful spread of technology among relatively sessile populations, the "pots not people" theory that dominated archeology in the later half of the twentieth century.

I seriously doubt that the earliest centers of civilization were undefended "cities on a hill".  However, John, and the author of the book under review were no doubt simply trusting the scholarship of the day. At the least, neither of them is under the illusion that hunter-gatherer life was pacific. John compared hunter-gatherer bands to street gangs, which is an apt comparison.

Kennon's theories of government are of interest because as a former CIA analyst, he represents the American ruling elite and/or the Deep State. In either case, his opinions are likely a bellwether of the opinions of the constellation of think tanks, NGOs, and government agencies that are currently running the world.

Tribe and Empire: An Essay on the Social Contract

By Patrick E. Kennon

Xlibris, 2000, 272 Pages

Hardcover: $25.00; ISBN 07388-3979-5

Softcover: $16.00; ISBN 07388-3980-9


Reviewed by John J. Reilly


In 1995, Patrick E. Kennon, a retired analyst for the CIA, published the slightly notorious Twilight of Democracy. In that book, he argued that what this world needs is fewer elections and more bureaucrats. In “Tribe and Empire,” he is at it again, this time with special reference to the future of the nation state and the prospect for world government. The book is infuriating, but it’s hard to put down.

According to Mr. Kennon, this is how things stand today: 

“Now, as we enter the twenty-first century, the future of the nation-state is much in doubt…Indeed, tribalism has revived with a brutal savagery from Rwanda and Cambodia to the newly dissolved USSR and the newly unified Germany…At the same time, a kind of shadow empire…is being embraced by elites around the globe. UN bureaucrats and Greenpeace activists, Carlos the Jackal and Mother Theresa, Toyota and Amnesty International, the Cali drug cartel and the World Bank, people who worry about the dollar-yen ratio and people who worry about the ozone layer, all of these consciously or unconsciously look to empire for their profit or salvation. All of these have largely given up on the nation.”

This assessment is plausible, though scarcely original. What is novel, or at least entertainingly idiosyncratic, is Mr. Kennon’s attempt to account for globalization and its attendant anarchic backlash in terms of classical Social Contract theory.

In the struggle between the tribes and the empire, the author is emphatically on the side of the empire. While the philosophers of the Enlightenment tended to relegate international relations to the state of nature (Kant was an exception), in this book the author argues that Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau were too pessimistic in limiting their analysis to national communities. According to Mr. Kennon, there is an ethical trajectory that leads away from the local and toward the universal, from the political and toward the administrative, from predation and toward commerce. The book saunters in a one-worldy direction, as you might expect, but without the moralizing or hysteria that characterized similar analyses in the early nuclear era. In fact, the book sparkles with a merry cynicism about God, man, and history in general. In effect, what we have here is a brief for Toynbee, written by Talleyrand.

 The pure forms of human life, according to Mr. Kennon, are the “tribe” and the “empire,” terms that he conflates with “community” and “society,” respectively. These dualities all correspond to life before and after the Social Contract. Although temperamentally closest to Hobbes, the author allows that Rousseau’s version of social contract theory (an early version of it, at any rate) best describes the way history actually works. In this view, the fundamental principles of a society are promulgated by a Lawgiver (not to be confused with a ruler), whose ideas become the General Will when people acquiesce in accepting them as their own.  

The Lawgiver may, no doubt, be a corporate body (such as the Founding Fathers), and the “contract” that the Lawgiver promulgates may be accepted with something close to real consent, as Locke would prefer it. Be that as it may, it is the contract that turns mere homo sapiens into human beings. In the tribe, everyone is equal, every man is a warrior, and there is the war of all against all. In society, in contrast, there are no enemies, only superiors and inferiors. Community is familiar and exclusive, governed by a traditional morality that is not subject to analysis. In society, however, there is ethics rather than morality, and right and wrong are subject to pragmatic reformulation. The most significant thing about ethics is that it is universal in principle: everyone, near and far, should ideally be treated according to the same rules. The political form that has substantially fulfilled this ideal is the “empire,” something that has in fact existed at various times and places.

For his illustrations, the author turns mostly to the non-European societies of the Americas. This is not an altogether fortunate choice. His model of pre-contract man is the Yanomamö Indians, about whom there has been so much controversy of late that anything said about them is best presumed false until proven otherwise. Far more interesting are his remarks about the civilized pre-Columbian societies, particularly the Adena-Hopewell culture of what is now the eastern United States, and the better-known Olmec of Mexico. While the degree of political centralization in these regions varied over their long histories, it is reasonably clear that they once constituted “ecumenes,” civilized worlds of common culture and religion and commerce. As in Eurasia, the earliest civilizations spread by the obvious attractions of civilized life, rather than through conquest. In these ancient embodiments of the social contract, the center of a civilization could be an almost undefended “city on a hill.” It was only later, in the “classical” periods of the ecumenes, that cities became fortresses.

While the tribe and the empire constitute the pure types of polity, humanity has been ingenious in devising hybrids. People who know of a better alternative generally rise above tribal life, which Mr. Kennon describes as like living in a violent urban street gang. (And without emergency rooms handy, it should be noted.) On the other hand, people who have signed the social contract have often recoiled from its full implications, even after they have had a taste of ecumenical life. Thus, the empire may be the logical end of civilization, but not necessarily its last act.

There are compromises between tribal morality and universal ethics. In the modern West, the compromise is what the author calls the “Nationalist Contract,” under which nation states deal ethically with their own citizens but act as warriors toward the rest of the world. In ancient Greece and in Mayan Mexico, the two-faced beast was the city-state. In both Mexico and Greece, there was the same coincidence of brilliant cultural achievement and ferocious international conflict. The problem with these compromises is that they are inherently unstable: they collapse, either downward or upward. It is still not entirely clear what happened to the classic Maya, despite the recent progress in reading the writing on the walls of their abandoned cities. In western antiquity, however, we do know what happened: the warring states signed the Imperial Contract presented to them by Rome.

According to Mr. Kennon, the Imperial Contract is the perfect form of the Social Contract. It is the basis for the only form of society in which we become entirely human, because it makes everyone else human. For the empire, in principle, there are no foreigners. We are given a short wish-list of characteristics that a modern version of the empire should have. The author is at pains to emphasize that the empire exists to make international law enforceable, and not to govern states internally. Thus, the only “human right” in the Imperial Contract is freedom of movement: the remedy for tyranny seems to be emigration. By the far the most interesting of these characteristics, however, is the requirement that the empire be “non-political.”

Readers of Mr. Kennon’s “Twilight of Democracy” already know the holy horror with which he regards politics as it is generally understood. Politics is an essentially national thing, the means by which one composite national warrior confronts another. In a national society, good leadership is vital, but it is often lacking. That is why national survival is a matter of luck. The American Civil War was brought on by the incompetence of politically partisan nation-builders. The Union was saved, at appalling cost, only by the fortuitous advent of a ruthless mystic to the presidency. (Lincoln is not one of Mr. Kennon’s heroes.) Good government, humane government, cannot work like this. It depends, not on the genius of charismatic leaders, but on bureaucratic routine.

Government by reliable routine has been the distinguishing feature of the empire wherever it has existed. Politics went on, of course, in Antonine Rome or Ming China, but as self-contained court intrigues and bureaucratic squabbles. It was no longer in a position to derail the essential operation of the state. Mr. Kennon’s ideal government, in fact, seems to be something like the current incarnation of the European Union, with its powerless parliament and splendidly paid bureaucrats. The mandarins in Brussels are often crudely corrupt, and they don’t respond to emergencies particularly well. They are, however, quite certain not to lead civilization over a cliff in pursuit of some manifest destiny or other, something that the national societies that preceded them did in almost every century. 

“Tribe and Empire” does not argue that the empire is the necessary destiny of the current world system. Certainly the author seems fairly sure there will not be a worldwide American Empire. The world today is arguably an American ecumene, characterized as it is by the nearly universal presence of English, fast food and reruns of “Bay Watch.” The government of the United States is still significantly political, however, and must defer to the reluctance of the people to shoulder the burdens of empire. (The people had been more willing to support a de facto empire during the Cold War, which was arguably in the purely national self-interest). Nonetheless, Mr. Kennon seems equally sure that the term of the Nationalist Contract is about to expire all around the world. Since the alternative to empire is tribalism, which in the 21st century means nuclear-armed successor states, the Imperial Contract looks like a better deal every day.

World empire, however defined, is easier said than done. The problem with Rousseau’s version of the Social Contract, which the author assumes would have to underlie such a system, is that it is less a real contract than an exercise in successful marketing by the Lawgiver. As a practical matter, the contract may bring peace, but it has to be peace in the name of something. The contract is essentially religious, even if its terms are secular. Mr. Kennon remarks that fear of ecological catastrophe might be the platform for the Lawgiver of a truly universal empire. This was pretty much Al Gore’s argument in “Earth in the Balance.” Not everyone will find this coincidence encouraging.

Pretty much everybody has some piety that is punctured in this book, with greater or less justice. We have already noted Mr. Kennon’s assessment of Lincoln. On the other hand, the author is onto something when he asserts that the Founding Fathers, with their international perspective and their pre-nationalist political theory, were on the side of the empire, at least in comparison to the true nationalists of the Age of Jackson. Still, in this book as in his former one, Mr. Kennon classes Israel as a “Herrenvolk Democracy,” a characterization that is more piquant than illuminating.  His characterization of papal infallibility as a form of “shamanism” does not make much sense, even using his peculiar definition of shamanism.

The book also has more basic flaws. The anthropology, though interesting, seems a bit dated and not always obviously relevant. More important, the author’s Whiggish take on Western history is wildly misleading, not to say wrong.  However, such objections miss the point of the exercise. “Tribe and Empire” is a prose poem, by a very witty man, in which he tries to get a grip on the world his former employers tried so hard to shape. Probably they didn’t encourage this kind of speculation in the CIA. At least I hope not.

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The World After Modernity

For a span, John was an unaffiliated but not wholly unrespectable scholar of millennialism. This essay dates from that time. This is a useful précis of John's thoughts on Spengler, millennialism,  and the imperial turn.

The e-book of John's entitled Spengler's Future can be found here.

The World After Modernity

Presented under the Title:
Spengler's Future

At the Sixth Annual Conference of the Center for Millennial Studies Boston University, November 3 to 6, 2001.
Another version of this piece appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Comparative Civilizations Review.

A persistent and highly influential image of the future appeared in the late nineteenth century. It occurred to a long list of people: I might mention Ernst von Lasaulx, Henry and Brooks Adams, Nikolai Danilevsky, Nikolai Berdyaev and Walter Schubart, and for that matter Albert Schweitzer and Jacob Burckhardt. They all shared the intuition that the Western world had entered a new "Hellenistic" age, and the twentieth century was going to see a recurrence of the less pleasant aspects of Hellenism. (1) These would include such things as demagogic tyrannies, annihilation warfare, and a relaxation of traditional restraints in art and personal life.

Nietzsche had said as much, too, and in fact anyone who entered the 20th century with this modest insight would have met with few surprises. (2) During the 20th century itself, the notion was worked up into great, formal models of history. This enterprise is sometimes called "macrohistory," (3) unless it waxes very philosophical, in which case it is called "metahistory." Either way, the best-known example is still Oswald Spengler's "Decline of the West," the first of whose two volumes appeared just as the First World War ended. The biggest example, in fact the biggest book of the 20th century, is Arnold Toynbee's 12-volume "Study of History," most of which was published in the 1930s and '50s. The aspect of the Hellenistic analogy that chiefly interested them, like us today, is the way the modern era can be expected to end.

To put it more crudely than most macrohistorians do, the idea is that, just as the Hellenistic phase of Classical culture ended in the Roman Empire, and just as the Warring States period in Chinese history ended in imperial unification under the Qin Dynasty, so the modern era of Western Civilization would end in a post-national universal state. For the sake of brevity, and because some of the authors we will consider do likewise, we will call this final phase of historical development simply "the Empire."

We are talking here about the evolution from Alexander to Caesar. Some macrohistorians expected Western modernity to last the same length of time, two-and-half or three centuries. We may note that macrohistorians generally equate Alexander and Napoleon, so, if you like, you can do the arithmetic to see where we are now. (4) If you really like these analogies, we may also note that the societies most often identified as universal states, Han China, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and New Kingdom Egypt, all lasted about 500 years after their founding by a Caesar-like figure. (5) So, now you know the future. Just try to look surprised when it happens.

Philosophical history of this type gives most historians fits, but it's inescapable. Northrop Frye was not a great fan of "The Decline of the West," at least on its merits, but he also said "we are all Spenglerians." (6) For instance, Spengler can be considered the father of multiculturalism. He treats the eight cultures whose life cycles he considers as all equivalent in some sense. Although he was developing ideas that had long been familiar from German historicism (6), the fact is that he wrote the first history of the world that really was about the world, and not just a chronicle of the rise of the West.

Cyclical historical analogies affect statecraft. Henry Kissinger's undergraduate thesis at Harvard was on Spengler, and he never quite got over it. (8) Former President Bill Clinton's favorite teacher at Georgetown, at least by some accounts, was Carroll Quigley, a follower of Toynbee in the School of Foreign Service. The debates after the Cold War about globalization and American hegemony have, in effect, put the Empire front and center.

Perhaps the most topical model of international relations these days is Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations." He accepts the Hellenistic analogy as a matter of course, though with his own peculiar spin. He tells us:

"[T]he international system expanded beyond the West and became multicivilizational. Simultaneously, conflict among Western states - which had dominated that system for centuries - faded away. By the late twentieth century, the West has moved out of its 'warring state' phase of development as a civilization and toward its 'universal state' phase. At the end of [the 20th] century, this phase is still incomplete as the nation states of the West cohere into two semi-universal states in Europe and North America. These two entities and their constituent units are, however, bound together by an extraordinary complex network of formal and informal institutional ties. The universal states of previous civilizations are empires. Since democracy, however, is the political form of Western civilization, the emerging universal state of Western civilization is not an empire but rather a compound of federations, confederations, and international regimes and organizations." (9)

Among scholars interested in such things, Huntington is a little unusual in rejecting the idea of global civilization. Among people with a basically cyclical approach to history, he is also, as we will see, unusual in assuming the continuing vitality of democracy. On the other hand, he is not at all unusual in considering that the Empire already exists to some extent. This is the thesis of the fashionable book, entitled "Empire," by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.

According to those authors, the Empire is Saint Augustine's City of God. (10) They themselves are Marxists who write impenetrable postmodern prose and who hope to replace the City of God with the City of Man, but their analysis is worth considering, to the extent they will permit themselves to be understood. Like its Roman predecessor, today's Empire seems to its subjects to be permanent, eternal, and necessary. It has no outside, at least in principle, and internally it distinguishes neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free. It does not rest on conquest, but on consensus.

The Empire is the post-historical incarnation of eternal justice. It does not merely happen to exist, like a historically contingent state; rather, it must exist, at least as an ideal. It closes the gap that opened in the Renaissance between the ethical and the juridical. Its wars are just wars, police actions against opponents who cannot make a principled case against the Empire as such. No civil or military stresses remain that might threaten it. The Empire is always in a crisis, so its acts are emergency measures that trump the ordinary law of the sovereignties and corporations that comprise it.

The authors say the Empire is not really a state. It does indeed have state-like organs, such as the UN and the IMF, but it has no center. For that matter, it has no geography: the old divisions between First, Second and Third World have collapsed. The difference between France and India in the world system, for instance, has become a matter of degree rather than kind. The Empire does have a tripartite anatomy, in the sense of an executive, an aristocracy, and a people, like that which the second century B.C. historian Polybius ascribed to the late Roman Republic.

The Empire is imperial, not imperialist. Imperialism, in the authors' analysis, was simply the extension of European nationalism outside Europe. The Empire arose precisely because capitalism could not endure if the divisions between nations were not dissolved. The authors count the loss of national sovereignty, and even of national identity, as no great tragedy. Nations themselves, as well as the Peoples that comprised them, were largely confected for the benefit of early capitalist production.

A retired CIA analyst, Patrick E. Kennon, recently published a witty apology for the Empire as an ideal, entitled "Tribe and Empire." He finds far deeper support for the Empire than does Samuel Huntington, who dismisses the actual membership of international society as a thin crust of what he calls "Davos People." According to Mr. Kennon:

"Now, as we enter the twenty-first century, the future of the nation-state is much in doubt...Indeed, tribalism has revived with a brutal savagery from Rwanda and Cambodia to the newly dissolved USSR and the newly unified Germany...At the same time, a kind of shadow being embraced by elites around the globe. UN bureaucrats and Greenpeace activists, Carlos the Jackal and Mother Theresa, Toyota and Amnesty International, the Cali drug cartel and the World Bank, people who worry about the dollar-yen ratio and people who worry about the ozone layer, all of these consciously or unconsciously look to empire for their profit or salvation. All of these have largely given up on the nation." (11)

Mr. Kennon attempts to account for globalization and its attendant anarchic backlash in terms of classical Social Contract theory (the very class of theory that Hardt and Negri say is the source of false consciousness in the world today). "Tribe and Empire" argues that the philosophers of the Enlightenment were too pessimistic in relegating international relations to the state of nature. According to Mr. Kennon, there is an ethical trajectory that leads away from the local and toward the universal, from the political and toward the administrative, from predation and toward commerce.

The pure forms of human life, the "tribe" and the "empire," correspond to "community" and "society," respectively. These dualities also correspond to life before and after the Social Contract. The contract turns mere homo sapiens into human beings. In the tribe, everyone is equal, every man is a warrior, and there is the war of all against all. In society, there are no enemies, only superiors and inferiors. Community is familiar and exclusive, governed by a traditional morality that is not subject to analysis. In society, there is ethics rather than morality, and right and wrong are subject to pragmatic reformulation. The most significant thing about ethics is that it is universal in principle: everyone, near and far, should ideally be treated according to the same rules. The political form that has substantially fulfilled this ideal is the "empire," something that has in fact existed at various times and places.

So far we have been talking about the Empire in terms of political theory, but that is not the only aspect of the Hellenistic analogy that interests macrohistorians. They are concerned with the way that whole societies evolve, and this is one of the points about which they have received the most criticism. They tend to speak as if societies were organic wholes, with life cycles like living things. This analogy is no worse than any other, but it is difficult to defend in detail. Burckhardt, in fact, even though he saw parallels between his own late 19th century and late antiquity, specifically rejected the biological analogy. (12) We should note, though, that even those who used organic language most heavily were not necessarily relying on it.

Spengler himself is a good case in point. Though he spoke of the cultures he examined as living organisms, his philosophy was much more sophisticated. "The Decline of the West" is a profoundly Kantian book. In Spengler's view, the course of history is circumscribed by the limits to human understanding that Kant described. According to Spengler, just eight cultures in the history of the world have tested those limits, in the sense of trying to produce final answers to life's questions. Beginning from a unique religious base, each produced its own philosophy, family of arts, and a political style. Spengler said that even the natural science and mathematics of each were idiosyncratic. In any case, all these attempts to express universal truths are failures. Whatever meaning they have is internal to the societies that produce them, and the skepticism of the late culture realizes the fact. However, the attempts are not just failures; they are magnificent failures. The living cultures that Spengler describes die, but in the process produce fossils, canons of art and science and political forms. The period of fossilization, after the end of the culture proper, is what Spengler calls civilization, which he said began for the West at the end of the 18th century. The work of modernity, in Spengler's estimation, is the completion of the final forms.

The German title of Spengler's big book, "Der Untergang des Abendlandes," is not nearly so ominous as its English translation. Literally, it is closer to "The Sunset of the Evening Land." Spengler himself said that he might better have called the book the "The Completion of the West," or even "The Perfection of the West." (13)

All this suggests Francis Fukuyama was essentially correct in saying that the West has reached "the end of history" (14): liberal democracy really is the end of Western political thought. It will never be superseded, and it will never cease to have some effect on the way government is conducted. However, that does not mean it may not someday be honored chiefly in the breach. Spengler wrote this eighty years ago, speaking about a time that could still be a good century beyond us:

"Once the Imperial Age has arrived, there are no more political problems. People manage with the situation as it is and the powers that be. In the period of Contending States, torrents of blood had reddened the pavements of all world-cities, so that the great truths of Democracy might be turned into actualities, and for the winning of rights without which life seemed not worth the living. Now these rights are won, but the grandchildren cannot be moved, even by punishment, to make use of them. A hundred years more, and even the historians will no longer understand the old controversies." (15)

In 1920, it was easy to imagine that some totalitarian system might conquer the world, but it took a measure of imagination to foresee a world in which democracy is simply forgotten. No imagination at all is necessary today, what with the low voter turnouts in the US and the emergence of post-democratic supranational entities like the European Union. The Empire means the end of democracy as anything but a venerable anachronism. Indeed, as Patrick Kennon would have it, it means the end of politics itself. In his view, government by reliable routine has been the distinguishing feature of the Empire wherever it has existed. Politics went on, of course, in Antonine Rome or Ming China, but as self-contained court intrigues and bureaucratic squabbles. It was no longer in a position to derail the essential operation of the state. The same process in the West is far advanced, and maybe this is a good thing. The mandarins in Brussels are often crudely corrupt, and they don't respond to emergencies particularly well. They are, however, quite certain not to lead civilization over a cliff in pursuit of a manifest destiny, something that national societies have done in almost every century.

A recurrent theme in metahistory is that the economic Left always wins. William McNeill, another admirer of Toynbee, has made the observation that governance tends to expand to cover the size of the economy. (16) Where it doesn't, the result is piracy, and often barbarian powers that threaten civilization itself. The Empire, in the form of universal states, can and does facilitate economic activity through the rule of law, or at least through maintaining public order. On the other hand, it is also in a position to tax and regulate universally, which it does in the interests of income redistribution and the prevention of disruption from economic change. So, for example, the expansive, technologically innovative economy that appeared in China during the politically chaotic Sung and Yuan periods was brought to heel when order was restored in the Ming period. By the 18th century, China's manufacturing sector was still huge and sophisticated, but wholly subordinate to the imperial autocracy and gentry. (17)

On the other hand, the cultural Left always loses. The arts under the Empire are well funded, technically proficient, and highly eclectic, but they are rarely new. The art of Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt, for instance, can usually be dated to within a generation, just as the periods of Western art can be easily distinguished from the Middle Ages on down. When you get to the New Kingdom, the age of the Empire, repetition predominates, except for freakish episodes like the Amarna period. The work that survives from the very end of Egyptian civilization is almost impossible to distinguish from that of the Old Kingdom 1500 years before. One might say that Egyptian history ended in a sort of permanent Gothic revival. (18)

The function of art organizations today is generally curatorial. With some notable exceptions, orchestras usually find themselves playing the familiar canon that runs from Bach to Brahms (19). In the 20th century, for the first time in the cultural history of the West, time began to no longer make a difference. Imagine two picture books, one of the famous New York Armory Exhibition of 1913 and the other of the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" exhibition of 1999. Now imagine switching the covers. The switched dates would still be plausible. The point is not that the work is bad; it's just that it isn't going anywhere.

What is true of art is also supposed to be true of science, but this question would take too long to explore. The notion is that some areas of rational inquiry can simply be finished. Classical Mathematics, to take the easiest example, was substantially completed in Hellenistic times by Euclidian geometry. It did not advance further, because that geometry answered the questions Classical culture asked. So, for that matter, did Ptolemy's astronomy and Aristotle's physics. Those who apply the analogy to the West note that physics entered the 20th century with quantum mechanics and relativity and spent the century merely elaborating them. A "theory of everything," which would combine the two, may be achieved in this century. If so, it would seem to meet the criteria for one of Spengler's magnificent fossils. (20)

The Empire is a theocracy. In general, macrohistorians have welcomed the prospect of religious revival. The chief example is Toynbee himself, who decided that history was really about the development of universal religions, and only incidentally about civilizations. His "Study of History" became remarkably evangelical in its later volumes. Toynbee's reputation never recovered from the derisive, secularist critique that Hugh Trevor-Roper gave his work. (21) As we know, God severely punished Hugh Trevor-Roper for this through the Hitler Diaries fraud, but that's another story. (22) Samuel Huntington acknowledges the growing role of religion, though he seems less than pleased at the prospect, calling it "la revanche de Dieu." He speaks of "the end of the Westphalian order," referring to those aspects of the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 ensuring religion would be a domestic matter.

An influential argument supporting just this change has recently been offered by A.J. Conyers in his book, "The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit." (23) Conyers says the kind of toleration that spread in the West after the wars of religion is actually something of a fraud. It is based on a nominalist metaphysics that brackets the truth claims of each confession as parochial eccentricities. Religious truth-claims must be tolerated for the sake of peace, but merit no deference from the wider world. Conyers says that toleration in the West before the wars of religion, where it existed, had a different basis. Traditionally, tolerance assumed the validity of truth claims, but took the platonic view that specific expressions of them could, at best, be expected to be incomplete. Now that the Westphalian truce is over, Conyers argues, this traditional approach to tolerance should supplant the disingenuous secularist one of the past few centuries.

Some suggestion of where it may lead is offered by Spengler's famous prophecy of the "the Second Religiousness." He tells us:

"But neither in the creations of this piety nor in the form of the Roman Imperium is there anything primary and spontaneous. Nothing is built up, no idea unfolds itself - it is only as if a mist cleared off the land and revealed the old forms, uncertainly at first, but presently with increasing distinctness. The material of the Second Religiousness is simply that of the first, genuine, young religiousness - only otherwise experienced and expressed. It starts with Rationalism's fading out in helplessness, then the forms of the Springtime become visible, and finally the whole world of the primitive religion, which had receded before the grand forms of the early faith, returns to the foreground, powerful in the guise of the popular syncretism that is to be found in every Culture at this phase." (24)

This brings us to the decline and fall of the Empire. Not all macrohistorians say that the Empire is inherently mortal. Hardt and Negri say specifically that, whatever traditional Marxism might have predicted about the fate of the world capitalist system, the Empire has moved beyond those vulnerabilities. The Empire actually thrives on crisis. It is eternal in principle. However, that does not mean that it cannot be overthrown through an act of will. They offer this comparison from a prior incarnation of the Empire:

"Allow us [an] analogy that refers to the birth of Christianity in Europe and its expansion during the decline of the Roman Empire. In this process an enormous potential of subjectivity was constructed and consolidated in terms of the prophecy of a wor1d to come, a chiliastic project. This new subjectivity offered an absolute alternative to the spirit of imperial right-a new ontological basis. From this perspective, Empire was accepted as the "maturity of the times" and the unity of the entire known civilization, but it was challenged in its totality by a completely different ethical and ontological axis. In the same way today, given that the limits and unresolvable problems of the new imperial right are fixed, theory and practice can go beyond them, finding once again an ontological basis of antagonism-within Empire, but also against and beyond Empire, at the same level of totality." (25)

This would be more interesting if the two authors had not excluded religion as a future revolutionary force. One of their few substantive suggestions for undermining the Empire is an absolute freedom to travel and immigration. This also happens to be the only right that Patrick Kennon of the CIA says is essential for the integrity of the Empire. As the French say, go figure.

Spengler, too, was of the opinion that the Empire did not have to end. Fossils can last indefinitely. In his estimate, Classical civilization was destroyed by historical accident. There was no internal reason why it could not have gone on without collapse as he thought, wrongly, that China had done. Spengler in his later work suggested that the imperial phase of Western history was likely to end apocalyptically for the whole world, but that is a question specific to Spengler studies. (26)

Toynbee was of two minds about the future. He thought that either the winner of another world war would create a Western Universal State, or that an ecumenical society would arise peacefully. It would have western characteristics, and maybe a world government, but it would not be a Universal State in the traditional sense. For Toynbee the Universal State was a slow-motion catastrophe that was doomed from the start, even though, as he put it, its citizens "in defiance of apparently plain facts...are prone to regard it, not as a night's shelter in the wilderness but as the Promised Land, the goal of human endeavors." (27) In his view, the Empire's internal proletariat deserts it in favor of a higher religion, in rather the way Hardt and Negri mention, while at the same time the outer barbarians become stronger and stronger. This view is not so different from Huntington's "Clash of Civilization" thesis, which interprets "the decline of the West" to mean the decline of the still-forming Western universal state relative to other civilized societies.

The Empire we have been considering is an archetype. I mean this in a modest sense. It's an inevitable notion that anyone thinking about world history is going to have to confront, even if only to reject. Hardt and Negri do hit the nail on the head: the Empire does look like the City of God, though Toynbee may have been on to something when he cautioned that it is a counterfeit of the real thing. Obviously, there is no way to say today whether the Empire is going to stay in the platonic realm, or whether, as the macrohistorians speculate, it will become incarnate in the light of day. In any case, though the Empire may fall, it never goes away.

(1) Staring into Chaos: Explorations in the Decline of Western Civilization, by B.G. Brander, (Spence Publishing Company, 1998), pp. 21-84.

[2) E.g., The Gay Science, by Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (Vintage Books, 1974), p. 318 (sec. 362).

(3) For an excessively postmodern take on the subject, see Macrohistory and Macrohistorians, by Johan Galtung and Sohail Inayatullah (Praeger Publishers, 1997).

(4) Readers who really, really like these analogies can see them worked out for the next seven turies in a short book, also entitled "Spengler's Future," at

(5) Toynbee, more cautiously, notes a common rhythm in the decline of the Empire, rather than a strictly uniform duration. A Study of History, by Arnold Toynbee: Somervell Abridgement Vols. I-VI (Oxford University Press, 1947), pp. 548-554.

(6) On the influence of Spengler generally, see Neil McInnes, The Great Doomsayer: Oswald Spengler Reconsidered (The National Interest, Summer 1997), pp. 45-76. Frye is quoted on page 68.

(7) Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History and Politics, by John Farrenkopf (Louisiana State University Press, 2001), pp. 77-90.

(8) McInnes, p. 69.

(9) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel P. Huntington (Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 53.

(10) Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 207, 394-396.

(11) Tribe and Empire: An Essay on the Social Contract, by Patrick E. Kennon (Xlibris, 2000), p. 15.

(12) Force and Freedom: Reflections on History, by Jacob Burckhardt, ed. by James Hastings Nichols (Pantheon Books, 1943).

(13) Farrenkopf, p. 167.

(14) "The End of History and the Last Man," by Francis Fukuyama (The Free Press, 1992).

(15) The Decline of the West, Volume II, by Oswald Spengler, trans. by Charles Francis Atkinson (Alfred A Knopf, 1928; German original 1922), p. 432.

(16) The Human Condition: An Ecological and Historical View, by William McNeill (Princeton University Press, 1980).

(17) China: A New History, by John King Fairbank (Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 161.

(18) The Culture of Ancient Egypt, by John A. Wilson (University of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 294-295.

(19) Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding, by Alice Goldfarb Marquis (Basic Books, 1995), p. 150.

(20) The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, by John Horgan (Addison-Wesley, 1996).

(21) Arnold Toynbee: A Life, by William H. McNeill (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 239.

(22) The Hitler Diaries: Fakes that Fooled the World, by Charles Hamilton (University Press of Kentucky, 1991).

(23) The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit, by A.J. Conyers (Spence Publishing Company, 2001).

(24) Spengler, p. 311.

(25) Hardt & Negri, p. 21.

(26) Farrenkopf, p. 214 et seq.

(27) A Study of History, by Arnold Toynbee: Somervell Abridgement Vols. VII-X (Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 4.

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly 

The Long View 2003-06-18: Suspicious Readings

This bit from 2003 reminds me of what Steve Sailer said earlier this year about Vietnam. To a casual observer, it actually looked like the Iraqs were happy with us because we mostly talked to people who spoke English. That was a minority of the population, and not close to a representative one.

Very much the same mistake was made during the Arab Spring as well. We heard a lot from Westernized activists who spoke good English, and not very much from the actual majorities who ended up supporting distinctly illiberal candidates like Mohammed Morsi in Egypt. It would appear that the American political establishment, like the American electorate, has perfect and invincible ignorance on the subject.

Suspicious Readings

The invaluable Mark Steyn of the National Post visited Iraq recently, where he found that 95% of the people he spoke to were pleased about the liberation. He then went to the US, where most people outside the political class were satisfied with the outcome of the war, and so were focusing on other things. Along the way, though, he visited Britain, prompting this observation about the declining fortunes of the Blair government:

"In America, Mr Blair is still Churchill. In Britain, Mr Blair has fast-forwarded to the Churchill of 1945: his own party never liked him, his wartime coalition with Clement Duncan Attlee has broken up, and the ingrate voters have had enough of wartime austerity - the wretched hospitals, the broken trains - and would like a domestic panderer rather than a global colossus."

This is, of course, the British electorate's privilege, as it is the privilege of Democrats in the US Congress to try to turn the failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq into a scandal. As Steyn points out, the Tories in Britain are as keen as pacifist Labor to suggest that the rationale for the war was a hoax, thus illustrating the principle that political opportunism is non-partisan.

One could complain at length about the unfairness of using the issue in this way. Before the war, the people who are talking about a hoax now were then arguing against an invasion on the grounds that the Iraqis would surely use WMDs. One could also chortle about the stupidity. Eventually, the institutions and plant of the Iraqi WMD program will be picked out of the rubble of the Baathist state. However, it is too early for any of this. The problem is not that debates about the rationale for the Iraq War will undermine the reelection chances of GW Bush and Tony Blair. The problem is that a "politics of suspicion" in the US and Britain will make it impossible to pursue the Terror War, of which the invasion of Iraq was only a campaign.

It may or may not be true that Special Forces are already operating in Iran, and that they are preparing for action within the next 12 months. It is, however, very clear that the growth of a public opposition in Iran owes a great deal to the presence of Coalition forces on the Tigris. The US government has said that it is no intention of invading Iran, and these protestations are true. Those Special Forces, if they are there, would be preparing to take and secure Iranian nuclear facilities should the current regime start to unravel. For that to happen, the Coalition has to be able to plausibly threaten intervention, if only to dissuade the theocracy from taking extreme measures against the opposition.

None of this will work if Washington and London are tied up in a game of "What did the government know and when did they know it?" The effect would be to squander the new strategic situation in the Middle East. In Northeast Asia the implications would be even worse: North Korea could take advantage of a season of paralyzed skepticism in the West to export its most horrible things. To my knowledge, no one doubts that Iran and North Korea have WMD programs. Even the dimmest congressman must have realized that one of the reasons for occupying Iraq was to facilitate access to Iran. So, do we really have to get to the bottom of the pre-war intelligence issue now?

* * *

Speaking of Mark Steyn, my name keeps turning up just above his on Google's list of "Conservative Celebrities." This is ridiculous on several counts. I'm not a "celebrity" by any definition; for that matter, I'm not all that conservative. What bothers me is that I can't imagine how such a list could be complied that would put my site seven names above a real cyber-spider like David Horowitz. There are mysteries here, but the best take on this sort of issue comes from The Onion.

* * *

Robert Bork, writing in the Wall Street Journal, recently made a rather more lucid exposition of one of my pet peeves: however much the US may object to international bodies trying to extend jurisdiction over US citizens, the fact is that American courts were way ahead of them. There are few better places than a US District Court for one foreigner to sue another for actions committed abroad. He points out that the statute most responsible for this trend is actually very old: the Alien Torts Act, passed in the 1790s. Its chief purpose was to provide a civil remedy for piracy. However, it was phrased more generally, so that federal courts could hear cases about violations of the "law of nations" wherever those violations occurred. The novelty of the current situation is that there is now an industry of law professors dedicated to expanding the "law of nations" in every direction. Bork implies that the only way to return to sanity would be for courts to interpret the statute in light of the content of international law at the time of the statute's passage.

This is one situation where a construction of "original intent" will not work. The fact is that the Constitution itself has to be interpreted in the context of the law of nations, even though that context keeps changing. The meaning of terms like "ambassador," "tariff," "war," "commerce," all change with the passage of time, because they refer to the ways that nations interact with each other. The very idea of "independence" is a variable notion that has meaning only in post-Westphalian jurisprudence. It is true that the content of international law is being expanded irresponsibly and arbitrarily, but that is because no mechanism exists to control the process.

Does that mean that we have to put up with whatever interpretation some trendy judge picks up from a law journal? Not at all: in the case of the Alien Torts Act, for instance, it would not be hard for Congress to limit the statute to say "piracy," or to expand it to include "genocide." If we are going to trust judges less, however, we have to trust legislatures more.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-06-13: Rough Justice

Did I mention that John predicted that there would be no major changes in the intellectual movements of the twenty-first century? Who is on top of the struggle at a particular time keeps changing, but the argument never changes. Everything in this post from 2003 is still current, even though the technology supposedly driving it has advanced.

Probably because I read too much science fiction, I tend to think that there are better ways to reduce atmospheric CO2 than the ones we have been pursuing. Many of these means are technological, and grand in scope, which gives many in the environmental movement hives. I don't particularly care, because most of them don't know anything.

That being said, there is tremendous risk in most posited geoengineering schemes. It isn't crazy to feel uneasy about this kind of thing [although I think many vocal advocates and opponents are, in fact, crazy]. There is also tremendous benefit, which is why people keep talking about it. Risk management and compliance is what I do for a living, and I think complex risks can be successfully managed, and I am not the only one to think so. This is the sort of thing that should be run by accountants, instead of activists.

GMOs are similar. Most of the popular panic about genetically modified organisms is based on a complete lack of knowledge about how agricultural science works. All of the crops we grow today are genetically modified from the source, the primary difference in modern techniques is that you have much better control in what you change. Although, to give credit where credit is due, there are some who think Norman Borlaug is a great villain for using conventional breeding techniques to create the plants that feed the world, instead of allowing people to starve to death in the manner predicted by Paul Ehrlich.


Rough Justice
Scientists at the California Institute of Technology have suggested that a hydrogen power economy could damage the ozone layer. They don't exactly say this will happen if people start using fuel cells. Rather, they posit a complicated process involving water-vapor formation at the poles that might decrease ozone production. Though I have not seen a report from the researchers themselves, this effect is unlikely on its face; hydrogen is so reactive that it's pretty certain to bond close to the point of production. Of course, we have no experience of mass production of hydrogen, so it is conceivable that there will be enough leakage to affect the composition of the atmosphere. In other words, this is yet more environmental "science" that concludes "unforeseeable effects cannot be experimentally precluded." Well, yes.
This is just the kind of rhetorical device that the activist Jeremy Rifkin has been using these many years to close down the genetically modified food industry. There is no evidence at all that genetically modified foods present special health hazards. There isn't even a theoretical reason to think that they might. His argument, taken up by the protectionist agricultural lobby in the European Union, has been that such foods should not be used until it is proved they have no adverse effects. Unfortunately for him, he has also been a great promoter of fuel cells, perhaps under the misapprehension that fuel cells are a power source and not just very good batteries. What is his reaction to this new set of concerns?
"[W]hen you move into a new energy source you have to assume there's going to be some environmental impact...[Hydrogen] is our hope for the future...We know we can't continue to burn fossil fuels because the planet is warming up. And we know hydrogen is where we have to head."
That is also the argument for nuclear power, but that's another issue. The interesting thing to note now is the coincidence of the hydrogen story with the growing campaign against wind power. Not so long ago, the word "windmill" was a trump card for environmental activists when they came out to oppose the construction of conventional power plants. Silent, smokeless, beautiful: windmills were the Platonic ideal of electricity- generation technology. Unfortunately, a combination of improved technology and government subsidies made wind power economical in some regions, and the power-generating utility companies took the environmentalists at their word. The actual windmill generators turned out to be huge, noisy, industrial installations. They are usually strung along the ridges of windy landscapes like the towers for high-tension powerlines. These installations have also displayed a gratifying tendency to go up in the backyards of the country houses of environmentalists. The planned windmills for Nantucket have the Kennedy family incensed: unless their lawyers can stop it, they might find themselves looking at something as tacky as heavy industry from the patios of their summer homes.
* * *
Speaking of litigation, part of the package of reforms that President Bush wants to lower the cost of drugs involves caps on punitive damages in malpractice suits. There is a lot to be said for this, but the president insists on casting the question in terms of restraining frivolous lawsuits. "No one was ever healed by a frivolous lawsuit," he said as he introduced the most recent version of his plan.
This misstates the problem. The courts are actually pretty good at throwing out frivolous suits. Defendants (or their insurance companies) often do just buy off nuisance plaintiffs, but those are not the payments that have driven malpractice insurance premiums through the roof. The real trouble has, for the most part, come from perfectly valid suits that occasioned arbitrarily high awards. The moral here is that the ability of the tort system to compensate real injuries has limits. When the president casts the question in terms of frivolous suits, he leaves himself open to true horror stories about duplicitous drug companies and drunken doctors.
* * *
And what about the judges in the federal system who are supposed to decide these issues? Although it seems at this writing that there will not be any Supreme Court vacancies this summer after all, the Bush Administration's judicial appointments are still largely tied up in knots in the Senate. The current victim of the Judiciary Committee is Bill Pryor, who has been nominated for the 11th Circuit. His problem is that he was impolitic enough to tell the committee that he thinks the Supreme Court's reproductive rights decisions are gibberish. That is true, but it misses the point. All but the dimmest judges and law professors know that those decisions are gibberish. They can support the results because, like Bertrand Russell in his long silly period of political activism, they have accepted the philosophical position that political questions are inherently non-logical.
What we have here is the spectacle of the Senate try to fix the canons of construction of the Constitution by intuiting the canons favored by the nominees that come before it. Since the Senate is unable or unwilling to discuss the canons openly, the senators often do a very poor job of mind reading.
What are the canons of construction? They are the law before the law, the set of rules that tell judges how to interpret a text of a statute, including the Constitution. The rules can be common sense, even trivial, such as the principle when two statutes are in conflict, the later governs. Some are less obvious, such as the rule that when a law repealing an earlier law is itself repealed, the first law does not come back into effect unless the legislature says so explicitly. The canons of construction are often informal, but they can also be codified: that is what Title I of the United States Code does. State codes have their own canons.
Might I suggest that it is not obvious that canons of constitutional construction are themselves part of the Constitution? Obviously, a canon might be introduced by amendment. Barring that, however, they could be codified by legislation. That would at least compel a judge to state when he was ignoring a canon.
* * *
Readers will be relieved to know that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seems to have turned back the Belgian menace. While traveling in Europe, he said that if Belgium did not stop using its law against human-right violations to indict American officials, then the US would not put up the 22% it promised for the cost of a new NATO headquarters in Brussels. The issue is that the law claims universal jurisdiction for Belgian courts, whether or not the violations in question had anything to do with Belgium or its citizens. The statute has been used to file complaints for political reasons. These cases are nuisance prosecutions, but they do make it just possible that US officials in Europe might be detained. Belgium officials have said that amendments to the law are likely.
That is all well and good, but the US did start the decline of jurisdictional restraint. The Helms-Burton Amendment famously penalizes foreigners living a broad, who do business with other foreigners living abroad, if they did business involving property expropriated by the Cuban government from Cuban exiles now living in the United States. Civil suits can be filed in US courts against governments alleged to promote terrorism, which makes it hard to deal diplomatically with those countries. Some of the Holocaust suits brought against German corporations and Swiss banks were little more than shakedown operations.
Some canons of construction at the international level might be in order, too.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-06-11: Unpalatable Measures

Let's talk about Korea. I don't know the area well enough to vouch for the accuracy of this article by Peter Lee, but one thing that seems clear is that a reunified Korea would be very rich, and very powerful, especially in comparison to Japan. The South Korean age distribution skews way younger than Japan's, and North Korea even more so, so we would expect to see Korea wax stronger even without reunification, but reunification would have a magnifying effect.

Korean and Japanese Age Pyramids 2015 CIA World Fact Book

Korean and Japanese Age Pyramids 2015 CIA World Fact Book

Economic strength wouldn't peak for a while, the North is in pretty sad shape right now, but there is tremendous opportunity in the Korean people. You could guess that eventually the North would converge with the South's level of development. There are about 50 million in South Korea, and about half that in North Korea. All else being equal, that will eventually result in an economy half again as big, or a little more once you subtract military spending that would no longer be needed.

Another thing that is clear is that some people would get very, very rich from reunification. Using China and Russia as models of what it looks like to modernize an economy held back by Communism, there will be immense opportunities, but the rewards will be distributed by political means, not economic ones.

Unpalatable Measures
Why may the current tit-for-tat attacks in the Levant be different from earlier tit-for-tat attacks? At the risk of sounding bloodthirsty, the latest exchanges may bring peace closer.
A quick review: President Bush just visited the region to preside over a handshake between the Israeli and Palestinian premiers regarding the "Road Map for Peace." Hamas almost immediately refused to take part in the cease-fire the agreement contemplates, and killed five Israeli soldiers over the weekend. Then the Israelis were rude enough to try to assassinate the Hamas leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, which made him visibly cranky on television. Just as I was writing this, a suicide bombing in Jerusalem killed 16 people; Israel struck at another two Hamas leaders in Gaza City.
One lesson we might draw is that prominent American officials who visit that area better have an awfully good reason for going there, because there are likely to be several more dead bodies soon after they leave. Something is different this time, though: the people exchanging fire are not the interlocutors. Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas agreed to the new peace process. His very office was created to pursue it. The people the Israelis are shooting at are Abbas's political enemies. (The position of Chairman Arafat is, as usual, ambiguous but unhelpful.) Eventually, it will occur to the leadership of Hamas that they are not only putting their own lives at risk, but that Abbas is likely to be the beneficiary. At that point, a cease-fire might look like a better idea.
* * *
Reports of cannibalism have been coming from North Korea. Supposedly, the combination of another bad harvest and drastic reductions in foreign food-aid has pushed people over the edge. One never knows what to make of reports of this type. Every famine occasions stories of cannibalism, oftentimes quite similar stories about a more or less open market in people parts. Such accounts are particularly hard to believe in a society as anti-commercial as North Korea. Still, there are other recent stories that suggest something may be about to happen there.
For one thing, the country is under increasing foreign pressure. Without quite declaring an embargo, the Japanese have become fussy about the regulation of the shipping to Korea, which means the North Koreans have been substantially cut off from foreign remittances and smuggled military technology. Meanwhile, the US is moving its forces back from the demilitarized zone. When the redeployment is complete, it will be possible to make airstrikes into the North without putting Americans at risk from the North's artillery. (The people in Seoul wish they could say as much.) What does the government of North Korea say about all this? They announced that they want to develop a nuclear deterrent, so they can divert to civilian needs the resources now dedicated to the huge army.
There are two problems with this. The first is that North Korea already has a nuclear deterrent. Even if it does not have a nuclear-armed ballistic missile, the US is not sure of that, so the US is reluctant to act preemptively. The other is that the era of nuclear deterrence is almost over, at least for small arsenals. The US will have some measure of defense against ballistic missiles next year. The Japanese will have it slightly later. It's hard to say what the North Korean government knows, but they surely know that. If the conventional military is going to be reduced, that will be because it is more of a menace to the regime than the US is.
* * *
No, I am not going to read Hillary Clinton's new memoir, Living History, not when I still have a perfectly good collection of the speeches of Neville Chamberlain to get through. (I do: a fine hardcover, entitled In Search of Peace; G. P. Putnam's Sons 1939.) The reviewer for the New York Times seemed less than pleased with Senator Clinton's book. However, I am not going to pan a book I have not read, even when it is written by one of Those People, who are once again up to Their Old Tricks.
A more obscure publishing event later this month will be the appearance of my own book, The Perfection of the West. This is another anthology, like Apocalypse & Future. Also like that book, it's a print-on-demand work published by Xlibris. I still have to approve an actual printed copy of The Perfection of the West before it becomes available; the Xlibris procedure involves working with PDF files before I see a final proof. When the time comes, I will put up a short promotional page about the book, as well as various little buttons and graphics on my site to draw people's attention. Anyone who decides to buy it will have the satisfaction of knowing that Barbara Walters played no part in the decision.
By the way, if you are ever given a choice between editing your own book and taking out your own appendix, don't dismiss the second option out of hand.
* * *
Speaking of clueless people being up to their old tricks, I see that NBC is likely to do a sequel to its 1980s miniseries, The Visitors. That's the one about a fleet of flying saucers that arrives on Earth, bearing aliens who look friendly and human but are actually man-eating reptiles.
This is an outrage. I have nothing against man-eating reptiles, but that series was a missed opportunity. The problem with The Visitors was that the writers had obviously started to adapt Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End but then chickened out. Childhood's End has some claim to being the most disturbing science-fiction novel ever written. In that book, the end of history comes in a way that is reminiscent of Vernor Vinge's "Singularity," or even Teilhard de Chardin's "Omega Point."
From what I have been able to determine, by the way, Teilhard and Clarke did not influence each other. Both may have been influenced by Olaf Stapledon, whose works feature the idea that the crown of evolution may take the form of a sudden, worldwide jump to collective consciousness.
That story would not have been too hard to tell. It would have required two sets of characters: one for when the spaceships arrive "now," and one for the end of days that comes 80 years later. However, the basic premise would have been no harder to get across than that of Forbidden Planet. There was even an X-Files episode about the Singularity. The people guilty of The Visitors attempted none of this, however. They took the image of the big flying saucers hovering over the world's major cities, and they took the idea that the aliens Are Not What They Seem, and then they turned their brains off. They even made the UN Secretary General a Swede rather than a Finn, as in the Clarke book, perhaps on the assumption the audience is ignorant of geography. [The assumption may be correct, but the audience has no more idea where Sweden is than where Finland is.]
NBC may get its comeuppance for this. The subtext for The Visitors was anti-militarist and mildly paranoid. The implication was that anyone wearing a uniform is a Nazi. These sentiments have become anachronistic.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-06-04: Alternative History

In this post, John discusses two books with the same title: Empire. As I noted, imperialism was a fascination with John, so this should not be surprising. What really made this post was the authors of the two books were put together into one interview on NPR. Regrettably, this combination did not nick.

Eventually, John was able to add a third book review for a book named Empire to his site. The third one was a lackluster effort by Orson Scott Card, detailing an American civil war in the time of troubles leading up to the formation of the universal state. We won't get to that one for a few years yet.

Alternative History
Regular visitors to my site will know that two widely discussed books called Empire have appeared in recent years. The first, published in 2000, is by the postmodern Marxists, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. To the extent they will let themselves be understood, the authors critique globalization with an eye toward a future that would not be just post-capitalist, but post-human. The review is here. Niall Ferguson's Empire, which came out just last year, argues that what the world really needs is a new British Empire; here's the review. What we have here is a difference of perspective. Brian Lehrer of WNYC had the sense to invite them both onto the same talkshow: the joint interview aired yesterday.
The exchange did not sparkle. Ferguson confined himself to talking about history. He confessed that he found the Hardt & Negri book difficult to understand. The interesting thing was that Hardt apparently did so, too, though the book's thesis is so elusive that maybe he did not think it worthwhile to try to explain in a 45-minute segment. In any case, as far as I know, Hardt never claimed to have been much more than Negri's translator.
Neither mentioned Toynbee, by the way. Not once.
* * *
You have to go back to the 1930s to find the last time when only the very best people were paranoid about the president, at that time about FDR. Richard Nixon had his detractors across the social spectrum. The demonization of President Klinton in the 1990s, though it had a large audience, was terribly downmarket. (I believe that spelling comes from a Simpsons episode, by the way, in which Bill Clinton is secretly replaced by an extraterrestrial.) The quality of people with anti-Bush-mania is much higher, if you consider academics a superior sort of person. James Traub put the phenomenon nicely in a New York Times Sunday Magazine piece, Weimar Whiners:
Have you heard that it's 1933 in America? God knows I have. Three times in the last few weeks I have been told -- by a novelist, an art historian and a professor of classics at Harvard, none of them ideologues or cranks -- that the erosion of civil liberties under the Bush administration constitutes an early stage, or at least a precursor, to the kind of fascism Hitler brought to Germany. I first heard the 1933 analogy a few months back, when one of the nation's leading scholars of international law suggested at a meeting of diplomats that Bush's advisers were probably plotting to suspend the election of 2004.
The piece goes on to itemize the several reasons this is nonsense, and ends with the ringing endorsement of democracy: "When will the left learn that this is not simply a nation of dimwitted yahoos?" This is all well enough, but I suspect that the Bush Administration's most ardent opponents don't believe those things literally. That's why they are so angry; they are just losing policy debate after policy debate, and they don't know how to stop losing. The anti-Bush sentiment does have real effects, however, in that it leads those who suffer from it to jump to the worse possible conclusion about anything the Administration does, long before the evidence is in. This is, in fact, part of the secret to the Administration's success: the opposition often appears unbalanced.
We are seeing some of this effect in connection with the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In the course of just a few days, it seems, the consensus in the prestige media has become that there has been no Iraqi WMD program since 1991, and that the Administration knew this perfectly well. Some of the more foolish members of Congress are insisting on hearings. The odds are that those hearings will find themselves reviewing newly discovered evidence of an extensive WMD program, one that was designed to be invisible to any inspection the UN could do.
* * *
Speaking of people who make unnecessary trouble for themselves, Jeffrey Rosen also had an article in the Times Sunday Magazine, How I Learned to Love Quotas. In that piece, he explains why he changed his mind about race-conscious affirmative action, which he now supports. The context is the case before the Supreme Court about the admissions practices of Michigan University. This is a matter about which the academic establishment is even more irate than it is about the Bush Administration. A whole service industry has been built to create ethnic diversity on campus; in university parlance, the term "diverse" has become almost interchangeable with "good." Perhaps for that reason, Rosen seems to have abandoned his constitutional scruples, and now argues on purely pragmatic grounds:
If the Supreme Court bans affirmative action, the political pressure to achieve racial diversity will force universities to lower academic standards across the board, damaging the schools more than affirmative action could.
The astonishing thing is that this piece appears in The New York Times, the former employer of Jayson Blair. The Blair incident simply made undeniable what regular readers of the Times have known for years: that the paper was no longer credible on an increasing range of issues, and that this was due chiefly to the paper's diversity ideology. I think we can say without equivocation that the Times would be much better off today had it never instituted any systematic affirmative action program, even if that meant a much whiter newsroom. It is a measure of the continuing ideological blindness at the Times that it could run an article like Rosen's without seeing the irony.
* * *
Finally, I would like to make an argument for a point of usage. Again, regular readers will know that I have a large section on my website devoted to counterfactual history (I just did a review of Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail). There are several terms for this activity. Niall Ferguson uses "Virtual History"; others use "Alternate History." I gather that I am in a minority, because I use "Alternative History." Nonetheless, it seems to me that "alternative" in this context is better than "alternate." The word "alternate" implies just two possibilities, as in "alternating current." "Alternative," in contrast, suggests a range of possibilities that is wonderfully diverse.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power

Imperialism is a subject John often returned to, but his interest in the subject was quite different from most others. For John, what mattered were not mere national empires like the British Empire, but the Empire, the universal state into which all political and economic systems seem to eventually collapse.

Even though the process can be justly described as a collapse, it is not primarily negative. For example, one of the reasons the political order collapses into an empire is that the stakes and pressures of governance have become too high for society to bear. The empire is seen as an improvement by most of its subjects; it is genuinely popular.

Despite the differences between an empire and the Empire, you can still find some interesting features of the British Empire that may be reproduced in the coming universal state. For example, the British Empire was cheap, in terms of both money and men. It was also relatively tolerant, and preferred local control whenever possible.

There are also some features that probably wouldn't work well. The British Empire was an extension of national ambition. The universal state is the oecumene, the abode of man. As such, purely national ambition no longer has a way to even be expressed. There are no separate countries, although there might be rebellious provinces. The universal state is also usually not very dynamic. All of the civilizational energy has already been expended creating the universal state, everything you have is everything you'll get. The British Empire at its best was exceptionally dynamic.

At this point, the real question would be how Western will the universal state be? John wrote some interesting speculations about this. We shall get to them in time.

The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power
By Niall Ferguson
Basic Books, 2002
392 Pages, US$35.00
ISBN 0-465-02328-2
You might think this book was just an essay about the 18th-century Caribbean sugar-island economy that morphed into a profusely illustrated anthology of The Boy's Own Paper, but you would be wrong. What we have here is part of a concerted campaign (the book is a companion to a television series) to rehabilitate the idea of “empire” in general, and of the British Empire in particular. The author is the oddly ubiquitous Niall Ferguson, the Scottish economic historian. He does not suppress his famous interest in alternative history in this volume: one of the questions he sets out to answer is: “Was there a less bloody route to modernity?” The answer to that may be the key to a larger question, one with implications for the future as well as the past: “Can there be globalization without gunboats?”
The British Empire had a solid genesis in government-licensed piracy. The Spanish in the 16th century beat the British to the plunder of the major civilizations of the New World, leaving the British no recourse but to rob the Spanish. Still, even at that point the British displayed some hidden advantages. The English government was not centralized enough to simply expropriate the funds from its citizens to do its own empire building. By preference, it privatized British activity abroad, both commercial and military. As time went on, England outgrew piracy and turned to the licensing of the great trading companies. The greatest of these, the East India Company, was running India by the end of the 18th century. Strangely, the Honorable Company got India as a booby prize; the Dutch East India Company got the originally far more profitable East Indies. Even so, all that the Company's charter conveyed was a monopoly right to British business with India, provided the Company could do any. They wound up governing the place only because the Mughal empire unraveled in the 18th century; if the Company was going to enjoy any security, the Company would have to provide its own government.
In addition to piracy, there were drugs and slavery. Ferguson gives us a judicious helping of statistics about the “sweet tooth” economy of the 18th century Atlantic. Britain's possessions produced sugar. They also produced coffee, tea, and tobacco. All these things are mildly addictive stimulants. The market for them was bottomless, and the labor for them was largely unfree. Readers may be surprised to learn quite how lethal this labor system was. It is well-known that one out of seven of the prisoners on slave ships died in passage, but the death rate for the crews was even higher. The islands of the Caribbean were immensely profitable; the exports from Jamaica alone were worth more to England than the whole of the exports of America at the time of the Revolution. That was one of the reasons the British decided to let the colonies go. However, the populations of these tropical colonies, slave and free, did not reproduce themselves. Most immigrants from the British isles died soon after arriving, and it was to the Caribbean that most of them went in the 17th century.
Nonetheless, even at its most amoral, the “First British Empire” of pre-Victorian times was a “liberal” empire, if not quite an empire of liberty. It was very keen on the rule of law, particularly law as it related to property rights. American colonial complaints against London really came down to the argument that one's property is not really secure without some say in how much it is taxed. The empire was also tolerant, sometimes shockingly so. The government in London and the trading companies had no interest in spreading Christianity; they also no objection to customs like widow-burning, provided the subjects of the empire kept it to themselves. Imperial libertarianism sometimes extended to disinterest in famines in the areas the empire controlled. On the positive side, the people who administered the empire were sympathetically curious about the cultures where they worked. They adapted to them, cultivating their arts and literature. As a rule, the British co-opted local elites: there was no color bar to social interaction, or even marriage.
Some of this changed with the transition to the “Second Empire” of Queen Victoria's time. The empire became more humane as it became less tolerant. Much of this occurred under the influence of the evangelical revival of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic fought slavery, with greater and much earlier success in the empire. (In America, the effort was stymied after abolition in the northern states; Ferguson suggests that the success of the American Revolution delayed the end of slavery in America by at least a generation.) Despite the protestations of old India hands, the East India Company did begin to make a fuss about widow-burning and female infanticide. The rule of the Company itself was replaced by paternalistic political control from London after the Mutiny of 1857. The imperial government promoted education, public works, and public order. The settlement of Australia was a Monty Python parody of a whole society organized as a Victorian reform school. It was also a rousing success. The British role in the “scramble for Africa” in the last quarter of the 19th century began at the behest of evangelicals, to suppress the Indian Ocean slave trade to the Middle East.
In the 1890s, the last decade of Queen Victoria's reign, the empire was at the height of its power and self-confidence, though not yet of its territory. It controlled a quarter of the world's land surface and roughly the same proportion of its population. Its control of the oceans was uncontested. In Ferguson's estimate, it was the closest thing the world has ever seen to a world government. The empire was characterized by a high degree of local autonomy. Even India, ruled by an autocrat appointed by London, pretty much ran itself. As for the white dominions, they got almost anything they wanted in terms of “responsible self-government” after the 1830s. The imperial center made a point of protecting the rights of aborigines throughout the empire; the chief audience for Darwinian racism was among the colonists on the periphery.
The empire supported free trade: sometimes at gunpoint, and not always with happy results, as the Opium Wars illustrate. Be that as it may, in this laissez-faire empire, the imperial bureaucracy and military were fantastically small. There were fewer than half-a-million members of the armed forces at the empire's height, including the Indian Army. With few exceptions, colonial wars were small, quick, and resulted in few British casualties. There were no more than a thousand members of the “covenanted” India Civil Service, the people who actually ran India. That number is a bit misleading: Imperial India had a fairly large public sector. It was staffed largely by Indians, including some who passed the exam to enter the covenanted Service, just as the bulk of the military in India was Indian. Because the regions of the empire were normally self-sufficient, the structure was cheap for Britain: military expenditures late in Victoria's reign came to 2.5% or 3.0% of net domestic product: not so different from British defense expenditures in the early 21st century.
Imperial mysticism and liberal disgust with the empire arose at about the same time. Kipling and Ruskin and Baden-Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts) saw the empire as a chivalric enterprise, the chief pillar of a civilization that made the world better for everyone, everywhere. This was also the view of Cecil Rhodes, the imperial entrepreneur. Ferguson does not dwell on the historical significance of the Anglophile network that Rhodes promoted, though he does note that Rhodes hoped his scholarships would create something like the Jesuit order, with the empire substituted for the Catholic religion. The problem was that the Boer War he provoked was nakedly commercial and not at all cheap, in British lives or in any other way. That event began the turn of enlightened sentiment away from empire. It would accelerate in the 20th century, until the very word “imperial” became a term of opprobrium.
The key to Ferguson's assessment of the empire is his analysis of the circumstances under which it ended. In the first half of the 20th century, the real alternatives to the British Empire were the Third Reich, or the Japanese East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, or the Italian Empire, or even the Soviet Union. Fighting off these alternative and far worse empires justified the British Empire's existence. Similar arguments could be made for earlier periods in the empire's history. The alternative to British India would have been a morbid extension of Mughal India, which would have been no more successful than Manchu China during the same period.
And what about the other colonial empires? The French were serious rivals in India and North America until the Seven Year's War (1756-1763). The Dutch actually got the better of the British during several conflicts in the 17th century; the competition was ended only when the Dutch and British executives merged in the Glorious Revolution (1688). It is possible to imagine a history dominated by a far greater French Empire, with its whitewashed architecture and frigid bureaucratic routine. One could imagine the same of the Dutch Empire, with its single-minded devotion to business. In either case, the British idea of liberty would have been largely absent from the modern world. Ferguson tells us that all the post-colonial states with populations over a million that became democracies are former British colonies. The qualifications in that statement are intriguing, but Ferguson may be onto something. Certainly the regime of free trade that Britain promoted in the decades before the First World War made the world a more economically dynamic place.
Ferguson makes some interesting comparisons between that “First Age of Globalization” and the Second, which he dates to the last quarter of the 20th century (and which he evidently believes is over). Though he does not argue the case in detail, Ferguson suggests that it would be hard to condemn 19th-century colonialism as merely exploitive. The colonial powers made huge infrastructure investments in their colonies. (The Congo Free State of King Leopold the Wicked may have been the chief exception.) India had a small trade deficit with Britain, for instance, but British India was a capital importer. During the Second Age of Globalization, in contrast, most trade and investment moved between developed countries. The income gap between the developed and undeveloped world widened during the Second Age, whereas it narrowed during the First.
Then there is the phenomenon of political fragmentation. The number of independent states tended to decline during the 19th century; around 1910, there were just 51. At this writing, the number is just short of two hundred. The new polities, fragments of old empires, often have tiny populations and economies that don't make much sense in isolation. Nonetheless, each must support the whole apparatus of national government. In the former Soviet area and in Africa, many of them plainly are not up to it. The implication of Ferguson's description is that what the world really needs is for some power to do in the 21st century what Queen Victoria's empire did in the 19th.
One may note in passing that Ferguson believes Britain itself might still have done at least part of this, in a slightly different history. There was talk well into the 1950s of a “Third British Empire,” under which the Commonwealth would function as a federation. There were several reasons this did not come off. One was that the United States was not particularly helpful during the Sterling crises that punctuated the post-war years, thus encouraging the trade patterns of the old empire to break up. Also, the Commonwealth became so big and diverse that it no longer meant anything. A federation of just the white dominions might have worked, in the unlikely event that its non-British members could have been persuaded a Third Empire was in their interests. As things turned out, the only power left to take up the imperial slack is the United States, about which Ferguson has his doubts.
In some ways, America is better positioned for global empire than Britain ever was. The US economy is about a quarter the size of the global economy; Britain at its height represented about 8%. Even at the empire's height, there were theoretical combinations of navies that might have challenged British naval supremacy, and of course Britain did not purport to be a great land power. In the early 21st century, the US has something close to a monopoly of supremacy in every dimension of conventional force. And the US manages to do this with not much more of a percentage of the national product than Gladstone or Disraeli's governments used. One might also add that Ann Coulter is much better looking than Queen Victoria ever was. The problem is that, in some ways, the US position in the world is the mirror image of a proper empire.
Ferguson does not use this analogy, but he might have likened the “American Empire” to the successful Japanese exporting corporations of the 1970s, those uncanny enterprises whose capital structures consisted almost entirely of debt. Quite aside from chronic federal deficits, the US seems to have given up on ever running a positive trade balance again. The country is an immense importer of foreign capital. It is also an immense importer of foreign people. One of the characteristics of the British Empire at every stage was Britain's huge emigration, which created whole new countries. Americans, in contrast, are reluctant even to go abroad on short business trips. As for military power, the American ability to project it is at least matched by the American eagerness to withdraw it just as soon as possible. In fact, the US tends to withdraw before it is possible, or at least prudent. The Widowed Queen would not have been amused.
To Ferguson's critique, I would say this: I like history as much as the next guy, indeed considerably more than most next guys. Pirates, the Raj, explorers, habeas corpus, the Boy Scouts, the RAF: they are all part of quite a story. Ferguson may well be right that it is the story of one of the better possible worlds, if not necessarily of the best. Still, the story is history, just as the age of empire is history. Empire, in the sense that Ferguson uses it, is a projection of the nationalism of some nation or other. The great national empires, like the great absolute monarchies, were possible during only a limited epoch. The United States in the 21st century could not create such an empire, even if it were foolish enough to try.
What the United States can do is anchor a Universal State or, to use Toynbee's other coinage, “an ecumenical society with Western characteristics.” The story of the better-possible-world that the British Empire created may yet continue. The trick is to avoid the temptation to emulate the noble empire's example too closely.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: For Want of a Nail

Another counterfactual history, but this time one meant as entertainment. I haven't read this book, but I may get around to it at some point.

For Want of a Nail:
If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga
By Robert Sobel
First Published 1973
Greenhill Books, 1997
441 Pages, US$19.95
ISBN 1-85367-281-5
“I care only if it is effective on the page. I agree with the late Ernest Newman: a great score is more finely realized when one reads it in the tranquility of one's study than when one sits in a crowd and endures the ineptitudes of orchestra and singers.
“You mean you can do it better in your head than a hundred accomplished artists can do it for you?”
---The Lyre of Orpheus
---By Robertson Davies
Anyone can write an essay describing a history that diverges from the real one. Many people have written novels premised on counterfactual histories. For Want of a Nail is a real rarity, however: a textbook that treats 200 years of history that did not happen as if they did. It has not just footnotes to imaginary books, but a whole bibliography of imaginary references. The author, the noted economic historian Robert Sobel, must be numbered with Tolkien among the handful of creators of a complete imaginary world. (He actually does Tolkien one better by writing himself into his imaginary world: For Want of a Nail also purports to be written by an economic historian named Robert Sobel. Several of his works are cited in the bibliography; their titles are almost but not quite those of works by the real Sobel.) In fact, the book is so well done that it may stand as a caution for all writers of alternative history: counterfactual academic history is unlikely to be as interesting as an academic treatment of real history.
For Want of a Nail will often remind readers of Niall Ferguson, another economic historian who has speculated at length about what would have happened had the American Revolution failed. The short answer to that question has always been, “We would all be speaking English.” There is more to be said, it seems.
The author starts the divergence, reasonably enough, with the loss by the insurgents of the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. In this history, the British commander John Burgoyne is reinforced at the last minute by the garrison in New York City. The strategic effect of the battle (actually several engagements in both the real and alternative scenarios) gives the British control of the Hudson River, thereby cutting off New England from the middle and southern colonies. More important, it causes the French to lose interest in supporting the insurgency. After suffering further defeats, Washington is relieved of his command, but the Continental Army continues to disintegrate. Congress, driven from Philadelphia, soon sues for peace.
In the aftermath, the most prominent would-be Founding Fathers are hanged (weasely old Benjamin Franklin escapes by virtue of having helped to negotiate the surrender). However, the British are generous with amnesty. The younger rebel leaders, people like Madison and Mason and Hamilton, survive the defeat, and set out to found their own nation in Spanish territory. The Wilderness Walk of 1781, to found the state of Jefferson in the region that might otherwise have been Texas, becomes the creation myth of a new society.
No one had really expected the American rebellion to succeed. The British saw the incident as largely their fault: they had neglected to establish a constitutionally coherent system of self-government within the empire for their North American colonies. The result is the Britannic Design, which divides British North America into several confederations. At first, these are only loosely linked under a viceroy. (The first of these is John Burgoyne himself, by then called Lord Albany.) Partly in order to facilitate internal improvements, and partly because of the growing military threat from the southwest, these confederations are more closely linked in the 1840s, becoming the Confederation of North America (CNA). The CNA has a parliamentary form of government (so do its constituent confederations); the head of state, called the Governor-General, is majority leader of parliament. Though London continues to appoint viceroys, the CNA's relationship to the British Empire becomes merely symbolic by the second half of the 19th century.
At no stage does British North America extend to the Pacific: Alaska, at first a Russian territory, divides the wealthy Confederation of Manitoba from the ocean. (Manitoba is also notably flaky; imagine California compounded by British Columbia.) Thanks to a war with France at the end of the 18th century, the CNA also includes the territory between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. However, after a series of counterfactual wrangles as tedious as the real ones, Quebec eventually becomes simply an “Associated Territory” of the CNA. Nova Scotia always is, for reasons that are never explained.
Meanwhile, in the southwest, the frustrated republicanism of the former colonists takes a form that echoes some of the ambitions of the leaders of the Confederacy in the real world. The new state of Jefferson soon secures its independence from the Spanish Empire, already on the verge of dissolution. Then the few tens of thousands of emigrants go through a scale model of the constitutional debate in our history. (Hamilton is a co-author of a no-doubt insightful work, Federal Governance.) By 1793, they have a compromise constitution inspired by Montaigne, but with a few novel features, such as a plural executive. The constitution also tolerates slavery, which the founders believes would soon die out because it is uneconomical. Then the cotton gin is invented, giving the institution a remarkably long lease on life. History in that region does not really diverge very much until a few years later, however, when Jefferson intervenes in a Mexican Civil War.
Sobel is sparing of the use of real people in his counterfactual history. The only one who plays a major role is Andrew Jackson, the principal leader of Jefferson, who founds the United States of Mexico (USM). He becomes its first president in 1821. The USM has a federal constitution very similar to that of the erstwhile USA. However, it has an even more complicated ethnic composition: Anglos and “Hispanos” (Iberian Mexicans, presumably) constitute the ruling stratum, but there are also Mexicanos (ordinary Mexicans); Indians (who in this case have two states more or less to themselves), and the slave population. The country survives because Jackson makes the people of Jefferson identify themselves as Mexican, but conflict among these groups is one of the engines of USM history.
As originally constituted, the USM includes Mexico, the Rocky Mountain region and the Pacific Coast up to the northern border of California. In a war with Russia in the late 19th century, it acquires Alaska. In fact, at that point the country is in the hands of a colorful megalomaniac, who also conquers part of Siberia and the whole of what we know as Columbia. Readers interested in a recitation of the whole timeline should get the book.
In the CNA and USM, Sobel has sorted out the two strands of American nationalism and created different countries for them. The CNA got the utopian impulse. Its history is chiefly a tale of social reform and quixotic experiments in economic equality. This goes beyond the Canadian ideal of good government; it is as if the Progressive Party had half a continent to itself. The CNA is also pacifist; its only foreign war is an indecisive conflict with the USM in the 1840s. In fact, its policy of neutrality during the 1930s is widely blamed for preventing deterrence of the one and only Global War, which occurs in the 1940s. In the '50s, the CNA's immunity from war damage creates a politics of “war guilt.” A Governor-General oddly reminiscent of Jimmy Carter in the real world then governs the country, though For Want of a Nail was written long before the Carter Administration.
The USM, in contrast, got the “Jacksonian tradition” along with Jackson himself. This is the strand of American political culture that is very keen on liberty and indifferent to equality. It is also the strain that brought the real world “Manifest Destiny” (in the USM, it's called “Continental Destiny”). The USM is not quite a pure villain in this history. Its lapses from republicanism are not produced by Jacksonianism, in fact, but by a convergence with ordinary Latin American caudilloism. Nonetheless, the USM does not get around to abolishing slavery completely until about 1920 (it's done by a no-nonsense ex-general) and the country does cause more than its share of trouble in the world.
Sobel has succeeded in suggesting a plausible modern world that never experienced the great ideological divides of the 19th and 20th centuries. Partly because the American Revolution fails, the French Revolution never amounts to more than a minor Parisian uprising. The French monarchy survives until 1880. No French Revolution; no Napoleon; one wonders whether there was a Hegel. A Marx is indeed mentioned briefly, and there is even a tradition of radical socialism. However, this aspect of politics is muted. There is no equivalent to the Soviet Union in this history, and no fascism, either. The Global War breaks out in rather the way that the First World War in the real world did, through ordinary Great Power ambition acting on an alliance system that is too big and too rigid.
As an economic historian, the author treats us to several depressions, two in the 19th century and one in the 20th. His heart, one suspects, is in another of his creations: Kramer Associates. This is a multinational corporation that starts in the USM; the basis of its early power is the oil industry, though it soon branches out into every kind of manufacturing. It dominates the USM's economy and foreign policy in some periods. It is largely to secure the company's gold discoveries in Alaska, for instance, that the USM conquers Alaska. On the other hand, Kramer Associates distances itself financially and geographically from the USM as that country's political system becomes less predictable. The company shifts its headquarters to Taiwan. In order to prevent a renewed outbreak of the Global War, the company invents and detonates its own nuclear weapon, thus initiating a regime of strategic deterrence. Now there's a poison pill for you.
There are some technological divergences from the real world. Television (“vitavision”) makes its appearance 30 or 40 years early, while automobiles with steam engines (“locomobiles”) are still the dominant form of private transport until the 1930s. Perhaps to save the trouble of making up the names of counterfactual inventors, Thomas Alva Edison is credited with inventing essentially everything.
One cannot praise too highly the verisimilitude of this counterfactual history. It reads just like a college history text, and not a boring one. As for the scenario, there is little point in arguing against the details of a counterfactual history. (At least, this is true for counterfactual history intended as entertainment: higher standards obtain when a historian is trying to determine what real alternatives faced the decision makers in a particular incident.) So, I will confine myself to suggesting that a precocious experiment with dominion status for North America would not have succeeded. Britain actually did try something like that with Ireland after the American Revolution. The island proved so disloyal that the experiment was terminated; the ancient Dublin Parliament was abolished in the last Act of Union. One might argue that this would not have been a problem with the North American confederations, because there would have been no French Revolution to incite unrest. Maybe, but it is likely that the Americans would have remained perfectly capable of inciting each other.
In any case, to the extent this book has a conceptual flaw, it is not the scenario. The problem is that this history has a single author, while real history is an anthology; the contributors are all the people who live during that history. The limits of the author's imagination make a floor to villainy and a ceiling to genius that are lacking in the real world. In the 200 years covered by For Want of a Nail, no says anything as interesting as “Thou shalt not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” or “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Neither is a particularly brilliant turn of phrase, but one man is unlikely to coin both.
We have over a century of earnest attempts to predict the future, enough that we can measure these would-be histories against what actually happens. The limits to prediction are the same as the limits to counterfactuals. When we read the real history, we are left telling ourselves: “You just can't make this stuff up.”
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals

An early book review by John of a collection of alternative history edited by Niall Ferguson. I think alternative history and historical fiction are fun ways to explore the structure of history, and help give you concrete hooks to provide a mental map or structure that will allow you to remember far more than you would otherwise be able to. It is so easy to get lost in history, sometimes characterized as just one damn thing after another. A little bit of narrative goes a long way.

Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
by Niall Ferguson
Picador, 1997; Basic Books, 1999
548 Pages, US $30
ISBN 0-465-02322-3
Reviewed by John J. Reilly
Alternative history, urchronie, virtual history, all these terms have been applied to the practice of writing histories of what might have happened but did not. People with any interest in actual history often find frankly fictional exercises of this sort to be entertaining, but the spectacle of serious historians giving systematic consideration to the "what-ifs" tends to be greeted with misgiving. After all, except for people who think of history as a species of propaganda, history is supposed to be the attempt to arrive at an honest and objective knowledge of the past as it actually was. Even the "idealists," the school of historians who hold that any image we form of the past is an illusion, cling all the more closely to the evidence as it appears in documents and physical remains: history may be an illusion, they say, but it is not an arbitrary illusion. Seen from this perspective, elaborate counterfactual narratives are a corruption of what historical writing is supposed to be all about.
This collection of nine "virtual histories," by working historians, should clear up whatever unease you may feel about the value of exploring the historical alternatives. The editor, Niall Ferguson, is an economic historian, an Oxford don, whose most recent book, The Pity of War, explored the context of the choices that determined the outbreak and course of the First World War. As Ferguson explains in an Introduction that outlines the history and theory of counterfactual writing, the consideration of the "what-ifs" is actually required by the pure Rankean principle of sticking to the documents.
People in the past did not know the future; all they knew was that they had a set of alternative courses of action before them. It is the job of the historian to determine what alternatives were discussed and how well informed the actors were when they discussed them. While a major drawback to this approach, as with all Rankean history, is that it tends to focus inquiry exclusively on questions that can be answered from the information in archives and memoirs, nonetheless there is a deeper principle that should underlie any decision about which historical episodes to investigate. Not all actors in the historical record and not all the decisions they made were equally influential. Just as courts assign blame, not to all the parties connected with an accident, but only to those without whom no accident would have occurred, so historians should concentrate on those decisions "but for" which the historical outcome would have been substantially different. Information about such decisions may not always be available, but even then historians are justified in speculating about which alternatives must have presented themselves to the people at the time.
Having explained these sound and sober principles, Ferguson and his collaborators then proceed to have a party with them.
The first counterfactual, "England without Cromwell" by John Adamson, considers what might have happened if Charles I had managed to avoid a civil war and continued to rule without parliament. The turning point here, according to Adamson, was the abortive English invasion of Scotland in 1639. The Scottish Covenanters were in fact much weaker than the English knew. Had Charles moved against them, rather than withdrawing after negotiation, he might have removed the only organized threat to him in Britain. Indeed, Adamson coyly suggests, no new parliament might have been called in England "until 1789."
J.C.D. Clark, in his essay "British America," considers ways in which the American Revolution might not have occurred, in part by ringing some changes on Adamson's proposal. Clark suggests that a longer-lived Stuart dynasty, far from attempting to suppress parliamentary government per se, might well have preferred a kind of imperial federalism, with power shared among parliaments in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Had that been the case, then the imperial government would have had much less trouble accommodating the demands of the several American colonies for autonomy.
While acknowledging that the Revolution of 1776 seems to have been rather more inevitable than that of 1688, which was a comedy of errors and personalities, nonetheless it is possible to point to some near-term consequences of the failure of the Revolution to occur, or to get off the ground if it began. The chief of these is that there probably would have been no French Revolution in 1789. That event was sparked by the collapse of French finances, which had never managed to pay down the debt for France's military assistance to the American colonists. So, if the American Revolution had not occurred, would that have meant no Napoleon, or anyone like him? Such a question goes beyond the record. Surely.
Among the more painfully constrained of the counterfactuals is Alvin Jackson's "British Ireland." The utmost surmise he can reach about a happier course of Irish history in the second and third decades of the 20th century is that Home Rule might have been enacted in 1912. In the event, of course, it was enacted in 1914, simultaneously with the outbreak of the war, and put on hold for the duration. By the time the war was over, revolution in Ireland had made irrelevant the original, moderate scheme that would have maintained many ties to the United Kingdom.
Jackson's main point is that, now that we can examine the inner counsels of both sides, we know that a compromise was possible between the Liberal government in London and the anti-Home Rule Protestants in Ulster. However, this compromise would not have retained the reality of a united Ireland: the power of an autonomous administration in Dublin would not have been extended to four or six counties in Ulster for some specified period of years, at the end of which the matter would have been reconsidered. This was pretty much the deal under which the Irish Free State and a separate Ulster were created in the 1920s, after years of rebellion. Even so, it sparked a civil war. The best that Jackson can suggest is that the rebellion might have been avoided. The civil war was likely to happen anyway, as nationalist maximalists recoiled at the loss of Ulster.
Then there is Ferguson's own favorite counterfactual. What would have happened, he asks, if Britain had remained neutral in 1914, or had merely dithered for another week or two about supporting France. The title of the essay, "The Kaiser's European Union," pretty much sums up Ferguson's idea of the real "peril" that Britain faced in 1914. The outcome of a German victory would have been a Europe very much like that of 2000, with the exception that no Great Depression, no Second World War, and no hurried liquidation of the British Empire would have been necessary to achieve it.
Without going into detail about the merits of the long-term scenario, still I might mention that there is an internal contradiction to Ferguson's preferred method of achieving it. Ferguson notes that no British government could have tolerated German control of the Belgian coast, something that would probably have occurred had the Germans achieved the war aims they formulated in September of 1914. However, he reminds us that there is no official record of such extreme ambitions before the British entered the war in August. On the contrary, the German leadership is on record, as late as July, as having been willing to guarantee Belgian neutrality as the cost of keeping Britain out of the war. While this sounds promising, the fact that the Germans failed to communicate this willingness to the British government probably made no difference. The Germans understood "neutrality" in Belgium's case to mean that the Belgian government would not have resisted the deployment of German armies through the country on the way to northern France.
Few counterfactuals have inspired so much fiction as the topic of Andrew Roberts' and Ferguson's collaboration, "Hitler's England," no doubt because we possess the plans for a Nazi invasion of England in 1940. The exercise in this book comes as close as a counterfactual can to "refuting" some other counterfactuals on the subject. For one thing, it disposes of the notion that Hitler would have been as easy to live with as Ferguson thinks Wilhelm II would have been. Contrary to what John Charmley suggested in his assessment of Winston Churchill's decision to keep fighting after Dunkirk, there is no real doubt that the Nazis intended to incorporate Great Britain into the New Order. Neither would there have been any hope of preserving the British Empire, had the metropole existed at the sufferance of a greater empire. Additionally, the authors cast grave doubt on the hypothesis that the English would have been as supine under occupation as were the inhabitants of the British Channel Islands. All the men of military age had been evacuated from those territories before the Germans arrived, and the occupation force amounted to one soldier for each two remaining civilians. That would keep anybody quiet.
The real problem with scenarios of this type is that it is very difficult to conjure up a plausible way by which Britain might have been invaded in 1940. By setting the tentative invasion date for the fall, Hitler gave the English enough time to organize sufficient defenses on the ground to make a successful landing very doubtful. There was almost no defense in May, of course, but the Germans just did not have the shipping ready. Still, assuming that the Germans had begun making preparations for the invasion of England at the same time as they did for the invasion of France, it is possible to outline what the occupation regime would have been like, and even to speculate about the composition of the Quisling government. The suggestion that it might have been installed in the hotels of the resort town of Harrowgate does, once again, go beyond the evidence.
Speculation about a general Nazi victory tends to go quickly beyond the considerable amount of evidence we have available into the realm of dark fantasy. Michael Burleigh founds the scenario for "Hitler's Europe" on an analysis of the Germans' avoidable strategic mistakes in the opening phase of the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and tries to maintain a distinction between the actual plans of the Nazis and their somewhat inchoate ambitions. He also draws attention repeatedly to the adversarial nature of internal German politics. Both Alfred Rosenberg's "Ministry for the East" and Heinrich Himmler's SS had elaborate and contradictory plans for the occupation and colonization of former Soviet territory, for instance. There is no good way to choose which would have been more likely to prevail. (Rosenberg's ministry had little real power, but then Himmler's plans were more than usually insane, even for Himmler.)
Burleigh leans toward the school of thought which holds that Hitler imagined himself to be building toward total global domination, which would have meant a direct assault on the Americas within two generations. The argument for this position is pretty good, but producing a counterfactual based on it requires the assumption that the Nazi plans for economic and demographic expansion would work in the meantime. There is reason to doubt this. The Nazis just were not good at the things that Germans are supposed to be good at. Hitler did not even drink real beer. One suspects that the longer the regime remained in control, the less effective it would have become.
Among the other counterfactuals that are cast into doubt in this book are the revisionist hypotheses that the West started the Cold War and that the US dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 primarily to intimidate the Russians. Jonathan Haslam deals with both in "Stalin's War and Peace," which is primarily concerned with whether the Cold War could have been avoided entirely.
The problem with the proposition that the West frightened the Soviet Union into clamping down on Eastern Europe is that we now know that the Soviet leadership was not frightened. Thanks in large part to the efforts of his agents, Stalin knew almost as much as Truman did about American nuclear capabilities. The one or two bombs that the US possessed at the beginning of the Cold War would not have proven decisive in the event of a shooting war. In any case, it was not at all clear that the US could have delivered them to the western Soviet Union. (This, by the way, remained true throughout the 1950s.) Similarly, the initiation of the Marshall Plan could not have raised doubts in Stalin's mind about the intentions of the West: he sometimes had the telegrams sent by the western delegations concerned with devising the plan before their own governments did. The initiative does seem to have lain with Stalin from the beginning.
Still, Haslam does suggest that the Cold War may been inevitable, less because of personalities than because of conceptual differences between the two sides. Churchill had been eager to negotiate an agreement regarding spheres of influence in Europe, and Stalin was happy to oblige. The problem was that, once the Nazis had been defeated, it soon became clear that the Soviet idea of a sphere of influence was closer to the western idea of colonization.
Counterfactuals need not be concerned simply with the decisions reached by committees: they can also usefully address how important were the accidents that substituted one leader for another. This is what Diane Kunz does with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in her essay, "Camelot Continued." Her particular concern is to ascertain whether the United States would have Americanized the war in Vietnam had Kennedy won the election of 1964, rather than Lyndon Johnson.
She finds little evidence to suggest that the American buildup would have gone differently. Although Kennedy, at the time of his death in 1963, was considering the withdrawal of some of the American advisors already in Vietnam, this option was being considered on the basis of optimistic reports from his advisors. They said that current levels of aid to the South Vietnamese would be enough to win the war by 1965. Just a few months later, those same advisors were saying that the roof was about to fall in, and President Johnson acted accordingly.
The main difference between Kennedy and Johnson was that Kennedy was chiefly interested in foreign affairs, whereas Johnson considered them a distraction from his program of domestic reform. Of the two, Johnson was the more likely to seek disengagement. Kunz also suggests that, in any case, all the Kennedys are bastards by nature whom longevity does not improve.
Since Hitler died, perhaps no great historical development has depended more on the accident of individual leadership than did the collapse of Soviet communism between 1989 and 1991. This is the conclusion that Mark Almond reaches, with some justice, in "1989 without Gorbachev." Reviewing some of the more embarrassing statements make by western experts in the 1980s that insisted on the durability of the Soviet Union, Almond suggests that they may have known what they were talking about.
The Soviet system was hardly ideal. It was resistant to new technology. It remained in power by keeping its people poor. It was widely hated by its Eastern European subjects. Nonetheless, it did what it was supposed to do, which was to underwrite a military strong enough to keep it in power, all the while providing a significant degree of luxury for the nomenclatura. The system would certainly have been stressed in the 1980s by the collapse of oil prices, its largest single source of hard currency, as well as by the growth of sentiment within its borders for something closer to western norms of human rights. However, the system had repeatedly shown itself capable of dealing with such problems in the past.
What did Soviet Communism in, according to Almond, was the accident that General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was a relatively honest man. He did not discover how irresilient the system was until he tried to reform it. Although the Soviet Union could justify itself only by claiming to be surrounded by implacable enemies, he naively sought a permanent lowering of military tension with the West. A more cynical leader might have prolonged the life of the Soviet Union by escalating the Cold War, in the justified hope that the West might tire of the conflict as pacifist sentiment grew.
In the book's "Afterword," Ferguson tries to tie all the counterfactuals into a single narrative. This is, of course, impossible, since some of them are mutually exclusive, but "A Virtual History, 1646 -- 1996" should surely hold a special place in the annals of alternative historiography. A history buff would have to have a heart of stone not to warm to a history that makes it plausible for Franklin Delano Roosevelt to have said, "We have nothing so dear as beer itself."
"Virtual History" is good evidence for the proposition that close attention to alternative scenarios is a necessary part of understanding what actually happened, but there is a theme running through the book with which I must take issue. Ferguson in his "Foreword," and some of the contributors in their counterfactuals, seem to imagine that plausible virtual histories are incompatible with historical determinism. Ferguson at one point even suggests that history is not a story, but a chaos without direction. In support of this, not altogether apt use is made of analogies from popular science.
Ferguson seems to think that the "spacialization of time," the metaphorical depiction of the future as a point on a path that already exists, is a fallacy that has been exposed by modern physics. In fact, for better or worse, that is exactly how general relativity does view time. Perhaps, as the famous "butterfly effect" in chaos theory suggests, the beating of an insect's wings in one hemisphere can trigger tornadoes in the other a few weeks later. Be this as it may, no one, at least to my knowledge, has ever suggested that the beating of a butterfly's wings can cause an ice age, which is the scale of change some counterfactuals seem to contemplate. Then, inevitably, he mentions Stephen Jay Gould, about whose ideas on teleology the less said the better. However, rather than undertake a systematic defense of determinism, let me try to split the difference with Ferguson & company.
Ferguson notes that systematic attention to counterfactuals, even as fiction, is a modern invention. Though there are a few examples from the 19th century, alternative history only became a recognized practice in the 20th century, and mostly in the late 20th century at that. The reason for this is clear enough. Most of history before modern times seems as uniform as white noise. For want of a nail in a horseshoe, a dynasty might fall. However, such changes rarely made a fundamental difference in the way the world worked. There was little point in considering what would have happened, had the horseshoe stayed on. In modern times, in contrast, each generation began to be conspicuously different from the previous one. Radical changes in technology, regime and style of life followed a few years after key decisions that key leaders made. The alternative decisions became interesting because their consequences became really different.
The changes from generation to generation in modern times do not appear to me to be altogether chaotic. There are conspicuous linearities in the history of the past few centuries, whether we are talking about population growth, economic output or even longevity. Trends of this sort are not destined to go on forever, of course, but they seem to be impervious to minor accidents. It is probably also true that certain cultural trends over the same period have a trajectory with a similar, intrinsic durability. If these things are true, then counterfactuals must respect a "main sequence" that runs through modernity.
I myself would argue that there have been periods like modernity in other times and places, and even that history as a whole has a loosely defined trajectory. However, these are different questions. Only the last few centuries, and especially the 20th, are usually of much interest to today's virtual historians. If there are more constraints on their imagination than those that appear in the primary sources, that is no real reason to complain. Constraints are what make it possible to tell a decent story.
Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Dark Imperium

Here is an old essay of John's on Satanic eschatology. I'm sure there must be all of 50 people in the world who are interested in this subject, but for the rest of you, this essay is also a window back into time, when the Internet was young. Using the Internet for serious research was a new idea in 1998, and here John gives an idea what that felt like at the time.

The Dark Imperium
Satanic Eschatology on the Internet
by John J. Reilly
The Biblical tradition is short on information about the motivations of the forces of evil in history. Revelation 12:12 explains the violence of the Evil One in the latter days with these words: "Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you in great wrath, knowing that he has but a short time." In Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," the tempter Mephistopheles explains that demons tempt men simply because they are themselves wretched and seek to make others wretched, too. Perhaps the most prosaic explanation for diabolical behavior, and the one best known to modern readers, is C.S. Lewis's hypothesis in "The Screwtape Letters" that demons are hungry and eat the human souls they catch.
Whatever the merits of these explanations, they shed no light on the motivations of the human agents of conscious evil. There is, of course, a long philosophical tradition, starting with Platonism and extending even through Utilitarianism, that there is no such thing as a conscious agent of evil. Since evil is simply the privation of something good, according to this view, it must be that those who seek to do evil are merely mistaken: they are in fact really trying to do good as it seems to them. Be this as it may, it cannot be denied that there is an ancient impulse, which has sometimes assumed concrete historical form, which seeks to overthrow the whole order of things, religious, ethical and social.
This impulse need not take the form of mysticism. Subversive art, like the plays and novels of the Marquis de Sade, can manifest this mood while denying the reality of the strictly supernatural. Still, a particularly dramatic manifestation of this spirit does seem to inform the division of the modern occult that styles itself "Satanic." Satanism is a large subject, and the term is often applied to types of occultists, notably wiccans, who for the most part deny any connection with it. For the purposes of this discussion, however, the general category of "Satanic" is limited by one major criterion: a systematic concern with universal eschatology, that is, with history's goal. It is hard to imagine a Satanist who accepted the Judeo-Christian model of history, since in that model Satan and all his followers are ultimately defeated and punished. What are the beliefs about the future, then, among that minority of Satanists who are interested in such questions?
This essay is actually an extension of the chapter entitled "The Coming Man," which appears in my forthcoming book, "The Perennial Apocalypse: How the End of the World Shapes History." In that chapter, I explore what turned out to be a surprisingly widespread modern myth. This myth says that the current age of the world is nearing its end, and that in the coming age mankind as it presently exists will be replaced by a new species. In some forms of this myth, the species already covertly exists, while other forms say that it will come into being in the future. A common motif in the forms of this myth is that many human beings will help the new species come into being. I argue in "The Coming Man" that this motif was part of the motivation of at least some Nazis during the Hitler regime.
Since the material in my book is largely historical, one evening in early 1998 I had an inspiration to update my research by asking the Infoseek search-engine the following question: "Is a new human species appearing?"
So it would seem. At any rate, the search results showed that there is a lot of chatter about the subject, mostly of a New Age variety. There is even a weekly science-fiction drama on American television (the ABC network) called "Prey" which is premised on the idea. However, in light of my earlier research into the connection between the Third Reich and the occult, what immediately caught my eye was the link:
Satanism--The Sinister Path
This essay is largely based on the links I found there, and at
The Internet Satanic Syndicate
There are also several related newsgroups, of which the one with the most predictable name is alt.satanism.
(The Internet Satanic Syndicate site, by the way, has a subpage entitled "Helvete." This deals with "Black Metal" rock music, a term I had not heretofore encountered. The subpage's name is the nickname of an apparently legendary distributor of this material in Norway, where I gather Satanism has a lively presence.)
Again, Satanism is a large subject, but all the Internet Satanists have a few things in common. None, as far as I could tell, think of Satan as a personal entity. Some think of him as an impersonal "force" of some kind, others as a psychological archetype. While all perform ritual magic, which may take the form of worship, they generally think of this as a psychological exercise. If they expect the magic to affect the real world, they say the power comes from their own wills. When they speak of Satan, they speak of him in the original Hebrew sense as the Adversary or the Accuser. They do not think that Satan accuses them. Rather, they themselves take on Satan's role. By calling themselves Satanists, they mean that they are the world's critics.
We may pass quickly over the well-known Church of Satan, founded by the late Anton Szandor LaVey (who died on October 29, 1997), as well as its offshoot, the Temple of Set (whose members are called "Setians"). These are the sort of groups that provide the stage properties for the popular "Gothic" subculture of would-be vampires and fans of heavy metal music. Taken at face value, they are more Gnostic than anything else. By their own account, they seek a form of subjective spiritual illumination. By reputation, the techniques they use to achieve this state include a fair amount of perversion, ritual suicide and unkindness to small animals. In reality, there are probably worse things in the world than the Gothic subculture, though some people may think that one Halloween per year is quite enough.
Indeed, what is most striking about the material by the popular Satanic groups on the Internet is their eagerness to appear respectable, or at least not criminally indictable. Thus, they deny that they sacrifice human beings, kill animals or promote pederasty. Despite the well-known associations between fascism and the occult, some are even at pains to distance themselves from Nazi politics. For instance, there is a group related to the Temple of Set called "The Order of the Trapezoid" that purports to be carrying on the ritual magical practices of the Nazis. The order was even initiated by a magical "working" at the SS site at Wewelsberg Castle. Still, they denounce what they call Nazi "excesses," and they deny that their beliefs require racism, antisemitism or militarism. One may wonder how seriously to take these protestations from people who think that Heinrich Himmler was a misguided genius, but there is unlikely to be much harm in such folk.
Harmlessness is not a self-evident quality of the literature of at least three Satanic groups with an Internet presence. All of them claim to be "traditional" Satanic groups, with doctrine and organizational ties extending into the misty past. Such claims might reasonably be taken with a grain of salt. One recalls Ambrose Bierce's remark in "The Devil's Dictionary": "[The emblems of the Freemasons] have been found in the Catacombs of Paris...on the Chinese Great Wall...and in the Egyptian Pyramids -- always by a Freemason." For that matter, since the sources in question here are Internet material, it is entirely possible that all of it was concocted by five guys with gross haircuts who work in mailrooms somewhere. Still, the groups in question here are related and they do have a coherent historical agenda. Whatever their actual antiquity or size, these groups therefore do afford us an example of a consciously diabolical model of history.
The oldest and most influential is The Order of the Nine Angles, or ONA. This group has its own website at Based in England, the ONA appears to act as a sort of "mother church" for Satanists who describe themselves as "traditional." (The more popular, "Gothic" types of Satanism are often disparaged as "American.")
The ONA's beliefs, and some of its documents, are mirrored in the Internet material relating to the Order of the Deorc Fyre, formerly known as the Order of the Left-Hand Path. This group is based in New Zealand, though contact information is provided on the Web for other places in the world. Its documents suggest that it is more interested in recruiting than are other groups of this type.
The White Order of Thule, formerly known as the Black Order, seems to be pan-European. The only contact information I found was a mailing address in the United States, where this kind of thing is constitutionally protected. It has by far the smallest amount of Internet material. It is also almost pedantically Nazi: its literature even reflects something of the style of German "völkisch" groups of the early 20th century. Such material as there is suggests an acquaintance with the academic literature on the subject, such as Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's "The Occult Roots of Nazism."
All these groups are unconcerned with making themselves appear respectable. They insist that real Satanic groups do and must make human sacrifices, though they emphasize that this is never done at random and is never done to children. (It's not that they are sensitive to the welfare of children; it's just that they prefer killing people for character flaws that become apparent only in adults.) They emphasize how much more serious and dangerous their kind of Satanism is than that of the popular Gothic variety. Most important for the purposes of this discussion, they also insist that their goals are not just personal but historical. They seek to set the stage for a wholly new age and a new human species to live in it.
Before proceeding to quotations from documents posted either by these groups or in their name, it would be helpful to explain a few important assumptions that all these groups seem to share. Throughout the material that follows, I have provided links to material on my website that may help to illuminate some of these assumptions:
(1) The Doctrine of the Two Worlds. These Satanists hold that are two kind of reality, the "causal" world known to physics and the "acausal" world which sometimes intersects with it. The "acausal" seems to be related to the notion, familiar in esoteric circles, of the "causal plane." This is the world of the "forms," the Platonic Ideas, that provide what order there is in the world. Any organism, according to the ONA, is an intersection of the causal and the acausal. The notion is not quite gibberish, since the idea that the structures of biological organisms are governed by a small class of mathematical patterns is gaining adherence among some biologists. See my essay "After Darwin." The stretch is the assertion that cultures and civilizations are also organisms. An even greater stretch is that intersections of the causal and acausal can be influenced by ritual magic or by more prosaic means.
(2) Popular Spenglerism. All these groups have a grasp of the cyclical historical models of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. Both these historians suggested that the West had exhausted its basic stock of ideas, and that politically it was headed toward the final stage of a civilization's evolution, what Toynbee called a "Universal State." What I find interesting about this is that my own book on these matters, "Spengler's Future," sketches a future that is not so different from that of the ONA, at least in the timescale. This is not really surprising, since Spengler's historical cycles are supposed to be fairly inflexible, but it is a bit disconcerting.
(3) Satanic Dispensationalism. The most popular form of Christian eschatology in the United States is known as "dispensationalism." This is the belief that salvation history is divided into ages, known as "dispensations," in which somewhat different divine ordinances apply. Much the same is true of Traditionalist Satanism, in which history is divided into Aeons, and the Aeons into civilizations. These Aeons, like the civilizations that occur within them, are organisms with their own lifecycles. By controlling the intersections of the causal and acausal planes, Satanists can influence the course of an existing Aeon and determine the nature of a future one. These manipulations are the stuff of what they call "Aeonic magick."
So, what exactly are these people up to?
The ultimate historical goals of Traditional Satanism are reasonably straightforward:
Satanism, Tradition and The Sinister Way
- Order of the Deorc Fyre 1995ev
"The Order Of The Deorc Fyre sees these goals as being two-fold: the first is the creation of a new type of Human Being - Homo-Galactica, or to put it in Nietzschean terms, 'Higher-Man'. The second is the creation of a new reality born from this noble individual."
The endeavor of Satanists today should be to create the social and cultural context in which these developments can occur:
A Path of Fire
- Order of the Deorc Fyre 1997ev
"For Satanists, the practical realization of an esoteric 'current' is through political means. For as much as Sinister tradition is a way of life, so to must it evolve progressively to its eventual and ideal manifestation of a 'Satanically' inspired state, or Imperium."
The "Decline of the West" (to use the English title of Spengler's book) does not mean the collapse of the West, but its final consolidation of the whole world into a Universal State. Before that can occur, however, the present Time of Troubles (to use another of Toynbee's expressions) must come to a climax. One of the Satanists' stated goals is: "To provoke or cause, through both practical and magickal means, the destruction, the Ragnorak, which is necessary now to build a New Order from the diseased society of the present, and regain the ethos, the Destiny, which is necessary to inspire the creation of such a New Order." Just such a revolution is described in the infamous "Turner Diaries," a detailed review of which is also provided on my website.
The point of this Dark Imperium is not power for its own sake. Even the empire of the world has an ulterior motive:
From "Darkness Is My Friend: The Meaning of the Sinister Way"
by Anton Long ONA 107 yf [yf = "Year of the Führer"? AD 1996?]
"The new Aeon [which is still to come] means a new, and higher, Galactic civilization - several centuries after the energies of the new Aeon first become manifest and are presenced, via new nexions [intersections between the causal and acausal worlds]. The decline and ending of the current Aeon means the establishment of a new and expanding physical Empire: a New Order which is the last and most glorious manifestation of the genuine spirit, or ethos, of the old [current] Aeon."
World-historical goals are not inconsistent with the hope of personal "salvation" in one's own lifetime. Eschatology is normally both universal and personal. Thus, Satanists can believe in this sort of thing in both a long-term and a short-term sense:
Culling - A Guide to Sacrifice II
ONA 1990eh (revised 1994eh)
"This essence [of true Satanism] is that it is a practical means, a practical way, to create a new, higher type of individual - and eventually a new human species."
As for the distant historical goals, the very act of working towards them necessarily creates a measure of personal liberation and power:
Aeonic Magick: A Basic Introduction
Anton Long ONA
"[F]or the majority of individuals, their Destiny is that of the civilization itself - they do not possess a unique Destiny of their own. Only those individuals who have achieved the stage of evolutionary development which individuation/Adeptship represents have a unique Destiny..."
The Satanic eschatology is, as we have noted, structurally similar to some Christian models of history. The Satanists look, in fact, to the coming end of the Christian era in a way analogous to that in which Christians look to the Second Coming:
The Black Order
"'Should the subduing talisman, the Cross, break, then will come the roaring forth of wild madness of the old champions... The talisman is brittle, and the day will come when it will pitifully break. The old stone gods will rise... and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes. And Thor, leaping forth with his giant hammer, will crush the Gothic Cathedrals!'..... So wrote the poet Heinrich Heine in 1834."
On the other hand, there is deep historical patience in some of these writings which echoes the long-term view of salvation history expressed by St. Augustine in "The City of God." In both cases, there is a sense that the coming kingdom has already arrived, but has not yet fully expressed itself:
From "Darkness Is My Friend: The Meaning of the Sinister Way"
by Anton Long ONA 107 yf [yf = "Year of the Führer"? AD 1996?]
"[T]his Being [Satan] is part of the present civilization, and its Aeon, which still exists, and which will exist for several more centuries, albeit toward its decline and end. . . .the acausal energies of the next Aeon, which will give rise to a new civilization centuries after, are already becoming manifest, partly through the work of esoteric groups. . ."
The actual timescales envisaged are not as astronomical as that those found in, say, Hindu mythology, but they are long enough:
Aeonic Magick: A Basic Introduction
Anton Long ONA
"An aeon lasts about 2,000 years of causal time - a civilization lasts around 1,500 years. That is, it takes several centuries for the energies of a particular aeon, already presencing or 'flowing' to Earth from the acausal, to produce practical, visible and significant changes: to re-order the causal in a specific geographical region."
The following table of Aeons, Archetypical Symbols and Civilizations actually gives us some rough dates:
[Three Aeons deleted]
Hellenic Eagle Hellenic 3,000-1,500BP [1000 BC - AD 500]
Thorian Swastika Western 1,000BP-500AP [AD 1000 - AD 2500]
Galactic -- Galactic >2,000eh [?]
References scattered about this material suggest the hope to establish the Dark Imperium within the next 50 to 100 years. Still, it should be emphasized that the Satanists do not claim to be causing the decline of the West, or even to be the fundamental cause of the Universal State that will mark its last phase. What they do claim to be able to do is channel these natural developments for their own ends:
A Path of Fire
- Order of the Deorc Fyre 1997ev
"Civilisations can rise and fall in the period of time known esoterically as an Aeon. The 'end time' of a civilisation is known esoterically as the Winter phase or as the Hindu have named it the 'Time of Troubles'. The 'Winter phase' marks the disintegration, and eventual demise, of a civilisation which is then followed by the emergence of another. This process occurs over many thousands of years, but because it is a naturally occurring cycle it can be perceived and influenced by knowledgeable Adepts."
If you believe this variety of Satanists, the Adepts have been at it for some time. Another table, this one of civilizations, their ethos and homelands, illustrates their view of the centrality of mystical Nazism to the historical process:
II Basic Principles of Aeonic Magick (ONA):
Hellenic Iliad Greece
Western National-Socialism Third Reich
Galactic Galactic Empire Solar System and --
Traditional Satanists quite clearly embrace the Nazis as part of their own tradition:
The Occult--Fascist Axis
The Black Order
"It is not surprising then that the ground for Fascism was largely prepared by esoteric societies which arose in Europe. Among these were the New Templars of Von Liebenfels, the Runic order of Von List, and the German Order. The latter gave rise to the Thule Society, which was to establish the NSDAP as its political front."
"These `sinister' esoteric societies proclaim the `Daemonic revolution', to usher in the New Order on the collapse of the Old; a New Order that will reawaken the Dark soul of man, that he might live as a totality with the Light and the Dark returned to balance. These esoteric societies recognize Fascism (whether called by that name o[r] not) as the political expression of primal truths. They include The Black Order of Pan-Europa, Fraternity of Balder, Order of Nine Angles, Abraxas Foundation, Blood Axis..."
Of course, the Nazis having lost the Second World War, some people might suppose that history was not on the Nazis' side. This thought does not greatly commend itself in Satanic circles:
To Comrade T
The Black Order "Firstly, TBO [The Black Order] is not a National Socialist organization per se. The role of National Socialist philosophy and the Third Reich on the Aeonic destiny of the European is however very much a part of its terms of reference."
. . . .
National Socialism was the political form of an Esoteric Current in Europe which was then represented by The Thule Society. The Third Reich was a SEEDING of the future European Imperium. It created new archetypes and martyrs of the European folk with its BLOOD SACRIFICE and epic heroism in the service of that Destiny.
"Hitler was the central figure of that COSMIC DRAMA, but he did not seem to regard himself as the final embodiment of the Vindex/Kalki that was/is awaited by the European Esoteric Current. Rather he was something of a `John-the-Baptist' establishing the way (`seeding') for `the one that would come after', as he himself stated.
"Therefore the first experiment - The Third Reich - was not the final -aborted - form of the European Imperium, but the prelude to something greater to come: something nothing less than cosmic and starbound in scope."
These remarks about a "European Imperium" are particularly interesting in light of the supranational aspirations some forms of Neofascism are showing. As I note in my review of Roger Eatwell's "Fascism: A History," some fascists seem to be trying to fashion an ideology, not just for their own countries, but for the whole European Union.
In any case, it may be that Satanists are not much discouraged by historical setbacks because they do not regard history passively. They believe that it is an artifact, and that they are the artificers. The need is pressing:
From "Darkness Is My Friend: The Meaning of the Sinister Way"
by Anton Long ONA 107 yf [yf = "Year of the Führer"? AD 1996?]
"The Faustian/Promethean (or more correctly, the Satanic) Destiny of this current civilization must be returned, and the present cultural disease affecting this civilization cured, with the excision of the parasites sucking the life-blood of this civilization - for only this returning of Destiny will enable the Empire to be created, and only this Empire will breed in sufficient numbers the new type of individual required to create, build and expand the entirely new Galactic civilization and Galactic Empire which will arise from the eventual decline of the old Promethean/Faustian Empire."
There are various means to this end:
A Path of Fire
- Order of the Deorc Fyre 1997ev
"Those Forms [of culture] of a more degenerate nature: that subvert a civilisation from its organic and desirable outcome, need to be used, or destroyed, for the benefit of those Forms that aid the Sinister Dialectic. Forms become degenerate when they cease to be a healthy and vital part of civilisation. These Forms express their identity by subverting both Life and Nature e.g.: The Magian ethos expressed magickally as the Cabala, or Political-economy expressed via Plutocracy. They have a pernicious, and inhibiting, effect on the nature of civilisation; while subverting the natural development of an Aeon."
["Magian," by the way, was Spengler's term for the civilization of the Near East, which was defined by Churches rather than nations in the Western sense. Magian societies include Islam, Judaism, Byzantine Christianity and Zoroastrianism.]
"For if there is to be a sustained flowering of higher-Human endeavour it must be predicated now, in the Winter phase of this Western Aeon. Thus it can be seen, that in its Winter phase, Western civilisation is actively seeding, or in a more strict sense, 'creating' the emerging 6th Aeon."
Direct methods can be used to promote the emergence of the coming Aeon:
From "Darkness Is My Friend: The Meaning of the Sinister Way"
by Anton Long ONA 107 yf [yf = "Year of the Führer"? AD 1996?]
"The change that is necessary means that there must be a culling, or many cullings, which remove the worthless and those detrimental to further evolution."
Individuals of no social value may be culled. So may persons who oppose the Sinister Path, or traitors to it. Before a Satanic groups culls a person or group, proper form requires a secret, quasi-judicial hearing on the matter. There should even be a "defense counsel" to argue for the life of the victim. Individuals selected for culling are to be subjected to tests to redeem themselves, of which the subject is not to be aware. Should they fail, the killing will be made to seem an accident. On the other hand, the Internet material does suggest that cullings may be made of whole populations:
Culling - A Guide to Sacrifice II
ONA 1990eh (revised 1994eh)
"[T]he correct choice of opfer [German for "victim"] means that with their elimination the sinister dialectic will be aided and thus the intrusion of the acausal into the causal speeded up. ( In non-esoteric terms read: `aid the dark forces to spread over Earth.') "
. . .
"IV) An Adept desires to practically and effectively disrupt the status quo and encourage the breakdown of the present system, aiming also to bring about a revolutionary state of affairs in his country beneficial to those whose actions and policies (unknown to them) are aiding and will aid the dialectic and thus evolution. To do this, he aims to target a particular, distinct, group - considering them all as suitable potential opfers. That is, he considers this particular group - by its nature and by its collective presence and actions - has shown itself to be suitable: removal of as many of its members as possible will be conscious natural selection in action. In effect, he wished to create a particular type of 'tension' in society by eliminating members of this particular, distinct, group."
Evolution is more normally fostered by nonviolent means, such as political organization, ritual magic, even by art:
Basic Principles of Aeonic Magick (ONA)
[Acausal energy may be]:
"a) Directed into a specific already existing form (such as an individual) or some causal structure which is created for this purpose. This structure can be some political or religious or social organization, group or enterprise, or it can be some work or works of 'Art', music and so on.
"(b) Drawn forth and left to disperse naturally over Earth (from the site of its presencing).
"(c) Shaped into some new psychic or magickal form or forms - such as an archetype or mythos."
. . . .
"The nature of such things should be akin to the type of changes desired. Each such creation should itself be represented by a unique symbol or sign; by a unique descriptive word, phrase or slogan; by a unique piece of sound [or 'music']; by particular collocations of colour, and so on - or by one particular individual who embodies that idea, ideal, mythos or whatever."
The notion of art as an upwelling of the folksoul is quite absent from these considerations. In the context of Aeonics, symbols are weapons:
Aeonic Magick: A Basic Introduction
Anton Long ONA
"A rudimentary and mostly unconscious numinous symbol is an archetype; another is a myth/mythos....Further, a conscious numinous symbol can be used by an individual to bring about controlled aeonic changes because such symbols, being understood, can be precisely controlled and directed.....A numinous symbol thus makes Aeonic magick feasible for really the first time."
All of this bears some resemblance, though admittedly not much, to Georges Sorel's ideas about the use of myth as a revolutionary weapon. The matter is discussed in Eatwell's "Fascism: A History."
Finally, one may note that Traditional Satanism has taken to justifying its traditionalism precisely in terms of its eschatology:
From "Darkness Is My Friend: The Meaning of the Sinister Way"
by Anton Long ONA 107 yf [yf = "Year of the Führer"? AD 1996?]
"Thus to scorn and reject what now is, presenced as the Satanic, is to reject what is yet to be - and thus it is to reject that which alone ensures the creation of the next civilization, its Galactic Empire and the new higher race of human beings we through our lives, our magick and our deeds, desire to create."
As is often the case in small religious groups, the Traditional Satanists seem less annoyed by the non-Satanic majority than by innovators and apostates who claim to follow the Left-Hand Way:
Satanism, Tradition and The Sinister Way
- Order of the Deorc Fyre 1995ev
"Of course there are other occult Traditions: The Golden Dawn and its heir the OTO, or Ordo Templi Orientis; and the relatively new trend of Chaoism, as expounded by the IOT, or Illuminati of Thanatos. Not one of these Traditions reflect the Promethean vision of Western civilisation; instead their teachings are derived from the messianic Cabala. At its heart the Cabala is the magickal expression of Judeo-Christianity - or more precisely the cult of the Magi."
This is not to say that Traditional Satanists are blind to the need to concentrate on their real enemies:
To Comrade T
The Black Order
"Today, we of TBO think it more fitting that the adversity and accusation be directed against plutocracy, whether in its Puritan, Jewish, or Vatican forms, which seek to LEVEL all under the doctrines of Universalism and cosmopolitism, euphemistically called the `New World Order'."
"The New World Order." Most millenarian Christians think that the Satanists are the New World Order. I guess the New World Order just can't win. In any case, people interested in following that particular line of thought are invited to look at my World Government subpage. As for this discussion, however, I think that I have already given the Devil more than his due.
Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-05-29: Weapons of Mass Destruction

Unfortunately for John's posthumous reputation, the answer to his question is: they didn't exist.

Weapons of Mass Destruction
Where are those weapons of mass destruction, you may ask? Well, I certainly don't have them. The question is what happened to the Iraqi WMD inventory, and whether the failure to find it obviates the chief rationale for the recent war.
There is some hard evidence that the Baathist government had a chemical weapons program. The spanking-new laboratory vans show that the pre-war intelligence was not erroneous or fabricated. The US military also claims to have quite a lot of documentary evidence of an ongoing WMD program. On the other hand, this is different from finding an arsenal. That was what the Coalition military expected to meet. The Iraqis themselves appear to have gone out of their way to foster this expectation before and during the battle for Iraq. Quite late into the invasion, remember, the possibility of a WMD attack still had some deterrent effect on strategy and tactics
The odds are that there still are some stocks, even in Iraq, but that the Baathist government began dismantling the arsenal and shipping it abroad last summer, as soon as it became clear that an invasion was likely. Why do this? The Iraqis were well aware that nothing they had could actually defeat an invasion, and that using WMDs as spite weapons would so discredit the regime as to make a neo-Baathist revival impossible. Why not report the dismantling of the arsenal to the UN? Because the personnel and the equipment to reconstitute the program still existed. The hope was that the UN would be satisfied with the gradual clarification of the record from 1998, the last time the Iraqis stopped cooperating with the UN inspectors.
None of this is relevant to the rationale for the invasion. The reason for the invasion was precisely that the threat from Iraq was not imminent. In this context, an imminent threat would be like the one from North Korea, which can plausibly threaten to blow up Tokyo, or even Honolulu, if the existence of the regime is threatened. It is possible to put off dealing with North Korea, at least until it starts selling nukes abroad, because it is so isolated. One could not tolerate such a capability in Iraq, because Baathist Iraq was part of a system of states, terrorist groups, and ideologies that is lethally hostile to the United States. After 911, it was clear that containment, or even deterrence, was irrelevant to the task of dealing with this system.
We knew that Baathist Iraq had WMDs in the past. We did not know whether it still had them, because Iraq refused serious inspections. As Noemie Emery points out in the Weekly Standard of June 2, at that point there was no choice but to assume the worst. This is not a post hoc rationale for the war, by the way. It's exactly what George W. Bush said in last year's State of the Union Address.
Does this mean that the Iraq War was a justified precautionary measure, but that it proved to be unnecessary? Not at all. The mere existence of the regime posed a danger. Its policy was to acquire and use WMDs. Just as important, only the presence of an American army in the region affords any hope of reforming the state sponsors of terrorism. The cooperation of Syria and Iran is still hypocritical, but the invasion and occupation have clarified their minds about which virtues they should pretend to have.
* * *
Unfortunately, there has been no such clarification among the tranzie activists of the world, even those with a noble record. Consider the sad case of Amnesty International. In writing their human rights report for 2003, they contrived to persuade themselves that the overthrow of the Baathist regime in Iraq was a setback for human rights around the world. The argument, in part, was that billions of dollars were spent on the war, which might better have been spent opposing other dictatorships and tyrannies. Since, as we have noted, the war also served to strike fear into many of those regimes with which one would expect Amnesty International to be displeased, it's hard to take this objection altogether seriously.
There is some reason to suspect that international social-welfare system is turning into the sort of misery machine that domestic welfare systems did after the 1960s. There are increasing reports from Africa and the Balkans about aid agencies fostering dependence without development. This is another matter from the cluelessness of Amnesty's applause, in the same report, for establishment of the International Criminal Court. This is the body that will kill the idea of humanitarian intervention. Watch.
* * *
Finally, regarding the immediate effects of the Iraq War, it is relatively clear that the recent terrorist attacks in Morocco and Saudi Arabia cannot be considered a sign of strength for the terrorist network. After the fall of Iraq, they had to do something, or be dismissed as irrelevant. The sites they chose to strike seem to have been selected simply because they were still within their range, not because they were the sites likely to be most effective. The bombings in Saudi Arabia in particular are going to be counterproductive. The Saudi regime used to be afraid of offending Al Qaeda. Now they fear Al Qaeda actively seeks their overthrow. There is such a thing as progress, even in Saudi Arabia.
Does this mean we can forget about mass-casualty attacks in the US or Europe? Hardly. In any case, if they do occur, we are now in a position to deal with their state sponsors almost immediately.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-05-22: What this Country Needs....

John said in 2002 that no century in modern times had produced less intellectual history than the twentieth. Another way of putting it might be that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The quoted WNYC story in this post from 2003 is by now clearly right. Our attempt to build representative democracy in Iraq could have been foreseen to turn out exactly the way it did. Brian Lehrer, do you ever look back and think to yourself, "I told you so"?

Unfortunately, part of the dynamic behind why things keep going around in circles in recent history is that no one is on top of the pile for long. Learning from the mistakes of your political enemies may be even harder than learning from your own mistakes. I wonder whether Lehrer questioned the value of democracy in Libya the same way after the fall of Qaddafi, because the same result could have been predicted in Libya, or really anywhere affected by the Arab Spring.

Further evidence that nothing really changes except who is on top is provided by the second section of John's post. In 2003, anti-war liberals were heckled on college campuses. Today, anti-gay marriage conservatives are heckled on college campuses. The behavior is the same, only the approved targets have changed.

Finally, we might note that suit has again been filed to force the Selective Service to accept women. One thing is different now: with a lack of real combat operations for ground troops, no one has to face the cost of putting women in combat roles. This kind of thing went nowhere in 2003. In 2015, it is plausible that it will succeed, precisely because no one will ever see a 19-year old girl in a body bag or a wheelchair now.

What This Country Needs...
Last week, WNYC's Brian Lehrer made what, in effect, was a plea for a military dictatorship in the United States. Here are his key points:
The President's whole approach to democracy in Iraq, is in fact, the opposite of his approach to democracy at home. He is carefully building a transitional Iraqi government based on the idea that all major groups need to have some real decision-making power. The term he keeps using is a representative government - not elected or even democratic government, but a representative one. And he is right to do so. It's a worthy goal....So what about for us? This President squeaked into office in what was essentially a tie vote...[I]magine if he were building democracy in Iraq on the basis of 51 percent winner-take-all majority rule. Iraq would be a Shiite State tomorrow. Too bad on the Kurds, the Sunnis and other minorities...[M]aybe, Mr. President, your foreign policy would work as well at home. While Iraqis get to know you as the Affirmative Action President, maybe Americans whose groups have faced the biggest disadvantages need more opportunities, just like in Iraq. And maybe a more representative form of decision-making would improve OUR democracy too.
That is as clear a statement of post-democratic liberalism as you could hope to find. It puts "representation" before everything else, even at the cost of turning the organs of representative government into mere symbol. Under such a system, the real power necessarily resides with some version of Tommy Franks, who can correct the errors of unenlightened electorates. People who favor "guided democracy" generally assume that they will be Tommy Franks when the time comes, or at least they will be able to choose him. They are almost always wrong about that assumption.
* * *
Speaking of choosing the wrong patsy, no doubt many readers saw the four-hour drama that aired on CBS this week: Hitler: The Rise of Evil. Every generation gets its own Hitler, just as each gets its own Richard III. For myself, I kept wondering why Johnny Depp suddenly wanted to take over Germany. Still, the series was fine. Events had to be slurred and compressed to make a manageable story, particularly for the last year of elections and ministerial crises before Hitler became chancellor. (Hindenburg actually offered Hitler the chance to form a government twice, but Hitler refused to even try to assemble a parliamentary majority: he wanted a presidential appointment.) There are just three points about the program that I would like to highlight:
First, Hitler did not achieve electoral success by emphasizing antisemitism. That was important for keeping part of his base together. When he had the chance to win elections, however, he talked about economics and law-and-order.
Second, the Nazis probably did not burn down the Reichstag. They really didn't need to: they controlled the police and the media, and President Hindenburg was obviously not going to live forever.
Finally, the show had trouble attracting advertisers, at least for the New York City market. It's a bad sign when the commercials for prime time on a major broadcast network are for individual car dealerships.
* * *
Remember back when people first started to complain about political correctness? The problem came to public notice 15 or 20 years ago, when it became difficult for a conservative to speak in any academic forum without being heckled to silence. The fact that anti-war liberals are now having the same problem does not mean the world has become a better place. Still, it's happening. Consider the case of New York Times reporter, Chris Hedges, whose antiwar commencement address at Rockford College was shouted down with some enthusiasm.
I'd like to be sympathetic; certainly I hate to be heckled. What lends these events a certain rough justice, however, is the visible outrage of liberal media pundits. They live in ideological hothouses; they often don't know that there are opinions other than their own. They genuinely equate being contradicted with being censored.
Probably the Dixie Chicks don't qualify as pundits, but Bob Herbert of The New York Times does. His remarks in today's column is chiefly about Halliburton's contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq, but he does say this in passing:
"The Dixie Chicks were excoriated for simply exercising their constitutional right to speak out. With an ugly backlash and plans for a boycott growing, the group issued a humiliating public apology for 'disrespectful' anti-Bush remarks made by its lead singer, Natalie Maines."
This is confused. The Dixie Chicks were not excoriated for exercising a right. They were excoriated because of the content of what their lead singer said. Government generally can't do that, but private persons can. In fact, the reason government regulates speech only procedurally is precisely to facilitate public reaction to its content. Of course people who say provocative things in public are praised and blamed. That's not "ugly." It's the First Amendment.
* * *
On the subject of confusion, I see that recent comments on homosexuality by Cardinal Arinze caused a walkout by some faculty at Georgetown University. His eminence was listing dangers to family life today, among which he mentioned homosexuality, which he says mocks it. The theologians in particular were shocked.
The interesting thing about this incident was not that a Catholic cardinal was criticized for stating a commonplace of Catholic doctrine at a Jesuit university. The interesting thing was that he was also stating what I gather is a commonplace of Queer Theory. Ideologies of sexual liberation begin with the premise that traditional family roles, and indeed traditional ideas about gender, are oppressive constructs. They must be deconstructed and laughed out of existence, or at least greatly modified. It's a little disingenuous to suggest that the cardinal was being paranoid.
* * *
Finally, this brings us to confusion coupled with depraved indifference to human life. Some under-employed civil liberties groups are bringing suit against the Selective Service system. The argument is that requiring only young men to register is sex discrimination.
Have these people given any thought to what would happen if they win? We are not talking about the promotion of women lawyers at major law firms. If they win, the ultimate result will be bodybags with dead 19-year-old girls in them.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-04-16: Slayage

I never was into either Buffy or the West Wing, so I don't have much to add to John's comments regarding either. I do think the Matrix Reloaded didn't live up to the first Matrix, but that was a hard act to follow. It probably didn't help when Larry Wackowski exorcised his personal demons by turning into Lana. Maybe there is something for the theory of sublimation after all. Dark City, however, is one of my all-time favorite movies. The director, Alex Proyas, also helmed I, Robot, and the cult-classic The Crow. I'm not completely sure what I like so much about Dark City. I've always been into noir and art nouveau cityscapes. I might just have seen it at an impressionable time too.

I will say I always appreciated John's interest in pop culture and sci-fi. It made his personality far more interesting. The breadth of his interests always provided something to talk about.

Speaking of the West Wing, House of Cards would have been really fun to discuss with John. I always felt like the opening of House of Cards made Washington D. C. seem like the Imperial Capital it aspires to be.

Such is my isolation from popular culture, I actually thought that the last episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would air last Tuesday. I was confirmed in this misapprehension by the equally clueless National Public Radio, which broadcast a piece that featured semioticians and media theorists with a keen interest in Buffy Studies. Forty-five minutes into the show that aired on May 13, I realized that either this was not the last episode, or the series was going to have an awfully feeble ending. Doomsday is next week. Of course.
Is the series worthy of analysis? Probably not, but here goes. Buffy marked the end of the Generation X period, or at least of Gen X as a teenage phenomenon. Buffy and her friends understood that the world is a dangerous place, but they abjured slackery. Rather, they set themselves to study necromancy and martial arts under Mr. Giles, the school librarian, in order to keep Hell from breaking loose. (Has anyone noticed how much Giles, in his Rupert the Ripper persona, resembles Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld? It's that smile.) The ethos of Buffy was not that of the Counter Culture, or punk, or hip hop, or even especially goth. Buffy and her friends don't want to be free; they just want ordinary lives. When last was that the theme of a fantasy series?
The series had aspects that have been too little praised or not blamed enough. Despite the show's reputation for popular-culture wit, what really made it work was that, every so often, it would produce a brilliant ghost story. The best, perhaps, was the Hush episode. In that one, the people of Sunnydale lose their voices; meanwhile, heart-stealing ghouls float about the town, ghouls that can be destroyed only by a scream. Generally, the writers don't seem to have done anything like the amount of research that went into Fox's Millennium series: that show used real horrors, or at least horrors that someone, somewhere, believed to be real. Buffy's enemies, in contrast, seem to have been made up from whatever the crew had to hand in the prop department. More seriously, the show had an implicit antipathy to Christianity. The writers have not done their research about that, either: the embodiment of evil in these final episodes talks like a Baptist, but wears a Roman collar.
The art of popular culture is important more for what it reports than for what it preaches, and on that basis we can take encouragement from Buffy's long campaign to keep the Hellmouth shut. If nothing else, the show did not insult the intelligence of its audience.
* * *
Leaving the youthful realism of Sunnydale, we come to the world of morbid delusion represented by The West Wing. Since the election of 2000, and even more since the Bush Administration found its footing after 911, President Josiah Bartlett in that show has been the real president for too many liberals. Every week, they could watch liberal policies challenged by reptilian Republicans, only to emerge victorious under the guidance of the Nobel Prize winning president and his whacky but devoted staff. (The dialogue is pretty snappy; it's a shame that we may hear less of it, now that two of the shows creators are leaving.)
The show preens itself on having the richest and best-educated demographics in broadcast television, at least for a fiction series. The writers do put the characters through the motions of debating real issues. The problem is that, as with applications of the philosophy of John Rawls, analyses that purport to be disinterested somehow always result in partisan conclusions. The show represents that kind of liberalism which really does not know there are serious positions other than its own.
The show's bigotry does not explain its shrinking audience, however: history does. Josiah Bartlett has remained all this time in Bill Clinton's world, where foreign affairs are a distraction from domestic issues, except when the US falls short of international norms. For better or worse, the Bush Administration has turned out to be more interesting than the Bartlett Administration. (For one thing, Bush appointed cabinet members with strong personalities, like Secretary Giles; see above.) Wednesday's conclusion of the season seems intended to remedy these deficits: on the eve of a Middle Eastern war, President Bartlett has recused himself under the 25th Amendment. In the absence of a Vice President (who resigned in an episode I missed), the Speaker of the House became Acting President. The part is played by the immensely fat John Goodman, who is no doubt the writers' image of a Republican.
To be fair, the real Speaker, Danny Hastert, is a bit on the chunky side, but then he is a former wrestling coach. In any case, I suspect the producers were not striving for verisimilitude. This is their idea of outreach.
* * *
So far, the reviews of The Matrix Reloaded I have seen are studies in measured disappointment. This was inevitable: The Matrix itself was so highly praised that simple self-respect required the critics to regard the sequel skeptically.
Perhaps because I lack a fashion sense, I never saw what all the fuss was about. Two other film fantasies about Gnostic illumination appeared at about the same time as The Matrix. One, The Thirteenth Floor, also took place in a virtual cyberworld, but it was a negligible film. The other, Dark City, was a surrealist masterpiece that the old UFA would have been proud of. If it has a cult, I have not heard of it.
This is not to say that I disliked The Matrix. I have every intention of seeing The Matrix Reloaded, too, just as soon as the DVD comes out.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-05-12: A Flowering of Frauds

I hadn't thought about Jayson Blair in a long time, which is probably for the best. Like Stephen Glass and Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the temptation to tell a story we think people want to hear is sometimes just a little too tempting.

John also commented on the stock market, that he felt that the US economy in 2003 wasn't big enough in reality to support a Dow Jones Industrial Average over 10,000. The Dow closed at 8,726.73 on May 12th, 2003. John correctly noted that any likely big jump in the stock market would probably be bubble-driven behavior, which had just happened with the dot-com boom and bust. This is exactly what happened with the housing bubble.

On October 16th, 2015, the Dow closed at 17,215.97, almost double what it was when John wrote. It doesn't seem like the US economy is twice as large now, but it might just be true that the output of the economy is disproportionately likely to accrue to those on the top.

A Flowering of Frauds
Probably you have to dislike the New York Times much more than I do to really enjoy the Jayson Blair scandal. That's the one about the young ace-reporter who turned out to have been filing his reports from home, even when he claimed to have been traveling around the country on assignment. The Times devoted more space to the matter in its last Sunday edition than it's likely to devote to the next nuclear war, so there is no need to rehearse the details. It's always a bad thing when a venerable institution bleeds credibility. First the priest scandal, and now this.
I had been reading about the affair for some time before I saw someone characterize Blair as an affirmative-action hire. The Times actually denies this characterization. This could easily be true: he was a go-getter whose father was a senior federal bureaucrat, the sort of youngster whom the Times would be likely to try out anyway. Of course, it's awfully hard to believe that he was not retained for reasons of affirmative action. Despite years of repeated fabrications, the Times was always willing to give him another chance. Be that as it may, the episode is not typical of the downside of many affirmative-action programs. Affirmative-action programs that go beyond outreach produce groupthink, hypocrisy, and self-doubt. They do not generally produce plagiarism and fiction that is written without benefit of a poetic license.
That kind of thing can happen where affirmative action is not an issue, as the case of Stephen Glass of The New Republic illustrates. Before his editors caught up with him, I too enjoyed his reports on zany anti-Clinton demonstrations and Animal House conventions of Republican youth. That part of his work was harmless, because the subjects were imaginary. The problem is that he sometimes applied the same methods to real people and real organizations. He never learned Robert Graves' principle for writing book reviews under deadline: a gentleman who reviews a book he has not read must take care to praise it.
The Glass scandal actually occurred in the mid-1990s; you can read about his specific malefactions here. At the time, they seemed like a fitting comeuppance for The New Republic, which had waxed very merry in the 1980s about the Janet Cook incident at the Washington Post. That one involved an award-winning story about an inner-city child who turned out to be a "composite." The Post needed to be razzed back then; its post-Watergate reputation for world-historical journalism made it insufferable for years. Still, let the satirists of the world beware as they zero in on the Times: evils must come, but woe to those through whom they do come.
In any case, Glass is back in the news because he has just published a novel about a young journalist who makes things up. Thanks in part to the renewed interest in journalism fraud that has been generated by the Blair story, he has been repeatedly interviewed on television. A movie is in the works. You will find no links to those things here.
* * *
Readers will have gathered that I am sanguine about the prospects for the US economy. We are coming out of a long slow-growth period, not much different from the early 1990s. Things should pick up in the near term. In fact, the only thing that sends a tornado through my vision of blue sky and fluffy sheep is articles like the one by Stephen Moore in a recent issue of the Weekly Standard: "Bear Market for Bush?." The subtitle is "Why the president--and the economy--really need a tax cut." The tax cut in question would involve the elimination, or near elimination, of the tax on dividends. The argument is that President Bush has little hope of being reelected unless the DOW goes back over 10,000. So, simply as a matter of political survival, the Republican Administration has to cut taxes in a way that will ginger up the stock market directly.
May I point out that the last time the DOW was over 10,000 we were out of our collective mind? Pretty much everybody realizes that the dot-com boom was a morbid delusion. Doubtless the indices will again rise to their millennial levels, but we should hope for this only when the real economy has grown large enough to support numbers like that. The idea that you can fix the economy by deliberately blowing a securities bubble is not just crooked, it's anti-capitalist. Capitalism is a system under which prices are information. Arbitrary government manipulation of stock values is like trying to bring an aircraft out of a dive by altering the readings on the altimeter.
Still, there are even worse delusions. Consider the commentary in the Credit Bubble Bulletin of May 9: "The Stark Contrast between Competing Central Banks." The argument here is that the United States Federal Reserve has lost all credibility by keeping interest rates low. It is really maintaining an asset bubble: this time not of stocks, but of home values. The Fed's fear of deflation is disingenuous or delusional. The European Central Bank, in contrast, is doing everything just about right. That institution is right to tighten credit. In fact, a little deflation would be a central banker's paradise.
This is the kind of thinking that could destroy the euro. The European economy is becoming like those illustrations of General Relativity as a taut rubber sheet in which depressions represent gravitational force. There are places in that sheet, such as Germany, that are becoming so depressed that the material threatens to rupture, creating a singularity. That is what runaway deflation would mean. Like a singularity, there would be no way out.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-05-03: Snapshots

This speech will forever be known as Mission Accomplished. Of course, John didn't know at the time this would be remembered in retrospect as the epitome of us winning the war in Iraq and losing the peace.

This line is pretty funny:

There was one drawback: George W. Bush may be Grand High Proto-Emperor-in-Chief, but a suit will always make him look like a prep schooler wearing clothes his mother bought him.

John talks a bit about the supposed influence of Leo Strauss on the second Iraq war and neoconservatism in general. I think too much can be made of Strauss and Straussians in this context, but it did always seem to me a plausible idea.

What I do know of Strauss mostly comes through the writings of Fr. James V. Schall S.J., a Jesuit formerly of Georgetown University's political science department. Schall was mostly interested in Strauss' Aristotelian realism, less so in the famous esoteric writing hypothesis, which I have never found particularly compelling.

People are still oohing and aahing about the president's address from the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln on May 1. (Well, partisan Republicans are oohing and aahing; partisan Democrats are wailing and gnashing their teeth, perhaps because Bill Clinton's military photo-ops never worked anywhere near that well.) The substance of the event was a little vague. The address was not quite a declaration of the end of hostilities in Iraq; that would have had repercussions under the laws of war, such as the release of POWs and restricting the use of lethal force against the fugitive Iraqi leadership. Nonetheless, it was a fine address: gracious, dignified, and directed to the immediate audience of crewmen.
The visuals made the event. I was most struck by the lighting. Directors like to do outdoor shots when the sun is low, so the nearly horizontal light illuminates surfaces evenly and produces dramatic shadows. For myself, I kept thinking of a line from an R.A. Lafferty story: "There never was an early Roman Empire. It was always a late-afternoon kind of thing."
The media and the president's critics made much fuss about the president's landing on the carrier and his hobnobbing with the crew in a flight suit, like Top Gun thirty years later. Few remarked on the fact he gave the address itself in an ordinary business suit. This was a brilliant idea. It emphasized civilian control of the military, of course, but visually it ensured the president would not disappear into the audience as just another guy in a flight jacket.
There was one drawback: George W. Bush may be Grand High Proto-Emperor-in-Chief, but a suit will always make him look like a prep schooler wearing clothes his mother bought him.
* * *
If you believe many commentators, and not all of them the president's critics, all of this international policing is being done at the posthumous behest of Leo Strauss, the Classicist who taught at the University of Chicago for many years. Things have reached such a state that the Sunday newspaper color supplements are running articles about him. In some circles, the term "neoconservative," already too narrowly restricted, is being further contracted to make the term synonymous with "Straussian."
I have nothing against Leo Strauss or the Straussians, but he is one of those thinkers I have never greatly cared to pursue in detail. (This is not to say that I have been above citing him.) For instance, Francis Fukayama's The End of History and the Last Man was apparently as Straussian as anyone could wish; I certainly liked it. However, I can't say that any peculiarly Straussian insight ever struck me as much of a revelation.
I gather that Strauss was trying to present a secular, Aristotelian, non-scientific alternative to existentialism. There is nothing wrong with such an exercise, though of course it's not unique to the Straussians. Ayn Rand was up to pretty much the same thing, though I don't doubt Strauss's work is far more serious. Maybe if I knew more about Strauss I would see his influence on the content of American foreign policy. In the current state of my ignorance, though, the Clinton policy of "democratic enlargement" strikes me as more Straussian than Bush's "preemption" doctrine; it also strikes me that both policies can be considered without reference to Strauss at all.
* * *
Speaking of people I would prefer to overlook, I see that Castro has not lost his touch. Lately he used the distraction of the Iraq War to lock up and even execute dissidents, making the excuse in his May Day speech that the US could use internal dissent as an excuse to invade. Most wonderfully, he has received public support from intellectuals and artists around the world. Yes, it is still possible to get Nobel laureates to sign a petition in defense of old-fashioned, gulag style socialism.
In the US, the history of support for Cuba has peculiarly creepy origins. The Fair Play for Cuba Committee, for instance, seems to have originated at the interface of Red-Brown radical politics: Kevin Coogan gives some names and dates in Dreamer of the Day, his sprawling biography of the American neo-Nazi, Francis Parker Yockey. The connection here is not socialism, or even antisemitism, but hatred for America.
I should mention that Coogan cites Strauss, whose critique of the Conservative Revolution is no doubt worth pursuing.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-04-27: Misguided Plans

If only John were still here, I would love to talk with him about the current slate of US Presidential candidates. In this post from 2003, you can get a feel for what he would have thought of Jeb Bush. John probably would prefer a third term from Bill Clinton instead of a first for Hillary[as would I]. I suspect John would find Trump gauche, but he would find something interesting to say about his candidacy. Scott Adams thinks Trump is a master of manipulation. Steve Sailer isn't so sure, but still finds Trump interesting. I think I want to see both Trump and Sanders run third party campaigns, and make the current parties implode.

Also of relevance to US Presidential politics, John talks a bit here about the likely formation of a universal state in the latter half of the twenty-first century. Right now, Europe and the US are both exhibiting the some of the same patterns of events we saw in the Late Republican period of Rome. The attractiveness of the US and Europe to immigrants and refugees alike is an example of this.

Finally, there is a reference to a couple of John's books: Apocalypse & Future, and The Perfection of the West. Both are self-published collections of his blogs and online essays. They were John's attempt to summarize his thoughts on millennialism and universal states. Which is pretty much what I am trying to do here. I still have no idea who owns the copyrights to John's works now, but I do my best in my own small way to promote his ideas regardless.

Misguided Plans
No statement in a political magazine has alarmed me more in recent years than The Weekly Standard's recent assertion that Jeb Bush is the Republican presidential front-runner for 2008. (The Weekly Standard did two issues last week so they could gloat about Iraq longer, and I kept neither. I think the piece was "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" in the April 19 issue.] Part of the problem is just the realization that anybody, anywhere, is giving serious thought to the election of 2008 at this point. However, my alarm is chiefly due to what the candidacy of Jeb Bush would signal about the Republican Party.
Jeb Bush is the governor if Florida, where he is reasonably well regarded, and the brother of the current president, who seems to like him too. The Weekly Standard quotes him rhapsodizing about emptying out the government offices in the state capital as he privatises more and more public services. He is very keen on tax cuts. If he has any ideas about foreign policy, he keeps them to himself.
May I point out that his brother lost the popular vote in 2000 by running on that platform? And that was before the bottom dropped out of the fool's paradise we had been living in during the Clinton years about the irrelevance of war and diplomacy to domestic politics. You can't take a flight on a commuter airline these days without being frisked by the agents of world history. These people have to be paid. When someone assembles a budget, that sort of question has to be the chief consideration.
The era of conservatism, indeed of social renaissance, is now upon us. The era of small government is over. If the national Republican Party still has not understood that, then it does not deserve to win any more elections.
* * *
One person who is little tempted by soccer-mom politics is the economic historian and born-again imperialist, Niall Ferguson. In today's New York Times Magazine, he has an article, The Empire Slinks Back, in which he seeks to stiffen the American people to their imperial duty. If the United States were running a proper empire, he complains, Americans would be living abroad and administering things in the colonies, as the British did. The British were willing to do that decade after decade, even century after century. It seems that, right up to the 1930s, a remarkably high percentage of the graduates of elite British schools went forth to administer the empire.
The US, in contrast, seems to regard the prospect of an occupation of Iraq lasting more than a year or two with deep misgivings. And who would run the protectorate, anyway? American colleges pay little attention to foreign societies, and particularly to foreign languages. In fact, the denizens of the prospective imperium are far more eager to come to the United States than the Americans are to go to them. What kind of an empire is that?
I would respond that it's not any kind of an empire at all, but the beginning of a universal state. The US has a special role in the system, one aspect of which was discussed in another piece in today's Times. In American Power Moves Beyond Merely Super Gregg Easterbrook argues that the US military is so far beyond any possible combination of rivals that essentially the rest of the world has given up on the idea of a conventional arms race with America. No other country has a serious navy, he asserts, and even when the US fights a country with a modern air force, the enemy planes do not dare offer battle.
This kind of piece makes me uncomfortable. Even if it were true, it would jinx the whole business. In any case, as I have pointed out before, the military preeminence of the US is like being smartest kid in the dumb room. The world is in fact demilitarizing. (Easterbrook gives figures suggesting that, worldwide, military expenditures have about halved in the last 17 years.) It is a matter of acquiescence, not of the absolute power of the United States.
What the US has done is to monopolize a whole stratum of international life. This gives the US quite a lot of say in many contexts, but it's not the same as a traditional empire. It does not exclude the possibility of other countries becoming comparably preeminent in other spheres. Even if the US can be said to be the cop of the world, we should remember that cops don't run city hall.
* * *
Of course, Ferguson's argument that the US is too impatient to run an empire should not be dismissed. The Astronomer Royal of the UK recently published a book, Our Final Century, in which he makes a plausible case for "doom soon." The book is also out in the US, but here it is called Our Final Hour. Now that's a difference in attention spans for you.
* * *
For anyone who is interested, I would like to announce that my next anthology is in the works, The Perfection of the West. A print-on-demand book brought to us through the ingenuity of Xlibris, it pulls together just about everything I have had to say in recent years about the coming Universal State and related matters. It will take longer to appear than I had hoped, though. I should get the proofs in a week or two, but the book may not be available until well into the summer.
I do have another Xlibiris anthololgy, by the way: Apocalypse & Future. The Perfection of the West is slightly more cheerful.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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Seriously, You Have to Eat Book Review

Seriously, You Have to Eat
By Adam Mansbach, Illustrated by Owen Brozman
Akashic Books, 2015
$15.95; 32 pages
ISBN 978-1-61775-408-1

I received this book for free as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

I appreciate the work of Adam Mansbach, and new illustrator Owen Brozman. Mansbach's seminal work, Go the Fuck to Sleep, was an inspiration to me as a new parent. Mansbach perfectly summed up the way so many of us really felt, but could not express. Perhaps the most perfect version of Mansbach's first book is the audiobook narrated by Samuel L. Jackson:

This new work expands into the other great struggle of parents: getting your kids to eat something. Sleeping and eating are such primal things, so critical to the well-being of children, and also the things I often have to curtail for myself as a parent. Thus the endless frustration when your kids won't do the things you probably want to do most at that moment. The very vulgarity of these books is cathartic, freeing. I've long been an advocate of a black sense of humor as a coping mechanism, and Mansbach provides me just what I am looking for.

Of course, the problem is our kids tend to be interested in whatever we are interested in. I still remember the day my son pulled Go the Fuck to Sleep off the shelf in my library and asked me to read it to him. I had to tell him no, and hid it better.

Thus it is both a stroke of marketing genius [get us to buy essentially the same book twice] as well as extremely helpful to parents to have a bowdlerized version of Mansbach's book available to actually read to our children. The pity of it is that sanitizing the text alters the meter of the rhymes, as well as taking from me that critical emotion release. At least I can read it the original way in my head, as I read the children's book for the fifth time.

My other book reviews

Seriously, You Have to Eat
By Adam Mansbach

The Long View 2003-04-22: Pandemics

This bit about SARS is interesting twelve years later. Influenza is interesting. The official mortality rate went up compared to what John had here, from 5.6% to 9.6% according to the WHO. Unfortunately, better record-keeping doesn't always equal better stats. This number is likely to be a massive overestimate, since only the sickest get counted in official tallies.

Influenza, and other similar diseases that infect both animals and humans, is no joke. It is easy to dismiss, especially since many of the deaths are concentrated in the elderly. We haven't had anything nearly as bad as the 1918 Spanish Flu, but such a thing would probably be much, much worse in an age of frequent air travel. You haven't seen panic yet.

I also got a laugh from John's comment on The Stand. Of course, if resistance to the virus in that book were a gene, then it would run in families. King isn't really a sci-fi author, so perhaps that lapse is forgivable. One might postulate that the gene in question was a de novo mutation, of which everyone has about 100, but those get passed down too, changing frequency depending on their relative fitness. So, unless everyone involved got the same de novo mutation at birth around the same time, it would still run in families.

This post also features a mostly successful prediction: private space companies would be capable of routine manned spaceflight in ten years. Private spaceflights are becoming routine, although manned flights are a little less so yet.

As a sanguine soul, my first reaction to the advent of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was the observation that it's not as bad as the great influenza pandemic that occurred around the end of the First World War. Now I learn that the mortality rate for SARS is actually four times higher, though the absolute number of deaths from SARS is still infinitesimal in comparison to the tens of millions who died between 1917 and 1919. Even more disturbing is this headline from The New York Times : Death Rate from Virus More Than Doubles.
Normally, mortality rates for new infectious diseases fall fairly quickly. This is partly because treatments are developed, and partly because physicians learn to spot asymptomatic cases of the disease. The jump in the world-wide SARS mortality rate to 5.6% is almost certainly a statistical mirage, which will disappear when reporting improves. Even the idea of "world" statistics for SARS means little, considering the different ways the disease behaves in each country. On the other hand, it is possible that the virus is mutating quickly, and the changes in the statistics reflect real changes in the lethality of the disease.
We know that SARS has already had an appreciable effect on business in Asia. The travel industry in particular is in sackcloth and ashes. If the disease is not contained, or otherwise made manageable, SARS could also create a new issue for the US presidential election of 2004. Forty million people in the US have no health insurance. Many others, like me, have deductibles so high that they will not visit a doctor until they are at death's door. This kind of health system is inefficient even at the best of times. In conjunction with an epidemic disease that kills one out of 20 victims, it would be a template for a public health catastrophe.
The question of health insurance in the US has long been discussed in terms of esoteric notions of "portability" and "choice." The political system lost sight of the fact that the first function of any health system is to preserve public order by detecting and treating epidemic disease. You can't fight the Black Death with tax incentives.
* * *
Here is a very small pet peeve. Readers may be familiar with Stephen King's novel, The Stand. That is the one in which almost the entire population of the world is killed by an influenza virus; designed in a weapons lab, it mutates after a victim contracts it until it finally kills him. The only survivors were people with a certain rare gene, which granted immunity. The book dwells on sad scenes in which each of the rare survivors lose their families.
May I ask what Mr. King's editors thought they were about? If immunity were genetic, then it would be passed down in family lines. We learn late in the book that a single parent with the gene will provide enough immunity for their children to recover from the virus. Whole families should have lived through the plague. This anomaly has been bothering me for years.
* * *
Speaking of minor peeves that have been bothering me for years, a bunch of them met at the University of Chicago recently and declared that modern critical theory was a waste of time. We learn this from another Times article, The Latest Theory Is That Theory Does not Matter
The panel discussion at which this declaration of intellectual bankruptcy occurred was organized by Critical Inquiry, a noted journal of theory. There were more than two dozen participants, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Homi Bhabha, Stanley Fish, and Fredric Jameson. As the Times mildly observes, "the leftist politics with which literary theorists have traditionally been associated have taken a beating." People's political hopes are often disappointed, of course. The tragedy for this crew was that, when you took away the politics, there was nothing left.
It's the students you feel sorry for. At some point, they must have liked literature. They intuited that it was important; that was why they majored in it, or went on for graduate degrees. By and by, their healthy instincts were corrupted, while their prose became more unreadable and ideologically subservient. At the Critical Inquiry panel, however, they would have learned that they damned themselves to no purpose. As Stanley Fish told them: "I wish to deny the effectiveness of intellectual work. And especially, I always wish to counsel people against the decision to go into the academy because they hope to be effective beyond it."
"Effective" here does not mean helping others to become better people, or adding to knowledge for its own sake. One deluded student complained "how much more important the actions of Noam Chomsky are in the world than all the writings of critical theorists combined." Noam Chomsky has been shilling for concentration-camp states for 30 years. The impotence of scholarship for these people means their regret that they did not succeed in turning their own country into North Korea.
One panelist did try to defend the life of the mind, as he saw it: "intellectual work has its place and its uses...[y]ou can have poems that are intimately linked with political oppositional movements, poems that actually draw together people in acts of resistance." The notion that you can also have poems that are good as poems, that civilization exists in part so that there can be poetry, is completely absent. So, of course, is any value in literature aside from its use as political propaganda. The panelists' problem is that now even they cannot deny it can't do that, either.
Critical theory has sacked the liberal arts. The theorists, in their folly, have driven away the funding and the graduate students from the departments they came to dominate. No doubt, after the panelists die or retire, literary studies will recover. The next time, maybe, they will be about literature.
* * *
On the subject of next times, I often correspond with people about the future and historical significance of manned spaceflight. It is easy to be unfair about NASA (as perhaps I have been myself), but it is pretty clear that the era of manned flight that began in the 1960s was a false dawn. In some sense, we have to begin again.
"Why," you ask? Because it's there. As C.S. Lewis once observed about the question of life on other planets, this is a matter that people are either passionately interested in or find too repulsive to discuss. "Passionate" may be too strong a word to describe my interest in spaceflight, but certainly I support it. I am therefore greatly encouraged by headlines like this: Passenger-Carrying Spaceship Makes Desert Debut.
The spaceship in this case is the work of the ingenious Burt Rutan. The flight he hopes to make in the near future will be suborbital, but he does claim to have a full, reusable launching system, capable of reaching LEO. This is not a prototype, he emphasizes: this is hardware. He says that manned flight could be routine within the next ten years.
I have been hearing that since I was eight years old. The difference now seems to be a convergence of private investment and the slow accumulation of off-the-shelf technology. This time, maybe there will be an industrial-technological breakthrough. Manned spaceflight may yet be The next Big Thing. I would much prefer that to nano-technology, which I dislike almost as much as wireless.
* * *
Even if our timeline does begin to overlap that of Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon, we could also be threatened by vampires in the streets, many of them tourists.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Stand
By Stephen King