Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The End of Gasoline Warfare

Last week’s discussion of American military vulnerabilities touched on one of the major issues that ought to be giving Pentagon officials sleepless nights—but only one of them The military downsides of America’s obsession with high-tech gizmos, in a world where complexity just gives the other guy more opportunities to mess with you, are no small matter, to be sure, but those downsides are taking shape in a wider context that has its own bad news to deliver to fans of US global dominance.

To make sense of that context, though, it’s going to be necessary to return briefly to a point I’ve made here more than once before, which is the pervasive misunderstanding of evolution you’ll find straight across the cultural landscape of today’s America. Since Darwin first proposed his eminently simple theory more than a century and a half ago—“How stupid not to have thought of it before,” Thomas Henry Huxley is reported to have said—the great majority of Americans, believers and critics alike, have insisted on redefining evolution as progress: what is “more evolved” is better, more advanced, more progressive than the competition.

Not so. Evolution is adaptation to changing circumstances, and that’s all it is. In some cases, evolution moves organisms in the direction of greater complexity, but in plenty of other cases it’s gone the other direction. Over the two billion years or so since the first self-replicating organisms first appeared on this planet, the no-holds-barred wrestling match between genetic variation and a frighteningly unstable environment has turned out some remarkably weird adaptations—pterodactyls, uintatheria, Khloe Kardashian—but they aren’t the organisms that endure over the long term.  The dragonflies who visit my backyard regularly haven’t changed much since the Devonian, the box turtle we see at intervals out front had relatives munching slugs in the Cretaceous, while the adolescent bat who got lost and ended up in our bedroom one morning a few weeks back would not have been out of place in the forests of the Eocene.  They and organisms like them are survivors because they found a good stable adaptation and stuck with it; while other organisms adapted in ways that turned out to be dead ends.

It’s precisely because evolution is adaptation to circumstances, no more and no less, that it’s possible—and indeed easy—to find precise analogues to Darwinian evolution in fields far removed from biology. War is one of these. Seen from a systems perspective, nations competing for survival, prosperity, and power show plenty of equivalencies to species doing the same thing for the same reasons, and war—now as always, the final arbiter of national survival—follows patterns of adaptation that a Darwinian analysis explains well.

The collapse of Bronze Age chariot warfare discussed a few posts back offers a useful example.  The chariot armies of the late Bronze Age were superbly adapted for their military environment, but like so many highly specialized life forms in evolutionary history, their adaptations limited their ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.  That limit proved to be fatal to many societies along the eastern Mediterranean littoral, and might well have done so even for Egypt if that ancient society had not been willing and able to return to an older and more resilient set of military adaptations.

Our chances are fairly high of witnessing an even more striking example of the same process in the not too distant future.  As discussed a while back in this series of posts, the current American way of war was originally pioneered by the German and Japanese militaries in the years before the Second World War, as both nations explored the extraordinary new possibilities that petroleum had opened up in war.  The destruction of the French army in the spring of 1940 by a German invasion force that had fewer men, cannons, and tanks than its Allied opponents put the world on notice that the old ways of war no longer mattered; the Japanese conquest of the entire western Pacific in a few weeks at the end of 1941 made that memo impossible to ignore, and the United States—to the lasting regret of Germany and Japan—proved to be a quick learner. 

The new warfare depended on the mobility that planes, tanks, and trucks made possible, but it had another dimension that is not always recognized.  The German conquest of France in 1940, for example, did not succeed because the Germans met and crushed the Allied armies in a head-on battle. Rather, the panzer divisions of the Wehrmacht dodged the big battle the Allies wanted to fight on the plains of Belgium, and cut across France south of the Allied forces, breaking their communication and supply lines, while the Luftwaffe carried out air strikes to disorganize Allied units and crippled their ability to respond to a rapidly changing situation. Compare it to the US invasions of Iraq in 1990 and 2003 and it’s hard to miss the precise parallels; in both these cases, as in 1940 France, what handed a quick victory to the invaders was a strategy that focused on shredding the enemy government’s and military commanders’ ability to respond to the invasion.

The aftermath, though, is telling.  In 1940 as in 2003, the invader’s victory was followed promptly by a sustained insurgency against the occupying forces.  (The only reason that didn’t happen in 1990 was that the elder Bush and his generals had the great common sense to declare victory and get out.)  The same thing has happened far more often than not whenever gasoline warfare on the blitzkrieg model has taken place in the real world.

There are good reasons for that.  Military theorists have postulated any number of conditions that define victory in war, but in practice these all come down to one requirement, which is that the losing side has to be convinced that giving up the fight is the best option it has left.  That was the point of the old-fashioned pitched battle, in which one army offered battle at a chosen location, the other army accepted the invitation, both sides got into position, and then they hammered away at each other for a day or two until one side or the other had the stuffing pounded out of it.  After a few battles of that kind, everyone from the king to the lowliest foot soldier knew exactly which side was going to keep on beating the other if the war went on, and so a peace treaty was normally negotiated in short order. 

Gasoline warfare rarely has the same result.  For those on the losing side—I’m relying here especially on accounts by French and British officers who were in the Battle of France in 1940—the war is a roller-coaster ride through chaos; many, sometimes most, ground units never have the chance to measure their strength against the enemy in combat, because the other side has gone right past them and is deep behind their lines; orders from their own commanders are confused, contradictory, or never arrive at all; and then suddenly the war is over, the government has surrendered, and the other side is parading through Paris or Baghdad.  So there you are; your government’s will to resist may be broken, but yours isn’t, and pretty soon you’re looking around for ways to carry on the fight.  That way lies the French Resistance—or, for that matter, the Iraqi one.

This is why resistance movements sprang up so promptly in every nation conquered by Nazi Germany, and why insurgencies have done the same so often in nations conquered by the United States. It’s the natural result of a way of war that’s very good at bullying governments into fast collapse but very poor at convincing the ordinary grunt in uniform, or for that matter the ordinary person on the street, that the other side’s triumph ought to be accepted without further fuss. (Attentive readers will note here that the logic of the blitzkrieg is weirdly similar to that embraced more recently by believers in the sudden collapse of industrial society; in both cases, the words “what happens next” play an insufficiently large role in planning, and the possibility that people affected by a sudden collapse might do something to respond to it rarely seems to get a look in.)

It’s here that the Darwinian analysis of war mentioned earlier is most relevant, because insurgency is not a fixed thing.  It evolves over time, as different insurgent groups try new tactics, strategies and weapons, and draw on the experience of past insurgencies.  The evolution of insurgency, as it happens, dates from before the birth of gasoline warfare; it emerged as opponents of European colonial regimes in the Third World began to adapt the methods of European revolutionary warfare to the distinctive conditions of their time.  The new model of insurgency saw its first trial runs in South Africa and the Philippines right around 1900; both insurgencies were eventually defeated, but not without serious cost to the two imperial powers in question, and the lessons learned in those wars spread widely—it’s not accidental, for example, that the word “commando” entered military parlance in the very early 20th century from Afrikaans, where it was used for Boer insurgent groups fighting the British.

The evolutionary struggle between gasoline warfare and insurgency has been much discussed in recent years in military journals, although the label that’s been given to state of the art insurgency—“Fourth Generation warfare,” or 4GW for short—confuses far more than it reveals. The notion that military history can be divided into a set of neatly defined generations, each one of which supersedes the one before it, simply restates the contemporary myth of progress in another guise, and is just as arbitrary as narratives of progress normally are; though the technologies differ, 4GW was practiced by Elamite hill tribes against Babylonian armies more than three thousand years ago, and will doubtless still be being practiced by peoples on the periphery of empires as long as human societies are complex enough to support urban imperial centers. 

Despite the problems with the term, and with a good deal of the thinking that’s gathered around it, the debates aroud 4GW have brought up a crucial issue, which is that today’s insurgent groups have been at least as quick to innovate and to adopt the latest technology as their well-funded opponents in the Pentagon and its equivalents elsewhere. Darwinian selection works just as effectively on insurgencies as on species, and the mechanism is much the same—a constant pressure on ecological boundaries, which sooner or later stumbles across every available option for greater success at the hard work of survival.  So far, the military bureaucracies in the world’s great powers have been able to stay more or less abreast of the resulting transformations, but their situation has a lot in common with that of physicians today faced with antibiotic-resistant bacteria:  you can keep on inventing new antibiotics for a while, but the law of diminishing returns is always working against you, the germs are gaining ground, and you know that sooner or later something lethal, communicable, and resistant to all known antibiotics is pretty much certain to make an appearance.

Exactly what form the next military revolution will take is an interesting question.  Some days I suspect that a first draft of it was field-tested by the Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon in 2006. To deal with an invasion by an Israeli Army as thoroughly committed to gasoline warfare as any army on earth, Hezbollah adopted a strategy that could probably be called preventive insurgency.  Soldiers, weapons, ammunition and supplies were carefully stashed in underground hideouts all over southern Lebanon in advance of the Israeli invasion, where they could wait out the aerial bombardment and the initial assault, and then popped up unexpectedly behind Israeli lines with guns and antitank rocket launchers blazing.  While both sides claimed victory in the resulting struggle, the fight was nothing like as one-sided as Israel’s two earlier invasions of Lebanon had been Could the same strategy be taken further, and turned into a wickedly effective defense in depth against a conventional invasion?  I suspect so.

On other days, I remember the war between Libya and Chad in 1987, when Libya was a client state of the Soviet Union and had an extensive army and air force equipped with secondhand Russian tanks and planes, and Chad had an army equipped mostly with Toyota pickups packing 50-caliber machine guns, rocket launchers, and half a dozen infantrymen in back.  The Chadian forces won an overwhelming victory, whipping around the Libyan forces via goat trails in the mountains and leaving the plains of northern Chad littered with burning Libyan tanks.  Those armed pickups are called “technicals” in African jargon, and it’s a term you may want to remember; for decades now, they’ve been standard military vehicles all over the continent, and my guess is that it’s only a matter of time before they start being used elsewhere in the world.  Could an army equipped with technicals, and with antiaircraft and antitank rocket launchers a little more sophisticated than the ones in common use just now, copy the Chadian victory against a major power?  Again, I suspect so.

Whether or not these speculations have any bearing on the way things work out, though, the age of gasoline warfare that began with Stukas screaming out of the sky in the spring of 1940 is guaranteed to come to an end sooner or later.  There are two reasons that can be said with a fair degree of assurance. First, of course, is the simple fact that every way of making war eventually runs into something it can’t handle.  If military history shows anything, it’s that the invincible army of one era is the crow food of the next, and far more likely than not the switchover has nothing to do with technological progress; it simply takes a certain amount of time for potential enemies to stumble on whatever trick or tactic will do the job. 

Still, even this factor is less certain than the other, which is that gasoline warfare is only possible in the presence of ample supplies of gasoline. More generally, the contemporary American way of war can only continue if huge amounts of relatively cheap energy can be provided, not only to fuel planes and tanks and ships, but to support the immense infrastructure that makes modern war possible. As that surplus of energy wanes, so will gasoline warfare, and the successful military powers of the future will be those that can figure out ways to project power and win battles with less of an outlay of energy and raw materials than their rivals.

To be sure, some amount of gasoline or the equivalent will be going into war for a very long time to come—the advantages provided by the internal combustion engine are real enough that gasoline will probably still be being used for military purposes long after the private automobile has retreated into legend. My guess, though, is that the last gallons of gasoline to used in warfare will be fueling technicals, not tanks—and long before that happens, a way of war dependent on the extravagant consumption of energy and raw materials will have gone whistling down the wind alongside a civilization that tried to support itself on the same unsustainable basis.


It has been three years now since I took a break from these weekly essays, and for a number of reasons, now’s a good time not to take that any further. The fictional scenario that was going to be the last post in this series of three has unexpectedly grown into an extended narrative five posts long, one that needs to be filled out by a good deal of further research; I also have a contract, finally, for the Green Wizardry book project, and a major writing project on the other side of my career, both of which could use some concentrated attention just now.

This will therefore be the last Archdruid Report post until the beginning of October. I’ll be responding to comments on this post for the next week or so, but after that, you’re on your own for the month of September. Put the time you’d spend reading these essays into digging in your gardens, building solar ovens, learning to brew beer, or in some other way developing skills that will help you weather the opening years of the deindustrial age, and you’ll be ahead of the game. See you again on October 3!

And for those who are worried about missing their weekly dose of apocalyptic fantasy...

End of the World of the Week #37, #38, #39, #40, and #41

Until recently, at least, the usual way to come up with an apocalyptic prediction was to figure out first how the world was going to end, and then try to figure out the date when that would happen. The current 2012 hysteria has taken the opposite approach, first choosing a date and then trying to find some cataclysm or other to justify it—but it’s not quite the first time this latter method saw use.

No, that honor belongs to the redoubtable Charles Berlitz, one of the leading authors in the rejected-knowledge field in the late 20th century.  Berlitz was the man who invented the Bermuda Triangle and rescued the supposed Roswell flying saucer crash from oblivion, so he unquestionably had the skills needed for his apocalyptic magnum opus, Doomsday: 1999 A.D..

How would the world end that year?  Berlitz was nothing if not open-minded.  A convulsion at the earth’s core might cause cataclysmic earthquakes, or an overload of ice at the South Pole might destabilize the crust and send it skidding over the mantle, moving all the continents into new positions and causing earthquakes and floods; a sudden ice age might sweep the globe, plunging much of the northern hemisphere into a deep freeze; there might be a nuclear war, or the earth might get swatted by an asteroid or a really big comet. Hey, it could even be more than one!

Now of course there was no reason to think that any of these things were more likely to arrive in 1999 than in any other year, and with three of the five, there are very good reasons to think that they can’t happen at all. Still, it made for a very successful book—until 1999 came and went uneventfully, that is—and the same logic Berlitz offered is being used today to argue that one or more of an even more diverse flurry of world-ending events will infallibly arrive on December 21 of this year. 

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Monkeywrench Wars

Among science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s many gifts was a mordant sense of humor, and a prime example of that gift in action was his 1951 short story Superiority. It’s the story of a space war told by the commanding general of the losing side; he is explaining to some interstellar equivalent of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal how his forces managed to lose. 

The question is of some interest, as the space fleets and resources of the losing side were far superior to those of the victors. So, however, was their technology.  "However" is the operative word, for each brilliantly innovative wonder weapon fielded by their scientists turned out to have disastrous downsides when put into service, while the winning side simply kept on churning out unimaginative space battleships using old but proven technology.  By the time the losing side realized that it should have done the same thing, it was so far behind that only a new round of wonder weapons seemed to offer any hope of victory—and a little more of that same logic finished them off.

It’s been suggested by more than one wit that life imitates art far more often than art imitates life. The United States military these days seems intent on becoming a poster child for that proposal. Industrial design classes at MIT used to hand out copies of "Superiority" as required reading; unfortunately that useful habit has not been copied by the Pentagon, and as a result, the US armed forces are bristling with brilliantly innovative wonder weapons that don’t do what they’re supposed to do.

The much-ballyhooed Predator drone is one good example among many.  For those who don’t follow military technology, it’s a remote-controlled plane designed to fly at rooftop level, equipped with a TV camera and missiles.  The operator, sitting in an air-conditioned office building in Nevada, can control it anywhere on Earth via satellite uplink, seek out suspected terrorists, and vaporize them.  Does it work?  Well, it’s vaporized quite a few people; the Obama administration is even more drone-happy than its feckless predecessor, and has been sending swarms of drones around various corners of the Middle East to fire missiles at a great many suspected terrorists.

You’ll notice that this has done little to stabilize the puppet governments we’ve got in the Middle East these days, and even less to decrease the rate at which American soldiers are getting shot and blown up in Afghanistan.  There’s a reason for that.  The targets for drone attacks have to be selected by ordinary intelligence methods—terrorists don’t go around with little homing beacons on them, you know—and ordinary intelligence methods have a relatively low signal-to-noise ratio.  As a result, a lot of wedding parties and ordinary households get vaporized on the suspicion that there might be a terrorist hiding in there somewhere.  Since tribal custom in large parts of the Middle East makes blood vengeance on the murderers of one’s family members an imperative duty, and there are all these American soldiers conveniently stationed in Afghanistan—well, you can do the math for yourself.

Thus the Predator drone isn’t a war-fighting technology, it’s a war-losing technology, pursued with ever-increasing desperation by a military and political establishment that has no idea what to do but can’t bear the thought of doing nothing.  The same logic drove the policy of torture so disingenuously defended by the Bush administration.  (Yes, waterboarding is torture. Anyone who wishes to disagree is welcome to undergo the procedure themselves and then offer an informed opinion.) Beyond the moral issues, there’s a practical point that’s far from minor:  torture doesn’t work.  It’s not an effective way of extracting accurate information from prisoners; it’s an effective way of making prisoners say what the torturer wants to hear—I recall the comment of the elderly Knight Templar, after his session on the rack, that in order to get his torturers to stop he would readily have confessed to murdering God. 

Thus torture is another war-losing technology.  Technically speaking, it’s a good way to maximize confirmation bias, which is what cognitive psychologists call the habit of looking for evidence that supports your presuppositions rather than testing those presuppositions against the real world.  It appeals powerfully to the sort of squeaky-voiced machismo that played so large a role in the Bush administration’s foreign policy, but wars are not won by imposing one’s own delusions on a global battlefield; they’re won by figuring out what’s out there in the world, and responding to it.

They’re also won by remembering that what’s out there in the world is also responding to you.  To grasp how this works, it’s going to be necessary to talk about systems again—specifically, about the three ways a system can mess you over.

There may be official names for these somewhere, but I’ve taken the liberty of borrowing terminology from Discordianism, and calling them chaos, discord, and confusion. For a timely example of chaos, it’s hard to do better than Tropical Storm Isaac, which is churning its way into the eastern Caribbean as I write this. As systems go, a tropical storm is a fairly simple one—basically, a heat engine in which all the moving parts are made of air and water, with a few feedback loops linking it to its environment.  Those loops are what make it chaotic; a tropical storm’s behavior is determined by its environment, but its environment is constantly being reshaped by the tropical storm, so that perturbations too small to track or anticipate can spin out of control and drive major shifts in size, speed and direction.

Thus you can never know exactly where a tropical storm is going to go, or how hard it’s going to hit. The most you can know is where, on average, storms like the one you’re watching have tended to go, and what they’ve done when they got there.  That’s chaos:  unpredictability because the other system’s interactions with its environment are too complex to be accurately anticipated.

If we shift attention from Tropical Storm Isaac to the latest recall of bacteria-tainted produce, we move from chaos to discord.  Individually, bacteria are nearly as dumb as storms, but a species of bacteria taken as a whole has a curious analogue to intelligence.  All living systems are value-oriented—that is, they value some states (such as staying alive) more than other states (such as becoming dead) and take actions to bring about the states they value.  That makes them considerably more challenging to deal with than storms, because they take active steps to counter any change that threatens their survival.

That’s the factor that drives the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, for example. Successful microbe species maintain a constant pressure on their ecological boundaries via genetic variation.  The DNA dice are constantly rolling, and it doesn’t matter if the odds against the combination of genes they need to survive in an antibiotic-rich environment  are in the millions-to-one range; as long as they aren’t driven to extinction, they’ll roll boxcars sooner or later.  That’s discord:  unpredictability because the other system is constantly modifying its own behavior to pursue values that conflict with yours.

Compare bacterial evolution to the behavior of a tropical storm and the difference between chaos and discord is easy to grasp.  Tropical storms aren’t value-oriented; they simply respond in complicated ways to subtle changes in environmental conditions they themselves play a part in causing.  Imagine, though, a tropical storm that started seeking out patches of warm water and moving away from wind shear, so it could prolong its own existence and increase in strength.  That’s what all living things do, from bacteria to readers of The Archdruid Report.  Tropical storms don’t, which is a good thing; there would be a lot more cataclysmic hurricanes if they did.

To go to the next level, let’s imagine an ecosystem of living tropical storms: seeking out the warm water that feeds them, dodging the wind shear that can kill them, and competing against other storms.  That’s all in the realm of discord.  Imagine, though, that a storm that achieves hurricane status becomes conscious and capable of abstract thought.  It can think about the future and make plans.  It becomes aware of other hurricanes, and realizes that those other hurricanes can frustrate its plans if they can figure out the plans in time to do something about them. The result is confusion:  uncertainty because the other system is deliberately trying to fool you.

It’s crucial to grasp that what I’ve called chaos, discord, and confusion are fundamentally different kinds of uncertainty, and the tricks that will help you deal with one will blow up in your face if you apply them to the others. Statistical analysis, for instance, can give you a handle on a chaotic system:  meteorologists trying to predict the movements of a storm can study the trajectories of past storms and get a good idea of where the storm is most likely to go. Apply that to bacteria, and you’ll be blindsided sooner or later, because the bacteria are constantly generating genetic novelty and thus shifting the baseline on which the statistics rely.  Apply it to an enemy in war, and you’ve made a lethal mistake; once your enemy figures out what you’re expecting, they’ll play along to lull you into a sense of false security, and then come out of the blue and stomp you.

This bit of systems theory is relevant here because American culture has a very hard time dealing with any kind of uncertainty at all. That’s partly the legacy of Newtonian science, which saw itself—or at least liked to portray itself in public—as the quest for absolutely invariant laws of nature.  If X occurs, then Y must occur:  that sort of statement is the paradigmatic form of knowledge in industrial societies.  One of the great scientific achievements of the 20th century was the expansion of science into fields that can only be known statistically—quantum mechanics, meteorology, ecology, and more. Even there, though, the lure of the supposedly invariant has been a constant source of trouble, while those fields that routinely throw discord and confusion at the researcher are by and large the fields that have remained stubbornly resistant to scientific inquiry and technological control.

It also explains a good bit of why the United States has stumbled from one failed counterinsurgency after another since the Second World War.  There’s more to it than that—I’ll explain next week why the American way of war guarantees that any country invaded and occupied by the United States is sure to pup an insurgency in short order—but the American military fixation on certainty and control, part and parcel of the broader American obsession with these notions, has gone a long way to guarantee the litany of failures. You can’t treat a hostile country like a passive object that will respond predictably to your actions.  You can’t even treat it as a chaotic system that can more or less be known statistically. At the very least, you have to recognize that it will behave as a discordant system, and react to your actions in ways that support its values, not yours: for example, by shooting or blowing up randomly chosen American soldiers to avenge family members killed by a Predator drone.

Still, it’s crucial to be aware of the possibility of the third level of uncertainty, the one that I’ve called confusion. Any hypothesis you come up with, if it becomes known or even suspected by the enemy, becomes a tool he can use to clobber you.  The highly political and thus embarrassingly public nature of American military doctrine and strategy pretty much guarantees that this will happen—does anyone really believe, for example, that the Taliban weren’t reading online news stories about the upcoming American "surge" for months before it happened, and combining that with information from a global network of intelligence sources to get a very clear picture of what was coming and how to deal with it?

So far, the consequences of confusion have been limited, because the United States has been careful to pick on nations that couldn’t fight back.  We could pound the rubble in Vietnam and Iraq, invade Panama and Grenada, and stage revolutions in Libya and a bunch of post-Communist nations, because we knew perfectly well that the worst they could do in response was kill a bunch of American soldiers. Several trends, though, suggest that this period of relative safety may be coming to an end. 

The spread of digital technology is part of it—the ease with which Iraqi insurgents figured out how to use cell phones to trigger roadside bombs is only the first foreshock of a likely tectonic shift in warfare, as DIY electronics meets DIY weapons engineering to produce cheap, homemade equivalents of smart bombs and Predator drones.  The United States’ increasing dependence on the rest of the world is another part—the number of soft targets that, if destroyed, would deal a punishing blow to America’s economy has soared in recent years, and a great many of those targets are scattered around the world, readily accessible to those with a grudge and a van full of fertilizer. Still, there’s a third factor, and it’s a function of the increasingly integrated and highly technological American military machine.

As the most gizmocentric culture in recorded history, America was probably destined from the start to end up with a military system in which most uniformed personnel operate machinery, and every detail of making war involves a galaxy of high-tech devices.  The machines and devices have been so completely integrated into military operations that they are necessities, not conveniences; I’ve been quietly informed by several people in the militaries of the US and its allies that a failure of the GPS satellite system, for example, would cripple the ability of a US military force to do much of anything. It’s far from the only such vulnerability.  Today’s US military is tightly integrated with a global technological infrastructure of fantastic complexity.  That structure is immensely powerful and efficient...but longtime readers of this blog will recall that efficiency is the opposite of resilience.

That’s why I discussed the abrupt termination of Bronze Age chariot warfare by javelin-throwing raiders in last week’s post.  If you have to fight an enemy armed with an extremely efficient military technology, one of the most likely ways to win is to find and target some previously unexploited weakness in the technology itself.  Complex as they were by the standards of the time, chariots had a very modest number of vulnerabilities, one of which the Sea Peoples attacked and exploited. By contrast, the hypercomplex American military machine is riddled with potential vulnerabilities—weak points that a hostile force might be able to monkeywrench in some unexpected way.

Surely, you may be thinking by this point, the Pentagon is thinking about this as well. No doubt they are, but the famous military penchant for endlessly refighting the last really successful war and the tendency for weapons systems to develop political constituencies that keep them in service long after they’re obsolete militate against a meaningful response.  US military planners in recent decades have followed the lead of the sciences to embrace the form of uncertainty I’ve called chaos, and so you get plenty of scenarios of future war that extrapolate current trends out fifteen or fifty years, with a few new bits of gosh-wow technology and a large role reserved for weapons systems such as carriers with constituencies that have enough clout.  The thought that hostile forces may be evolving resistance to our military equivalent of antibiotics rarely gets a look in, and the thought that at least some of those hostile forces may be reading those same scenarios and brainstorming ways to toss a monkeywrench into the machinery—well, let’s just say that making such suggestions will be about as helpful for the career of a military officer today as the same habit was for Col. Billy Mitchell back in the day.

This is one reason why I have come to believe that of the shocks that could cause the US empire to collapse, one of the most likely is a disastrous and unexpected military defeat.  At this point, very nearly the only thing that maintains US power, and the disproportionate share of the world’s wealth that is the payoff of that power, is our eagerness to pound the bejesus out of Third World nations at the drop of a hat.  If we lose that capacity, we could end up neck deep in kim chee very quickly indeed.


End of the World of the Week #36

There’s a tendency to assume that people who buy into end-of-the-world prophecies are, shall we say, a couple of horsemen short of an apocalypse. History, though, shows that it’s entirely possible to be very bright and still buy into the apocalypse meme. Among the leading examples is the redoubtable John Napier (1550-1617), who combined a fascination with apocalyptic prophecy with a well-earned reputation as one of the great mathematicians of all time.

Does that latter description sound exaggerated?  It isn’t.  This is the man who invented the decimal point. Oh, and logarithms. Not to mention one of the first practical mechanical calculating devices, the once-famous Napier’s Bones. We won’t even get into his remarkable innovations in spherical trigonometry. The point that matters for this discussion is his very careful, elegant, mathematically exact calculations of the end of the world.

Like nearly everyone in 16th-century Scotland, he took the Book of Revelations seriously, and turned the same penetrating intellect on its mysteries that he used with better results on the properties of numbers. After years of careful calculation, he determined that the Second Coming of Christ would occur either in 1688 or in 1700.  Fortunately, Napier’s reputation rests on more durable grounds, for both years passed without the faintest sound of Gabriel’s trumpet.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Specter of Military Defeat

I’ve come to think that the single greatest obstacle that stands in the way of a clear understanding of the predicament of our age is the insistence that the past has nothing to teach the present.  You might think that after the recent crescendo of speculative bubbles, the phrase "it’s different this time" would have gotten a well-earned rest, having been worked nearly to death by the promoters of the dot-com and real estate bubbles.

No such luck; those of my readers who follow the comments on these essays will have noted how often that same claim gets used by those who insist the future must obey the fantasies that modern industrial culture demands of it. Progress and apocalypse, business as usual forever or overnight collapse, are the Tweedledee and Tweedledoom of the modern imagination, and the mere fact that history doesn’t work that way is easy enough to brush aside by claiming that modern industrial society is so much more—fill in your preferred adjective here—than any past society, and therefore it’s perfectly justifiable to dismiss history and insert the warmed-over religious myth of your choice in its place. The fact that the identical argument gets used to bolster arguments for both alternatives simply adds to the irony.

I mention this here because the topic we’ll be exploring over the next few weeks tends to draw the insistence that "it’s different this time" the way a dead rat draws flies. I intend to talk about the role of the US military in the downfall of American empire, and the suggestion I propose to offer is that one of the most likely triggers for an American imperial collapse is the experience of dramatic military defeat. I’m not suggesting, furthermore, that such an experience will happen in spite of the immense power of today’s US military machine; I’m suggesting that it will almost certainly happen because of that vast preponderance of force.

I’ve commented before that nothing seems so permanent as an empire on the verge of its final collapse, or as invulnerable as an army on the eve of total defeat. That’s a good general rule, but it’s even more crucial to keep in mind in thinking about military affairs.  The history of war is full of cases in which the stronger side—the side with the largest forces, the strongest alliances, the most advanced military technology—was crushed by a technically weaker rival.  That unexpected outcome can take place in many different ways, but all of them are a function of one simple and rarely remembered fact: military power is never a single uncomplicated variable.

Any number of examples could be cited, but the one I’d like to bring up here was usefully anatomized in Robert Drews’ 1993 book the End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe of c. 1200 B.C.  I trust my readers will forgive a somewhat lengthy excursus into what, for most people these days, is an unfamiliar corner of the past. Those who know little and care less about the late Bronze Age should follow along anyway; once we get past the exotic details, the story may begin to seem oddly familiar.

The eastern Mediterranean in the 13th century BCE was at or near the cutting edge of technological complexity at that time, and that inevitably expressed itself on the field of war.  Earlier, battles used to be fought by lines of massed infantry using spears, but the rise of a new suite of technologies—the horse-drawn chariot, and new and powerful composite bows—revolutionized warfare, allowing relatively small armies of highly mobile and mechanized troops to run rings around old-fashioned infantry armies and cut them down from a distance with lethal firepower. If you want to call the resulting mode of warfare "blitzkrieg," you won’t be too far off.

Chariots, by the standards of the time, were a complex and expensive technology, and they required the highly trained personnel on the front lines and the large and expensive organizational systems behind the lines that complex and expensive military technologies always do.  The superpowers of the day, Egypt, Assyria, and the Hittite Empire, put quite a bit of their annual budgets into chariot procurement and related costs, fielding anything up to several thousand chariots for major battles; smaller nations, most of them client states of one of the big three, had their own more modest chariot armies. Since a relatively small chariot army could defeat a much bigger force of spearmen, most kingdoms didn’t  bother to have any more infantry than they needed to man the walls of fortresses and add a few extra pompous circumstances to the royal court.

It was a stable, rich, technologically advanced society—and then, over a few decades to either side of 1200 BCE, it crashed into ruin. The Hittite capital was sacked, its empire collapsed, and the Hittites as an independent people vanished from history forever. City-states from Mycenean Greece straight down the eastern Mediterranean littoral to the borders of Egypt were sacked, burned, and abandoned. Surviving documents refer to unknown ships appearing suddenly off the coast, and record frantic pleas to allies for military aid. Finally, in 1179 BCE, the raiders come into the full light of history as the Sea Peoples—that’s the name the Egyptians used for them—launched an all-out assault on Egypt itself.

What made the raiders all but unstoppable, Drews showed, was that they had come up with a suite of military technologies and tactics that efficiently crippled chariot armies. Their key weapon was the javelin. Chariot armies depended on mobility and the ability to maneuver in close formation; swarming attacks by light infantry, who could get in among the chariots and use javelins to injure, kill, and panic the chariot horses, shattered the maneuverability that made chariot armies otherwise invincible. Combine that with fast ships that allowed the raiders to come out of nowhere, annihilate armies sent to stop them, pillage and burn every town within sight, and vanish again, and you have the recipe for a shattering military revolution.

And Egypt?  Egypt survived and triumphed, in a thoroughly Egyptian way.  It was the oldest of the superpowers of its era, and the most conservative; it had a modern chariot army, but it also still had the knowledge base and infrastructure necessary to organize and use an old-fashioned army of massed infantry armed with spears and shields. That’s what Ramses III and his generals did, scrapping their chariots and returning to an older and more resilient way of warfare, and so the Sea Peoples crashed headlong into an enemy that had none of the weaknesses on which their tactics depended. The resulting battles were the kind of straightforward slugging match where sheer numbers count most, and Egypt had them; the Sea Peoples got the stuffing pounded out of them, and the survivors scattered to the far corners of the Mediterranean world.

There were many other factors that fed into the long and bitter dark age that followed the invasions of the Sea Peoples, but let’s concentrate on the military dimension for the time being. Egypt and the Hittite Empire were pretty much equal in military terms; the great battle between them at Kadesh in 1275 BCE ended in an Egyptian retreat, but the forces pitted against one another were of equivalent size and effectiveness.  The loose coalition of barbarian chiefdoms that the Egyptians called the Sea Peoples was immeasurably inferior to either one in conventional military terms—that is to say, they had no chariots, no chariot horses, no composite bows, and military budgets that were a tiny fraction of those of the superpowers of the day. Furthermore, the weapons systems used by the Sea Peoples were radically simpler than those of the superpowers, almost embarrassingly primitive compared to the complex technology of chariot warfare. That didn’t keep them from bringing the Hittite Empire down in flames and posing a threat to Egypt that only a stroke of military genius nullified in time.

The central lesson to be learned from this bit of ancient history is that military power is always contextual.  What counts as overwhelming power in one context can be lethal weakness in another, and the shift from one context to another can take place without warning. Thus it’s never safe to say that because one nation has a bigger military budget, or more of whatever the currently fashionable military technology happens to be, than another, the first nation has more military power than the other. In fact, if the first nation has enough of an advantage, and the second nation has the brains the gods gave geese, the first nation is very possibly cruising for a bruising.

Let’s look at another example, one that I’ve cited here more than once already: the British Empire on the eve of its dismemberment. In 1900, it was official policy that the British military was to be able to take on the next two largest powers in the world at any moment, and beat them both. That commitment drove a hugely expensive naval building program, backed by research and development so rapid that the world’s most powerful battleship in 1906, the then-newly commissioned HMS Dreadnought, was hopelessly obsolete by the time war broke out in 1914.  That and millions of pounds spent elsewhere made Britain, by every conventional measure, the strongest military power in the world at that time.

The problem, as mentioned earlier, was that most of that gargantuan expenditure went into projects that didn’t amount to a hill of beans when war finally came. Britain’s vast naval fleet spent most of the war tied up to the quays, waiting for the inferior German fleet to come out and fight; when the latter finally did so, the result was the inconclusive Battle of Jutland, after which both fleets sat out the rest of the war in port.  A fraction of that money put into developing antisubmarine warfare, say, or jolting the British Army out of its 19th century notions of strategy and tactics, might have had a significant impact on the war, but battleships were central to the British notion of how wars were supposed to be fought, and so battleships were where the money went.

What’s more, after the First World War ended and the Second loomed, the British military remained fixated on the same kind of thinking. While rising powers such as Japan and the United States flung their resources into aircraft carriers and laid the foundations for the future of naval warfare, Britain dabbled in naval aviation and entrusted its defense to battleships. Only a near-total failure of strategic imagination in the Kriegsmarine, Germany’s naval arm, kept that from being fatal; if Nazi Germany had paid attention to its Japanese ally, built half a dozen aircraft carriers before the war, and used those to carry out a Pearl Harbor-style strike on the British Navy in the spring of 1940, Britain would have been left wide open to an invasion across the Channel once France fell. As it was, most British naval forces in the Pacific were efficiently targeted and destroyed by Japanese planes early in the war.

Chariots and battleships are simply two examples of a common theme in military history:  any military technology that becomes central to a nation’s way of war attracts a constituency—a group that includes officers who have made their careers commanding that technology, commercial interests who have made their money building and servicing that technology, and anyone else who has an economic or personal stake in the technology—and that constituency will defend their preferred technology against the competition until and unless repeated military defeat makes its abandonment inescapable. One weapon such constituencies routinely wield is the military scenario that assumes that the enemy must always make war in whatever way will bring out their preferred technology’s strengths, and never exploit its weaknesses.

As far as I know, whatever literature ancient Egyptian chariot officers, horse breeders, and bow manufacturers may have churned out to glorify chariot warfare to the Egyptian reading public has not survived, but there’s an ample supply of books and articles from British presses between 1875 or so and the Second World War, praising the Royal Navy’s invincible battleships as the inevitable linchpin of British victory.  All this literature was produced to bolster the case for building and maintaining plenty of battleships, which was to the great advantage of naval officers, marine architects, and everyone else whose careers depended on plenty of battleships. The fact that all this investment in battleships was a spectacular waste of money that might actually have done some good elsewhere did not register until it was too late to save the British Empire.

If my readers have any doubt that the same sort of literature is currently being churned out by the constituencies of today’s popular Pentagon weapons systems, I encourage them to visit the nearest public library and check out a copy of Tom Clancy’s 1999 puff piece Carrier: A Guided Tour of an Aircraft Carrier. It’s a 348-page sales brochure for the most elaborate piece of military technology ever built, a modern nuclear aircraft carrier, which currently fills the same role in the US military that the battleship filled in that of imperial Britain. You needn’t expect to find substantive analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of this hugely expensive technology, or of the global military strategy or the suite of tactics that give it its context; again, this is a sales brochure, and it’s meant to sell carriers—or, more precisely, continued funding for carriers—to that fraction of the American people that concerns itself sufficiently with military affairs to write the occasional letter to its congresscritters.

The inevitable military scenario comes in the last chapter, where Clancy demonstrates conclusively that if a hopelessly outgunned and outclassed Third World nation were ever to launch a conventional naval attack against a US carrier group, the carrier group will probably be able to figure out some way to win. It would be a masterpiece of unintended comedy, if it weren’t for the looming shadow of all those other books before it, singing the praises of past military technologies whose many advantages didn’t turn out to include any part in winning or even surviving the next war.  Nor are carriers the only currently popular weapons system that benefits from this sort of uncritical praise; the US military is riddled with them, and thus with a series of potentially fatal vulnerabilities that rest partly on the unmentioned weaknesses of those technologies, and partly on a series of impending changes to the context of military action that follow from points we’ve discussed here many times already.

To sum up in advance the points I hope to make in the next few weeks, the US military faces at least three existential threats in the decades immediately ahead.  The first is that rising powers will devise ways to monkeywrench the baroque complexity of the US military machine, leaving that machine as crippled and vulnerable as Hittite chariots were before the javelins of the Sea Peoples. The second is that an ongoing revolution in military affairs will leave the entire massive arsenal of the US military as beside the point as all those British battleships were once the Second World War rolled around. The third is that the decline in fossil fuel supplies will make it impossible for the United States to maintain a way of war that, reduced to its simplest terms, consists of burning more petroleum than the other guy.  We’ll talk about the first of these possibilities next week.

End of the World of the Week #35

One of the more overhyped bestsellers of 1997, Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code got its fifteen minutes of fame by claiming that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament contains concealed letter sequences that predicted such then-recent events in Jewish history as the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. What was more, these same codes predicted that the end of the world would occur via a nuclear holocaust in 2006.

The sequences are there, too. The way the Bible Code works is simple: you take the entire Hebrew text of the Old Testament and program a computer to skip through it, taking every second letter, every third letter, every fourth letter, and so on, until you find the sequence you’re looking for.  If this suggests to you, dear reader, that you can find anything you’re looking for, you’re quite correct; according to an online Bible Code calculator I consulted, the phrase "Elvis shot JFK" can be found no less than three times in the Bible using Drosnin’s method.

A believer might take that as proof that Elvis, hidden in a sniper’s perch on the grassy knoll, fired three shots at JFK’s limousine. Those of us less convinced in the accuracy of such prophetic methods are welcome to find other interpretations—and, of course, the hard fact remains that the nuclear holocaust in 2006 didn’t happen.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

A Crisis of Legitimacy

Over the last week or two, the peak oil scene has been going through another round of its ongoing flirtation with fantasies of overnight collapse. This time the trigger was a recent paper by David Korowicz of Feasta, which I discussed a few weeks back and which you can download in PDF format here.

As I mentioned in that earlier post, it’s a well-written study, limited only by a few frankly unrealistic assumptions about how governments tend to react when faced with an immediate threat to national survival, and Korowicz detailed his presuppositions clearly enough that a thoughtful reader can easily bracket the improbable parts of the study and extract the very real value to be found elsewhere in it. Korowicz is quite correct in suggesting that the current global financial system is a house of cards that could easily come crashing to the ground, taking a quadrillion dollars or so of imaginary wealth with it and dealing the world’s industrial societies a staggering blow. 

It’s purely his suggestion that this could cause the global economy to freeze up, not for weeks, but for years or even longer, that strays out of the realm of realism into territory mapped out well in advance by Western civilization’s penchant for apocalyptic fantasies.  In the real world, of course, governments facing sudden financial collapse don’t just sit on their hands and make plaintive sounds; they take action, and there are plenty of actions they can take, since a financial collapse doesn’t actually make anything of value go away. Money, let us please remember, is not wealth; it’s a set of arbitrary tokens people in complex human societies use to manage the distribution of real wealth; if a monetary system breaks down, other ways can readily be jerry-rigged to keep real wealth moving.

Glance through the last century of economic history and you’ll find plenty of examples of governments responding to sudden financial crises with equally sudden, drastic measures that worked, at least in the short term—and while it’s always popular to say "It’s different this time," I hope my readers recall how often, and inaccurately, these same words get used in the not unrelated field of speculative bubbles.  The parallel’s not inappropriate, since the believer in the latest speculative delusion uses those words to convince himself that he doesn’t have to put up with the common but unwelcome experience of having to work hard to become wealthy. In the same way, I suspect, much of the popularity of fast-collapse scenarios come from the fact that many people want to convince themselves that they don’t have to put up with the common but unwelcome experience of the decline and fall of a civilization.  The temptation to get it over with, or at least to daydream about getting it over with, is a strong one.

I mention all this again because the theme of this week’s post centers on another kind of sudden disruption that occurs tolerably often in history, one that we’re probably going to see repeated in the not too distant future here in the US and elsewhere. Just as financial systems routinely come unglued, so do political systems; in both cases, though it takes years of mismanagement to build to the point of crisis, the crisis itself can hit suddenly and bring shattering change in a very short time; in both cases, in turn, the aftermath involves substantial losses, a great deal of frantic jerry-rigging and damage control, and then a return to a new normal that often has little in common with what the old normal used to be.

Political power’s a remarkable thing. Though Mao Zedong was quite correct to point out that it grows out of the barrel of a gun, it has to be transplanted into more fertile soil in short order or it will soon wither and die. A successful political system of any kind quickly establishes, in the minds of the people it rules, a set of beliefs and attitudes that define the political system as the normal, appropriate, and acceptable form of government for that people.  That sense of legitimacy is the foundation on which any enduring government must build, for when people see their government as legitimate, no matter how appalling it appears to outsiders, they will far more often than not put up with its excesses and follow its orders.

It probably needs to be said here that legitimacy is not a rational matter and has nothing to do with morality or competence; great nations all through history have calmly accepted the legitimacy of governments run by thieves, tyrants, madmen and fools. Still, a government that has long held popular legitimacy can still lose it, and can do so in a remarkably short time.  Those of my readers who are old enough to have watched the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact satellites will recall the speed with which the rulers of several Communist nations saw the entire apparatus of their government dissolve around them as the people they claimed the right to rule stopped cooperating.

Now of course that sudden collapse of legitimacy was long in preparing. Just as a singer or writer who becomes an overnight success normally gets there after many years of hard work, the implosion of a system of government normally follows many years of bad decisions and unheard warnings, and it’s not too hard in retrospect to trace how simmering unrest eventually rose to a full boil; still, the benefits of hindsight can be misleading, because it’s actually quite rare for anyone to catch on to what’s building in advance.  As the famous Affair of the Diamond Necklace dragged the prestige of the French monarchy in the mud, Talleyrand commented to a friend, "Pay attention to this wretched necklace-affair; I should not be in the least surprised if it overturns the throne"—but then Talleyrand was one of the supreme political observers of the age; to most others in France in 1784, it was just one more tawdry royal scandal in a country that had seen plenty of them already.

We have seen plenty of equally tawdry scandals in the United States of late, and it’s easy to ignore the impact of, let’s say, the Obama administration’s systematic refusal to bring charges against any of the financiers whose spectacularly blatant acts of fraud helped fuel, and then pop, the recent housing bubble. Still, I’ve come to think that a modern Talleyrand might see things differently. Had Obama acted otherwise, the Democratic party would likely have come to dominate the American political scene for the next forty years as thoroughly as it did for the four decades or so after 1932; instead, by giving the country a remarkably good imitation of the third term of George W. Bush, the Obama administration has convinced a sizable fraction of Americans that they have nothing to hope for from either party.  It’s symptomatic that a recent Rasmussen poll found that only 17% of respondents thought that a choice between Obama and Romney for president represented the best that America could do.

It’s all too common for the political class of a troubled nation to lose track of the fact that, after all, its power depends on the willingness of a great many people outside the political class to do what they’re told. In Paris in 1789, in St. Petersburg in 1917, and in a great many other places and times, the people who thought that they held the levers of power and repression discovered to their shock that the only power they actually had was the power to issue orders, and those who were supposed to carry those orders out could, when matters came to a head, decide that their own interests lay elsewhere.  In today’s America, equally, it’s not the crisply dressed executives, politicians, and bureaucrats who currently hold power who would be in a position to enforce that power in a crisis; it’s the hundreds of thousands of soldiers, police officers and Homeland Security personnel, who are by and large poorly paid, poorly treated, and poorly equipped, and who have not necessarily been given convincing reasons to support the interests of a political class that most of them privately despise, against the interests of the classes to which they themselves belong.

Such doubts and dissatisfactions can build for a long time before the crisis hits. If history shows anything, it’s that trying to time that crisis is very nearly a guarantee of failure.  Sooner or later, once the system’s legitimacy becomes sufficiently doubtful, some event dramatic enough to seize the collective imagination will trigger the final collapse of legitimacy and the implosion of the system, but what that event will be and when it will come is impossible to know in advance.  Not even Talleyrand seems to have guessed in advance that the calling of the Estates-General in 1789 would set off the final crisis of the monarchy whose collapse he accurately anticipated—but then who could have predicted the spur-of-the-moment improvisation that led representatives of the Third Estate to proclaim themselves a National Assembly, or the circumstances that sent a Paris mob running through the streets to storm the Bastille?

What follows the moment of crisis is a little less opaque to anticipation.  France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 were both politically centralized nations in which power was primarily exercised from the capital city, and revolutionary politicians and urban mobs in Paris and St. Petersburg respectively thus had an overwhelming impact on the course of events, and radical change there spread rapidly throughout the country, since there were no effective centers of power outside the core. In less centralized countries, control of the capital is less decisive; the seizure of power by Parliament and the London mob in 1641 in England bears close comparison with events in the two later revolutions, but when the rubble of the English Civil War finally stopped bouncing, the system that resulted was much closer to the one that had been in place before 1641 than, say, France after the revolution resembled the Ancien Régime; the survival of familiar modes of government in peripheral centers made it easier for those same modes to be restored once the revolutionary era was over.

That degree of regional independence did not survive in England, but the European pattern of political geography, whereby the capital city of each nation-state normally becomes its political and cultural hub and its largest population center, did not catch on anything like so well in North America.  In the United States and Canada alike, the national capital and the largest population center are two different cities; in both nations, as well as Mexico, large regional divisions—states or provinces—maintain a prickly independence from the central government, and regional cultures remain a potent political force.  The United States is the most extreme example of the lot; Washington DC is for all practical purposes a modest regional center that just happens to share space with a national government meeting, and there is no place in the country where even the largest urban mob could have a decisive impact on the survival of the federal government.

The complex historical processes that brought thirteen diverse colonies under a single federal system, furtthermore, left a great deal of power in the hands of the states. Very little of that power is used these days; repeated expansions of the originally very limited powers given to the national government have left most substantive issues in the hands of federal bureaucrats, and left the states little more to do than carrying out costly federal mandates at their own expense.  Still, the full framework of independent government—executive, legislative, and judicial—remains in place in each state; state governors retain the power to call up every adult citizen to serve in the state militia; and, finally and critically, the states have kept the constitutional power to bring the whole system to a screeching halt.

You’ll find that power spelled out in Article V of the US Constitution. If two thirds of state legislatures call for a constitutional convention to amend the Constitution, the convention will happen; if three quarters of state legislatures vote to ratify any amendment to the Constitution passed by the convention, that amendment goes into effect. It’s that simple.  Congress has nothing to say about it; the President has nothing to say about it; the Supreme Court has nothing to say about it; the federal government is, at least in theory, stuck on the sidelines.  That power has never been used; the one time it was seriously attempted, in 1913, Congress forestalled the state legislatures by passing a constitutional amendment identical to the one for which the states were agitating, and submitting it to the state legislatures for ratification.  The power nonetheless remains in place, a bomb hardwired into the Constitution.

What makes that bomb so explosive is that there are very nearly no limits to what a constitutional convention can do. The only thing the Constitution specifies is that no amendment can take away a state’s equal representation in the Senate.  Other than that, as long as two thirds of the states call for the convention and three quarters of the states ratify its actions, whatever comes out of it is the supreme law of the land. Everything is up for grabs; it would not be beyond the power of a constitutional convention, for example, to provide a legal means for states to withdraw peacefully from the Union, or even to repeal the Constitution and dissolve the Union altogether.

Had the leaders of the southern states in 1860 been less proud and more pragmatic, it’s entirely possible that they could have won their independence and spared themselves the catastrophe of the Civil War by some such measure as this. It’s eerily plausible to imagine Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi rising in the Senate that year to propose an amendment to provide for the peaceful dissolution of the Union, denouncing the radicals on both sides of the slavery issue who were pushing the nation toward civil war, and offering a peaceful separation of the states as the only workable solution to the problem that had dogged the nation for so long—and it’s by no means hard, at a time when most Americans still wanted to avoid war, to imagine such a proposal getting the votes it would need from Congress and the states to take effect.

Any further development of that speculation can be left to fans of alternate history.  Under most conditions, of course, no such proposal would ever be seriously made, much less accepted, but 1860 offers a trenchant reminder that under the pressure of irreconcilable conflict, the system of government we have in the United States can freeze up completely and make desperate measures the order of the day.  In 1860, the US government lost its legitimacy in a third of the country, and it took the 19th century’s bloodiest conflict to bring back the southern states to a grudging and incomplete obedience.  In the crisis of legitimacy that’s building in today’s America, a rising spiral of conflicts between regions also plays an important role, but this time the federal government can hardly count on the passionate loyalty it got a century and a half ago from the Northeast and the Midwest; in fact, it’s hard to think of any corner of the country where distrust and disaffection for the current government haven’t put down deep roots already.

If and when the crisis comes, it’s anyone’s guess what exactly will happen, but the possibility that the states will call on their power to redefine the Constitution—whether they use it to reshape the national government, or to let the country split apart into smaller nations along regional lines—belongs somewhere on the list of potential outcomes.  For that matter, it’s anyone’s guess what will spark such a crisis, if in fact one does come.  The triggering event might well be political, or economic, or even environmental.  Still, if I had to make a guess, it would be that the most likely triggering event will be military. We’ll open that immense can of worms next week.

End of the World of the Week #34

What could be more convincing, at least for believers in an imminent apocalypse, than eyewitness accounts of one of the most important details in the apocalyptic prophecy happening right now?  That’s the question devout Christians had to answer for themselves in the year 171 CE, when a priest named Montanus announced that the events prophesied in the Book of Revelation were taking place then and there.  "There," specifically, was Phrygia, in what is now part of Turkey; that’s where Montanus lived, and that’s where his followers repeatedly spotted nothing less than the New Jerusalem, hovering in the air above the modest Phrygian market town of Pepuza.

The New Prophecy, as Montanus’ belief system was called at the time, became a nine days’ wonder in the early Christian church, and attracted a great many followers—notably women, who were being forced out of the positions of prominence they had held earlier on. Two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, who left their husbands to follow Montanus became prophets in their own right, and they and Montanus became known as "the Three"—a term with certain resonances in more recent apocalyptic movements.  Despite excommunication by the main body of the church, the Montanist movement remained active for at least four centuries, waiting for the New Jerusalem to finish its descent onto Pepuza—and if there are any Montanists left, of course, they’re still waiting.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Degeneration of Politics

There’s a certain wry amusement in looking back over the last few months of posts here on The Archdruid Report.  Each week, I’ve gone to the keyboard intending to proceed further with the outline of the impending fall of American empire that’s the putative theme of this sequence of posts; each week, I’ve ended up talking about some way that the impending fall of American empire is affecting us right now.  That’s worth discussing in its own right, to be sure, but I could probably keep on writing weekly posts about such things until long after America’s global empire is a distant memory, and still not get back to the core issues of how we got here and where we’re headed.

Those issues need to be kept in mind, for reasons that are far from academic.  Just now, for example, the United States is trudging wearily through yet another vacuous presidential campaign, and even the mass media has to struggle to find any noticeable difference between the two grinning, gesticulating animatronic dolls disguised as presidential candidates who will spend this coming autumn lurching through their little elect-me routines with the mad persistence of broken cuckoo clocks.  Since neither candidate has a record worth examining, and neither one seems to be able to think of any substantive proposals for dealing with the widening spiral of crises that besets America these days, both campaigns have fallen back on the insistence that the other side’s candidate would be a worse president than theirs. I find myself wondering, in defiance of all the rules of logic, if both are right.

It’s not surprising, given the fatuous spectacle into which our politics has degenerated, that so many Americans have given up on the political process altogether, or that a growing fraction of Americans have gone veering off into political extremism.  The question that needs to be asked is why what was once one of the world’s most vigorous democracies can’t do better. It’s not a new question, but like most questions about contemporary American life, it generally gets asked and answered by people who never wonder if history has anything to say about the matter. 

Now in fact history does have quite a bit to say about the matter.  When the United States won its independence from Britain, the constitution that was signed in Philadelphia in 1787 established a form of government that was not, and did not pretend to be, democratic.  It was an aristocratic republic, of a type familiar in European political history: the government was elected by ballot, but the right to vote was restricted to those white male citizens who owned a significant amount of property—the amount varied from state to state, like almost everything else in the constitution, but it was high enough that only 10-15% of the population had the right to participate in elections.

What broke the grip of the old colonial aristocracy on the American political system, and launched the nation on a trajectory toward universal adult suffrage, was the emergence of the modern political party. In America, at least—the same process took place in Britain and several other countries around the same time—the major figure in that emergence was Andrew Jackson, who seized control of one large fragment of the disintegrating Democratic-Republican party in 1828, transformed it into the first successful political mass movement in American history, and rode it into the White House.  Central to Jackson’s strategy was support for state legislation extending the right to vote to all white male citizens; in order to make that support effective, the newly minted Democratic Party had to organize right down to the neighborhood level; in order to make the neighborhood organizations attract potential members, the party had to give them an active role in choosing candidates and policies.

That was the origin of the caucus system, the basic building block of American political parties from then on.  Jackson’s rivals quickly embraced the same system, and one rival force—the Anti-Masonic Party, which was a major force in national politics in the 1820s and 1830s—built on the Jacksonian template by inventing state and national conventions, which everyone else quickly copied. By the 1840s, the American political party had established itself as an essential part of the way Americans chose their candidates and made their laws. 

Here’s how it worked.  Party caucuses existed in every urban neighborhood, small town, and rural center, and their activities were not limited to one meeting every four years; they met regularly, as often as once a week, to talk politics and keep party members informed of what was going on in local, state, and national affairs.  Ambitious young men—after 1920, ambitious young women as well—attended caucus meetings throughout their voting district, pressing flesh, making connections, and learning the ropes of politics.  As election time approached, caucuses went into overdrive, nominating candidates, drafting policy proposals, and—crucially—electing delegates to city or county conventions, who would support the candidates and the proposals at that level. 

The city and county conventions then did much the same thing, sorting through the candidates and proposals from lower down, choosing party candidates for local officers, and electing delegates to the state convention.  The same process repeated itself at the state level, sorting out proposals from below, nominating candidates for state offices and Congressional seats, and electing delegates to the national convention, where the presidential candidate was chosen.

I once had the misfortune to be stuck in the Atlanta airport, waiting for a long-delayed flight back to the west coast, while large television screens all over the concourse showed the Republican National Convention in full spate.  A series of forgettable speakers were bellowing at the top of their lungs about the alleged virtues of whatever forgettable candidates the GOP was fielding that year; I suspect the point of all the yelling was to keep the delegates from dozing off, because the proceedings reminded me of nothing so much as a high school pep rally for a team that’s already lost its shot at the local playoffs.  The candidate had already been selected; ditto the party platform, a collection of bland sound bites that not even the most diehard of the faithful expected anyone to remember the day after the election; all that remained was the sort of tepid rah-rah atmosphere you get when people are going through the motions of something that used to matter, but no one any more can remember why.

As recently as the 1950s, that kind of atmosphere was unthinkable at a political convention, because what happened there actually made a difference.  Since the local caucuses all happened at more or less the same time, as did the local and state conventions, the absurdity of the current nominating process—in which victory in three or four early state primaries can all but clinch the nomination for a candidate long before most party members have any voice in the matter—was not an option. Instead, it was standard for delegates to converge on the national convention backing anything up to half a dozen serious candidates, and the candidate who proved best at making speeches, managing his public presence, and engaging in no-holds-barred backroom political deals—not bad job training for the presidency, all things considered—normally came out with the nomination.

That was the way the system worked.  Was it vulnerable to corruption? You bet.  Most large American cities spent many decades under the one-party rule of political machines that funneled public money to an assortment of private pockets, buying and selling votes like so many pork bellies, and the bosses of the biggest machines—Chicago’s Richard Daley was among the most famous of the recent examples—could play kingmaker on a national scale in a tight election.  Party machines more generally were full of able political connivers whose obvious interest in advancing their personal power and wealth noticeably outweighed any concern they might have had for the public good. All these were among the reasons why the caucus and convention system was gutted, stuffed and mounted in the 1960s and 1970s, and primary elections became the standard way to choose candidates.

Compare the older system to the way presidential nominations are handled nowadays, though, and it’s not exactly easy to claim that the present system is more representative or less blatantly corrupt than the caucuses and conventions of the past. Where winning a presidential nomination in 1852 or 1952 required solid organizational skills, the backing of a significant fraction of the party’s local movers and shakers, excellent public relations, and a good dollop of the amiable ruthlessness that makes for success in the world of political dealmaking, winning a presidential nomination nowadays requires precisely one thing:  money.  Business interests unquestionably had a seat at the table in the days when caucuses and conventions mattered, but theirs was far from the only such seat, and it happened quite often that a candidate favored by the very rich got elbowed aside by some upstart with populist notions who was just that little bit better at playing the political game.

More generally, it’s worth taking a look at the kind of people who advanced to power through the old system, and comparing them with the kind of people who advance to power through the new.  A Kansas City haberdasher like Harry Truman wouldn’t be elected to the city council today, but he was one of those ambitious young men I mentioned earlier, and his exceptional skills as a campaigner, organizer, and bare-knuckle political bruiser took him all the way to the White House; the world-class drubbing he dealt out to media favorite Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election was typical of the man.  More generally, it’s fair to say that very few of the significant political leaders of American history between Jackson’s time and the beginning of the 1960s could get elected in today’s money-driven environment. If we’re going to have a corrupt political system—and we are; no political system anywhere will ever be more honest than the people it governs—we might as well have one that produces leaders more capable than the airbrushed marionettes who infest the American political scene these days.

Quite a few of the reforms that reshaped American politics in the 20th century had the same effect as the gutting of the caucus and convention system.  Two of the Progressive Era’s chief reforms—direct election of US senators and nonpartisan elections for city governments—are cases in point.  Until 1913, US senators were appointed by state legislatures, were directly answerable to state governments, and thus reliably opposed attempts by the House of Representatives to expand federal power at the expense of the states.  Once US senators were elected by popular vote, that check went away, and the backroom political deals that previously put state politicians in the Senate gave way to outright purchase of senators by corporate interests, which could readily provide the money that candidates needed to win elections.  In the same way, campaigns to “clean up” cities by abolishing political machines got rid of the machines, but this simply meant that business interests no longer had to bargain with machine politicians for favors; they could simply buy elections and get what they wanted.

Changes along these lines, it deserves to be said, are tolerably common when a nation gets into the empire business. The rise of each of the major European empires, for example, were preceded by bitter struggles between the national government and feudal domains that had existed as quasi-independent states for centuries; only when traditions of local autonomy and decentralization are crushed can a nation concentrate the power and wealth needed for imperial adventures.  The extreme decentralization of the United States under its original constitution made conflicts of this kind inevitable, and earlier posts have already outlined the shifting battle lines along which those struggles were fought out.

The specific form that those struggles took in the United States, however, have consequences that will likely play a large role in shaping the course of America’s imperial decline.

The first is that the gutting of the caucus and convention system took place alongside the collapse of an entire world of democratically run voluntary organizations, which provided citizens with most of the training they needed to take an effective role in local politics.  In 1920, for example, half of all adult Americans, counting both genders and all ethnic groups, belonged to at least one fraternal order, and these orders—ranging in size from multimillion-member organizations such as the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows down to little local orders with a single lodge and a few dozen members—were nearly all run by the same democratic processes used by caucuses to elect delegates and vote on policy proposals.   Nearly all the other institutions of American civil society, from gun clubs and historical societies to  independent lending libraries and farmers’ cooperatives, ran their affairs in exactly the same way.

Those days are long gone.  The vast majority of those institutions went extinct decades ago, abandoned in the course of America’s transformation from an active civil society to a passive mass society, and even in the few organizations that remain, it’s rare to find anybody who still remembers how to chair a meeting so that all viewpoints get heard, the necessary decisions get made, and everyone still gets home at a reasonable hour. The fetish for consensus politics among activists on the left helped to finish the job, replacing old and effective methods of organization with a system that simply doesn’t work.  I don’t suppose that my readers have yet forgotten the torrents of self-praise that came out of Occupy Wall Street and its equivalents last year, or more precisely from the activists who hijacked the mass demonstrations in New York and elsewhere, pushed consensus methods on them, used those methods to get control of the meetings and the money, and then ran them into the ground. The result, as usual, was that most of the people who had originally joined the protests simply walked away, once it became clear to them that their voices had been coopted and their concerns would not be addressed, and the activists drifted elsewhere once it became clear to them that they no longer had an audience.

That’s the first consequence.  The second is that, by gutting the caucus system, the American political system deprived itself of a crucial source of guidance and feedback.  When neighborhood caucuses were still debating political issues over mugs of beer and passing their recommendations up the line to county, state, and national conventions, canny politicians of both major parties paid attention, since shifts in the political wind could be sensed there more quickly than elsewhere. Canny politicians in the major parties also paid close attention to anything the small parties did that attracted more than the usual number of voters—that’s how labor unions were legalized, for example. That meant that serious problems generally got attention from the political system:  not always quickly, and not always the kind of attention that helped matters much, but more often than not it kept the US from sailing blindly into disasters that everybody but the political class saw well in advance.

The current political system doesn’t have that advantage. These days American politics is a closed loop in which the competing pressure groups that make up the political class need not listen to anyone outside of their own narrow world of power brokers, corporate donors, and tame intellectuals.  It’s a perfect culture medium for groupthink, efficiently screening out the divergent voices and alternative views a nation needs in order to survive in an uncertain and troubled world.

The third consequence is that the centralization of American power, thorough as it was, never quite reached all the way down to the level of structure.  Many European countries scrapped their old regional provinces entirely in the process of centralizing power, replacing the traditional geography of power with a new structure that deliberately disrupted local ties and loyalties. The United States never managed to break up the states, say, into a couple of hundred administrative districts with boundaries that cut across the old state lines and only such powers as Congress chooses to hand out.  Instead, the states remain fully functional regional governments, clinging jealously to what remains of their old prerogatives, and possessed of certain rarely exercised powers that could turn out to be decisive in a time of crisis. We’ll talk more about those next week.

End of the World of the Week #33

Not every prophecy of doom that claims to be ancient is actually ancient. Fans of the supposed Mayan origin of the current flurry of 2012 prophecies may find it useful to keep that in mind, as theirs is far from the first time that some contemporary writer has foisted predictions onto a much older and more famous figure.  One example that comes to mind right away is the notorious Mother Shipton.

Ursula Shipton, née Southeil, was born around 1488 in Yorkshire and died in 1561.According to a popular chapbook published six years after her death, she was fabulously ugly, but a skilled fortune teller with a more than local reputation.  Nearly all her prophecies were about local Yorkshire events, and none featured the end of the world.

That was remedied in 1862 when a hack writer named Charles Hindley supplied Mother Shipton with a new set of prophecies, ending with the couplet:

The world then to an end shall come
In eighteen hundred and eighty-one.

Needless to say, 1881 came and went without any particular sign of doom, but Hindley’s invented prophecies have been circulated since his time as Mother Shipton’s authentic prophecies. When I was in high school, a version appeared that applied a useful update to that last couplet:

The world then to an end shall come
In nineteen hundred and ninety-one.

1991, in turn, passed without apocalyptic incident.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not