Archive for March, 2015

License to Kill

Jakub Rozalski

[Permis de tuer]
[Licenza di uccidere]

The story is the same every time: some nation, due to a confluence of lucky circumstances, becomes powerful—much more powerful than the rest—and, for a time, is dominant. But the lucky circumstances, which often amount to no more than a few advantageous quirks of geology, be it Welsh coal or West Texas oil, in due course come to an end. In the meantime, the erstwhile superpower becomes corrupted by its own power.
As the endgame approaches, those still nominally in charge of the collapsing empire resort to all sorts of desperate measures—all except one: they will refuse to ever consider the fact that their imperial superpower is at an end, and that they should change their ways accordingly. George Orwell once offered an excellent explanation for this phenomenon: as the imperial end-game approaches, it becomes a matter of imperial self-preservation to breed a special-purpose ruling class—one that is incapable of understanding that the end-game is approaching. Because, you see, if they had an inkling of what\’s going on, they wouldn\’t take their jobs seriously enough to keep the game going for as long as possible.

The approaching imperial collapse can be seen in the ever worsening results the empire gets for its imperial efforts. After World War II, the US was able to do a respectable job helping to rebuild Germany, along with the rest of western Europe. Japan also did rather well under US tutelage, as did South Korea after the end of fighting on the Korean peninsula. With Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, all of which were badly damaged by the US, the results were significantly worse: Vietnam was an outright defeat, Cambodia lived through a period of genocide, while amazingly resilient Laos—the most heavily bombed country on the planet—recovered on its own.

The first Gulf War went even more badly: fearful of undertaking a ground offensive in Iraq, the US stopped short of its regular practice of toppling the government and installing a puppet regime there, and left it in limbo for a decade. When the US did eventually invade, it succeeded—after killing countless civilians and destroying much of the infrastructure—in leaving behind a dismembered corpse of a country.

Similar results have been achieved in other places where the US saw it fit to get involved: Somalia, Libya and, most recently, Yemen. Let\’s not even mention Afghanistan, since all empires have failed to achieve good results there. So the trend is unmistakable: whereas at its height the empire destroyed in order to rebuild the world in its own image, as it nears its end it destroys simply for the sake of destruction, leaving piles of corpses and smoldering ruins in its wake.

Another unmistakeable trend has to do with the efficacy of spending money on “defense” (which, in the case of the US, should be redefined as “offense”). Having a lavishly endowed military can sometimes lead to success, but here too something has shifted over time. The famous American can-do spirit that was evident to all during World War II, when the US dwarfed the rest of the world with its industrial might, is no more. Now, more and more, military spending itself is the goal—never mind what it achieves.

And what it achieves is the latest F-35 jet fighter that can\’t fly; the latest aircraft carrier that can\’t launch planes without destroying them if they are fitted with the auxiliary tanks they need to fly combat missions; the most technologically advanced AEGIS destroyer that can be taken out of commission by a single unarmed Russian jet carrying a basket of electronic warfare equipment, and another aircraft carrier that can be frightened out of deep water and forced to anchor by a few Russian submarines out on routine patrol.

But the Americans like their weapons, and they like handing them out as a show of support. But more often than not these weapons end up in the wrong hands: the ones they gave to Iraq are now in the hands of ISIS; the ones they gave to the Ukrainian nationalists have been sold to the Syrian government; the ones they gave to the government in Yemen is now in the hands of the Houthis who recently overthrew it. And so the efficacy of lavish military spending has dwindled too. At some point it may become more efficient to modify the US Treasury printing presses to blast bundles of US dollars in the general direction of the enemy.

With the strategy of “destroying in order to create” no longer viable, but with the blind ambition to still try to prevail everywhere in the world somehow still part of the political culture, all that remains is murder. The main tool of foreign policy becomes political assassination: be it Saddam Hussein, or Muammar Qaddafi, or Slobodan Milošević, or Osama bin Laden, or any number of lesser targets, the idea is to simply kill them.

While aiming for the head of an organization is a favorite technique, the general populace gets its share of murder too. How many funerals and wedding parties have been taken out by drone strikes? I don\’t know that anyone in the US really knows, but I am sure that those whose relatives were killed do remember, and will remember for the next few centuries at least. This tactic is generally not conducive to creating a durable peace, but it is a good tactic for perpetuating and escalating conflict. But that\’s now an acceptable goal, because it creates the rationale for increased military spending, making it possible to breed more chaos.

Recently a retired US general went on television to declare that what\’s needed to turn around the situation in the Ukraine is to simply “start killing Russians.” The Russians listened to that, marveled at his idiocy, and then went ahead and opened a criminal case against him. Now this general will be unable to travel to an ever-increasing number of countries around the world for fear of getting arrested and deported to Russia to stand trial.

This is largely a symbolic gesture, but non-symbolic non-gestures of a preventive nature are sure to follow. You see, my fellow space travelers, murder happens to be illegal. In most jurisdictions, inciting others to murder also happens to be illegal. Americans have granted themselves the license to kill without checking to see whether perhaps they might be exceeding their authority. We should expect, then, that as their power trickles away, their license to kill will be revoked, and they find themselves reclassified from global hegemons to mere murderers.

As empires collapse, they turn inward, and subject their own populations to the same ill treatment to which they subjected others. Here, America is unexceptional: the number of Americans being murdered by their own police, with minimal repercussions for those doing the killing, is quite stunning. When Americans wonder who their enemy really is, they need look no further.

But that is only the beginning: the precedent has already been set for deploying US troops on US soil. As law and order break down in more and more places, we will see more and more US troops on the streets of cities in the US, spreading death and destruction just like they did in Iraq or in Afghanistan. The last license to kill to be revoked will be the license to kill ourselves.

Financial Feudalism


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Once upon a time—and a fairly long time it was—most of the thickly settled parts of the world had something called feudalism. It was a way of organizing society hierarchically. Typically, at the very top there was a sovereign (king, prince, emperor, pharaoh, along with some high priests). Below the sovereign were several ranks of noblemen, with hereditary titles. Below the noblemen were commoners, who likewise inherited their stations in life, be it by being bound to a piece of land upon which they toiled, or by being granted the right to engage in a certain type of production or trade, in case of craftsmen and merchants. Everybody was locked into position through permanent relationships of allegiance, tribute and customary duties: tribute and customary duties flowed up through the ranks, while favors, privileges and protection flowed down.

It was a remarkably resilient, self-perpetuating system, based largely on the use of land and other renewable resources, all ultimately powered by sunlight. Wealth was primarily derived from land and the various uses of land. Here is a simplified org chart showing the pecking order of a medieval society.

Feudalism was essentially a steady-state system. Population pressures were relieved primarily through emigration, war, pestilence and, failing all of the above, periodic famine. Wars of conquest sometimes opened up temporary new venues for economic growth, but since land and sunlight are finite, this amounted to a zero-sum game.

But all of that changed when feudalism was replaced with capitalism. What made the change possible was the exploitation of nonrenewable resources, the most important of which was energy from burning fossilized hydrocarbons: first peat and coal, then oil and natural gas. Suddenly, productive capacity was decoupled from the availability of land and sunlight, and could be ramped up almost, but not quite, ad infinitum, simply by burning more hydrocarbons. Energy use, industry and population all started going up exponentially. A new system of economic relations was brought into being, based on money that could be generated at will, in the form of debt, which could be repaid with interest using the products of ever-increasing future production. Compared with the previous, steady-state system, the change amounted to a new assumption: that the future will always be bigger and richer—rich enough to afford to pay back both principal and interest.

With this new, capitalistic arrangement, the old, feudal relationships and customs fell into disuse, replaced by a new system in which the ever-richer owners of capital squared off against increasingly dispossessed labor. The trade union movement and collective bargaining allowed labor to hold its own for a while, but eventually a number of factors, such as automation and globalization, undermined the labor movement, leaving the owners of capital with all the leverage they could want over a demoralized surplus population of former industrial workers. In the meantime, the owners of capital formed their own pseudo-aristocracy, but without the titles or the hereditary duties and privileges. Their new pecking order was predicated on just one thing: net worth. How many dollar signs people have next to their name is all that\’s necessary to determine their position in society.

But eventually almost all the good, local sources of hydrocarbon-based energy became depleted, and had to be replaced using lower-quality, more remote, harder-to-produce, more expensive ones. This took a big bite out of economic growth, because with each passing year more and more of it had to be plowed right back into producing the energy needed to simply sustain, never mind grow, the system. At the same time, industry produced a lot of unpleasant byproducts: environmental pollution and degradation, climate destabilization and other externalities. Eventually these started showing up as high insurance premiums and remediation costs for natural and man-made disasters, and these too put a damper on economic growth.

Population growth has its penalties too. You see, bigger populations translate to bigger population centers, and research results show that the bigger the city, the higher is its energy use per capita. Unlike biological organisms, where the larger the animal, the slower is its metabolism, the intensity of activity needed to sustain a population center increases along with population. Observe that in big cities people talk faster, walk faster, and generally have to live more intensely and operate on a tighter schedule just to stay alive. All of this hectic activity takes energy away from constructing a bigger, richer future. Yes, the future may be ever more populous (for now) but the fastest-growing form of human settlement on the planet is the urban slum—lacking in social services, sanitation, rife with crime and generally unsafe.

What all of this means is that growth is self-limiting. Next, observe that we have already reached these limits, and have in some cases gone far beyond them. The currently failing fad of hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits and steaming oil out of tar sands is indicative of the advanced state of depletion of fossil fuel sources. Climate destabilization is producing ever more violent storms, ever more severe droughts (California now has just a year\’s worth of water left) and is predicted to wipe out entire countries because of rising ocean levels, failing monsoon seasons and dwindling irrigation water from glacial melt. Pollution has likewise reached its limits in many areas: urban smog, be it in Paris, Beijing, Moscow or Teheran, has become so bad that industrial activities are being curtailed simply so that people can breathe. Radioactivity from the melted-down nuclear reactors at Fukushima in Japan is showing up in fish caught on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

All of these problems are causing a very strange thing to happen to money. In the previous, growth phase of capitalism, money was borrowed into existence in order to bring consumption forward and by so doing to stimulate economic growth. But a few years ago a threshold was reached in the US, which was at the time still the epicenter of global economic activity (since eclipsed by China), where a unit of new debt produced less than one unit of economic growth. This made borrowing from the future with interest no longer possible.

Whereas before money was borrowed in order to produce growth, now it had to be borrowed, in ever-larger amounts, simply to prevent financial and industrial collapse. Consequently, interest rates on new debt were reduced all the way to zero, in something that came to be known as ZIRP, for Zero Interest Rate Policy. To make it even sweeter, central banks accepted the money they loaned out at 0% interest as deposits, which earned a tiny bit of interest, allowing banks to make a profit by doing absolutely nothing.

Unsurprisingly, doing absolutely nothing proved to be rather ineffective, and around the world economies started to shrink. Many countries resorted to forging their statistics to paint a rosier picture, but one statistic that doesn\’t lie is energy consumption. It is indicative of the overall level of economic activity, and it is down across much of the world. A glut of oil, and a much lower oil price, is what we are currently witnessing as a result. Another indicator that doesn\’t lie is the Baltic Dry Index, which tracks the level of shipping activity, and it has plummeted too.

And so ZIRP set the stage for the latest, most queer development: interest rates have started to go negative, both on loans and deposits. Good bye, ZIRP, hello, NIRP! Central banks around the world are starting to make loans at small negative rates of interest. That\’s right, certain central banks now pay certain financial institutions to borrow money! In the meantime, interest rates on bank deposits have gone negative as well: keeping your money in the bank is now a privilege, for which one must pay.

But interest rates are certainly not negative for everyone. Access to free money is a privilege, and those who are privileged are the bankers, and the industrialists they fund. Those who have to borrow to finance housing are less privileged; those who borrow to pay for education even less so. Those not privileged at all are those who are forced to buy food using credit cards, or take out payday loans to pay rent.

The functions which borrowing once played in capitalist economies have been all but abandoned. Once upon a time, the idea was that access to capital could be obtained based on a good business plan, and that this allowed entrepreneurship to flourish and many new businesses to be formed. Since anybody, and not just the privileged, could take out a loan and start a business, this meant that economic success depended, at least to some extent, on merit. But now business formation has gone in reverse, with many more enterprises going out of business than are being formed, and social mobility has become largely a thing of the past. What is left is a rigidly stratified society, with privileges dispensed based on hereditary wealth: those at the top get paid to borrow, and get to surf on a wave of free money, while those at the bottom are driven ever further into debt servitude and destitution.

Can NIRP underpin a new feudalism? It certainly cannot reverse the downward slide, because the factors that are putting limits on growth are not amenable to financial manipulation, being physical in nature. You see, no amount of free money can make new natural resources spring into existence. What it can do, however, is freeze the social hierarchy among the owners of capital—for a while, but not forever.

Everywhere you care to look, the ever-shrinking economy eventually results in populist revolt, war and national bankruptcy, and these cause money to stop working in a number of ways. There is usually devaluation, bank failures, inability to finance imports, and the demise of pensions and of the public sector. The desire to survive causes people to focus on getting direct access to physical resources, distributing them among friends and family.

In turn, this causes market mechanisms to become extremely opaque and distorted, and often to stop functioning altogether. Under these circumstances, how many dollar signs someone has next to their name becomes rather a moot point, and we should expect the social hierarchy among the owners of capital to become unstable and capsize. A few among them have the talents to become warlords, and these few fleece the rest out of existence. But overall, in a situation where financial institutions have failed, where factories and other enterprises are no longer functioning, and where real estate holdings have been overrun by marauding mobs and/or invaded by squatters, one\’s net worth becomes rather difficult to compute. And so we should expect the org chart of the post-capitalist society, in spreadsheet terms, to look like this. (“#REF!” is what Excel displays when it encounters an invalid cell reference in a formula.)

A good, precise term for this state of affairs is “anarchy.” Once a new, low level of steady-state subsistence is reached, the process of aristocratic formation can begin anew. But unless a new source of cheap fossil fuels is somehow magically discovered, this process would have to proceed along the traditional, feudal lines.

The Rage of the Cultural Elites

Yoshitoshi Kanemaki

[По-русски] [En français]

A certain unhappy incident happened to my aunt in the summer of 1966. The Cultural Revolution—a political movement initiated by Mao Zedong—was beginning to engulf the country. That same year many American college students were protesting against the Vietnam War and Leonid Brezhnev was keeping his seat warm as the General Secretary of CPSU, having replaced the somewhat volatile Nikita Khrushchev two years earlier. My aunt was then a freshman studying literature at Fudan University in Shanghai.

It so happened that my aunt, then a sensitive and somewhat dreamy young woman, had stubbornly and haplessly clung to certain musical tastes which at that time in China came to be regarded as politically incorrect, being said, in the trendy ideological jargon of that time, to reflect “decadent bourgeois revisionist aesthetics.” To wit, my aunt had kept in her record collection a rendition of “The Urals Mountain-Ash” (Уральская Рябинушка), a Russian folk song in which a young girl meets two nice boys under a mountain-ash tree and must choose between them, performed by the National Choir of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was an old-style LP spinning at 78 RPM. It had a red emblem in the middle emblazoned with “CCCP.”

One of my aunt\’s roommates, who probably had always resented her for one reason or another, found out about it and reported her to the authorities. For this rather serious infraction, student members of the Red Guard made my aunt publicly smash her beloved record, then kneel upon the fragments and recite an apology to Chairman Mao while fellow-students threw trash at her face shouting “Down with Soviet revisionists!” This generation of Chinese young people, who once donned Red Guard uniforms, beat people up around the country and smashed various cultural artifacts, is now mostly living on government pensions or earning meagre profits from home businesses, but some have prospered and can be found among the upper crust of contemporary China’s business, cultural, and political elites.

This episode came to my mind when in the summer of 2014 I came upon video clips of Ukrainian student activists storming university classrooms in mid-lecture and ordering everyone to stand up and sing the Ukrainian national anthem, then forcing the professor to apologize for the lecture not being adequately patriotic. There were also ghastly spectacles of “Enemies of the People” (guilty only of having served under the overthrown president Yanukovich) being paraded around in trash bins. In Ukrainian schools, children were made to jump up and down, and told that “Whoever doesn\’t jump is a Moscal” (a derogatory term for “Russian”).

Add to this the destruction of public monuments to World War II and the ridiculous rewriting of history (turns out that, during World War II, Germany liberated Ukraine, but then Russia invaded and occupied Germany!) and a complete picture emerges: the Ukrainian Maidan movement is one of a species of “cultural revolution.” The new, fashionable term being thrown around is “civilizational pivot,” but it and the old “cultural revolution” can be understood as approximate synonyms, sharing the need for frenzied spectacles of mass humiliation and destruction.

In 1971 the Vietnam War began to draw toward an agonizing and, from the American government’s point of view, highly unfulfilling conclusion. That same year Dr. Henry Kissinger made a secret trip to Beijing, flying in from a military airport in Pakistan. This was followed by the joint Nixon-Kissinger summit in 1972, which culminated in Nixon\’s historic handshake with Mao Zedong, completing China\’s civilizational pivot away from the USSR and toward the west. In hindsight, this dramatic opening could only be properly characterized as a swift dagger-in-the-back against the USSR, in both geopolitical and ideological senses. The decrepitating, inflexible body of the USSR never recovered from this stab wound, leading to its final collapse, from a multitude of internal and external causes, two decades later.

In late February, 2014, just as Ukraine was attempting its civilizational pivot away from Russia and toward the west, I interviewed a senior captain of the Right Sector, a radical Ukrainian nationalist group with neo-Nazi stylings. The burly man looked aggressive in his paramilitary garb, and arrived with bodyguards, but turned out to be rather amiable. He was particularly glad to see me because I look Chinese. He spoke Russian, reluctantly, after announcing that he was ashamed of it. (This is typical; Ukrainians use Ukrainian to spout nationalist nonsense, but when they need to make sense they lapse into Russian.) He said that he had served in the Red Army and had been stationed in the Far East, on the Chinese border. He expressed hope that China would soon do something big in Siberia.

That was my only meeting with the man from the Right Sector. It\’s safe to guess that the recent Russian-Chinese embrace has dashed his hopes concerning Siberia. The Chinese government’s unambiguous expressions of solidarity with Russia starting in March of 2014 have been noted by all. But he would have been far less disconcerted, and the many international supporters of Russia far more discouraged, had they been able to read the comments on various popular Chinese social sites, which abounded with slogans such as “Crimea to Putin, Siberia to China!” or “Putler will hang on lamppost!” or “Glory to Ukraine! China sides with the Civilized World!”

To explain what is behind this phenomenon, which affects certain Chinese internet users, young and old, we need to introduce a Chinese neologism: “Gong Zhi” (公知). The literal meaning of the term is “public intellectual,” but it is used sarcastically and sometimes even derogatorily. It denotes a cute, successful, popular, trendy individual, who is often involved in the mass media, and who, for various reasons, has millions of virtual followers via Tweeter and various social networking sites. Such individuals make daily, sometimes hourly, witty and biting public remarks on a vast range of social and political subjects, and, to add human interest, on their own kaleidoscopic emotional states.

In a Russian/Ukrainian setting, more or less analogous figures are to be found in the public personae of Ksenya Sobchak, Irina Khakamada, Masha Gessen, Lesha Navalny, and the late Boris Nemtsov. The base audience for such people consists of what in Russia and the Ukraine came to be known as the “creative class,” or “creacl” (креакл) for short. In China such a term does not yet exist, but the reality of a very similar social group definitely does and, by an overwhelming margin, they are inclined to follow and worship the “Gong Zhi.” Many of these, in spite of carefully maintained youthful appearances, are in their late 50s or early 60s—in other words, they are former Red Guards who did well financially by becoming informal spokespersons for what they regard as a hip and new ideology and attempting a new, technologically enhanced “civilizational pivot.”

The trendiness of said ideology comes from the use of a kit of parts that includes canonical words and phrases from which clichéd narratives can be generated effortlessly. It includes: institutional building, civil society, rule of law, enhance democracy, raise transparency, economic growth, entrepreneurship, innovation, privatization, good guidance, western expertise, human values, human rights, women’s rights, minority rights. There is also a mantra; instead of “OMing,” they “west”: the west, the west, the west, western values, western civilization, west west west west. Never mind that this kit of parts fails in application; these are articles of faith, not reason.

And the opposite of all this western goodness is the horrible, unspeakable easternness of Russia. Here we have another kit of parts, from which one can fashion any number of Russophobic rants: Putin/Stalin, tyranny, gulag, low birth rate, alcoholism, mafia, corruption, stagnation, aggression, invasion, nuclear threat, political repression, “the dying nation.” Never mind that this kit of parts does not reflect reality; again, these are articles of faith, not reason. And the reason Russia is so horrible is, of course, the Russian people. When will the Russian people wake up? Will they ever rise up and overthrow their dictator, their tyrant? Will they ever become civilized, cool, happy, normal, WESTERN people… like we already are, or at least, like we will be… someday… if western people pick us up, take us home and make love to us…

The overall goal of this civilizational cross-dressing is one of personal transformation, personal rebranding: “If we look western and we quack western, then we will BECOME western, we will become cool, accepted, rich and prosperous and civilized. And what\’s holding us back is ‘this country,’ and ‘these people,’ who are so uncool, so un-trendy, so un-western. Ugh! There is nothing to be done about them, so let\’s just accept funds from western donors who want to destabilize Russia, and spend this money organizing virtual opposition parties like little girls organizing tea parties for their dolls. But we are getting lots of sympathetic western press coverage, so whatever we are doing must be working!”

The above-mentioned events, trends and movements arose in very different historical periods and in distant, non-contiguous parts of the world, but they share a singular emotional overtone and an orientation towards a singular goal: to cut Russia down, in word, if not in deed.

And then there is what is real.

It is really hard tell Ukrainians apart from Russians. About 90% of the conversation one overhears in the Kiev metro is and probably will remain in Russian, some speaking it with an accent, some with hardly any accent at all. A man or a woman from Yaroslavl (where the late Boris Nemtsov held on to a seat in the regional legislature) could without the slightest effort blend into the crowd surging through the Kiev metro. But should a Russian or a Ukrainian be traveling through the Beijing metro, it will be rather simple to tell them apart from everyone else.

It would also be quite easy to tell an American tourist, reporter, NGO-representative, or Ukrainian wife-hunter apart from the rest of the people in the Kiev metro. The signals would be unmistakable: the demeanor, the style of speech and the facial expression, regardless of ethnic or racial traits. But most of the young Ukrainian students who were shouting and jumping up and down on the Maidan would also take great pride in showing off their English language skills, good or not, and in being seen hanging out with Americans. Why would Ukrainians want to jump out of their Russian skins and try to impersonate Americans?

And are Americans, by some quirk of mystical collective nature, spontaneously anti-Russian? Are ‘we’—the Americans I have lived and studied and worked with for years—anti-Russian? Now, come on, of course not! But we certainly are anti-something else! Take a couple of minutes to gaze at the face of Victoria Nuland, or Jan Psaki, or Samantha Power, or Hillary Clinton. Don\’t they all remind everyone—that is, us regular American guys of whatever ethnic origin—of that quintessential “cool crowd” we had to contend with during our student days? Aren\’t they all a bunch of uppity up-tight feminist radical liberal bitches who once made a living hell out of our fresh, green and naïve college days? Well, now that we are not so horny and stupid any more, and they are all wrinkly and saggy (or worked on and Botoxed to hell) don’t we all want to metaphorically get down on our knees and thank Jesus or Yahweh or Allah or whoever that we didn\’t end up marrying one of these specimens?

But our country, the former land of the free and home of the brave—it has sunk. We all know this, deep in our hearts, don’t we? The Victoria Nuland clone army, like a cruel, evil, insidious high school rumor, like the reflection of a witch’s face in a polluted river, spread and flew into every crevice and corner of this land, high and low, far and wide. We encounter her avatars and lookalikes everywhere—in Hollywood, in the publishing houses, universities, school boards, kindergartens, in elevators on the way to our offices, and of course, on the pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times.

The questioning, seeking, original, fearless, rebellious, fractious and individualist American soul is expiring on its air-conditioned deathbed. America is not an interesting place any more. When was the last time we heard a new singer who could be compared to Tom Waits, or Suzanne Vega? Which one of you loose-pants hip-hoppers ever heard of Robert Altman, Wim Wenders, Gore Vidal, John Cassavetes? All of them are fading away, dying away, withering away, and this started to occur during roughly the same time period when the lookalikes and talkalikes of Victoria Nuland started to make their appearances around American universities, en masse.

Thirty years was the portion of my lifetime which fate had allocated to America. As a non-philosopher, non-psychologist, non-cultural historian, I attest with my own irretrievably lost youth that America’s unprecedented and unexplained spiritual, intellectual, cultural, romantic, literary, linguistic and political decline did mysteriously and biblically occur during this same period.

Within these same 30 years the world also witnessed the miraculous rise of China’s economy, whose windfalls and overnight profits I had largely missed out on. But observing America’s bitter and terminal illness had taught me something. For example, when people talk about China being the next America, one thing I\’ve got to ask myself is: will the 1.4 billion Chinese people make good neighbors and interesting company? Will they be liked and likable, or will many of them likewise come to be regarded as impudent louts and aggressive, greedy, egotistic, crafty pricks and bitches?

Regarding my own original motherland and my own people I have mixed feelings. The initial signals aren’t promising. The drastic and depressing contrasts in personal manners between your typical Chinese tourist and the meek and quiet locals of Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taiwan, Singapore, indeed all of East Asia, is a dreadful omen. In 2014, the outbursts of hysterical and ludicrous hostility towards Russia from the clueless Chinese Creative Class and the internet mobs who follow them has to be another big sign. Those who have bright hopes for Russia-China geopolitical alliance would be well-advised to keep them in mind.

Keep what in mind, exactly? What we need to keep in mind is the normally hidden collective psycho-mental pathology of populations, which is often embodied in erratic and destructive intellectual trends, and is upheld by their self-doubting and neurotic cultural elites. This pathology has everything to do with self-identity.

For the Chinese and the Russian/Ukrainian “creative classes,” America represents the Ultimate Cool Place, the Olympus of Coolness, to be strived towards intellectually, culturally and emotionally, if not always physically. Because America represents to them not only a theory or a line of argument, but a profound source of emotional self-identification, there arise within them ferocious flames of fury and rage whenever someone is perceived as preventing them from basking within the aura of this self-identification. They become like adolescents who put on the cool clothes and want to go and dance to the cool music, but are told that they can\’t wear these clothes and can\’t dance to this music. Why? Because they are not as cool as they think, and because those cool kids don’t care about you, and don’t really want you as their friends.

Actual political, economic and social problems are of secondary importance. What is of upmost importance is that they—the cultural elite, “the creative class,” the cool kids who consider themselves so much cooler than the rest—feel insulted and denied their self-respect. They are angry that real life in Russia/Ukraine or China does not back up a certain concept of their own aspired coolness. Russia gets a special designation in such a line of discourse, or cultural narrative: it gets to be the ultimate spoiler of coolness. Even before the February 2014 putsch, Eastern Ukraine was always referred to as ground zero of “Sovok,” the land of Soviet-era retrogrades—backward, dim-witted slaves who held cool, cute Ukraine back from its well-deserved western coolness.

I will never forget the sight of the torn limbs of a five-year-old Donbass girl, or the bits of blood-soaked shawl and the mangled grandmother\’s aged body scattered about on the ground. What have they done—and tens of thousands like them—to deserve this end? On the Kiev metro, most people appear modest, polite, humble, gentle, and, occasionally, very kind. Over the last year many of them have also looked weary, worried, numb and exhausted. But I could not detect one iota of disparity in features, skin tone, bone structure, and the modest yet lively style of clothing between these riders on the metro in Kiev and the dead girl or the dead grandmother in the Donbass. Is it all because of someone wanting to be cool, and throwing a tantrum, because they didn\’t get to feel cool like they wanted?

Returning to America, the supposed Olympus of Cool, trudging through trash-strewn sidewalks of Queens, tramping along the endless alleys of Brooklyn, stepping into a dimly lit Manhattan office elevator and there encountering yet another Victoria Nuland lookalike, I began to understand. The year 2014 was the fatal year when it was suddenly revealed who is who and what is what, like a sharp knife slashing through an old, moldy, dusty curtain. Think not of conspiracies and dark, complex, sinister geopolitical plots. These went with a different generation, when people might have been greedy and cruel, but they also had the ability to distinguish reality from fiction. That was the era of western imperialism, which is long dead. Churchill and Roosevelt and Nixon are all dead; Kissinger is a nonagenarian. Their replacements do not think in terms of Realpolitik; they think in terms of optics, and dwell in a mirrored hall devised to generate an optical illusion of their hallucinated greatness.

Don\’t think of reality; instead, think of neurosis, obsession, delusion, perpetual psychic adolescence (real adolescence long gone and even menopause unacknowledged). From the midst of these there arises a white-hot fire of rage so fierce and so random that Nietzsche or Sartre, in their most diabolical existential revelations, could never have foreseen them. Thus is the new Zeitgeist, in this advanced stage of decay of the collective consciousness of America\’s cultural/political elite and their overseas groupies. It explains their reckless and maniacal love affair with the Ukrainian Maidan, their rekindled but now impotent rage against Russia, and their despicable, narcissistic indifference to the tragedy suffered by the population of the Ukraine.

[Reported by ClubOrlov\’s special Kiev correspondent, Yu Shan.]

A significant new development

The unspelled edition of King James Bible is now available:
No longer do you have to sputter and stall when when you encounter Biblical names such as Gittahhepher or Maalehhacrabim or Ramathaimzophim, but glide through them in style, like the best seminary graduate! They are being made available in two volumes because, given the constraints of print-on-demand technology, they didn\’t fit into one. But there is a positive side-effect: the New Testament is large type, just like all of the unspelled children\’s books.

For all those people who learn to read primarily in order to be able to read the Bible, this is a godsend. Why should they waste years memorizing ancient English spellings, like the difference between “prophesy” and “prophecy,” when they could be reading the Bible instead.

Not a Christian? Not a problem! Write to me, and I will have your holy books unspelled as well. The Book of Mormon comes to mind. (Remember Deseret Script?) And, of course, the Qur’an.

Not religious at all? Not a problem! Just about everybody “gets religion” when they find themselves in extremis. And—surprise!—all of humanity is in extremis. If what\’s going on doesn\’t make you feel like praying to some sentient and magnanimous entity to put your mind at ease, then perhaps that\’s because you lack situational awareness. (I use the term “religion” very loosely, mind you; as Gandhi put it, “God has no religion,” and I certainly agree.)

But people do find solace in “holy books,” especially in times of great distress. And I want to make them more accessible to people who have the misfortune of having English as their native language, and therefore can\’t pronounce Gittahhepher, or Maalehhacrabim, or Ramathaimzophim, without special training—or Unspell.

Chaos: Practice and Applications

Luciano Podcaminsky

[En español]

The term “chaos” has been popping up a lot lately in the increasingly collapse-prone world in which we find ourselves. Pepe Escobar has even published a book on it. Titled Empire of Chaos, it describes a scenario “where a[n American] plutocracy progressively projects its own internal disintegration upon the whole world.” Escobar\’s chaos is tailor-made; its purpose is “to prevent an economic integration of Eurasia that would leave the U.S. a non-hegemon, or worse still, an outsider.”

Escobar is not the only one thinking along these lines; here is Vladimir Putin speaking at the Valdai Conference in 2014:

A unilateral diktat and imposing one’s own models produces the opposite result. Instead of settling conflicts it leads to their escalation, instead of sovereign and stable states we see the growing spread of chaos, and instead of democracy there is support for a very dubious public ranging from open neo-fascists to Islamic radicals.

Why do they support such people? They do this because they decide to use them as instruments along the way in achieving their goals but then burn their fingers and recoil. I never cease to be amazed by the way that our partners just keep stepping on the same rake, as we say here in Russia, that is to say, make the same mistake over and over.

Indeed, Escobar\’s chaos doesn\’t seem to be working too well. Eurasian integration is very much on track, with China and Russia now acting as an economic, military and political unit, and with other Eurasian states eager to play a role. The European Union is, for the moment, being excluded from Eurasia because it is effectively under American occupation, but this state of affairs is unlikely to last due to budgetary problems. (To be precise, we have to say that it is under NATO occupation, but if we dig just a little, we find that NATO is really just the US military with a European façade hammered onto it Potemkin village-style.)

And so the term “empire” seems rather misplaced. Empires are ambitious undertakings that seek to exert control over their domain, and what sort of an empire is it if its main activity is stepping on the same rake over and over again? A silly one? Then why not just call it “The Silly Empire”? Indeed, there are lots of fun silly imperial activities to choose from. For example: arm and train moderate opposition to a regime you want to overthrow; find out that it isn\’t moderate at all; try to bomb them into submission and fail at that too.

Some people raise the criticism that the empire does in fact function because somebody somewhere is profiting from all this chaos. Indeed they are, but taking this as a sign of imperial success is tantamount to regarding getting mugged on the way to the supermarket as a sign of economic success. Success has nothing to do with it, but Escobar\’s “internal disintegration” does seem apt: the disintegrating empire\’s internal chaos is leaking out and causing chaos everywhere. Still, the US makes every effort to exert control, mainly by exerting pressure on friends and enemies alike, and by demanding unquestioning obedience. Some might call this “controlled chaos.”

But what is “controlled chaos”? How does one control chaos, and is it even possible? Let\’s delve.

Chaos Theory

There is a branch of mathematics called chaos theory. It deals with dynamic systems that exhibit a certain set of behaviors:

• For any causal relationship that can be observed, tiny differences in initial conditions cause large differences in outcome. The hackneyed example is the “butterfly effect” where the hypothetical flapping of the wings of a butterfly influences the course of a hurricane some weeks later. Or, to pick a more meaningful example, if the stock market were a chaotic system, then investing a million dollars in an index fund might result in a portfolio of about a million dollars a few months later; whereas investing a million and one dollars might result in a portfolio of minus a trillion dollars and change.

• Unpredictability beyond a short time-period: given finite initial information about a system, its behavior beyond a short period of time becomes impossible to predict. Since information about a real-world system is always finite, being limited by what can be observed and measured, chaotic systems are by their nature unpredictable.

• Topological mixing: any given region of a chaotic system\’s phase space will eventually overlap with every other region. Chaotic systems can have several distinct states, but eventually these states will mix. For example, if a certain bank were a chaotic system, with two distinct states—solvent and bankrupt—then these states would eventually mix.

Mathematicians like to play with models of chaos, which are deterministic and time-invariant: they can run a simulation over and over again with slightly different inputs, and observe the result. But real-world chaotic systems are non-deterministic and non-time-invariant: not only do they produce wildly different outputs based on very slightly different inputs, but they produce different outputs every time. What\’s more, even if deterministic chaotic systems did exist in nature, they would be indistinguishable from so-called “stochastic” systems—ones that exhibit randomness.

Control Theory

Another branch of mathematics deals with ways of controlling dynamic processes. A typical example is a thermostat: it maintains constant temperature by turning a heat source on if the temperature drops below a certain threshold, and off again if it rises above a certain other threshold. (The difference between the two thresholds is called “hysteresis.”) Another typical example is the autopilot: it is a device that computes the difference between the programmed course and the actual course, called an “error signal,” and applies that error signal to a control mechanism to keep the boat or the plane on course. There are many variations on this theme, but the overall scheme is always the same: measure system output, compare to reference, compute error signal, and apply it as negative feedback to the system.

In order to apply control theory to a system, that system must obey certain principles. One is the superposition principle: output must be proportional to the input. Left rudder always causes the boat to turn left; more left rudder causes it to boat to turn left faster. Another is time-invariance: the boat reacts to changes in rudder angle the same way every time. These are necessities; but most applications of control theory make an additional assumption of linearity: that changes in system behavior are linearly proportional to changes in control input. Since all real-world systems are non-linear, an effort is usually made to endow them with a relatively linear flat spot in the middle of their useful range. Turn a boat\’s rudder a little bit, and the boat turns as expected; turn it too far, and it stalls and no longer works.

Applying control theory to chaotic systems is tricky, because of the issue of “controllability”: is it possible to put a system in a particular state by applying particular control signals? In a chaotic system, very small error signals can produce very large differences in system output. Therefore, a chaotic system cannot be controlled. However, an uncontrollable system can sometimes be stabilized and made to cycle around within a particular, useful, or at least non-lethal, part of its phase space. Generally, to stabilize the system, it must be observable: it must be possible to measure the output of the system and use it to issue corrections. However, even an an unobservable system can still be stabilized, by detecting its state periodically and applying a control signal to push it incrementally in the right direction.

Here is a real-world example. Suppose you are hurtling along a slush-covered highway in a subcompact car with bald summer tires. At some point a very minor perturbation of some sort will transform this controllable system into an uncontrollable one: the car will start spinning. Since it can no longer be steered, it will slide toward the barrier on one side of the highway or the other. It will also become unobservable: with the driver spinning along with the car, it will become impossible to observe the car\’s trajectory based on short glimpses of the roadway spinning past. Can this situation be stabilized?

Yes, it turns out that it can be. This is a trick I learned from a jet fighter pilot, which I was then able to apply to the exact scenario I just described. If a jet starts tumbling out of control, the pilot\’s job is to get it to stop tumbling and to get it back to level flight. This is done by twisting one\’s head back and forth in rhythm with the spin, catching glimpses of the horizon, and working the yoke, also in rhythm to the spin, to slow it down, and to make the horizon go horizontal.

In a car, the driver\’s job is to get the car to stop spinning without hitting the barrier on either side of the highway. This is done by twisting one\’s head in rhythm to the spin, catching glimpses of the barriers on each side of the road, and working the steering wheel, also in rhythm to get the car to stop spinning while keeping it away from either barrier. If the car is spinning clockwise, then a clockwise twist to the steering wheel will move it forward, a counterclockwise twist will move it backward, and a stomp on the brakes will slow down its forward or backward motion somewhat.

This is typically the best that can be done in controlling chaos: using small perturbations to keep the system within a certain range of safe, useful states, keeping it out of any number of useless or dangerous ones. But there is one more caveat: such applications of control theory to chaotic systems require finding out the properties of the chaotic system ahead of time. That\’s rather tricky to do if a system evolves continuously in response to these small perturbations. In situations that involve politics or military matters, applying the same control measure twice is about as effective as telling the same joke twice to the same audience: you become the joke.

The moral of this story should be obvious by now: as with the car on a slush-covered highway, any fool can get it to spin out, but that same fool is then unlikely to have the presence of mind, the skill and the steel nerves to keep it from hitting one of the barriers. Same goes for the would-be builders of an “empire of controlled chaos”: sure, they can generate chaos, but controlling it in a manner that allows them to derive some benefit from it is rather out of the question, and even their ability to stabilize it, so that they are not themselves hurt by it, is in grave doubt.

Financial collapse leads to war


[По-русски] [En français] [In italiano]

Scanning the headlines in the western mainstream press, and then peering behind the one-way mirror to compare that to the actual goings-on, one can\’t but get the impression that America\’s propagandists, and all those who follow in their wake, are struggling with all their might to concoct rationales for military action of one sort or another, be it supplying weapons to the largely defunct Ukrainian military, or staging parades of US military hardware and troops in the almost completely Russian town of Narva, in Estonia, a few hundred meters away from the Russian border, or putting US “advisers” in harm\’s way in parts of Iraq mostly controlled by Islamic militants.

The strenuous efforts to whip up Cold War-like hysteria in the face of an otherwise preoccupied and essentially passive Russia seems out of all proportion to the actual military threat Russia poses. (Yes, volunteers and ammo do filter into Ukraine across the Russian border, but that\’s about it.) Further south, the efforts to topple the government of Syria by aiding and arming Islamist radicals seem to be backfiring nicely. But that\’s the pattern, isn\’t it? What US military involvement in recent memory hasn\’t resulted in a fiasco? Maybe failure is not just an option, but more of a requirement?

Let\’s review. Afghanistan, after the longest military campaign in US history, is being handed back to the Taliban. Iraq no longer exists as a sovereign nation, but has fractured into three pieces, one of them controlled by radical Islamists. Egypt has been democratically reformed into a military dictatorship. Libya is a defunct state in the middle of a civil war. The Ukraine will soon be in a similar state; it has been reduced to pauper status in record time—less than a year. A recent government overthrow has caused Yemen to stop being US-friendly. Closer to home, things are going so well in the US-dominated Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that they have produced a flood of refugees, all trying to get into the US in the hopes of finding any sort of sanctuary.

Looking at this broad landscape of failure, there are two ways to interpret it. One is that the US officialdom is the most incompetent one imaginable, and can\’t ever get anything right. But another is that they do not succeed for a distinctly different reason: they don\’t succeed because results don\’t matter. You see, if failure were a problem, then there would be some sort of pressure coming from somewhere or other within the establishment, and that pressure to succeed might sporadically give rise to improved performance, leading to at least a few instances of success. But if in fact failure is no problem at all, and if instead there was some sort of pressure to fail, then we would see exactly what we do see.

In fact, a point can be made that it is the limited scope of failure that is the problem. This would explain the recent saber-rattling in the direction of Russia, accusing it of imperial ambitions (Russia is not interested in territorial gains), demonizing Vladimir Putin (who is effective and popular) and behaving provocatively along Russia\’s various borders (leaving Russia vaguely insulted but generally unconcerned). It can be argued that all the previous victims of US foreign policy—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, even the Ukraine—are too small to produce failure writ large enough to satisfy America\’s appetite for failure. Russia, on the other hand, especially when incentivized by thinking that it is standing up to some sort of new, American-style fascism, has the ability to deliver to the US a foreign policy failure that will dwarf all the previous ones.

Analysts have proposed a variety of explanations for America\’s hyperactive, oversized militarism. Here are the top three:

1. The US government has been captured by the military-industrial complex, which demands to be financed lavishly. Rationales are created artificially to achieve that result. But there does seem to be some sort of pressure to actually make weapons and field armies, because wouldn\’t it be far more cost-effective to achieve full-spectrum failure simply by stealing all the money and skip building the weapons systems altogether? So something else must be going on.

2. The US military posture is designed to insure America\’s full spectrum dominance over the entire planet. But “full-spectrum dominance” sounds a little bit like “success,” whereas what we see is full-spectrum failure. Again, this story doesn\’t fit the facts.

3. The US acts militarily to defend the status of the US dollar as the global reserve currency. But the US dollar is slowly but surely losing its attractiveness as a reserve currency, as witnessed by China and Russia acting as swiftly as they can to unload their US dollar reserves, and to stockpile gold instead. Numerous other nations have entered into arrangements with each other to stop using the US dollar in international trade. The fact of the matter is, it doesn\’t take a huge military to flush one\’s national currency down the toilet, so, once again, something else must be going on.

There are many other explanations on offer as well, but none of them explain the fact that the goal of all this militarism seems to be to achieve failure.

Perhaps a simpler explanation would suffice? How about this one:

The US has surrendered its sovereignty to a clique of financial oligarchs. Having nobody at all to answer to, this American (and to some extent international) oligarchy has been ruining the financial condition of the country, running up staggering levels of debt, destroying savings and retirements, debasing the currency and so on. The inevitable end-game is that the Federal Reserve (along with the central banks of other “developed economies”) will end up buying up all the sovereign debt issuance with money they print for that purpose, and in the end this inevitably leads to hyperinflation and national bankruptcy. A very special set of conditions has prevented these two events from taking place thus far, but that doesn\’t mean that they won\’t, because that\’s what always happens, sooner or later.

Now, let\’s suppose a financial oligarchy has seized control of the country, and, since it can\’t control its own appetites, is running it into the ground. Then it would make sense for it to have some sort of back-up plan for when the whole financial house of cards falls apart. Ideally, this plan would effectively put down any chance of revolt of the downtrodden masses, and allow the oligarchy to maintain security and hold onto its wealth. Peacetime is fine for as long as it can placate the populace with bread and circuses, but when a financial calamity causes the economy to crater and bread and circuses turn scarce, a handy fallback is war.

Any rationale for war will do, be it terrorists foreign and domestic, Big Bad Russia, or hallucinated space aliens. Military success is unimportant, because failure is even better than success for maintaining order because it makes it possible to force through various emergency security measures. Various training runs, such as the military occupation of Boston following the staged bombings at the Boston Marathon, have already taken place. The surveillance infrastructure and the partially privatized prison-industrial complex are already in place for locking up the undesirables. A really huge failure would provide the best rationale for putting the economy on a war footing, imposing martial law, suppressing dissent, outlawing “extremist” political activity and so on.

And so perhaps that is what we should expect. Financial collapse is already baked in, and it\’s only a matter of time before it happens, and precipitates commercial collapse when global supply chains stop functioning. Political collapse will be resisted, and the way it will be resisted is by starting as many wars as possible, to produce a vast backdrop of failure to serve as a rationale for all sorts of “emergency measures,” all of which will have just one aim: to suppress rebellion and to keep the oligarchy in power. Outside the US, it will look like Americans blowing things up: countries, things, innocent bystanders, even themselves (because, you know, apparently that works too). From the outside looking into America\’s hall of one-way mirrors, it will look like a country gone mad; but then it already looks that way. And inside the hall of one-way mirrors it will look like valiant defenders of liberty battling implacable foes around the world. Most people will remain docile and just wave their little flags.

But I would venture to guess that at some point failure will translate into meta-failure: America will fail even at failing. I hope that there is something we can do to help this meta-failure of failure happen sooner rather than later.