A Stalingrad for Natural Gas

2021-09-15

European natural gas hub spot price has surpassed $900 per thousand cubic meters with the psychologically important threshold of $1 per cubic meter not far off. This is an astronomically high price that is likely to bankrupt a lot of European energy companies while causing their customers to die of exposure this winter.

Just in the UK, where around 10 thousand people freeze to death during a normal winter with normal prices, so far PfP Energy, MoneyPlus Energy, People’s Energy and Utility Point have kissed the world good-bye, their customers getting picked up by the government regulator Ofgem. Acting wisely, Ofgem raised the annual price cap for a typical household by £139 to £1,277. Just to make things even more interesting, the underwater cable providing electricity to the UK from France just failed, knocking 1GW out of the 2GW link.

What’s behind all of this chaos and mayhem? Call it the wages of stupidity.

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Biden’s Little Victories

2021-09-08

Kamala Harris lays flowers at a memorial to the Viet Cong who shot down John McCain

Victory comes to mean different things as we grow up and age; for an infant, victory may be in spitting a mouthful of food farther than ever before; for a grown man in his prime, victory may be in bedding down a beautiful woman; and for someone Joe Biden’s age, victory may be in successfully moving his bowels. Let us not lose sight of such relativities as we consider America’s victorious exit from Afghanistan and its forthcoming victorious exits from Iraq, Syria, the Ukraine, Kosovo, Israel, Taiwan, Qatar, Okinawa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Alaska, to name a few.

A well known fact about the US is that its national policies generally, and its “vision thing” (as George Bush-père called it) in particular are formulated by liberal arts graduates of Ivy League schools. Their training generally consists of reading and thinking about some books, but their reading lists tend to be rather short. However, they always include two titles: 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Perversely, they remember these not as cautionary anti-utopias but as sets of instructions, 1984 especially, and proceed accordingly.

Please recall that on the wall of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth were inscribed three slogans:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

Back in 2014 it had occurred to me that these apply just a little too well to the way the Washington, DC establishment operates, and I have been tracking its progress in light of this realization ever since with excellent results.

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Noosphere, Part III: Polytheistic mythologies

2021-09-06

This set of myths encompasses polytheism in all of its myriad forms and is symbolized by the mathematically invalid expression 0 = ∞. The number is zero because in this scheme there are exactly zero actual Gods. Here, 0 is very different from the previously discussed NULL state, which is the atheists’ strenuous denial and/or the experienced absence of all that is divine. Zero is also infinity since the number of lower-case gods, goddesses, and godlike beings is unconstrained by any principle. If you have a forest goddess, then why not a tree goddess, and bush goddess, a shrub goddess and a sapling goddess? Toss in a heaping handful of nymphs, trolls and goblins to round out the tableau.

Another distinction is that NULL appears to be a transient state indicative of a crisis whereas 0 = ∞ is a steady-state condition that Homo sapiens have experienced and will in all likelihood continue to experience over countless millennia. Various monotheistic religions and cults, symbolized by 1≠1, 1+1=1 and 1+1+1=1, which we will discuss later, occupy a middle position: they are not transient; neither are they permanent but tend to decay to 0 = ∞ over time.

Lower-case gods form a continuum from truly godlike entities that create and destroy worlds and can only be appeased through regularly scheduled human sacrifices, preferably of virgins, to deified humans whose mummified remains perpetually lie in state in mausoleums, to pop stars and celebrities and all the way to little idols—Chinese kitchen gods, for instance, which are statuettes one can properly appease by smearing them with lard once a year. Fetishes and talismans fit at the far end of this continuum. The existence of neolithic “Venus figurines” shows that this has been going on for at least a few thousand years, probably much longer, lending credence to the theory that the penchant for religious mythology is an evolved trait among Homo sapiens which scientific atheists are silly to try to fight: gods and godlike beings and things may be software but that software runs on dedicated, special-use hardware built right into the human cranium.

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The Afghanistan Rout and American Glasnost’

2021-08-28

[In Bulgarian]

[In Russian]

Recent events have forced me to interrupt regular programming to bring you a report on the developments in Afghanistan and what I believe they portend for the US. The US and NATO have finally left Afghanistan after a 20-year occupation. At this point, they are still retaining a toehold at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, from which they are attempting to repatriate their nationals along with those Afghanis who served the occupation. These collaborators now fear for their lives from the Taliban, who have swiftly taken over almost the entire country in what was probably the most bloodless regime change operation thmat part of the world has ever experienced.

The US occupation of Afghanistan was rationalized based on an entire edifice of lies. At its foundation lay the lie of Nineleven. Above it towered the lie of fighting terrorism (while training and equipping the terrorists). Somewhere along the way the lie of aiding Afghanistan’s development into a vibrant, modern democracy with gender equality and other bells and whistles was added to this already stupendous structure (while the only actual development was that of the heroin trade). And, of course, overlaying all of the above was a truly staggering amount of corruption and theft.

If you believe the official narrative, Osama bin Laden was a sort of latter-day Jesus who repeated the miracle of loaves and fishes except with skyscrapers, knocking down three of them (WTC 1, 2 and 7) using just two airplanes. Another of his miracles was to make an entire passenger jet, piloted by an amateur, pull some truly stunning aerobatics that no passenger jet has pulled before or since, then ascend unto heaven through a wall of the Pentagon, engines, seats, luggage, bodies and all, leaving behind a small charred opening plus a part of a cruise missile that apparently had been hidden on board and that was subsequently carried away wrapped in a tarp on the shoulders of some very nervous and displeased-looking gentlemen in office attire. Another plane full of passengers left a smallish charred pit in the ground and recordings of rather scripted-sounding cell phone conversations held while the supposed plane was in an area lacking cell phone coverage. Bin Laden orchestrated all this mayhem by satellite phone, or by telepathy, without ever leaving the comfort of his cave in Afghanistan. I encourage you to believe this narrative because believing the alternative may cause you to lose your mind. Many people already have.

And if you wish to be stubborn and refuse to believe the official narrative, then it becomes quite plausible to think that Nineleven was a lavish American hoax: that the three skyscrapers were mined by some Americans, that the Pentagon was hit by an American cruise missile fired by some more Americans and that Osama bin Laden was a CIA agent who made grainy videos and scratchy audiotapes to inspire America’s pet terrorists (branded Al Qaeda, later rebranded ISIS/ISIL/Daesh/Islamic Caliphate). Osama was looking forward to a comfortable retirement somewhere in friendly Pakistan—a retirement that was cut short by an attack by a group of navy seals some time after his death from kidney failure.

Why would the Americans do this to themselves? Why, to rule the world, of course! They had bought into Mackinder’s cockamamie “heartland” theory, according to which whichever world power controls the heartland of Eurasia will control the world. If you think that controlling a pile of rocks inhabited by ornery, warlike natives whose minds are stuck in the middle ages is not conducive to ruling the entire world, then you are definitely smarter than the average turnip, but still not good enough to be one of America’s brilliant geopolitical strategists.

The developments of Nineleven provided the rationale for the 20-year US/NATO military occupation of Afghanistan, which cost over $2 trillion and caused half a million or so wrongful deaths. This was by no means a bargain—putting a hit on someone doesn’t cost anywhere near $4 million a pop, especially not in Afghanistan, which is very poor and awash with weapons. A conservative assumption is that much of this money was simply stolen. Indeed, seeing reports of erstwhile Afghani president Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country in a helicopter so overstuffed with cash that a lot of it had to be abandoned on the tarmac is a clear indication of how funds were being allocated in the course of the US occupation.

It is officially known that a little over half the money went to fill the coffers of five defense contractors—Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Boeing and Northrop Grumman. Their products were freely used over the entire expanse of Afghanistan, resulting in fabulous amounts of collateral damage. Some also went to arm the Afghani military, which surrendered to the Taliban without a fight, weapons and all, except for 22 military jets and 24 military helicopters which fled to Uzbekistan along with 585 soldiers. This hardware, including top of the line Black Hawk helicopters with all the recent gadgets installed, will now be picked over, and probably laughed at, by Russian experts. (The purpose of US weapons procurement is not to produce effective weapons but to make profits for Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Boeing and Northrop Grumman.)

But, you may ask, What about the fruits of controlling the heartland? What about controlling the whole world once ensconced there? Once there, the Americans discovered that Afghanistan didn’t offer much of anything except ornery natives and poppy fields. And while the former were of no use at all as far as securing world domination, the latter, turned into heroin, could be used strategically to weaken the whole of Eurasia by turning its population into a bunch of junkies. To this end, Afghanistan was turned into the world’s heroin factory, producing 85% of the estimated global heroin and morphine supply, a near monopoly. Prior to the US/NATO invasion of Afghanistan, poppy cultivation had been banned by the Taliban, so this was entirely a Western achievement.

The plan was to have Afghani heroin ooze out all over the surrounding Eurasia by camel caravans traversing huge uninhabitable deserts, and some of this indeed happened, but it quickly turned out that there was more money to be made by airlifting it out using US military transport planes flying to Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, which became the major heroin transshipment point. And so a lot of the heroin ended up in the US and in the EU, to a point where there are over 10 million opiate addicts in the US and deaths from opiate overdoses in the US alone amount to half a million a year and growing fast, with drug-related deaths the leading cause of death among the non-geriatrics. But it seems that these are just the opioid addicts who stand up to be counted, whereas opiate abuse is far more widespread and, judging from rapidly dropping overall life expectancy, quite severe.

A good question to ask is: What will happen to the heroin addicts after the Taliban once again clamp down on poppy cultivation. It will be easy for them to do now that there are no US/NATO troops guarding the poppy fields. They will make up the revenue shortfall by selling trophy US weapons on the black market. The probable answer is that the junkies will switch (and already are switching) to the synthetic opiate fentanyl, which the Chinese are happy to provide in arbitrarily large quantities. Any suggestion that the Chinese might want to stop doing so may lead to a polite mention of the Opium Wars and a suggestion that what goes around comes around. At one point a quarter of the Chinese were addicted to opium; let’s see if Americans can beat that record. To be sure, Afghani heroin is not alone to blame for the epidemic of opiate abuse in the US. The Sackler family did a great deal to construct a veritable conveyor belt that first hooked people on prescription pain killers, then abandoned them to street drugs once the prescriptions ran out. But Afghani heroin qualifies as a major US policy boomerang, alongside many others.

Another good question to ask is: Whence the urge to dominate the world by seizing control of the heartland and inundating it with heroin (and Afghani refugees)? There is certainly the need to keep the military-industrial complex humming and funneling money to congressional election coffers, and then there is the general megalomaniacal ambition of various Washingtonians of both parties, but that’s far from all. The overarching need to disrupt, degrade and generally wreak havoc is a key element of America’s overall business plan, which is to continue to live beyond its means simply by printing money.

The only way to make this business plan work is for the US to present itself as an island of stability in a chaotic world and a financial safe haven where the world’s thieving oligarchs can safely launder their ill-gotten gains. Once this plan fails, the US will fall through third-world-dom and straight into an endless Civil War reenactment with live ammo. Hence all the current Sturm und Drang over the US/NATO hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Because who cares about Afghanistan? Sure, it has heroin, but fentanyl is even more potent and doesn’t involve all the messiness with growing poppies and harvesting and processing poppy juice. And excuse me if I don’t believe that dead US servicemen or US nationals left behind qualify as some sort of national tragedy; it’s what typically happens in a hasty retreat. And when have Americans not abandoned their local allies? The Kurds of Northern Syria, which retreating Americans abandoned to the ever-so-friendly Turks, are the last example that springs to mind; but how many Americans still remember even that far back. It’s simply what Americans do—always.

This hasty retreat signals, somewhere in the deep subconscious (because the realization is too painful) the end of the something-for-nothing economy on which the US has increasingly come to depend since Nixon took the US dollar off the gold standard 50 years ago. This disease may have been slow to develop, but it is chronic, incurable and invariably fatal. The 2021 US federal budget is $6.8 trillion and the budget deficit is $3 trillion, meaning that out of every dollar spent 44 cents are printed into existence. This is a hospice care-level dosage of financial morphine.

At this point no amount of financial morphine will allow the American patient to arise from his bed, yank the IV from his arm and go and wreak even more havoc in the world, sowing fear and chaos. The fear and chaos are now right within the US itself. The $753.5 billion the US is spending on defense in 2021 is more than the next nine highest-spending countries spend combined, but it’s not enough to cause sufficient mayhem to scare the entire world into continuing to honor the US dollar in international trade or to invest in dollar-denominated assets; all that’s left is financial inertia and a bit of excitement around the world’s largest market bubble which the US federal reserve is desperately blowing.

The mental anguish produced by this situation results in dire media images from the Kabul airport. Ignored is the fact that the rest of Afghanistan has suddenly become rather placid, with bright-eyed, bushy-bearded Taliban lads armed with the latest and greatest US weapons patrolling markets and street corners. ISIS-K, America’s pet terrorists in Afghanistan, of the Bin Laden/Al Qaeda pedigree, have gone quiet. They used to regularly organize bomb blasts in Kabul, routinely killing hundreds of locals, but now the only place where they still blow people up is at the airport, which is also the only area still under American control.

The Americans were nice enough to share their clever battle plan with their NATO allies, which is why Lord Pederast of England and Madame Petite-Pute of France (I can’t be bothered to look up their actual names) went public with news of this terrorist attack well before it transpired. Thirteen US servicemen died; many more locals died because surviving US servicemen opened fire on the victims. Nobody got court-martialed and nobody resigned; this is business as usual. Why the boys of ISIS-K were charged with this mission is obvious. The Americans need a reason to cut short the evacuation of their nationals and their local Afghani servants, as demanded by the Taliban, and now they have an excuse: the safety of their servicemen is paramount.

The American retreat from Afghanistan was inevitable, but what has amazed and appalled the entire world is the simply unimaginable boneheadedness ham-handedness of the operation at every level. Compared to the Soviet withdrawal, it is a profound national humiliation. The Soviets withdrew in battle order, flags flying, and left behind a functional government that stayed in power for another three years, successfully resisting Western efforts at overthrowing it, and only fell when Soviet support stopped because the USSR had collapsed—essentially because of Gorbachev’s treason. But the Afghanis remember and still like the Russians, still call them “Shuravi” (Soviets) and are grateful to Russia for everything that it had built there. The Russian embassy in Kabul is fully staffed and functioning normally, maintaining well-established channels of communication with the Taliban. In contrast, over their 20-year occupation the Americans have built nothing, destroyed much, and are by now almost universally hated and despised.

I believe that the extreme and apparent incompetence of the Americans in Afghanistan is the result of the corrosive effect of lies. A foundation of lies is inevitably a shaky one and can only be kept from crumbling under carefully controlled circumstances. For instance, a certain shady oligarch may promote a certain vaccine as effective against a certain virus whereas his real intention is to stop population growth by making women sterile. This works because corporate structures can be organized around a management strategy known as mushroom theory (keep them in the dark and feed them shit). But it doesn’t work for an entire sprawling military empire, where the truth inevitably leaks out, contradictions mount and morale plummets. One lie always deserves another, and then the making of mistakes, the efforts to fix mistakes and the efforts to hide mistakes all become largely interchangeable. At one point the CIA’s terrorists were battling the Pentagon’s terrorists in Syria. That was really awkward and hard to hide. Luckily, the Russians fixed that problem by bombing them all into oblivion.

The Afghanistan occupation started with the horrendous lies of Nineleven, continued with the ridiculous, contrived excuses for the invasion and then went on for 20 long years, each much like the previous, with each year’s lies piling on top of the previous years’ lies. America had to stay because of the terrorism caused by the terrorists whom they first organized to fight the Soviets, then kept as pets. And now speaking the truth in America is akin to shouting fire in a crowded theater. Poor old Joe Biden, his brain ticking ever more loudly, struggling to form a coherent sentence, laboring under the crushing load of these lies, can do no better than assume the fetal position right in the middle of a press conference. Can you imagine what Bedlam would break out if he were to suddenly stop lying? I shudder to think! Stocking up on thorazine beforehand would seem prudent. But such a bout of American glasnost’ seems all but inevitable. Sooner or later the truth will spill over this giant dam brimming with lies. The ensuing flood is sure to sweep away everything in its path.

Noosphere, Part II: Atheistic Mythologies

2021-08-23

In  spite of their great diversity, the myths that serve as the foundational elements of the noosphere can all be sorted into categories identified by a member of the following set: {NULL, 0, 1, 2, 3}. These identifiers indicate atheistic, polytheistic, monistic, dualistic and trinitarian mythologies. These numbers do not obey the laws of arithmetic but behave in the following counterintuitive and non-obvious  ways:

Atheistic: NULL is NULL
Polytheistic: 0 = ∞
Monistic: 1≠1
Dualistic: 1+1=1
Trinitarian: 1+1+1=1

As promised, we shall now look at each one of these. This week’s installment will address atheistic mythologies.

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The Technosphere and the Noosphere of the Earth

2021-08-19

In my 2016 book Shrinking the Technosphere I described the technosphere as a nonhuman global emergent intelligence driven by an abstract teleology of total control, a networked machine with some human moving parts (fewer and fewer every day), utterly devoid of any moral or ethical sense (but skilled in using morality and ethics for manipulative purposes). The technosphere can keep you alive and comfortable if it finds you useful but can just as easily kill you, its killing technologies being some of the most advanced. I made the case that we ought to work diligently on shrinking the technosphere; not eliminating technology altogether, mind you, since that would spell the death of billions, but reigning it in and becoming the master of it rather than it being the master of us.

My book did define half the problem but, concentrating as it did on technology alone, it ignored the other half by placing an important question—What drives the totality of the human endeavor?—out of scope. Yes, the technosphere doesn’t particularly care whether we live or die. If we must shrink the technosphere, then to what purpose? The technosphere is powerful, and to wage battle against it requires some measure of heroism and wild abandon. But what is to motivate us to become heroes—fear of death? Well, fear has never produced a hero. Why try to be a hero if mere cowardice can produce similar results?

What can control and shrink the technosphere is not you or me and our puny and pathetic efforts but cultural and civilizational forces beyond our control. In order to understand them, we first have to admit that nothing is out of scope. We need to start by examining the variety of religious mythologies that serve as the basis for most human motivations. Some of them constrain the technosphere in purposeful ways while others allow it to run rampant. These mythologies, along with everything that is built up on top of them, comprise the noosphere of the Earth, which I will attempt to describe.

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KunstlerCast 348 Revisiting “Reinventing Collapse” with Dmitry Orlov

2021-08-19

Watching the Rockets

2021-07-21

Rockets are important. They are symbolically important, as the most virile, masculine, phallic manifestation of the superpower contest. To wit, the US national anthem: \”the rockets red glare… gave proof through the night… that our flag was still there.\” No rockets—no flag—no \”home of the brave.\” Rockets are strategically important: if the other side\’s rockets give it the ability to destroy your side with impunity, then your strategy is to negotiate the terms of your surrender.

They are also tactically important. Your navy would be loathe to sail into foreign waters knowing that they could be sunk without so much as a chance to fire back. It is terrible for morale to have rockets falling out of the sky and exploding sporadically among your civilian population while your military stands by helplessly.

All of this makes rockets worth watching, as I have been doing, and I couldn\’t help but notice some rather peculiar developments that portend major changes in how superpowers must interact. Suddenly—or not so suddenly if you\’ve been paying attention—we seem to be living in a slightly different world.

Here I could launch into a lengthy historical discussion of why the US went nuclear in Japan, why US plans to destroy the USSR using a nuclear first strike never came to fruition, why Reagan\’s Star Wars failed and much else—but I won\’t bother and simply assume that you know all of that. Instead, I\’ll just issue an update.

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A Case Study in National Shame

2021-07-12

The American occupation of Afghanistan is, thankfully, over, and the way it ended was remarkably fitting to an effort that was thoroughly misguided. The US pulled out in the middle of the night, not warning its allies and leaving behind a rapidly collapsing puppet state which they established and propped up for two decades at the cost of $2.26 trillion. To give you an idea of these numbers, Afghanistan\’s population is 38 million; its per capita annual income is $581. By multiplying the two together and the whole by 20 years, and we get $441.56 billion. Thus, the US spending on Afghanistan exceeded the country\’s GDP by a factor of five!

And what is there to show for it? Well, while under the control of the US (which was in many cases more notional than real) Afghanistan became responsible for 90% of the world\’s opium supply, valued at around $58.5 billion a year. Even as a corrupt scheme to use government funds to get at some dirty drug money, the Afghanistan venture has been a pitifully, pathetically ineffectual one, and that is probably why the topic hardly ever comes up. Being ruled by a mafia government may not be particularly shameful for people who have no shame, but being ruled by a mafia government that can\’t even come up with the ink is, among thieves, the ultimate dishonor.

Perhaps an even greater dishonor is in leaving behind scores of people whom the Taliban consider American collaborators: translators and other service personnel recruited and employed by the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan over the past two decades. An honorable thing to do would be to fly them out to the US and to give them places to live and pensions. A dishonorable thing to do is what the US usually does under such circumstances: abandon its allies as soon as they become unnecessary. The whole world is watching and the lesson they are learning is this: the US is in rapid, chaotic retreat, and it is manifestly unsafe to be an American ally or, worse yet, an American collaborator.

But such important topics are being studiously ignored. What is talked about instead is… cue the sound of silence. Joe Biden recently let us catch a glimpse of his internal mental void, saying, \”We went [into Afghanistan] for two reasons: to… to…\” Then he froze with a blank stare and eventually came up with two expedient explanations: getting Osama Bin Laden (who was in Pakistan, a US ally at the time, enjoying his quiet CIA retirement living next to a military college) and fighting terrorism (which is now a worse problem than ever).

From this we might conclude that US blundering into Afghanistan and staying there for two decades was a horrendous mistake and, surely, it was, but this does not explain why the mistake was made. Why are empires, especially dying ones, drawn to Afghanistan like moths to a flame? The case study below is from my book The Five Stages of Collapse. It is about the Pashtuns, but to simply just a little, the Taliban, who will, by all indications, soon will once again be in charge of the whole of Afghanistan, are ethnic Pashtuns (they have recruited a great many ethnic Tajiks in recent times, but this does not change their basic nature).

Beyond satisfying an interest in US foreign policy, the story of Afghanistan, and of Taliban in it, offers a valuable opportunity for attitude adjustment. You may not think highly of them; in turn, what they think of you is that you should shut up, get out and stay out. You may be tempted to expound to them your tender feelings about freedom, democracy, human rights, social and technological progress, environmentalism, gender equality and the reproductive rights of women. They will simply ignore all of that as idiotic, childish noise.

Chances are, your entire civilization will crumble into dust and nothing will be left of it except some rusty rebar sticking out of cracked concrete and they will still be there, same as ever. Your challenge is to learn to respect them, knowing full well that they will never, ever have any respect for you.

Case Study: The Pashtuns

Among the world’s many ungoverned spaces, there are few as long lasting and as able to withstand the relentless onslaught of empires as the Pashtun tribal areas, which straddle the porous and largely notional border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan. To invaders, this is an invisible yet impregnable fortress that has withstood all attempts by centralized government authorities to impose their will. The term “ungoverned” is, as usual, misapplied here: the Pashtuns have an alternative system of governance whose rules preclude the establishment of any centralized authority. At over forty million strong, they are one of the largest ethnic groups on the planet. Their ability to resist the British, the Pakistanis, the Soviets and now the Americans/NATO makes them one of the greatest anti-imperialist success stories on our planet. What makes up the shell of such an uncrackable nut? This is an interesting question, which is why I have decided to include an exposition on the Pashtuns, the toughest nut in the whole tribal nutsack.

An equally interesting question to ask is, What compelled a succession of empires to continue to make futile attempts to crack it, throwing life and treasure at the task of conquering a rugged, fiercely independent, inaccessible and mostly worthless piece of land? Wouldn’t it be much easier to just leave the Pashtuns alone and continue using rifles against Pygmies armed with ripe fruit? The compulsion to conquer and to subjugate is by no means new, and tribes have continuously conquered and subjugated other tribes since prehistoric times, but with the emergence of global empires a new element seems to have been introduced: complete intolerance of complete independence. Every pocket of the planet, no matter how small, has to be assigned to an internationally recognized state that has been bound to other states through treaties and state-legal relations. The global political order can no longer tolerate a single white spot on the political map. Its imperative seems to be to force every single group of humans to at least sit down at the negotiating table, at which the most powerful (or so they think) always have the upper hand, and to sign legally-binding documents. The existence of any such white spot poses an existential threat to the entire system, which is why the efforts to eliminate it are often disproportionate to either its value or its threat. Like space aliens, great big empires swoop in and say, “ Take me to your leader!” And if there is no leader, and the only bit of foreign policy this particular tribe ever happens to have developed is exhaustively described by the words “go away and leave us alone,” then a misunderstanding inevitably results and things end badly for both sides. Appointing a local stooge to sign legally-binding documents on behalf of the ungoverned territory that is supposed to behave like a nation-state does not work.

It would appear that the state cannot impose its authority on an area if its underlying, local system of governance is non-hierarchical, self-enforcing and decentralized, and has a strong tradition of uniting solely for the purpose of ganging up on outside threats and an equally strong tradition of attempting to avenge all wrongful deaths (such as a family member who has been killed by an American Predator drone). This happens to be the case with the Pashtuns. Their ancient and eternal code of conduct is Pashtunwali, or “The Pashtun Way.” The reason for following Pashtunwali is to be a good Pashtun. In turn, what a good Pashtun does is follow Pashtunwali. It is self-reinforcing because any Pashtun who does not follow Pashtunwali is unable to secure the cooperation of other Pashtuns, and has very low life expectancy, because ostracism is generally equivalent to a death sentence. Among the Pashtuns, there is no such thing as the right to life; there is only the reason for not killing someone right there and then. If this seems unnecessarily harsh to you, then what did you expect? A trip to Disneyland? Needless to say, the Pashtuns cannot be seduced with offers of social progress and economic development, because that is not the purpose of Pashtunwali. The purpose of Pashtunwali is to perpetuate Pashtunwali, and at this it is apparently very, very good.

Pashtun society is classified as segmentary, a subtype of acephalous (leaderless). The main figures of authority are the elders (maliks) who serve a local tribal chief (khan), but their leadership positions remain at all times contingent on putting the tribe’s interests first. All decisionmaking is consensus-based, severely restricting the scope of united action. However, when faced with an external threat, the Pashtuns are able to appoint a dictator, and to serve that dictator with absolute obedience until the threat is extinguished.

Pashtunwali defines the following key concepts: honor (nang) demands action regardless of consequences whenever Pashtunwali is violated. It is permissible to lie and kill to protect one’s nang. Revenge (badal) demands “an eye for an eye” in case of injury or damage, but crucially allows payment of restitution to avoid bloodshed. Incarceration is considered unacceptable and unjust under any circumstances. It is seen as interfering with justice, since it complicates the process of exacting revenge and precludes the payment of restitution. This is why Afghanistan has been the scene of spectacular prison escapes, where hundreds of inmates are freed in a single military-style attack; the attackers’ goal is not just to free prisoners but also to later kill them or collect restitution from them. The law of hospitality (nanawatai) demands that any Pashtun must welcome and provide sanctuary to anyone who asks for it. As a matter of nang, the guest must be kept perfectly secure and safe from all harm while a guest. Once over the threshold and no longer a guest, he can be sniped at one’s leisure should such an action be called for. Laws against harboring fugitives, serving as accessory after the fact, impeding official investigations and so forth are meaningless and attempts to enforce them automatically result in badal.

The local Pashtun governing body is the jirga, which is convened only on special occasions. It takes its roots from Athenian democracy, although some scholars argue that it predates it. The participants arrange themselves in a circle, and everyone has the right to speak. There is no one presiding, in accordance with the principle that no one is superior in the eyes of Pashtunwali. The decision is based on a majority consensus. Those who defy the decision of the jirga open themselves up to officially sanctioned arson and murder. It is significant that the jirga does not allow representation: it is a direct rather than a representative democracy. It is also crucial that the jirga reserves the right to abnegate any agreement previously entered into, making treaty-based state-legal relations with the Pashtuns impossible. Lastly, only those who follow Pashtunwali can participate in a jirga; all outsiders are automatically excluded.

This should give you some idea of why Pashtunwali presents an intractable problem for any empire that wants to dominate the Pashtuns. Now let us briefly glance at the long and tangled historical record of such attempts.

Empires break their teeth

The first modern empire to tangle with the Pashtuns was the British, who optimistically tried to impose the Indian Penal Code on them. When the Pashtuns refused to recognize this code as just, the result was a considerable amount of carnage. The British then abandoned attempts at imposing a system of justice and resorted to administrative means instead: their Closed Border Policy attempted to segregate the plains tribes from the hill tribes. This policy failed to stop the carnage and was abandoned after thirty years. Eventually the British were compelled to resort to accommodation by recognizing Pashtun tribal law. Then they bled profusely and departed in unseemly haste, leaving the Pashtuns to the Pakistanis, who mostly practiced accommodation as well. The Taliban movement, which is predominantly Pashtun-led, was recognized by Pakistan. Pakistan was content to allow Pashtun self-governance until September 11, 2001. Since then they have been compelled to at least make a show of imposing authority on the Pashtuns, in order to at least appear to cooperate with their American allies, although little remains of this cooperation today.

The Soviets blundered into Afghanistan in a misguided effort to defend socialism against regressive counterrevolutionary tendencies in accordance with the Brezhnev Doctrine. They made a futile attempt to eradicate ethnic and religious identities through a strategy of suppression, and succeeded, for a time, in consolidating control of urban areas while the predominantly Pashtun resistance established footholds in the hills surrounding the capital Kabul. They also relentlessly bombed the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to create a no-man’s land. In doing so, they failed on a grand scale, creating a very large refugee crisis and thus ensuring that their enemies had plenty of international support. Once, thanks to the efforts of the CIA (working closely with Osama bin Laden) the Pashtuns acquired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, the Soviets gradually lost the ability to continue the air campaign.

The Soviets’ effort to win the Pashtun hearts and minds was likewise a spectacular failure. Pashtunwali demanded revenge for the Soviets’ military actions from even the most ambivalent Pashtuns. The few elders the Soviets were able to co-opt through intimidation or bribery swiftly lost the support of their followers. The Soviets withdrew in 1988, having made zero headway, and having lost the political will to succeed. It was a costly conflict with no benefits.

The Americans (and a few NATO troops) are currently in the process of repeating the Soviet experiment, with very similar results. Here is a nice little fact to illustrate this point: on March 18, 2012, Hamid Karzai, the American-imposed President of Afghanistan and an ethnic Pashtun (but an obvious apostate from Pashtunwali) denounced the Americans as “demons” engaged in “Satanic acts.” The Americans swiftly reacted… by saying nothing and doing even less. Then they trotted out some well-spoken media robopundits who said that Afghanistan is still, potentially, “a good war.” Thus, the result of the American invasion of Afghanistan is predictable: the Americans will pretend it never happened. When forced to discuss it, they will remain delusional. But mostly it won’t be in the news, and Americans will no longer know, or care, what happens there. The US initially blundered into Afghanistan under the delusion that they would find Osama bin Laden there (while, if you believe the news, Osama was in Pakistan, living quietly next to an army college). If jet airliners start crashing into skyscrapers again, odds are some other tribe will get “bombed back to the Stone Age.”

An approach that works

It is difficult but not impossible to constructively engage the Pashtuns: during better times, the Pakistanis came closest to doing so. They freely offered the few important gifts the Pashtuns were willing to accept and appreciate. They offered the Pashtuns a sense of participation by giving them a big audience and a voice. They provided an unlimited time horizon for engaging the Pashtuns as permanent neighbors, building traditional ties and long-term relationships. These activities were informed by an understanding that attempts to impose order without legitimate authority are bound to fail, coupled with the realization that with the Pashtuns any such legitimate authority must of necessity come from within and remain autonomous and decentralized.

Part of what made such accommodation succeed is the fact that Pakistan is a weak state with limited resources. But as long as there are mighty military empires stalking the planet (not for much longer, we should hope) we should expect that one of them will periodically come along and, just like the ones that came before it, break its teeth on Pashtunwali. You might think that they’d learn from each others’ mistakes, but then here is a simple rule for you to remember: the intelligence of a hierarchically organized group of people is inversely proportional to its size, and mighty military empires are so big, and consequently so dumb, that they never, ever learn anything.

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The United Boomerang Outlet

2021-07-07

A boomerang is a throwing stick used by certain Australian aboriginals. The better-known kind is the returning boomerang: upon reliably missing its target, its flies around in a circle and back to the person who threw it, possibly whacking him upside the head for a comical effect. Most of the ones in existence are Australian souvenirs, along with the didgeridoo, which is a hollow stick that makes a funny noise. Such must been the life in Australia before the White Man descended upon it: you went out and try to hunt with a crooked stick that flies back and eventually hits you upside the head, then gave up and went home, where you sat around making funny noises with a hollow stick. To complete the technology suite, there was also the digging stick, for digging up some wild tubers when you got hungry.

Outside of a niche application of flushing out small game animals, it is a joke weapon that is rarely, if ever, offered for sale in serious hunting shops. Anthropologists working in Australia did find an old skeleton with skull and rib fractures they thought were made by a boomerang, having ruled out the didgeridoo and the digging stick for lack of a sharp edge. This led them to think that the boomerang could have been used as a weapon of murder and war. An alternative theory is that the poor person who once owned this skeleton simply had the habit of throwing his boomerang and then forgetting that he threw it. And so he just stood around gawking until it flew back and hit him.

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