Archive for June, 2018

The Self-Deluded Animal


“I am not an animal, I am a human being!” is a famous line from the critically acclaimed 1980 David Lynch film The Elephant Man which tells the story of Joseph Merrick, a severely deformed man afflicted with the Proteus syndrome in 19th century London. It was based in part on the anthropologist Ashley Montagu\’s The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity (1971). The famous line then gave rise to the title of Peter Baynham’s “I Am Not An Animal,” an animated black comedy, released in 2004, about animals who escaped from a vivisectionist laboratory and attempted to survive alongside humans in the big cruel world.

Whenever humans are reduced to animal status it is the stuff of tragedy. Whenever animals impersonate humans is the stuff of comedy. There are few exceptions. Pantomime horses are not particularly tragic. Fortune telling parrots and monkeys on the streets of Moscow are perceived as tragic by certain defenders of animals’ rights. But I get the feeling that comedic possibilities are present whenever humans and animals get mixed up. Even the film depicting the tragic circumstances of Joseph Merrick’s life were co-produced by Mel Brooks of Blazing Saddles and other epic comedies. His name was struck from the credits for fear of confusing the audience into thinking that the film was a comedy.


Barbarians Rampage through Europe\'s Cemetery


Around the world, very few people are capable of wrapping their heads around the European reaction to the migrant crisis. On the side of the migrants, we have avid displays of barbarism, fanaticism and aggression; on the side of the Europeans, we have abject fear of appearing… intolerant. In an out-of-control situation where we would expect people to organize, protest, put up road blocks and vote en masse for nationalist parties, we are instead subjected to the ridiculous spectacle of meek, effeminate Europeans dressed up in unisex outfits chalking “No to terrorism!” on sidewalks. Most people around the world see in this an orchidaceous display of anthropological nullity. “Is Europe dead?” they wonder aloud.

Lest you think that this impression is politically incorrect or undiplomatic or somehow marginal rather than mainstream, Russia\’s FM Sergei Lavrov, a senior Russian statesman and a diplomat’s diplomat, is on the record saying that the European Union is “committing suicide” by letting in the invading hordes from the Middle East and North Africa.

Here we have a flood of people coming in, the majority of them young adult males shirking military service back home, and relatively few of them are qualified to seek asylum. Most of them are unqualified to do any sort of work within the EU due to lack of literacy, education or work ethic. Many of them would not be trainable in any case, coming as they are from populations bred for physical stamina and disease tolerance rather than intelligence.

Quite a few are Islamic radicals who see themselves as actual colonizers; many more have no qualms about robbing Europeans and raping European women. A few thousand are actual terrorists being sent in to await orders. For most of them, crashing into the EU and freeloading there is part of an excellent adventure—far more exciting than herding cattle or growing millet in their native villages.

European NGOs equip them with inflatable lifeboats and life vests and set them adrift off the coast of Libya or in the Adriatic. European NGO ships then scoop them up and deliver them to ports in Italy, Greece or Spain. And then they get to freeload, for months on end, while more NGO types help them with the paperwork and clog up the courts with lawsuits they file on their behalf.

I am sure that some Europeans might think me unkind for presenting such an unflattering summary of the situation. But there is a much higher standard by which to measure it than mere kindness: is it truthful? Truth is often cruel and painful, and yet without truth—with which to understand the true consequences of our actions—we are all but lambs to the slaughter.

Refusal to face the truth by hiding behind a hypocritical, threadbare veil of “kindness” is mere cowardice. Indeed, cowardice is often on display in Europe, hiding behind another threadbare veil—of “security.” When ISIS bombed the airport in Brussels, the Belgian king Philippe and his royal spouse were swiftly evacuated. During medieval times such cowardly behavior would have cost the monarch his crown, possibly along with his head. But now it is fine for a cowardly nation to have a cowardly king.

It is quite difficult to understand the rationale behind such enforced cowardice. Why are the European elites so insistent on ramming “tolerance” down the throats of their citizens and replacing them with imported barbarians? What happened to the spirit of bloodthirsty empires that had bled the entire planet dry for centuries, accumulating countless treasure?

What I believe happened is that the Europeans became too comfortable. Yes, they did experience some hardship during the two world wars, but it was nothing compared to what many other nations went through, Russia and China especially. When life is a struggle, experience is vivid, simple joys are profoundly felt, intelligent choices are critical to survival and acts of heroism are both necessary and valued. When life is comfortable, people become satiated and hard to satisfy, tastes become decadent and effete, questions of safety are pushed off on specialists and spontaneous acts individual heroism and bravery come to be treated as symptoms of social maladaptation.

Given enough safety and comfort, they become ends in themselves and the standards by which all things are measured. Those less safe and less comfortable are perceived as less successful and fashionable, and become less popular, in a game of endless oneupmanship. In turn, those yet to be seduced by safety and comfort, and willing to battle for principles higher than mere tolerance and kindness, become incomprehensible; after all, what else is there but safety and comfort? But this is only a setup for the next leg down, because safety and comfort cannot function as absolutes.

Safety cannot be guaranteed in all places and at all times: accidents do happen. You might get punched in the face by a belligerent drunk, get molested by a horny migrant, die in a terrorist attack because Allahu akbar or, more likely, break your neck by falling off your bicycle. Since you are no longer responsible for providing for your own safety—it is now the work of paid professionals—you can’t blame yourself. You can, of course, blame the paid professionals, but they are, you know, doing their best… Your only choice is to claim that you are a victim. Victimhood becomes a prized commodity and a badge of honor. Extreme attention and care lavished on all varieties of victims, who are encouraged to organize and to bargain collectively, helps assure the rest that their total security is very important. You can be a victim, but you can’t be a victim of your own stupidity.

Speaking of stupidity, the realization that you are stupid is not comfortable, yet everyone—even the stupid—must remain comfortable at all times. Given that exactly half the people are of below-average intelligence, this is rather tricky to arrange. Claiming that half the population are victims of stupidity doesn’t exactly solve the problem: such an overabundance of victims hollows out the promise of universal comfort. Nor is the problem addressed by imposing a system of universal meritocracy based on individual rights: the intelligent will do better than the unintelligent, causing the latter considerable discomfort.

The solution is to step back from the principle of meritocracy. Instead of guaranteeing individual equal rights and opportunities based on ability and performance we strive for equality of outcome: everybody gets a participation prize and a bit of money just by being obedient and polite, with the size of the prize and the sum of money carefully calibrated based on one’s level of victimhood. This is now sometimes referred to by the strangely repurposed word “equity.” Since it is hard to organize the distribution of “equity” on an individual level, people are formed into a myriad of groups and each group gets weighted against the rest. If you are a disabled black lesbian, you get to check off three victimhood boxes at once and be handed the same prize as an able-bodied white heterosexual male. This is now strangely referred to as “social” justice—as if there were ever any other kind.

This new type of person, which arose first in Europe and then spread all over the West and beyond, does seem like a degenerate form of humanity: bereft of great passion and lofty goals, lacking any clear ethnic or social allegiance or preference, fixated on comfort and safety and deficient in both masculinity and femininity: a sort of civilizational eunuch imprisoned in a four-star LGBTQ concentration camp. These may seem like major negatives, but on the plus side this type of person is mostly harmless. Half a billion people now inhabit, without posing much of a danger to each other, a smallish peninsula jutting out of Western Eurasia that until recently has been the scene of endless armed conflict. They do not destroy material or cultural artifacts but seek to accumulate them, investing in comforts and in consumption. That, most people will agree, is progress.

The last major challenge to this way of being was presented by the integration of Eastern Europe, where national passions still run high. But that problem was easily solved by finding a scapegoat—Serbia—which was cursed for its lack of multiculturalism and tolerance and bombed into submission. This scared everyone else in Eastern Europe into inaction, for the time being. But now mass migration has presented a problem on an entirely different scale, causing Poland, Hungary and now even Italy to rise up in rebellion against the alien onslaught.

The newcomers predominantly come from cultures that are the opposite of tolerant and kind. They are mainly characterized by cruelty, passion, clannishness and religious and political fanaticism. They want to live right here and right now, take pleasure in the beastlier side of human nature, and they see Europe as a treasure chest to be looted. Their cultures hearken back to an earlier era of European history, when huge crowds gathered in city squares to watch people being drawn and quartered or burned alive.

The Europeans conquered their own medieval nature, but then reimported it. The new, emasculated Western European Man is unable to push back against it; nor can their governments, whose leaders are forced to abide by the same cultural codes of tolerance, political correctness and compulsory kindness. But the Eastern European Man, only temporarily frightened into acting tolerant and emasculated, will not stand for any of this for much longer. His medieval nature is still quite close to the surface, while their Western neighbors have placed theirs in museums and various other tourist traps. This is already apparent: there was a recent EU summit on immigration; the East Europeans didn’t even bother showing up.

Looking at the situation from even farther east, from European Russia and the rest of the Eurasian landmass, there is a distinct sense of sadness in watching Europe die. A large chunk of human history is about to get trampled and despoiled. Having spent the last several decades resurrecting Eastern Christendom after the damage caused to it by the Bolshevik barbarians, they watch with dismay as the relics and ruins of Western Christendom are becoming submerged by a new barbarian wave. Western Europe’s inhabitants may no longer amount to much, but they are still valuable as museum attendants and tour guides.

That Europe is turning itself into a museum was apparent to Dostoevsky 150 years ago, when he wrote this (speaking through the character of Versilov):

“To a Russian Europe is just as precious as Russia; every stone in it is charming and dear. Europe is as much our Fatherland as Russia… Oh, how precious are to us Russians these old foreign stones, these miracles of an old, godly world, these shards of holy miracles; they are more precious to us than to the Europeans themselves!”

And then again, this time speaking as Ivan Karamazov, with even greater passion:

“…I want to travel to Europe, and so I will. Of course, I know that I will just be visiting to a cemetery. But so what? The corpses that lay in them are precious; every headstone tells the story of a great life, of passionate belief in heroism, in one’s own truth, one’s own struggle. I know already that I will fall to the ground and kiss these stones, and cry over them—even though convinced with all my heart that all of this has turned into a cemetery long ago, and is nothing more.”

[Inspired by E. Kholmogorov]

Three Blind Men and the Greatest Depression


There is no shortage of collapse prognosticators that never tire of prognosticating that a financial calamity is right around the corner. I am not one of them; what I try to do is not prognosticate but explain. I take collapse to be something real—something that my readers can observe for themselves, if they care to look—and what interests me is its inner workings.

That said, when three famous figures simultaneously announce that financial collapse is around the corner, I suppose we should start paying attention. To me, it doesn’t even matter if their opinions are right or wrong, if they have their facts straight, or whether they are good or bad people. That’s all quite irrelevant. What’s relevant is that if enough high-visibility individuals say that financial collapse is around the corner, then, given the reach and the force of their utterances, they no longer function as mere expressions of opinion but as speech acts that transform the state of the world—of the various mechanisms of international finance, in this case, from humming right along to getting ready to seize up.


Imperial Collapse Markers


In thinking through the (for now) gradually unfolding collapse of the American empire, the collapse of the USSR, which occurred close to three decades ago, continues to perform as a goldmine of useful examples and analogies. Certain events that occurred during the Soviet collapse can serve as useful signposts in the American one, allowing us to formulate better guesses about the timing of events that can suddenly turn a gradual collapse into a precipitous one.

When the Soviet collapse occurred, the universal reaction was “Who could have known?” Well, I knew. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with a surgeon in the summer of 1990, right as I was going under the knife to get my appendix excised, waiting for the anesthesia to kick in. He asked me about what was going to happen to the Soviet republics, Armenia in particular. I told him that they would be independent in less than a year. He looked positively shocked. I was off by a couple of months. I hope to be able to call the American collapse with the same degree of precision.

I suppose I was well positioned to know, and I am tempted to venture a guess at how I achieved that. My area of expertise at the time was measurement and data acquisition electronics for high energy physics experiments, not Sovietology. But I had spent the previous summer in Leningrad, where I grew up, and had a fair idea of what was up in the USSR. Meanwhile, the entire gaggle of actual paid, professional Russia experts that was ensconced in various government agencies in Washington or consuming oxygen at various foundations and universities in the US had absolutely no idea what to expect.

I suspect that there is a principle involved: if your career depends on the continued existence of X, and if X is about to cease to exist, then you are not going to be highly motivated to accurately predict that event. Conversely, if you could manage to accurately predict the spontaneous existence failure of X, then you would also be clever enough to switch careers ahead of time, hence would no longer be an expert on X and your opinion on the matter would be disregarded. People would think that you screwed yourself out of a perfectly good job and are now embittered. Right now I am observing the same phenomenon at work among Russian experts on the United States: they can’t imagine that the various things they have spent their lives studying are fast fading into irrelevance. Or perhaps they can, but keep this realization to themselves, for fear of no longer being invited on talk shows.

I suppose that since expertise is a matter of knowing a whole lot about very little, knowing everything about nothing—a thing that doesn’t exist—is its logical endpoint. Be that as it may. But I feel that we non-experts, armed with the 20/20 hindsight afforded to us by the example of the Soviet collapse, can avoid being similarly blindsided and dumbfounded by the American one. This is not an academic question: those who gauge it accurately may be able to get the hell out ahead of time, while the lights are mostly still on, while not everybody is walking around in a drug-induced mental haze, and while mass shootings and other types of mayhem are still considered newsworthy.

This hindsight makes it possible for us to spot certain markers that showed up then and are showing up now. The four that I want to discuss now are the following:

1. Allies are being alienated
2. Enmities dissipate
3. Ideology becomes irrelevant
4. Military posture turns flaccid

All of these are plain to see already in the American collapse. As with the Soviet collapse, there is a certain incubation period for each of these trends, lasting perhaps a year or two, during which not much seems to be happening, but when it is over everything comes unstuck all at once.

1. Alliances

As the Soviet collapse unfolded, former friendships deteriorated, first into irrelevance, then into outright enmity. Prior to the collapse, the Iron Curtain ran between Eastern and Western Europe; three decades later it runs between Russia and the Baltic countries, Poland and the Ukraine. Whereas in the post-war period the Warsaw Pact countries derived many benefits from their association with Russia and its industrial might, as the end neared their membership in the Soviet camp became more and more of a hindrance to progress, hampering their integration with the more prosperous, less troubled countries further west and with the rest of the world.

Similarly with the US and the EU now, this partnership is also showing major signs of strain as Washington tries to prevent the EU from integrating with the rest of Eurasia. The particular threat of unilateral economic sanctions as part of a vain effort to block additional Russian natural gas pipelines into Europe and to force the Europeans to buy into an uncertain and overpriced American liquefied natural gas scheme has laid bare the fact that the relationship is no longer mutually beneficial. And as Britain splits from Europe and clings closer to the US, a new Iron Curtain is gradually emerging, but this time it will run through the English Channel, separating the Anglophone world from Eurasia.

Similar developments are afoot in the east, affecting South Korea and Japan. Trump’s flip-flopping between tempestuous tweeting and conciliatory rhetoric vis-à-vis North Korea has laid bare the emptiness of American security guarantees. Both of these countries now see the need to make their own security arrangements and to start reasserting their sovereignty in military matters. Meanwhile, for the US, being incoherent is but a pit stop on the way to becoming irrelevant.

2. Enmities

During the entire period of the Cold War the United States was the Soviet Union’s arch-enemy, and any effort by Washington to give advice or to dictate terms was met with loud, synchronized, ideologically fortified barking from Moscow: the imperialist aggressor is at it again; pay no heed. This self-righteous noise worked quite well for a surprisingly long time, and continued to work while the Soviet Union was making impressive new conquests—in space, in technology, science and medicine, in international humanitarian projects and so on, but as stagnation set in it started to ring hollow.

After the Soviet collapse, this immunity against American contagion disappeared. Western “experts” and “advisors” flooded in, and proposed “reforms” such as dismemberment of the USSR into 15 separate countries (trapping millions of people on the wrong side of some newly thought-up border), shock therapy (which impoverished almost the entirety of the Russian population), privatization (which put major public assets in the hands of a few politically connected, mostly Jewish oligarchs) and various other schemes designed to destroy Russia and drive its population into extinction. They would probably have succeeded had they not been stopped in time.

Symmetrically, the Washingtonians considered the USSR as their arch-enemy. After it went away, there was a bit of confusion. The Pentagon tried talking up “Russian mafia” as a major threat to world peace, but that seemed laughable. Then, by dint of demolishing a couple of New York skyscrapers, perhaps by placing small nuclear charges in the bedrock beneath their foundations (those were the demolition plans that were on file) they happily embraced the concept of “war on terror” and went about bombing various countries that didn’t have a terrorism problem before then but certainly do now. Then, once that stupid plan ran its course, the Washingtonians went back to reviling and harassing Russia.

But now a strange smell is in the wind in Washington: the smell of failure. Air is leaking out of the campaign to vilify Russia, and it is putrid. Meanwhile, Trump is continuing to make noises to the effect that a rapprochement with Russia is desirable and that a summit between the leaders should be held. Trump is also borrowing some pages from the Russian rulebook: just as Russia responded to Western sanctions with countersanctions, Trump is starting to respond to Western tariffs with countertariffs. We should expect American enmity against Russia to dissipate some time before American attitudes toward Russia (and much else) become irrelevant. We should also expect that, once the fracking bubble pops, the US will become dependent on Russian oil and liquefied natural gas, which it will be forced to pay for with gold. (Fracking involves a two-phase combustion process: the first phase burns borrowed money to produce oil and gas; the second burns the oil and the gas.)

Other enmities are on the wane as well. Trump has just signed an interesting piece of paper with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The deal (if we call it that) is a tacit act of surrender. It was orchestrated by Russia and China. It affirms what North and South Korea had already agreed to: eventual denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Just as Gorbachev acquiesced to the reunification of Germany and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from East Germany, Trump is getting ready to acquiesce to the reunification of Korea and the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea. Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall spelled the end of the Soviet imperium, the dismantlement of the Korean Demilitarized Zone will spell the end of the American one.

3. Ideology

While the US never had anything as rigorous as the Soviet Union’s communist dogma, its hodgepodge of pro-democracy propaganda, laissez-faire capitalism, free trade and military domination was potent for a time. Once the US stopped being the world’s largest industrial powerhouse, ceding ground first to Germany and Japan, then to China, it went along accumulating prodigious levels of debt, essentially confiscating and spending the world’s savings, while defending the US dollar with the threat of violence. It was, for a time, understood that the exorbitant privilege of endless money printing needs to be defended with the blood of American soldiers. The US saw itself, and positioned itself, as the indispensable country, able to control and to dictate terms to the entire planet, terrorizing or blockading various other countries as needed. Now all of these ideological shibboleths are in shambles.

• The pro-democracy rhetoric is still dutifully spouted by politicians and mass-media mouthpieces, but in practice the US is no longer a democracy. It has been turned into a lobbyist’s paradise in which the lobbyists are no longer confined to the lobby but have installed themselves in congressional offices and are drafting prodigious quantities of legislation to suit the private interests of corporations and oligarchs. Nor is the American penchant for democracy traceable in the support the US lavishes on dictatorships around the world or in its increasing tendency to enact and enforce extraterritorial laws without international consent.

• Laissez-faire capitalism is also very much dead, supplanted by crony capitalism nurtured by a thorough melding of Washington and Wall Street elites. Private enterprise is no longer free but concentrated in a handful of giant corporations while about a third of the employed population in the US works in the public sector. The US Department of Defense is the largest single employer in the country as well as in the whole world. About 100 million of working-age able-bodied Americans do not work. Most of the rest work in service jobs, producing nothing durable. An increasing number of people is holding onto a precarious livelihood by working sporadic gigs. The whole system is fueled—including parts of it that actually produce the fuel, such as the fracking industry—by debt. No sane person, if asked to provide a workable description of capitalism, would come up with such a derelict scheme.

• Free trade was talked up until very recently, if not actually implemented. Unimpeded trade over great distances is the sine qua non of all empires, the US empire included. In the past, warships and the threat of occupation were used to force countries, such as Japan, to open themselves up to international trade. Quite recently, the Obama administration was quite active in its attempts to push through various transoceanic partnerships, but none of them have succeeded. And now Trump has set about wrecking what free trade there was by a combination of sanctions and tariffs, in a misguided attempt to rekindle America’s lost greatness by turning inward. Along the way, sanctions on the use of the US dollar in international trade, especially with key energy exporting nations such as Iran and Venezuela, are accelerating the process by which the US dollar is being dethroned as the world’s reserve currency, demolishing America’s exorbitant privilege of endless money-printing.

4. Militarism

The Soviet collapse was to some extent presaged by the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Prior to that point, it was still possible to talk up the “international duty” of the Red Army to make the world (or at least the liberated parts of it) safe for socialism. After that point the very concept of military domination was lost, and interventions that were possible before, such as in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, were no longer even thinkable. When Eastern Europe rose in rebellion in 1989, the Soviet military empire simply folded, abandoning its bases and military hardware and pulling out.

In the case of the US, for now it remains capable of quite a lot of mischief, but it has become clear that military domination of the whole planet is no longer possible for it. The US military is still huge, but it is quite flaccid. It is no longer able to field a ground force of any size and confines itself to aerial bombardment, training and arming of “moderate terrorists” and mercenaries, and pointless steaming about the oceans. None of the recent military adventures have resulted in anything resembling peace on terms that the American planners had originally envisioned or have ever considered desirable: Afghanistan has been turned into a terrorist incubator and a heroin factory; Iraq has been absorbed into a continuous Shia crescent that now runs from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

US military bases are still found throughout the world. They were meant to project American power over both hemispheres of the globe, but they have been largely neutralized by the advent of new long-range precision weapons, potent air defense technology and electronic warfare wizardry. These numerous “lily pads,” as they are sometimes called, are the opposite of military assets: they are useless but expensive targets located in places that are hard to defend but easy for potential adversaries to attack. They can only be used for pretend-combat, and the endless series of military training exercises, such as the ones in the Baltic statelets, right on the Russian border, or the ones in South Korea, are meant to be provocative, but they are paragons of pointlessness, since attacking either Russia or North Korea would be a suicidal move. They are basically confidence-building exercises, and their increasing intensity testifies to a pronounced and growing deficit of confidence.

People never tire of pointing out the huge size of the US military budget, but they almost always neglect to mention that what the US gets per unit money is ten times less than, for example, Russia. It is a bloated and ineffectual extortion scheme that produces large quantities of boondoggles—an endlessly thirsty public money sponge. No matter how much money it soaks up, it will never solve the fundamental problem of being incapable to go to war against any adequately armed opponent without suffering unacceptable levels of damage. Around the world, the US is still loathed, but it is feared less and less: a fatal trend for an empire. But America has done quite well in militarizing its local police departments, so that when the time comes it will be ready to go to war… against itself.

* * *
This analysis may read like a historical survey detached from practical, everyday considerations. But I believe that it has practical merit. If the citizens of the USSR were informed, prior to the events of 1990, of what was about to befall them, they would have behaved quite differently, and quite a lot of personal tragedy might have been avoided. A very useful distinction can be made between collapse avoidance (which is futile; all empires collapse) and worst-case scenario avoidance, which will become, as collapse picks up speed, your most important concern. Your approach may involve fleeing to safer ground, or preparing to survive it where you are. You may choose your own collapse markers and make your own predictions about their timing instead of relying on mine. But, having witnessed one collapse, and now witnessing another, the one approach I would definitely not recommend is doing nothing and hoping for the best.

All Values are Relative


It is a bit disconcerting to discover, after studying a subject for quite a few years and writing extensively on it, that you have missed a big, vitally important piece of the picture. The subject was Communities that Abide. After studying collapse in all of its forms and phases, I decided to look into which particular types of communities are relatively immune to collapse and are able to persist (abide) over historically significant periods of time (half a dozen or so centuries) in spite of collapsing empires, wars, persecution, loss of homeland and other such vicissitudes of fortune. After a couple of months spent at a library, I came up with a short list of such communities and their features, and was able to distill these features into a set of precepts I semi-jokingly called “The XII Commandments.”

All of what I wrote still seems perfectly valid, but the message tended to bounce off people’s brains instead of sticking because of what I now see has been a major blindspot: I didn’t take care of the fact that these persistently successful communities make almost no effort at all to fit into the value systems of my readers. In fact, they go about their lives as if my readers, with their treasured values, which they often see as universal, don’t matter at all. Within the highly developed global consumer society, this is a major affront to individuals who, once their physical needs have been satisfied, if they set their sights above being amused, entertained and titillated, want to feel well-informed, well-intentioned and, in a word, superior.


It Doesn’t Matter Who is President

Jim \’ll

Let me say it again: “It doesn’t matter who is president of the United States.” I know that I’ve said it before (here, for instance) but I feel that it bears repeating. It’s a simple message, but I don’t think that it’s sinking in well enough. Although nobody seems to want to come out and argue that this message is wrong, plenty of people seem determined to ignore it. Some of them appear to take on board what I have to say but then go on talking as if it does matter who is president. It doesn’t.

It is possible to make the point that it doesn’t matter who is president by speaking in generalities: how the political system is rigged to ignore all inputs that lie outside of a narrow range of interests of a self-serving elite; how the level of political discourse within the US is far too low for a constructive discussion of any serious issue; how artificially generated partisan divisiveness is specifically designed to prevent people from finding common cause while skillfully hiding the fact that the US is not a democracy at all (as explained here). Lots of people have gone into considerably more detail than I wish to in explaining all of this, and yet if you ask “the man on the street” whether it matters who is president, it is highly likely that he will respond in the affirmative.

Since speaking in generalities fails to persuade, let’s look at some specifics. Specifically, let’s look at Trump’s desperate antics, which enrage some people, drive others to distraction and, oddly enough, cause a few more to admire the man. Nobody seems to be making the point that no matter how Trump thrashes around, the result will be virtually the same. Here are a few examples.

• Trump is doing everything he can to dissuade the Europeans from accepting another natural gas pipeline out of Russia and to instead start buying liquefied natural gas from the US, which is at least twice as expensive and not nearly as plentiful. He has threatened to sanction European companies that do business with Russian energy companies. And yet Nord Stream 2, the pipeline that will connect Russia to Germany via the floor of the Baltic Sea, is proceeding. Another president might have acted differently, but the result would have been exactly the same.

• Trump has been flip-flopping on Russia. Sometimes he says that nobody is tougher on Russia than him; then he turns around and invites Russia back into the G7 (to which Putin says that he has other plans). He expels Russian diplomats for made-up reasons, then appears to be planning a summit with Putin. Again, whether he is friendly or hostile toward Russia doesn’t matter at all. Whether he is imposing or easing sanctions, Russia’s goals remain the same: become free of US influence and end reliance on the US dollar. The ultimate result will be exactly the same.

• Trump has gone from insulting Kim Jong Un of North Korea by calling him “little rocket man” and threatening to “completely destroy” his country to most recently holding a summit with him and signing joint letter promising to pursue peace and cooperation. Kim Jong Un has embraced the ultimate goal of a fully denuclearized Korean peninsula while Trump promised to provide North Korea with security guarantees. But what are these security guarantees worth, considering that Trump had just pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran, and given that before that the US had destroyed Libya after it voluntarily gave up its nuclear program? It didn’t matter when Trump threatened North Korea with complete destruction because he couldn’t have attacked it: if attacked, North Korea would have responded by destroying South Korea and Japan, voiding US security guarantees to these countries. And now it doesn’t matter when Trump is making promises, because by now everybody knows that the US is incapable of keeping its promises.

• Domestically, one of Trump’s few legislative victories was in pushing through a tax reform package that provides inducements for US companies to repatriate their foreign profits and invest them domestically. These tax cuts may stimulate some short-term financial activity and prop up an increasingly wobbly financial system a little longer, but longer-term it will only exacerbate the fiscal imbalances that are by now structural features of the system, bringing on trillion-dollar budget deficits even sooner. No matter what the president does at this point, the federal budget of the US, along with all the state budgets, is going to blow up.

• Also domestically, Trump is a politically divisive figure who has increased the chasm between liberal and conservative sides of the political spectrum (the term is a misnomer, because two colors do not a spectrum make). But this doesn’t matter, because hefty majorities among the younger generations have decided that they want nothing to do with the democrat/republican duopoly, has embraced various tenets of socialism and have decided that capitalism is bad and needs to go away. This is not a helpful development for the capitalist party or the other capitalist party; they’ll need to go away too. Trump can be as divisive as he wants to be, but all he can do is provoke a brawl at an old folks’ home. The world will move on regardless.

I am sure you can think through many more examples in the same vein. No matter what Trump does or doesn’t do, says or doesn’t say, results will be independent of his actions. The entire political system is by now just a bit of shadow puppetry, the presidency at its center is a mirage, and all the available news coverage of it is pure propaganda. Some people are eager to give Trump credit for “destroying the system,” but as we work through various specific examples we can see that the system is destroying itself quite well, thank you very much, no presidential help needed. In this sense, Trump is almost the perfect president: loud, obnoxious and ultimately irrelevant. And to remove the qualifier “almost” and become the perfect president, he would only have to achieve one thing: make everyone see that it doesn’t matter who is president.

Keeping up with Putin


Yesterday I spent four hours watching television. This is not something I normally do because I find the entire television medium tedious, boring and a waste of time. All television programs are, in my case, a bad idea, because I dislike being programmed. In fact, I don’t even own a TV. When I need to watch something, I do so in a window on the screen of my laptop. But this was a special occasion.
What I watched was Putin’s nearly four-hour annual live Q&A marathon. People all over Russia submitted questions—over 2.3 million of them—by calling in, writing in, texting, recording videos, giving interviews to television crews. A very large team then organized the questions into general themes and prepared the most representative and best-expressed ones to be presented. A fair number of questions were asked live, on screen.

The main reason I watched the whole thing was because I had asked Putin a question, and I wanted to see if he was going to answer it. He did.

The Death and Resurrection of a Blogger


Normally, we are happy when things go right and sad when things go wrong. Collapse seems to change that relationship. Within a collapse scenario, things going wrong is a given, the idea that something might go right is relegated to the realm of wishful thinking, and instead the focus shifts to things going wrong in a particularly profound, amusing or spellbinding fashion. Collapse causes the limits of constructive action to constrict to a tiny circle surrounded by a vast expanse of unintended consequences. Victory and defeat become redefined: we feel victorious when those most responsible for the collapse do something spectacular to thwart their own purpose while we do nothing; we feel defeated when the collapse process slows down and settles into a pattern of interminable, durable failure.

The modern-day Ukrainian state (or what’s left of it) provides us with numerous insights into the collapse process. It is a virtual laboratory of collapse. Every tier of the collapse stack is represented there, offering fertile ground for a collapse analysis of its own. Working from the bottom up:

• Cultural collapse has resulted from a pseudo-nationalist effort deny the Ukraine’s Russian heritage and to replace it with a cult of adulation of all things Western and a made-up national language and culture synthesized out of some village dialects and a deep-seated sense of historical grievance.

• Social collapse came from the marginalization and ostracism of a large part of the population that associated itself more closely with Russia than with nativist Ukrainian pseudo-nationalism. A lot of these people moved there after the Revolution, to exert a civilizing influence on a backward, agrarian region. Many of their descendants have now moved back to Russia.

• Political collapse started with foreign-directed violent overthrow of the constitutional government and its replacement with some compliant stooges hand-picked by the US State Department. In its second phase, bad politics provoked a civil war that is going on to this day, and a dismembering of the country, with Donetsk, Lugansk and Crimea going their separate ways. Somewhere along the way the Ukrainian parliament was restocked with oligarchs and criminals of every stripe, making the country’s politics so corrupt as to make it ungovernable even for its mighty CIA handlers.

• Commercial collapse was readily produced by severing many of the economic ties between the Ukraine and Russia. In particular, this largely destroyed the entire advanced industrial sector of the Ukrainian economy (which was once the pride of the USSR) and caused many of the technical specialists to exfiltrate to other, more productive locales—such as North Korea, which was in need of some rocket scientists and atomic weapons experts. All of the major high tech sectors—rocket engines, large ship engines, helicopter engines, etc.—have relocated to Russia. Russia remains the Ukraine’s largest trading partner, but this only shows that its attempted reorientation toward the West has been a failure. The Ukraine does still manage to export to the West such items as logs (it is clearcutting what’s left of its forests) and dirt (stripping off its topsoil using bulldozers and bucket loaders and shipping it out).

• Financial collapse has gone through several iterations: the fall in the value of the national currency which has impoverished much of the population; the curtailment of social services and the closure of schools during wintertime due to lack of heat; the inability of the population to feed itself without resorting to doing menial labor in neighboring countries. At a higher level, the Ukraine has been maneuvered into a position of permanent debt servitude: it has saddled itself with foreign debt to such an extent that it can never be repaid without steady economic growth; in turn, given that all the other phases of collapse are proceeding apace, there is no reason to expect any growth.

Perhaps in a few years it will be time to write a full-length case study of the Ukrainian collapse, delving into each of the five stages. For now, allow me to regale you with just one funny vignette that affords a glimpse of the strange, haunted realm that currently passes for Ukrainian reality.

The main protagonist of this story is one Arkady Babchenko, a Muscovite and the son of an aerospace engineer and a schoolteacher. For a while he worked as a military correspondent, in Chechnya, and then again in Georgia during the ultra-short South Ossetia campaign of 08/08/08. His wartime reporting has earned him a reputation as a legitimate journalist.

More recently Babchenko became a blogger and built himself a different reputation, and a large following, by saying anti-Russian things. For instance, he stated publicly that he wants to see Russia broken up into a set of tiny, warring fiefdoms. When a plane-full of musicians on the way to Syria crashed on takeoff, he stated that he “doesn’t care.” People behave this way for all sorts of reasons. Some cultivate a bad-boy attitude in order to attract young idiots as followers on social media. Some try to vacuum up any loose change left behind by the various foreign NGOs that had been tasked with destabilizing Russian politics. Some probably act out this way because they are bored or depressed or sexually unfulfilled.

If they don’t cross any of the red lines (agitating for the violent overthrow of the government; inciting racial and religious hatred; etc.) they can lead comfortable lives in Russia. Nobody will persecute them. Quite the opposite: they offer an opportunity for everyone else to take pride in their unfettered exercise of their free speech rights. This is why some of them—Babchenko in particular—become desperate enough for attention (their stance being rather unpopular back home) to feign being victims of political prosecution and to move to Kiev—the only place in the world where they can actually make a living by their relentless floccinaucinihilipilification of Russia… while continuing to speak and write in Russian. No retraining necessary! It’s a Russian floccinaucinihilipilificationist’s dream come true.

But then poor Babchenko gets shot, three times in the back, just like poor Boris Nemtsov. He was feeling ill, and so he went to the corner to buy some bread (I know, but that’s the official story) and he got shot in the back either on the way there or on the way back (versions vary) right in front of his apartment (where his wife was at home). Below is a picture of him dead. As numerous astute observers of wounded and corpses quickly pointed out, he is conscious (judging from pose and muscle tone), his respiratory and circulatory systems are in good shape (his bald pate is nice and pink) and there is far too much bleeding from the entry wounds. As a crisis actor, Babchenko is unconvincing. Never mind that, he died, either right there and then, or in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, or in the hospital (versions vary).

Upon news of poor Babchenko’s untimely demise, the entire Russian floccinaucinihilipilificationist community flew into high dudgeon over what was clearly (no investigation or evidence needed) a political assassination ordered by the highest echelons of the criminal Russian regime, perhaps by Putin personally. Red carnations piled up in front of Babchenko’s apartment building. People in Moscow started booking flights to Kiev to attend the fallen hero’s funeral. At the UN in New York, the Russian-born Ukrainian representative Pavel (self-styled “Pavlo”) Klimkin said this:

“Arkady Babchenko, a Russian journalist and well-known opponent of the Russian regime, was killed near his apartment in [Kiev]. Before he arrived in [the] Ukraine, he was forced to leave Russia after attacks and threats against him and his family… [He] continued to fight for a democratic Russia from [the] Ukraine, so, of course, Moscow has always viewed him as an enemy… It’s too early to say who is behind it, but the analysis of similar cases gives us reasonable grounds to believe that Russia is using other types of tactics to destabilize the situation in Ukraine. In particular, there are terrorist attacks, subversive activities and political murders.”

Several other Ukrainian worthies weighed in as well. This, please note, is now standard procedure: something happens, and before an investigation even starts and any facts are ascertained a snap decision is made to Blame Russia. This has by now happened so many times as to make it routine: the shoot-down of the Malaysian Boeing over Eastern Ukraine, the killing of Boris Nemtsov, the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, etc. Some people started saying that it’s now high time to expel some more Russian diplomats and introduce some more anti-Russian sanctions.

Everything was going perfectly well. But then Babchenko turns up very much alive at a press conference. There is an audible gasp. Babchenko, flanked by Ukrainian officials, looks rather shamefaced, and so do they. It is then announced that his murder was staged, but that there really was a contract taken out on him, and that this was all done in order to apprehend the culprits, who had already paid the advance, when they pay the rest of the contract. And the culprits are, of course, Russian officials.

All the Russian floccinaucinihilipilificationists, everywhere in the world, instantaneously felt very much cheated by this spectacle of their favorite blogger rising from the dead, and were outraged. The piles of carnations cost money, as did the airline tickets from Moscow to Kiev to attend his funeral. The fact that lots of people were rolling around on the floor laughing didn’t make them feel any better. And most people were laughing, or at least smiling. You see, most people in the world are what you might call “normies”: they don’t like constructed realities, and they aren’t capable of distinguishing a skillfully arranged political hoax from just some damned lies. While everyone was laughing their heads off, the Russian floccinaucinihilipilificationist community, along with much of the Western media, was loudly condemning this breach of good manners, journalistic ethics, competent governance and whatever else they could think of condemning. It was beautiful!

An obvious question arose in numerous heads at once: who knew of the hoax, and when did they know it. The Ukrainian perma-drunk president Proshenko definitely knew all along, and the silly dunce Klimkin obviously didn’t. But did Babchenko’s own wife know? She was present at the scene while Babchenko laid on the floor and waited for the makeup artist to arrange the pig’s blood and paint the bullet holes on his back. And then she spent a day grieving publicly and accepting condolences. By now it is very difficult to establish who knew when, although it is sometimes quite obvious who lied about it.

But what of the reason for this hoax? A certain person was immediately arrested: a middle-aged pudgy balding gentleman who is the top manager of a German-Ukrainian company that is the only private company that supplies weapons to the Ukrainian military. He was interrogated, and divulged several nonsensical details. The chief assassin was to be a certain Ukrainian warrior priest who fought “Russian separatists” in the east and hates Russia. And his contact within Russia was some individual whose existence is yet to be established. A likely story for a Kremlin assassination plot, no?

A more reasonable explanation is that this was part of an effort to get the balding middle-aged manager to give up his share of the arms company—a corporate raid, in essence. Blaming Russia is always job one, of course, but why not kill two birds with one stone? That’s how they do things in the Ukraine. The facts that Kremlin’s paid assassin was to be some warrior monk of Shaolin who happens to hate Russia, and that the Russian contact doesn’t quite exist—those are just some pesky details to sweep under the rug while everyone is looking away.

A lot of Ukrainian officials are now scratching their heads; what did they do wrong? They faithfully followed the same playbook as the British did with the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter. They were killed using a nerve agent designed to kill thousands within seconds, but survived. Russia was accused based on no evidence, and the accusation stuck to the extent that lots of countries expelled some Russian diplomats. And now that the entire official version of the Skripal affair is starting to look like a simple politically motivated kidnapping, the media is suddenly mum about it. The Brits don’t seem particularly embarrassed by all this, and there aren’t millions of people laughing at this folly. Well, Theresa May does seem permanently embarrassed, and she is an indeed an embarrassment, but the Skripal mission was something like a success. At least it didn’t rise to the level of ridicule of the Babchenko affair.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what collapse looks like up close and personal. A journalist who dies and is resurrected as a non-journalist. A country’s political establishment becomes the laughingstock of the planet. Who will believe them now? And an entire juggernaut of anti-Russian provocations based on evidence-free accusations is in danger of being derailed by the “Babchenko Effect.” Arkady, you Russian patriot, let me buy you a beer!

Although it is generally a good idea not to ascribe sinister intent to actions for which mere stupidity suffices, in this case there may be a hidden motive. The official story is that the pudgy manager and his warrior priest were targeting up to 30 individuals. Couple this with the fact that Poroshenko is doing dismally in the ratings, and is likely to do equally badly at the polls during the upcoming election. Perhaps the real targets of the Babchenko effect are other journalists working in the Ukraine. At any time now, should the displease Poroshenko, they may find themselves lying prone in a pool of blood with three bullet holes in the back, and this time it won\’t be just a warning and their death may turn out to be quite real. This prospect brings us face to face with the real task of surviving collapse: not dying.