The Long View: The Translator

John J. Reilly’s book review of John Crowley’s The Translator comes up at an apropos time: I am digesting a history of science fiction in the twentieth century, and The Translator seems to be a good example of science fiction as a kind of secular scripture.

There is one definition I want to post from 1973, because it is very revealing as to the type of people who made this separation such an obsessive goal to begin with. This is by Bulgarian writer Elka Konstantiova:

"Even though the origins of science fiction go back to the mid-19th century, nonetheless as a new literary genre, charged with special social functions, science fiction is the undoubted product of the nuclear age. The more meaningful the scientific and technological breakthroughs and their impact on modern life, the greater the role of science fiction, stimulating our vision for things to come, especially in the aspect of the changes wrought in man's mentality by the scientific and technological revolution. Science fiction brings home the awareness that the future will continue to bring radical changes in all areas of man's life; science fiction is there to prepare him for this eventuality."

In other words, it's secular scripture. Science fiction is a way to guide the populace by informing them on what path they should take to build a better tomorrow. Which better tomorrow, you might ask? Well, the one that will advance humanity as a whole.

This novel is a metaphorical [or metahistorical] interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and thus very much fits the mold described above.

The Translator
By John Crowley
HarperCollins, 2002
295 Pages, US$24.95
ISBN 0-380-97862-8

Remember the Great Atomic War of 1963? It's odd that you shouldn't, or so it seemed in later years to Christa Malone, the protagonist in this metahistorical interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis:

"The final logic of this [20th] century, this century that believed in logic and history and necessity, the final spasm so long and well prepared: it didn't happen, and now seemed likely never to happen."

The Translator explains why the inevitable did not happen, as well as something of the conflict in a higher world that the historical incidents of those days darkly reflected. This novel is not the long-awaited fourth volume of John Crowley's great work, the Aegypt series, but it does treat of many of the same themes: the end of the world, the hermetic subtext of everyday life, and the multiplicity of histories. The book is not precisely fantasy or science fiction, though readers may be reminded of Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven. Rather, the author tries to use just the suggestion of magic in order to rise above history and show that it is not what it seems. As a technique, that works well enough. However, the exercise also presents an example of the fallacy of "beyondism." Though affecting to view a historical conflict from the point of view of eternity, the author is really picking a side, and the stupid side at that.

A love story holds the novel together. Christa "Kit" Malone, a Catholic girl with a recently acquired dark past, comes to a Midwestern university in 1962. She makes many discoveries, some of them specific to her era. She is, for instance, slightly surprised to find that there really are Communists in America; she had begun to suspect that the nuns at school had make them up as minatory figures. Her chief discovery, though, is a Russian poet-in-exile, the mysterious Innokenti Isayevich Falin.

Falin is an uncanny fellow. He is one of those people, for instance, who seem able to appear and disappear without being seen to come and go. More concretely, there is the persistent question of why the Soviet government chose to exile him, when they did not exile, say, Pasternak. He also tells of a kind of life in the Soviet Union that has nothing to do with either the official world of the "gray gods," to use his phrase, or with the anticommunist polemics Kit heard from her nuns. Falin spent part of his childhood as a homeless vagabond in a Dickensian world of youth gangs and train stations, but "with no Dickens to make things right." Even in later life, Russia for him was a place where people just got lost, or were arrested for no reason even the jailors could name.

Kit becomes Falin's student, and later his translator. A fair amount of this book is about the difficulties of translation from one language to another, about whether a poem in translation is really the same poem. This being a John Crowley novel, however, we soon learn that translation is only a metaphor for the interface of worlds:

"Events in the world can perhaps be like rhyming words in poems: they can only, what would you say, pay off in one world, one translation, not in others. In one world people are cheering and weeping with joy, for best conclusion has been reached, heroes have come home safe. In another world, say this world, same events are events of no significance."

Falin's presence turns out to be of great significance in all worlds, however, because he is the way through which the apocalyptic logic of the 20th century can be confounded. Explaining it to her father long afterwards, Kit puts the reality of the Cold War this way:

"I think that back then, when he came to this country, there was a struggle going on between the angels of the nations, his and ours; and that in their anger and their fear, those angels came to destroy the world..."

Crowley's angels generally have more to do with the angels of the schoolmen than with those of popular comfort. Often they are like mathematical objects, insectile intelligences, both omniscient and stupid. There is more to be said about them, however. The great angels of the nations are attended by lesser angels, almost shadows, which complement their greater brethren's strengths and weaknesses. Falin describes the relationship in a poem written just before his disappearance, on the very night the danger of nuclear war crests and recedes. (There is a fair amount of original poetry in The Translator, and it's pretty good.):

"If a nation's angel is proud, then the other is shy
Brilliant if the nation's angel is dull
Full of pity if the angel shows none
Laughing if it always weeps, weeping if it cannot weep."

In a mysterious way, Falin embodies the lesser angel of Russia. In a wrap-around story set in a conference at St. Petersburg after the end of the Cold War, really a sort of Judgment Day in an afterlife, one of Falin's old friends expresses the real significance of Falin's exile:

"[The] worst thing such a corrupted great angel could do would be to send away into exile the lesser angel who is paired with him."

In some way that is not clearly explained, Falin intrudes himself into the attention of the idiot angels at just the right time to distract them from their work of mutual destruction. He dies, or returns to Russia, or otherwise vanishes, with only a car sunk ambiguously in a river to hint at his fate. The balance of the world begins to right itself, and we are given to understand that John Kennedy's assassination a year later was a compensating sacrifice.

The Translator reworks a notion that Crowley has been using for years. It is clearly set out in his famous story, The Great Work of Time, in which a disconcerted time traveler has this to say about an early 21st century world whose past has been unduly tinkered with:

"It was not simply a world inhabited by intelligent races of different kinds: it was a harder thing to grasp than that. The lives of the races constituted different universes of meaning, different constructions of reality; it was as though four or five different novels, novels of different kinds by different and differently limited writers, were to become interpenetrated and conflated: inside a gigantic Russian thing a stark and violent policier, inside that something Dickensian, full of plots, humor, and eccentricity. Such an interlacing of mutually exclusive universes might be comical, like a sketch in Punch; it might be tragic, too. And it might be neither: it might simply be what is the given against which all airy imaginings might finally be measured: reality."

This is not a bad way to put a story together, though we usually find it only in very long novels. The conceit of alternative realities lets us see the box-in-a-box structure. However, The Translator shows that this kind of structure is not necessarily a good way to think about history, or at any rate to write about it. If we can see the alternative worlds, we are outside them and can judge between them. The problem is that, in Crowley's telling, the view from eternity is awfully parochial. We get the first hint of this when Falin the Lesser Angel expresses reservations about a commencement speech that called on the graduates to simply "stick to your dream":

"Some dreams we do not wish that people stick to: we hope that they are weak, and do not cling to these dreams, that they fail to hold on. A dream that one day this world will be free of Jews. That Soviet Union will be destroyed. That all enemies of the state will be crushed. That only one God prevail everywhere."

One might plausibly object that these four aspirations do not belong on the same list. Indeed, it could be that anyone who thinks them morally equivalent is not unusually broadminded, but suffers from blinkered vision. In fact, as the story moves through the climax of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we see that the view from eternity is essentially that of the early New Left. Kit learns that the sepia undergraduate world of the Kennedy years is a front for cruel and secret powers, as if the Land of Oz were really ruled by the East German Stasi. She even meets America's own lesser angel, in the person of an "intelligence agent" who could have walked out of an episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. (He could not have come from The X-Files: Crowley does get the period right.) This discovery changes her life, even causing her to leave the country for a while. Eventually, though, she comes to grips with the powers that be:

"It was only when others who were braver than she was stood up to it - to them, to the secret power - gave a name to it, spoke truth to it; only when they came out in thousands and then tens of thousands singing Dona nobis pacem, that she found she could too."

It is perhaps some evidence that people really do live in different realities that I found this transformation so shocking. Could it really be the case that, even today, there are people who think that conversion to the New Left was a kind of enlightenment? Evidently, there is a world in which the victory of the West in the Cold War was an event without a rhyme.

Even so, it would be a mistake to miss this book because you might not find the political subtext congenial. The Translator succeeds in portraying the days of "The New Frontier" as the haunted time it actually was, as full of premonition in its way as the years before 1914. One need not be metaphysically inclined to accept that there may be more to history than meets the eye. For those who are so inclined, this book has good and bad angels for all.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Staring into Chaos

You can't get a much better summary of the strengths of the early metahistorians than this:

They suggest that basic science will be exhausted, though applied science will still have possibilities. They all expect that the vital elements in society will be increasingly religious, though a fossil secular cultural establishment may continue to exist. They anticipate some sort of universal government. As Spengler and Toynbee (though not Sorokin) might have put it, the decline-and-fall has already happened. All that remains is to work out the implications.

Staring into Chaos: Explorations in the Decline of Western Civilization
by B.G. Brander
Spence Publishing Company, 1998
418 pages, $29.95
ISBN: 0-965-3208-5-5


One of the ways this fin-de-siecle differs from the last time around is that you hear much less about "decline" and "degeneration." The idea of "organic" cultural decline, so common in the last few decades of the 19th century and widely discussed into the second half of the 20th, is simply alien to the postmodern worldview. B.G. Brander, a former writer for National Geographic and sometime reporter for the World Vision Global relief agency, has performed a useful service of recollection by providing this handy summary of the major "pessimist" philosophies of history of the last century or so. Besides, some of the metahistorians he discusses got just enough right about the 20th century to suggest they may be worth listening to regarding the 21st.

Brander gives accounts of the philosophies of the lesser metahistorians, such as Ernst von Lasaulx, Henry and Brooks Adams, Nikolai Danilevsky, Nikolai Berdyaev and Walter Schubart, as well as highlighting the prophetic utterances of people like Albert Schweitzer and Jakob Burckhardt, who are not normally remembered for their dark forebodings about the future. Most of these people shared the intuition, not at all uncommon in the late 19th century, that the Western world had entered a new "Hellenistic" age, and that the twentieth century was going to see a recurrence of the less pleasant aspects of Hellenism. These would include such things as demagogic tyrannies, ferocious warfare and a relaxation of traditional restraints in art and personal life. Nietzsche had said as much, of course, and anyone who entered the 20th century with this modest insight would not have been greatly surprised. Brander's primary concern, however, is the metahistorians who turned this notion into works of historical speculation as elaborate as grand operas: Oswald Spengler in "The Decline of the West," Arnold Toynbee in "A Study of History" and Pitirim Sorokin in "Social and Cultural Dynamics."

Though the mention of "The Decline of the West" still gives some people fits, no one can deny that the book has legs. Only two volumes long, it is the shortest of the three great metahistories, and it has been continually in print since the first volume appeared in 1918. Bombastic, deterministic, in some ways pig-ignorant of the civilizations it purports to cover (Spengler seems to have known nearly nothing about Chinese history after the third century AD), the fact remains that Spengler sometimes hit the nail on the head. The parallels he drew between the political history of the later West and that of Greco-Roman civilization are really quite acute. So is the book's analysis of the culture-specific aspects of modern and Greek mathematics. If Brander does Spengler a disservice, it is in repeating just what Spengler says, rather than trying to update it.

In its heyday (roughly 1948 to 1960), "A Study of History" was a much bigger phenomenon than "The Decline of the West" ever was. Weighing in at 12 volumes, the "Study" was certainly physically larger. It was published over three decades, and Brander asserts that it was the largest book of the 20th century. Toynbee drew many of the parallels that Spengler did, but with more qualifications and far more information. Toynbee's study was friendly to the role of religion in history and (especially in condensed versions) more fun to read than Fernand Braudel. Its notoriety, though, was largely the work of Henry Luce of Time magazine, who saw to it that his publishing empire touted the "Study" as the court philosophy of the American Century. Perhaps for that reason, we may have to await the recurrence of a cultural climate like that of the 1950s for Toynbee to make a comeback.

"Social and Cultural Dynamics" is the odd one in this group. Four volumes long, it was widely discussed when it began to appear in the late 1950s, but it never had the hold on the public imagination that the other metahistories had. Partly this was because Sorokin cheated: the book is based on an ocean of quantitative research, and its appendices are formidable. Sorokin eschewed the use of the familiar term "civilization." He spoke of "cultural supersystems," and he modestly concentrated his attention on those that had arisen in the West. Sorokin's system of three recurrent kinds of cultural epochs, "ideational," "integral" and "sensate," don't fit in any obvious way into conventional periodizations of history. The work describes historical "transitions" rather than melodramatic decline-and-falls. Still, the level of detachment and the attempt at empiricism that characterize Sorokin's great work may be an advantage some day, should metahistories come back into fashion.

Brander concludes with a section which tries to assess the continuing relevance of the grand metahistorians for the future, as seen from the end of the 20th century. This is harder than it sounds. Although Toynbee liked to refer to the year 2000 as the date by which this or that was bound to happen, the fact is that the turn of the millennium played no special role in any of their systems. (Spengler, who wrote long before the Cold War, may be the least dated now that it is over.) Still, there do seem to be some common themes in the expectations of these voices from the first half of the 20th century for the 21st:

They suggest that basic science will be exhausted, though applied science will still have possibilities. They all expect that the vital elements in society will be increasingly religious, though a fossil secular cultural establishment may continue to exist. They anticipate some sort of universal government. As Spengler and Toynbee (though not Sorokin) might have put it, the decline-and-fall has already happened. All that remains is to work out the implications.


A much shorter version of this review appeared in the December 1998 issue of First Things magazine.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: After the Eighth Day

When I think about the transition to Empire, this is the story that gives me nightmares.

It is usually a bad sign when a very short story needs an introduction. Nonetheless, here are some links that might make this piece slightly less obscure.

The general historical scenario for this story is that of Spengler's Future. The Contents page for that book is here.

The politics and theology of the story are based, very loosely, on Hardt & Negri's cosmo-anarchist rhapsody, Empire. A review of that book is here

Another short story using the Spengler's Future scenario, but set 170 years later, is Ecumenical Twilight. You can find here

Alternatively, you can just read the text and make up your own background for it. I dare you.


After the Eighth Day

"Board of Lustration, Hearing No. D5647, Greater Chicago Western District. Is the applicant present?"

"Yes, Mr. Chairman."

"Mr. Smith, you have requested this hearing in order to dispose of any suspicions regarding your behavior prior to the Liberation. If your application is granted, you will have unimpeded access to all the privileges of citizenship. As you know, this is not an investigative body. We are limited to the material in the public record and to your own testimony, which is not even sworn. However, you must answer fully any question that the Board may ask. Do you understand?

"Yes, Mr. Chairman."

"Please state your name and place of residence for the record."

"My name is Winston Smith. Since the firestorm last May, I have been living in a hostel at my place of work."

"You are a supervisor at the Ecumenical Dictionary Foundation, are you not, Mr. Smith?"

"Yes, Mr. Chairman. In the Orthographic Reform Section. Abstract nouns, mostly."

"What is your date of birth?"

"2 June 2065. In the Year of the Lord."

"So you were just 15 years old at the beginning of the Day. Did you move with the Rave before then?"

"No, Mr. Chairman."

"But soon afterwards?"

"Yes, Mr. Chairman."

"Were you a regular participant?"

"Once or twice a month, before the Militia, I mean."

"Were you coerced to join the Rave in any way?"

"No, Mr. Chairman."

"Then why?

"Everyone I knew moved."

"Did you ever see a miracle?"


"How many and when, Mr. Smith?"

"Just twice, Mr. Chairman. The first time was at the beginning of Fourth Month, Year 2 of the Eighth Day."

"That was a local event?"

"Yes, sir. The city returned to normal by the next morning. Of course, I also saw Sixth Month, Year 4. Almost everyone did. By then people expected it."

"What did you think the first time?"

"I believed the First President. I thought reality was changing."

"Some people still think that way, Mr. Smith. That is why we have to hold these hearings for senior civil servants. What do you think of the First President now?"

"He lied, Mr. Chairman."

"Do you think he lied about everything?"

"Well, he certainly lied about the Eighth Day being eternity. He also lied when he said the only real democracy was direct democracy, with no bureaucracy or hierarchy. What he meant was that he did not want anything to be between him and us."

"Do you think he lied about the angels?"

"I don't know, Mr. Chairman. I do know that I don't want to see any more angels."

"The Board sees that you have several unusual notations in your permanent file. Let's start with the earliest one. Can you explain the entry about the principal at your senior high school?"


"Mr. Smith?"

"We didn't hurt him, Mr. Chairman."

"As far as we know, but his neighborhood Rave moved against him and the body was never found. You were on the student council that called the student strike. Would you care to explain the circumstances?"

"He just was not enthusiastic about the City of Man. He took down all the American flags after the Day began, but the only City flag he put up was in the lobby. He always referred to the First President as 'Mister.' We just did not see what his problem was. Most of the world belonged to the City of Man; why not our high school?"

"Did it occur to you he might get in trouble?"

"No, I can honestly say it didn't. Besides, he capitulated immediately. The news hardly mentioned it."

"And nobody ever saw him after a week later. Did it occur to you there might be a connection?"

"Well, yes."

"Did it bother you?"

"No, I'm ashamed to say."

"How did it make you feel?"

"It was another miracle. That was what the Day was like. People just seemed to organize spontaneously. There was flow, not structure. Nobody gave orders."

"You sound almost nostalgic."

"I'm not."

"Let's move on a bit. You served for 11 months in the Militia of the City of Man during year Four of the Eighth Day. Why not the standard eighteen months?"

"I was a communications-technician during the Caspian campaign, Mr. Chairman. That was about the time the standards began to disappear, even in the military. After the campaign ended, my unit just dissolved."

"You were discharged early?"

"It was more informal than that. The City of Man was everywhere, except for a few caves and jungles. The City was supposed to be self-similar, without a standing army separate from the people. That never applied to the elite units, but it did apply to support units and local auxiliaries. Most of us just made our way home."

"You stayed in the area for a while, though, did you not?"

"Well, not quite the same area. I studied descriptive linguistics in Jerusalem. That is what got me my present job."

"Did you take a degree?"

"I did the course work, but I decided against a degree."

"Why did you do that?"

"I was warned that advanced degrees might soon be regarded as marks of hierarchy."

"That was good advice, Mr. Smith. Do you recall who gave it to you?"

"No, Mr. Chairman."

"Did you move with the Rave at Jerusalem?"

"The Rave was prohibited in Jerusalem at that time."

"That's not quite what I asked."

"Mr. Chairman, not only did I not participate in the Rave, but I was already beginning to doubt the Day. I have given the Board documentation..."

"One thing at a time, Mr. Smith. Were you in Jerusalem during the incident at the Temple?"

"No, I came home to Chicago just a month before. Like most people, I did not even hear about the incident until 2096, when the Years of the Lord began again."

"In your application, you allege that you offered some aid to the Ecumenical underground during your stay in the Levant. A few purchases using your personal characteristic continued to be made in Jerusalem until the end of Year Five of the Eighth Day, months after you returned home."

"Yes, Mr. Chairman. I had made some friends in the underground; I saw no reason not to give them limited use of my credit."

"The Board notes, Mr. Smith, that all the Ecumenicals who might have used your characteristic disappeared during the Desolation, and are presumed dead. We also note that you filed a police complaint alleging identity theft in connection with those purchases."

"I had to maintain a cover story, Mr. Chairman. I don't claim to have been a hero. It was the least I could do."

"I see. Well, moving on, after you returned to the Midwest, you worked as a technical editor for the Chicago Tribune. Your records were destroyed during the firestorm. However, we do have a copy of the resume you submitted in Year 7 to the Word Collective, as your current employer was then called. In the resume, you make special mention of your movement with the Rave at the Tribune. You even give a list of persons against whom the Rave moved. Would you care to comment?"

"As you know, Mr. Chairman, the Rave by then was not really voluntary, especially not at a prominent media outlet. You will note that I never called a gathering. Certainly I never informed on anyone."

"It's a one-page resume, Mr. Smith. You don't give any specifics but the names. In any event, the list could not be complete. The Rave there moved frequently."

"It moved back and forth, Mr. Chairman. One month it moved to stamp out discrimination between all forms of life. Not long thereafter, it moved to support the 'single species' principle against food processors who took non-discrimination too literally. The names I listed were of people who seemed unlikely ever to be rehabilitated."

"Why did that seem unlikely?"

"They were guilty, of ordinary corruption and things like that."

"Very prudent, Mr. Smith. There is just one item about your time in the dictionary division that the Board has a question about. According to the office journal for 6 Second Month Year 14, the First President visited your office and spoke to you personally. Would you care to elaborate?"

[Long Pause]

"We're waiting, Mr. Smith."

"The Board cannot be serious. That was a dream. Lots of people imagined things like that, all through the Day. In any case, the Collective often did visualizations; the journal might just have noted the theme of one."

"Some people still have these dreams, Mr. Smith. Sometimes there is still independent corroboration, five years after the First President's death. It is the policy of the Ecumenical government to investigate all sitings with any corroboration that occurred during his lifetime, however improbable. So, what did you say to him, Mr. Smith? And what did he say to you?"

"The Board is asking me to remember a hallucination."


"The recollection isn't very clear, Mr. Chairman."

"Did he just say hello? Did he ask about your family? Did he talk about your work?"

"I can't even say whether the exchange was short or long. Most of what I remember was just friendly-boss stuff: How do you like the department, that kind of thing. Some of it was very specific, though."

"Such as?"

"Well, he seemed to know everything I knew about lexicography. That's how I know it could not have been real."

"Did he say anything to you about the Day, Mr. Smith?"

"Nothing unusual, just typical City of Man propaganda from late in the Eighth Day, when things were starting to come apart."

"Please tell us exactly, Mr. Smith."

"He said there was no need to worry anymore, that I would always be with him in the City of Man. He said that, in the end, I would see nothing but the Eighth Day. What happened in ordinary time could no longer change that."

"And what did you think of that, Mr. Smith?"

"I thought it didn't happen. Even then."

"And if it did happen?"

"Then it was a lie. It was a lie whether it happened or not."

"I think that is all we need to hear about the matter."

[A pause; the Chairman continues.]

"We have no documentation at all about you between 2096 and the filing of your lustration application at the beginning of this year. That's not unusual; lots of things were lost during those three years. Do you have any comment about the period, Mr. Smith?"

"I think there are some things about the last 20 years we all want to lose, Mr. Chairman."

"The Board will probably concur, Mr. Smith. We'll let you know. This hearing is adjourned."



Copyright © 2002 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: Permanent Interests

This is a short essay by John, now nearly 20 years old. It bears recollection now. Would that John had remembered this wisdom in the run up to the Iraq War:

The fundamental reality is that Earth is Eurasia. The important parts of Eurasia are its extremities. The rest of the world's territory is important only as it relates to the ancient civilizations that exist on the supercontinent's eastern and western ends. America is endangered if either of these peripheries becomes aggressive, or falls under the control of a hostile power of the interior. Preventing these things from happening is what American statecraft and armed forces exist to do. Everything else, absolutely everything else, is optional.

The important bits of this essay:

  • Any fixed goal of statecraft is not as good as a willingness to respond to objective circumstances
  • The "international community" is an American invention, made possible by victory in WW2
  • Not all things are possible to all countries at all times
Permanent Interests
by John J. Reilly
Probably we can do without a general field theory of U.S. foreign policy. At any rate, it would not be a good idea to run the country's foreign affairs according to one. Nevertheless, there should be certain things that are obvious to everyone about America and the world. You don't have to be very familiar with today's opinion leaders to realize this is not the case. Jack Beatty at the Atlantic Monthly thinks that the end of the Cold War frees us to demobilize. Michael Lind at The New Republic supports the single-minded pursuit of national interests. For that matter, Bob Dole speaking before the World Affairs Council in June of 1996 seemed to think that what U.S. foreign policy needs is "men, not measures." It is hard to think of three establishment figures with more different views generally, yet in this area they all still manage to miss the point in almost the same way.
The point is this: American security is a function of the state of the world. It does not depend on the state of American culture or the competitiveness of the American economy. Such things may determine our ability to do what we have to do. However, the domestic life of America does not define our international needs. Naturally, just because we need to do something, it does not follow that we will be able to do it. One can conceive of a world so hostile or chaotic that no level of American mobilization would make us physically safe and let our society flourish. In such a case, some commentators might be tempted to speak of an America that had turned its attention homeward. The reality would be an America that had ceased to be a subject of history and had become an object. The "state of the world" is not like the state of the weather. It is defined by physical and cultural geography, and it changes far more slowly than daily newspaper readers are apt to think. The fundamental reality is that Earth is Eurasia. The important parts of Eurasia are its extremities. The rest of the world's territory is important only as it relates to the ancient civilizations that exist on the supercontinent's eastern and western ends. America is endangered if either of these peripheries becomes aggressive, or falls under the control of a hostile power of the interior. Preventing these things from happening is what American statecraft and armed forces exist to do. Everything else, absolutely everything else, is optional.
As a practical matter, the pursuit of this strategy means maintaining the outcome of the Second World War. The gaggle of international bodies created by 1950 were designed to do this. The U.N. is simply the alliance that won the Second World War, preserved in amber and surrounded by a rabble of international social workers. The other institutional monuments from that era, the International Monetary Fund and NATO and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (which finally achieved its originally intended form in the World Trade Organization) are similarly American inventions. There is no "international community" to which the United States must defer or against which it must defend its national interests. To the extent there is an international system, it is an American artifact. You neglect its maintenance at your peril.
As a theoretical matter, the nature of this international system was not determined by the Cold War. The combination of the rise of Soviet power and the successful defense against it was simply a particular instance of the system at work. The American interest in a secure Europe and East Asia antedated the Cold War and continues after it. It would have required something like the same level of American engagement even if the Soviet Union had never existed. It requires a comparable level of American engagement now.
This is all you absolutely have to know to keep American foreign policy on-track. Still, there are some other points you might want to keep in mind. For instance, be wary about trying to whittle down U.S. defense commitments to "vital interests." A vital interest is something that, if you don't have it, you are likely to die. A country that will fight only when its vital interests are at stake will only fight when it is fighting for its life. This is not a good idea. Also, beware the notion of the inevitability of a multipolar world. It is based on the false assumption that any political entity will act as a world power as soon as its economy achieves a certain relative size. In reality, not everything is possible to a culture at every point in its history. People who think that today's China is just a larger version of Wilhelmine Germany are in for a surprise rather like that experienced by the enthusiasts for the European Union.
Finally, we may note one other way in which the state of the world has not changed with the end of the Cold War. The Left in the U.S. throughout that period saw its role as more or less the defense of socialism. Thus, they sought to limit the influence and power of the United States. Even with no more Fatherland of Socialism to defend, they still continue the same policy, like a missile defense system that keeps working even after the civilization that built it has died out. When they finally realize that anything they want to achieve in the world will have to be achieved through the United States, we will have a different politics.
Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Spengler's Future

When I did the site upgrade, John's online book, Spengler's Future, got jumbled up because I had it hosted on separate pages. I rolled everything up into one page, and added it to the navigation bar.

Spengler's Future was an interesting exercise, a book written around a very simple BASIC program, one that correlated contemporary events to the history of four civilizations that exhibited Spenglerian cycles by simply adding a fixed number of years to the date on which any given event occurred:

If E$ = "China" then let H = F + 2300
If E$ = "Egypt" then let H = F + 3547
If E$ = "Rome" then let H = F + 2127
If E$ = "Islam" then let H = F + 626

For so simple an attempt, this actually worked pretty well. This approach is a quick and dirty way to see the kind of parallels in history that have inspired the many attempts to make cyclical models of history. Go check it out, it is worth a read.

The Long View: President H. P. Lovecraft

Since I just watched Amazon's pilot episode of the Man in the High Castle, I'm in an alternative history mood.

Why vote for the lesser evil?

 Don't blame me, I voted for Cthulu.


I would like to thank the many kind people from several continents who have e-mailed me to say that the author of 'The Iron Dream' is Norman Spinrad. The response I have received shows how knowledgeable and helpful Internet users are. (Either that, or you are all a bunch of Neo-Nazis!)

The Life and Times of President H.P. Lovecraft

Some years ago, I read a novel with the title, The Iron Dream, which purported to be science fiction written by Adolf Hitler in an alternative history (who the actual author was I do not remember). In this history, there was a Communist coup in Germany in the early 1920s, and Hitler became just another exile. (His brief involvement in reactionary politics was not worth mentioning.) He settled in the United States, where he became a commercial illustrator for pulp magazines. He took to writing for the pulps as his English improved, eventually attracting a small literary cult. He charming Viennese manners made him the star of science fiction conventions. His major novel, The Iron Dream, dealt with a political movement in a post-apocalyptic world. The movement was dedicated to cleansing the gene-pool of mutations and destroying the great mutant empire in the East. While some people detected anti-Semitic undertones in the book, Hitler's defenders noted that many of his best friends were Jewish. After his death, his stories were frequently reprinted in paperback editions, often using his own illustrations.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) has a biography one might expect of a failed Hitler. Lovecraft has suffered from more than his share of posthumous Freudian analysis, but it is true that his family history (father dying while Lovecraft was young, over- protective mother) is similar to Hitler's. Both their childhoods' were prologues to some some similar life-long characteristics. Lovecraft, like Hitler, was a marginal artist. He was a better writer than Hitler was a painter, though that is not saying much. Both were very briefly married, Hitler for just a few hours, Lovecraft for a few months. Both were interested in the occult to some degree. Certainly both Nazism and Lovecraft's fiction owe a great deal to Theosophy. (Lovecraft claimed to be a sceptic. Hitler was affected by ideas of this type, though he was not a believer to the extent that Himmler and Hess were.) Both were racist Social Darwinists of the sort who viewed history as primarily determined by racial factors. Both were hypochondriacs who repeatedly forecast their early deaths. Lovecraft, whose neurasthenia kept him out of the First World War, turned out to be right. In person, both were rather shy and formal, not hard to like. Hitler loved dogs, Lovecraft loved cats.

Imagine an alternative history in which Lovecraft's ideas did not remain the stuff of pulp fiction. Suppose his father had lived, or he had been orphaned, or his family finances changed so that he had to go to work early in life. He becomes, let us say, a journalist in Boston or New York. He might then have fought in the First World War and returned with a distinguished record. He becomes a nationally syndicated columnist, famous for his warnings against the threat of immigrants, Communists, and unbridled finance capitalism, particularly as associated with the Jews. Like many practical people, life experience could have changed his reading about the occult from entertainment to belief. (It happens. Look at W.B. Yeats. For that matter, look at Hitler.) In the social catastrophe of the Great Depression, he would have had a unique opportunity to implement his ideas for revolutionary reform.

Lovecraft in politics would not have been a "conservative" in any serious sense of the word, though he would certainly have had little use for socialism or democracy. Sinclair Lewis, in his 1935 novel "It Can't Happen Here," tried to give some notion of what an American fascism might be like. It would be more puritanical than its European counterparts, he suggested. It would be less a case of a party imposing a political orthodoxy on the whole country than of radical right groups, such as the Klan, being empowered by the government to act at the local level. When Lewis thought of fascism, however, he seems to have been thinking of Italy. There was no particular place in his fascist America, as there was in Germany and would certainly have been in Lovecraft's America, for a national eugenics program. For that matter, Lewis did not understand, at least in 1935, how central anti-Semitism was to Nazism. If, as some writers have suggested, Hitler's Jewish policy was a necessary feature of his model of history (See Paul Wistrich's Hitler's Apocalypse), then one would expect similar notions to occur to Lovecraft, whose intellectual frame of reference was not so different from those of the leading Nazis.

America did not lack for proto-fascists in the 1930s, but they were regional personalities with little hope of forming an important national movement. Huey Long of Louisiana was very smart, of course, but he was, well, too "colorful" to be much appreciated outside his home state. Father Coughlin, the Radio Priest, would not himself have been a serious candidate for political office. His movement was too closely linked with Rome, at least in the public mind, to be anything but a faction in a larger right-wing coalition.

Lovecraft, or someone like him, might have been able to form such a coalition. A Northerner, nominally Protestant, he could have preached economic populism for the South and Midwest and anti-Communism for the Catholic Northeast. His background was such that he would have been more likely to have entered politics as a Republican than as a Democrat. In his native New England, the Democrats were the party of the hated immigrants. Of course, he might have taken the posture of a man above politics before the Depression. Like Perot in 1992 or Powell today, he could have had his pick of the nomination of either party. In terms of party platform, there was not much to choose between Roosevelt and Hoover in 1932. Roosevelt's chief qualification was that he was not Hoover. Lovecraft, who was in real life of a somewhat philosophical cast of mind, would have been not just a new face, but a man with a plan.

Any government elected in 1932 would have had to do much the same sort of thing on taking office that Roosevelt did. It was necessary to immediately reconstruct the banking system, to distribute disaster relief to the unemployed, and to try to cajole the country's businessmen into maintaining employment and making some investments. The Roosevelt Administration did this minimum, supplemented a little later with "make-work" projects, from new roads to the vaguely Stalinist murals you can still find in some older Post Offices. Some of these initiatives helped. Some, such as the government's price-fixing schemes, were catastrophes. In any event, though the economy improved in the 1930s, punctuated by various declines, the Depression was not finally ended until the United States began to mobilize for the Second World War. In this the US was in sharpest contrast to Nazi Germany. Hitler came to office about the same time Roosevelt did, and the economy was humming again within two years. The reason for this was simple enough: Hitler took office with the intention of fighting several major wars in about five to ten years, so rearmament began immediately. President Lovecraft, one suspects, would have done likewise.

Lovecraft's America would not have lacked for plausible enemies. There were, after all, the ubiquitous Communists, who would probably have favored Lovecraft's candidacy, as the German Communists favored Hitler's. (The idea was that Hitler's regime would soon collapse, thus leading to a red revolution.) Naturally, all the domestic ones would have to be arrested, and a military buildup begun in preparation for a final showdown with the USSR. The more immediate enemy, however, would have been the Yellow Peril, as manifest in Imperial Japan. It has always been difficult to explain to Americans why it was necessary to worry about threats from Europe. Arming against a possible war with Japan, in contrast, has always been an easy idea to sell. Actually, in the context of early Depression America, any kind of remilitarization program would have been easy to sell, since it would have been the one thing the government could have done to decrease unemployment quickly. (Young men not needed for the factories, of course, could have been drafted.)

Indeed, such a policy would have been self-sustaining, since possible enemies would have multiplied. The Roosevelt government was economically nationalist in terms of tariff policy, but it was content to let the international market economy continue to exist. It did not, at least to my knowledge, impose foreign exchange restrictions, or make it nearly impossible for foreigners to own property in America. Fascist governments, however, generally did do things like this. Such measures would have been serious blows to England and the Netherlands, whose people have always invested heavily in America. England would soon have perceived more than a financial threat, since an invasion of Canada would certainly have suggested itself to Lovecraft's government, both for strategic reasons and as an exercise. An Anglo-American naval war might have been the prelude to the western half of the Second World War.

That there would be a Second World War is hard to doubt, but the alliances would have been different. Britain, bereft of its overseas assets and a large part of its fleet (assuming the US won), could have had a revolution in the 1930s. If it was to the right, then the country would have been neutral in the event of a Nazi invasion of France. Fascist Britain might also have maintained its alliance with Japan through the 1930s, which would have meant the US could still have faced a two-ocean war when the fight with Japan started. Indeed, the US might have been faced with a Anglo-German alliance in the west. This would have made attacks on the continental United States plausible, particularly from the air. On the other hand, if Britain's revolution was to the left, then the British Empire would have disintegrated catastrophically. Red Britain might then have supported France in 1940, or whenever the German invasion came, but would probably have lacked the naval and air strength to resist invasion itself. Without Britain as a conduit, it is unlikely America would have become involved in Europe in the 1940s.

In the Pacific, hostilities might have begun as they did in the real world, but would have ended differently. For instance, since the United State would not have been cooperating with Great Britain on secret projects, and since America would not have been an attractive haven for refugee scientists, the atomic bomb would not have been invented. Despite what the revisionists say, an appalling invasion of Japan would almost certainly have been necessary. Lovecraft's government might then have been less interested in reforming the country than in depopulating it. Australia, one suspects, would have been annexed as Canada was annexed. The US might even have joined in the German war against the Soviet Union. (If the Nazis came to power in Germany, such an invasion would been inevitable). US aid would probably have taken the form of strategic bombing. It would also have been possible that the US would have gotten involved in a land war in China to finally defeat the Communists there.

Let us assume that Lovecraft dies about the time Roosevelt did, eight years later than Lovecraft did in fact. The world would then have been divided into two great spheres of influence, much as it was after the Second World War. However, they would have been far more evenly matched, since Europe would not have been laid in ruins by the Anglo- American and Russian invasions that occurred in the real world. The two empires would have had some ideological affinities, since both would have ruled by mystically-minded Aryan chauvinists. Some of their leaders would at least consider a union between the two empires. In contrast, popular opinion would have it, as did Hitler himself, that the great war between the eastern and western hemispheres would occur in the next generation. What a time for President Lovecraft to die! The only consolation would have been that the nation was be led by his brilliant young Vice President, L. Ron Hubbard.

But that's another story.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: On the Nature of the Coming World Government

As a proponent of a mild version of the cyclical theory of history, John thought that the development of a world-spanning universal state was inevitable in the 21st century. I am inclined to agree, and like John, I think it will probably be for the best. John felt that historical precedents made the terrifying states of the 20th century anomalous, and whatever is to come would be fundamentally unlike them.

This is good, in that ordinary people will probably be less affected by the worst the state has to offer. The downside is that ordinary people will also be less affected by the best the state has to offer. In John's view, the power of governments to motivate and corral their citizens peaked in the 1940s, and represented the culmination of modernity in the West. We should expect that as we slide into Empire, the reach of the state will gradually diminish along with the interest of the citizenry in the apparatus of government.

If you look at the average state of the world today, that is already the condition of much of the globe. A middle of the pack nation like Brazil is representative. They can host the World Cup, but can't maintain public order everywhere. Any world government will not be able to do any better.

On the Nature of the Coming World Government


John J. Reilly


I have every confidence that a political authority which is both sovereign and universal will be established sometime in the 21st century. The human world is now only a day or two wide, even by ordinary commercial transport. It is absurd to think that a society so concentrated could endure indefinitely without a government for the whole. During the time of the great European colonial empires, it required an act of will to keep worldwide social entities together. By the end of the 20th century, an act of will was required to inhibit their formation. In the 21st century, this resolve must inevitably weaken once, twice, maybe three times. Then the world will collapse into what Toynbee called a "universal state." This development is so inevitable that it is not even interesting.

The prospect of a state encompassing the whole planet occasioned much hope and anxiety throughout the 20th century. The hope was based on reaction to the militant nationalisms that framed the century's world wars. Since the right to wage war is one of the incidents of national sovereignty, it was thought that a world with only a single sovereign would necessarily be without war. The fear was based on the assumption that anything that is universal is also necessarily totalitarian. If government is only a necessary evil, the logic ran, then a universal government would be an evil of unprecedented proportions.

Both the hope and the fear are misplaced. They are based on extrapolations of the historically eccentric experiences of the 20th century. They overlook the common features that the universal states of particular civilizations have displayed in the past. They also overlook the nature of the society the coming world government will rule, which is to say, the civilization of Earth.

The key thing to remember about Earth is that it is essentially an advanced Third World country, rather like Brazil. This characterization is not necessarily an insult; there are Third World countries that have a lot to recommend them. The defining feature of Third World status, however, is not the presence or absence of democracy, or even the level of economic development. Taking the definition supplied by the former CIA analyst, Patrick E. Kennon, a Third World country is one in which the government, broadly defined, has little control over civil society. Using the sort of nautical expression so favored by the CIA in its Cold War period, he likens a Third World country to a great barge in a slow-moving river. It is hard to steer, hard to upset, and the very devil to right again if it somehow capsizes.

Countries can be like this for any number of reasons. They may have a tradition of tax avoidance. They may be so constitutionally constructed that governments cannot do very much and still remain legal. They may be chaotic places, with no law outside a few major cities. They may just be dirt poor. Whatever the particular circumstances, what Third World countries have in common is governments that lack the resources to either serve or police their citizens to any but the most rudimentary degree.

This is almost certainly what Earth would be like, should unification come late in the next century. The world in those days should have from 10 to 12 billion people in it. This is quite likely the figure that the human race will top out at for the foreseeable future, since the demographic transition to lower birthrates should have spread universally by then. This, of course, would also imply the general increase in living standards that goes along with the transition. Still, you are talking about an immense amount of territory, inhabited for the most part by relatively poor people. Also, since there are likely to be one or more world wars preceding unification, the infrastructure of civilization may be substantially damaged. The world government may be large, relative to that of national states. However, it will have to be relatively small compared to the society it purports to govern, simply because the per capita resources won't be available for more.

A universal state may have democratic features, but there has never been an instance of one with a genuinely democratic government. Even the Roman universal state, with its tradition of popular and aristocratic assemblies, rarely experienced effective Senatorial control. In the 20th century, of course, we see already that supranational bodies have only the most perfunctory democratic elements. This is not only true of the United Nations, with its General Assembly of rotten boroughs and its Security Council that serves chiefly to maintain the coalition that won World War II. It is also true of the European Union, which has an elected parliament, but one with very limited powers. (The system has been described as "The German Empire without the Kaiser.")

The truly "democratic" feature of universal states is their openness to "talents." They all rely heavily on bureaucracies, which are generally not recruited from the upper classes of the era of national states that precede them. These bureaucrats can enter government in the most haphazard fashion. The Roman Empire was administered in large part by "freedmen," who were former slaves. The Ottoman Empire was, to an appalling degree, run by people who still were slaves. (The empire's elite troops, the Janissaries, were a slave corps, recruited largely from Eastern European children.) China achieved universal states twice in its history, and by the second occasion, in the fourteenth century, it had a well-developed tradition of civil service tests to recruit staff for the new government. What all these examples have in common, however, is that world governments are open to some degree of influence from the lower parts of the social scale.

Something else that all universal states have in common, of course, is that they are all monarchies. For better or worse, the world government is going to be under the direction of an emperor, certainly in fact and perhaps also in name. Of course, the title "emperor" has meant different things in different contexts. It has been borne by men viewed by most of their subjects as a hated foreign tyrant, but then it has also been held by legitimate and well-loved rulers of partially parliamentary states. It will mean more than one thing in the coming universal state, too. Over the 500 years or so that a world government can be expected to exist, much of its political history is describable in terms of the transformation of the emperor from a military dictator to a ritual figurehead. Except at the very beginning, during the reign of the founder, the emperor rarely tries to employ the degree of initiative that the executive of a modern state routinely uses. What then does he do?

The function of emperors is to read their mail. That, at least, is the conclusion reached by Fergus Millar is his exhaustive study, "The Emperor in the Roman World." Most of the time, emperors waited for problems to come to them. They answered queries from their governors and they sat as the court of last resort in certain legal disputes. They answered a remarkable number of written petitions from private persons, even from slaves. However, except in extraordinary situations, and those mostly concerned military emergencies, they did not plan vast reforming "programs" for their reigns. They scarcely had "policies." Their policy was to keep the great barge of empire floating along with as little disruption as possible. They could act decisively to aid or punish individuals, even whole cities, but their capacity to affect life in the empire as a whole was limited.

Something like this also seems to have been true in China, to judge from Ray Huang's snapshot history of the Ming Dynasty, "1587: A Year of No Significance." In that case, the right of petition was rather more limited. It extended to local magistrates, who did not hesitate to pepper the imperial secretariat with memorials containing their bright ideas. The emperor exercised "government" by writing "approved" on the memorials he like or "acknowledged" on the ones he didn't. Except for a few large, continuing government functions, such as guarding the northern frontier and maintaining the dikes on the Yangtsee, that was the extent of administrative control that the central government would exert itself to exercise.

The social structures of universal states are not conspicuously unjust, compared to most times and places, but they are not very egalitarian. Social distinctions are most fluid at a universal state's beginning, which occurs after the most highly commercial phase of its civilization's history. By that point, traditional aristocracies have been exchanged entirely for far more flexible plutocracies. During the era of independent sovereign states, finance and commercial enterprises tend to slip beyond the effective control of any government. Universal states come into existence in part precisely to curb the power of money. However, class flexibility is one of the things that disappear along with the vulnerability of government to market fluctuations. By the second generation, there will be some attempt to return to a measure of ascriptive status. By the end of the empire, there will be an elaborate system of ranks and the beginnings of serfdom.

As for "peace," universal states are better at keeping it than are international systems, but this ability is not absolute. The argument that a world government will ensure the end of war is in part a semantic confusion. Certainly a world government can do away with the juridical state known as war. However, this is quite a different thing from suppressing all armed conflict. Insurgencies small and great clutter the history of every universal state. Sometimes the insurgents seek to be free of the world government, sometimes they accept it in principle, but want a change in administration. Not infrequently, and as we see in some areas of the world today, wars are merely random brigandage by groups with no particular goal or ideology. This sort of conflict requires any universal state to keep armed forces in being.

Historically, local universal states have also maintained militaries in order to control external barbarians. These efforts inevitably failed, but for most of a universal state's history, its standing army is remarkably modest in size. While Earth has no external barbarians at the moment, it could develop some in the form of breakaway space colonies. This could occur if the world government pursued a policy of colonization early in its history and later lost control of the settlements. There is also the possibility that extraterrestrial intelligence will be discovered. Even if the civilization is far away and lived long ago and could have no way of knowing that mankind existed, still the very possibility of a threat from space could promote the creation of warning systems and a force in space intended to counter it.

Whatever the rationale, we may be certain that the world government will have considerable military forces, though as is the case with everything else about a universal state, quite small forces in relation to the area and population they will be called on to police. On at least some occasions, particularly in the last half of the universal state's life, these forces will be used in civil wars between contenders for the imperial power. The wars in question will be smaller than those of the 20th century, but destructive enough in their own right. Additionally, they will be occurring in a civilization that is much less economically dynamic and demographically resilient than it was during the era of sovereign states. Damage that is done will often stay done. These remarks about the decline and fall, however, are premature, to say the least.

Let us rather imagine the universal state in its youth, in the 22nd century. There will be cities as huge and sparkling as anything imagined by modern science fiction. There will be other cities, perhaps more of them, not much improved from 20th century slums. There will even be notable ruins in the growing wilderness, as the world's population slowly retreats from its late modern climax. Politics at every level will be increasingly personal, a matter of family ambition and often of petty graft. Government on the ground will be tolerant, partly from conviction, partly from negligence.

It will be a more relaxed world, in many ways a more comfortable world than that of the modern era. The climate may even be warmer: it may help you visualize this future by thinking of white Panama suits and slowly turning overhead fans. The economy will chug along under fairly heavy state regulation. This will advance the interests of large enterprises, but also of job security for the growing portion of the world's population that works for them. People will have forgotten that, on the whole, living standards used to increase from year to year; they will complain only when they decline. New technologies will become a rarity, but the existing stock of industrial technique will still in many ways exceed those of the 20th century. For ordinary people living ordinary lives, things will not be so bad.

As for the world government itself, it will normally impinge on people's lives rather lightly. Taxes will be raised for it one way or another, though not necessarily through taxes on individuals. If there is an elective feature to the central government, participation in the elections is likely to be a ritualized matter. The people will love or mock the emperor and his government, but the universal state itself will be beyond question. It will seem to be the end of history, and few people will want to return to a world of sovereign states. Universal government will be considered not just inevitable but right, the only way that civilization could conceivably be organized.

This is scarcely an ideal future. Still, it is very far from the worst that might happen.



The Long View: Alternative History

I put up the first of John's subject matter indices today: Alternative History.

Since I am proceeding in roughly chronological order, most of what you see here is not yet uploaded. However, there are some pages filled in at later dates, because John intensively curated his website, and I have been following links to determine what to upload next, rather than simply going by John's publication date.

I always liked John's indices. It was a fun way to revisit your favorite topic and browse. Even just now, as I uploaded this page, I realized John had reviewed two of S. M. Stirling's books that I have recently enjoyed, The Sky People, and In the Courts of the Crimson Kings. I have certainly read these reviews, but I don't remember them. It will be fun to rediscover them in time.

Sensible people don't give
much thought to what the
world would be like if
history had gone a little
Here we consider the alternatives.



The Long View: The Man in the High Castle

Phil Dick was a friend of Tim Powers. Thus this book review is really favorite authors squared. John Reilly reviewed a seminal novel by a man who influenced one of my favorite fiction writers. I think I first read this review before Powers became one of my favorite writers, but I remembered it when that time came.

Tim Powers writes secret histories, which are a little different than alternative histories. Yet I think you can see Dick's influence in Three Days to Never. Powers often muses on the way things might have been. This is a theme that has often occupied John Reilly as well. They both take seriously the idea that our choices have consequences, even though the world around us seems to move in discernable patterns. We are neither wholly free nor wholly constrained, but seem to fall somewhere inbetween.

The Man in the High Castle
By Philip K. Dick
Quality Paperback Book Club 2001
Originally Published 1962
See Amazon link below
for ISBN and possible prices.

Was Philip Dick (1928-1982) a prophet who was tortured to death by searing insights into the posthuman condition, or was he just an amphetamine-addled hack who died of paranoia as his prose was about to decay into 100% psychotic drivel? Dick was actually a fairly successful science-fiction writer, but most of us know him from films loosely based on his work. He received enormous, though posthumous, critical attention, probably too much for his reputation's long-term good. This novel is where his extraordinary reputation starts.

There are alternative-history stories much older than "The Man in the High Castle," even one or two novels, but this book established alternative history as a genre. The premise, which has since been done to death, is that the Axis won the Second World War. It is not at all clear how this happened. We know that Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated in his first term as president of the United States, which had some effect on American preparedness. The US entered the war after a completely successful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. During the war, which lasted until 1947, New York and San Francisco were badly damaged. In the aftermath, the United States east of the Rockies became a German satellite, while the Pacific states constituted a federation that was part of the Japanese Co-Prosperity sphere. Only the strip of Rocky Mountain states was left independent, no doubt as a buffer zone.

The book has two chief plot lines. One involves an attempt by German dissidents to contact the Japanese military. This serves to demonstrate the nightmare state of the world, in which the worse villains prove to be the less dangerous. The other leads to a trip to see the author of a best-selling alternative-history novel, "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy," which describes a world in which the Axis lost the Second World War. (That author is, of course, "the man in the high castle," though by the time we meet him he is living in a sensible stucco ranch house.) That plot line shows the way out of the nightmare.

Ingenious devices link these threads. There is a shop of Americana items: all are supposedly of historical interest, but many are of doubtful authenticity. There are vivid characters and many original ideas. There are also flashes of anomalous mentation, such as this:


"She said, speaking slowly and painstakingly, 'Hair creates bear who removes spots in nakedness.'"

Restrictions on the possession of some drugs are sound public policy.

The alternative history is, frankly, a little perfunctory. At no point does the historical context go beyond the knowledge of the average history buff. The story takes place at the time of a change of administration in Germany, when Chancellor Bormann dies and is replaced, after a time of uncertainty, by Chancellor Göbbels. The characters spend a fair amount of time speculating about which of the leading Nazis will finally take control. The candidates are the same crew we know from the actual Nazi regime of the war era. (The exceptions are that Himmler was assassinated long ago, but Heydrich is still alive.).

Some details are merely arbitrary. It is hard to see how the German rocket program could have progressed to the colonization of Mars by 1962. And why was television still just a prospect, except for a few hours a day in the Berlin area? I suppose it is possible that Bob Hope might have been a comedian in an Axis world, broadcasting by radio from oddly unmolested Canada. However, is it really likely that he would make jokes about Göring wanting to revive Christianity, so as to vary his lions' diet?

These improbabilities are not defects, however. I would go so a far as to say that anyone looking for historical verisimilitude in this book is missing the point. This is not an alternative-history novel, but an anti-history novel. The book suggests that any history is fundamentally unreal. This is not to say that all history is illusion, or that there is nothing to choose between one historical scenario and another, but that there is a truth that is true even if events contradict it.

In terms of background detail, the great merit of the book is cultural rather than historical. Most of the action takes place in and around San Francisco, in the Japanese-dominated Pacific States of America. Dick was knowledgeable about Japanese culture. In the 1980s, this increased the attraction of his work, since informed opinion back then claimed that the Japanese were going to take over the world economically. "The Man in the High Castle" is set in the sort of world that Japanophobes used to warn against, where white Americans are second-class citizens in a Japanese economic colony. The novel in no way supports that sentiment, however. The Japanese in this history are the defenders of humanity and civilization against the Nazis.

Having said such hard words against Dick's counter-historical imagination, now let me praise him for his "ideology fiction." Consider this assessment of Nazism triumphant:


"Their view; it is cosmic. Not of a man here, a child there but an abstraction: race, land. Volk. Land. Ehre. Not of honorable men but of Ehre itself, honor; the abstract is real, the actual is invisible to them. Die Güte, but not good men, this good man. It is their sense of space and time. They see through the here, the now, into the vast, black deep beyond, the unchanging. And that is fatal to life. Because eventually there will be no life…It is all temporary…They want to aid nature…They identify with God's power, and believe they are godlike. That is their basic madness. They are overcome by some archetype; their egos have expanded psychotically so that they cannot tell where they begin and the godhead leaves off. It is not hubris, not pride; it is inflation of the ego to its ultimate-confusion between him who worships and that which is worshiped. Man has not eaten God; God has eaten man."

Fans of Jung will recognize the notion that the National Socialist movement was in some ways an instance of mass possession by an archetype. These lines also allude to Heidegger's idea that the Nazi phenomenon was an opportunity to return to authentic Being. Even the anti-individualism smacks of Rosenberg's preoccupation with the folk soul. Considered literally, all these ideas should be taken with a grain of salt. Taken all together, though, they are a prose poem of dark metaphysics.

The author's other metaphysical interests are soon apparent. Everyone in the book, except the Nazis, consults the "I Ching," "The Book of Changes," at every turn, and every time the oracle has something apt to say. The most sympathetic character, a quixotic Japanese trade official named Mr. Tagomi, explains that both the "I Ching" and the "Bible" are alive, along with certain other books. I am intrigued by this notion; certainly the canon of the "Bible" seems to have had certain powers of, well, self-assembly. In any case, in this book, the "I Ching" reveals the order behind the chaos.

How does one normally consult the oracle? With a question in mind, the user throws coins or yarrow sticks to select one of the 64 hexagrams of the "I Ching." Each hexagram represents a typical situation; the one you pick represents the current condition. Simple rules of transformation then indicate another hexagram, which represents what the situation will become. (There are exceptions; the current situation may be blocked.)

It is possible to use the "I Ching" as just another fortune-telling device. However, I gather that sophisticated users do not need to throw coins or sticks. The hexagrams are categories of possibility. Adepts can see well enough for themselves which one represents the present, as well as the hexagram of the future that is implied in the present. Sometimes the characters in "The Man in the High Castle" do just that: they don't need to consult the book. At other times, they ask the oracle to help them make the decisions that determine the plot. This is exactly how "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" was written, as the writer explains to a concerned fan. By Dick's own account, he did something very like this in writing "The Man in the High Castle," too. Sometimes it shows.

We are also told that "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" is a biblical allusion. Having consulted all the grasshoppers in the Bible, I suggest this may be the passage Dick was thinking of. Most versions have "grasshopper" for "locust" below, but I find this old Confraternity translation otherwise clearer:


"[The evil days of old age come] and one fears heights, and perils in the street; when the almond tree blooms, and the locust grows sluggish and the caper berry is destroyed, because man goes to his lasting home; and mourners go about the streets…" Ecclesiastes 12:5

Using a meta-narrative device of the sort that would become a menace to sanity during the reign of postmodernism, the alternative history novel, "The Man in the High Castle," gives a synopsis of the historical scenario in the fictional alternative-history novel, "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy." Aside from the fact the Axis loses, the world of "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" does not greatly resemble our own. Franklin Roosevelt, though happily unassassinated, serves just two terms. The British win the Battle of Stalingrad and extend the British Empire to the Volga. There is apparently even an Anglo-American war. This is just the kind of scenario one would create by deciding among possible storylines by flipping a coin at every decisive event.

The message of this book is not very different from that of Ursula LeGuin's, "The Lathe of Heaven." Using the device of dreams that shape reality, that story suggests that history comes back into balance when events threaten to destroy the world; not just the future changes, but the past changes as well. Similarly, the author of "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" says he wrote it to show that the Germans and the Japanese did not win the war, even though history says they did. This leaves us to speculate whether the history we know, or that we think we know, might similarly be untrue, even if it is factual.

There are earlier examples of this kind of skepticism. For example, Jean-Paul Sartre was so annoyed at the prospect that nuclear annihilation might derail Marxist eschatology that he once famously remarked, "The hydrogen bomb does not exist." Amphetamines are also available in France.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

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The Long View: The World Hitler Never Made

Alternative history, which gets the unusual name allohistory in this book review, has been one of my favorite genres. When done well, you tend to learn a lot of real history by proxy, since good alt history is based on real events. One can never invent stories near so wild as what actually happened.

The book John reviews here is a survey of alternative histories about the Third Reich. Some are about a world in which the Nazis never were, and some are about a world in which the Nazis triumphed. None of the stories are actually pro-Nazi. [John managed to find a partial example the author missed] However, the kind of stories we tell about the Nazis have changed over the years. The most vicious and diabolical portrayals came from the immediate post-war years. As time has passed, the Third Reich began to be portrayed as something that was the more banal evil of later Communism, gray, and bureaucratically neglectful. In the end, Hitler has become a joke, Godwin's Law non-withstanding.

We can't take Hitler seriouisly anymore

The World Hitler Never Made
By Gavriel D. Rosenfeld
Cambridge University Press, 2005
524 Pages, US$19.80
ISBN 0-521-84706-0


Every generation gets the space invaders it deserves. In H. G. Wells's day, they were aggressive railroad trestles armed with late Industrial Revolution death rays and poison gas. By the 1950s, they were subversive vegetable bodysnatchers that tried to appear 200% American. Now comes Gavriel Rosenfeld, a historian at Fairfield University who specializes in the postwar reception of the Third Reich, to propose that every generation gets the alternative Hitler it deserves. We can learn quite a lot about how Western society has dealt with the memory of the Nazi regime, he suggests, by examining the speculations that have appeared over the years about how that stretch of history might have been different. Most important, by noting how these speculations have changed, we can make some useful inferences about the working of historical memory and about the political cultures of the several nations in which these speculations have appeared.

The book covers four classes of hypotheticals: Hitler wins; Hitler loses but escapes; Hitler is deleted from history; and hypothetical Holocausts (both Holocausts avoided and Holocausts that were more complete). According to the cumulative table of sources in the Appendix, this survey covers 116 works, including novels, short stories, essays, films, television productions, and some academic histories. The works that are discussed are of very variable quality. They range from novels of great merit, such as George Steiner's "The Portage to San Cristobal" and Len Deighton's "SS-GB," to the unfortunately never-to-be-forgotten film, "They Saved Hitler's Brain." (There is an image from that film on the book's dustjacket: they saved not only the brain but the whole head, cowlick and all.) Alternate history (or alternative history, or uchronie: the author prefers "allohistory") has been a recognized genre for some time. It will be easy for attentive readers to point to a few examples the author overlooked, but this survey is remarkably comprehensive.

Allohistorical stories involving Nazi Germany are chiefly an Anglo-American phenomenon, but about 15% of the author's sources are German or Austrian. British and American stories (including a few novels) about the consequences of a German victory began to appear even before the Second World War began. After the war, speculation about that topic took a rest. Such works as did appear, such as Noel Coward's well-received 1947 play about Britain under German occupation, "Peace in Our Time," and John W. Wall's novel "The Sound of His Horn," portrayed Germans as diabolical and their victims as heroes. In comic books and pulp magazines, however, there were numerous stories about how Hitler had escaped and the terrible things that would happen to him when he was caught. In the late fifties and early 1960s, interest revived in allohistory about Nazi victory, either in terms of global conquest or the occupation of Great Britain. Some writers depicted the victims as collaborators. It is to this period that we owe what perhaps remains the best-known "Hitler Wins" novel, Philip Dick's The Man in the High Castle, as well as some notable British teleplays, such as Giles Cooper's "The Other Man."

In the 1970s, Rosenfeld tells us, the Hitler Wave began. Popular culture and historical studies treated many aspects of the history of the Nazi era. In allohistory, the Germans began to be portrayed as less absolutely villainous. Alternative historical scenarios were increasingly used to critique the increasingly troubled societies of their authors.

The last great inflection came with the end of the Cold War in 1989. At that point, it became easier to believe that the defeat of the Nazis had not simply cast out the fascist Satan with the communist Beelzebub. The outcome of the Second World War again seemed optimal, and allohistory in large part reflected this. However, well-thought-out works like Robert Harris's "Fatherland" depicted a Nazi-dominated Europe that seemed less like the Hell of earlier allohistorical speculation and more like ordinary unhappiness. Rosenfeld calls this evolution "normalization." As we will see, it worries him mightily.

The early British interest in the subject is not hard to explain. During the war, every adult Briton had reason to contemplate what life would be like if the Germans invaded the country, since the Germans were evidently preparing to do exactly that. British civil defense work involved some preparation for that eventuality; some people even trained for a partisan underground that would operate under a German occupation. And after the war, of course, the German plans for the occupation became public, and featured in many essays and news articles.

In the early postwar era, the British prided themselves on being made of sterner stuff than the continentals. Even if the Germans had occupied the country, the early stories said, the British people would not have collaborated. During the revival in the 1960s of allohistorical speculation (occasioned by the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Rosenfeld suggests), some British writers took a different view. Though the Germans were still portrayed as very bad, the British became no better than the French. Some would have resisted, but not always in an admirable fashion; many would have joined enthusiastically with the projects of the Greater Reich.

This difference acquired a political coloration. Leftists tended to portray the British after a lost war as behaving no better than the people across the channel. Their stories implied that there would be nothing to lose by Britain merging with a supranational Europe. Nationalists, in contrast, held up the ideal of the "finest hour" (which Rosenfeld, inexplicably, almost always refers to as "the myth of the finest hour"). In the 1990s, though, it was two generally conservative historians, John Charmley and Niall Ferguson, who debated British membership in the European Union allohistorically. Charmley, notoriously, argued in his biography of Churchill that Britain could have maintained its empire by letting the Germans have their way, especially toward Russia. Ferguson thought otherwise, though we may recall that he thought most of the unpleasantness in the 20th century could have been avoided if only Britain had not intervened in the First World War.

The American question had always been about intercontinental neutrality: a question that is, curiously, asked in allohistory far more often about the Second War than the First. Early stories and assessments by historians portrayed American nonintervention in the Second World War as an unmitigated disaster. Usually it would result in the conquest of the United States, but it always made the world far worse. By the 1970s, however, some Americans of all political persuasions were arguing that the Cold War had ruined America. Allohistorical writers pointed out, reasonably enough, that the Cold War was the result of the eclipse of Germany. American writers of a libertarian bent produced stories in which Eurasia was left to its own devices. The result might be a crumbling Nazi tyranny or a hemisphere of ruins, but it would leave America prosperous and unharmed. (Even Robert Heinlein had thoughts along these lines.) Leftists, in contrast, suggested that the survival of the Nazi regime would have made the world no worse, and therefore that there was no real difference between a Nazified world and an Americanized one.

A common variation on this thought was the backstory of Norman Spinrad's famous "The Iron Dream," a science-fiction novel that was supposed to have been written by Hitler after his political projects failed and he immigrated to the United States. In this scenario, which is really a variation of the Hitler Deleted class, a Nazi-like movement forms in the United States because of the anxiety created by the Soviet annexation of Europe. In this type of story, the Third Reich is implicitly the Awful Example that the United States needs.

German-speaking writers were last into the allohistorical field, and were always more likely to think these problems through in essays than in fiction. (As a German once put it to me, Germans don't need to imagine alternate history because for Germany the first half of the 20th century was alternate history.) The earliest allohistorical stories argued that a Nazi victory would have been a disaster for Germany, too, as the regime got stranger and stranger. Later efforts, though, tended to fall into politically tinged classes, like their Anglo-American counterparts. Politically conservative people, who thought well of the postwar Federal Republic, continued to depict the world of a Nazi victory as dramatically worse than the real world. Leftists, however, often created scenarios in which such a victory resulted in a world not very different from our own, with the implication that liberal democracy was just a mellower form of fascism.

Later German allohistory explored the possibility that too much historical memory can be a bad thing. Some works described scenarios in which the Morgenthau Plan for the postwar deindustrialization of Germany was actually implemented. In a novel of this sort, the younger generations were forced to enact grotesque rituals to commemorate the misdeeds of their ancestors. The effect, of course, was to create resentment, so that whatever regret that Germans might have felt about a black spot in their history was obviated by the injustices done to them in the present. This sentiment is a fictionalized representation, Rosenfeld suggests, of the real feeling in the German world.

Such thoughts are not unknown in the English-speaking world, however. Perhaps the best Hitler Escapes novel, "The Portage to San Cristobal," features an aging Führer who is tried by an Israeli court in the Brazilian jungle. The book suggests that the very attempt to seek justice for the Holocaust keeps Hitler and Nazism alive. Rosenfeld does not dismiss this possibility, but he is clearly troubled by it. He is after, all, a student of the memory of the Holocaust, and his study shows that the increasingly popular genre of allohistory works to undermine the historical specificity of that event.

Rosenfeld does not record a single pro-Nazi allohistorical novel (I came across just one, online, and I believe it was never completed). Nonetheless, the trend in allohistory has been to move from stories in which a Nazi-dominated world is surreally evil to stories in which the Nazi empire has mellowed into a drab totalitarian state. A good example is Harry Turtledove's In the Presence of Mine Enemies, which simply transferred the fall of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union to the fall of the Nazi Party in Greater Germany. Indeed, in such a case, verisimilitude requires that the regime be credited with some laudable achievements. Even Stalin built the Moscow subway.

The flaws of the allohistorical regime cease to be the flaws of the actual Third Reich. They become universal flaws. All those Hitler Deleted stories in which Nazism arises in the United States suggest that fascism is a danger inherent in human nature. That may or may not be true, but making that point can distract attention from the history of what actually happened in Germany. For better or worse, however, the effect of allohistory on the memory of the Third Reich has been normalization and universalization. Allohistory itself, Rosenfeld suggests, is characterized by "presentism": these imaginary histories are wholly at the service of the conflicts and controversies of the time in which they are written.

There are some features of the allohistory of the Third Reich that seem to defy explanation. For instance, almost all stories in which the Holocaust is eliminated by well-meaning time travelers turn into variations of "The Monkey's Paw": when you get three wishes, the last one will be "put it back the way it was!" There is also a strange consensus that the result would have been much worse if the July 20 Plot to assassinate Hitler had succeeded. I myself wrote a long essay arguing just that; I seem to have been caught up in the collective unconscious when I did so.

Finally, there is the fate of Hitler himself. In his earliest postwar allohistorical incarnations, he is up to his old tricks: inciting neofascist movements and devising superweapons in jungle exile; in one American television drama he is the colleague of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. By the 1970s, he is portrayed as a decrepit old man, almost pitiable. Revenge against such a creature seems irrelevant in comparison to the magnitude of his crimes. In his most recent metamorphosis, though, he meets as strange a fate as any allohistorical scenario: he has become a clown. Increasingly over the last 30 years, der Führer has been appearing in comedy sketches and comic books, where he displays a short temper and a certain talent for explosive epigram.

Hitler's final state may be that of Mad Baggins, who, as Tolkien tells us, used to vanish with a flash and bang in fireside stories and became a favorite character of legend after all the true events were forgotten.

It may be allohistory, but you can't make this stuff up.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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