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Cycles of History: Can You Force Them?

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Earlier this year, there was some discussion of Steve Bannon and his intellectual debt to The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe.  This began with an article last November in Time, and has resulted in intermittent discussion since. Howe himself wrote an article in The Washington Post last February, citing some of the high-pitched articles that had been written about what Bannon had learned from the book. The New York Times followed up in April with a piece that, while not a exactly a hatchet job, takes on specific excepts from the book in the light of the viewpoint of the cultivated Times audience (“Conform, or Else”).

Politico simply dismissed the book as “The Crackpot Theories of Stephen Bannon’s Favorite Authors.” Another putdown I have seen: “pop” historians. Anything not from a suitably pedigreed academic source is “pop.”

I had read The Fourth Turning shortly after it came out. I don’t consider the book to have “crackpot theories”, but I don’t see Strauss and Howe having attempted to be the next Nostradamus, either. Despite the subtitle of the book — An American Prophecy — the authors don’t provide any specific who, when or how. They were attempting to analyze history in terms of patterns and project them into the future. They examined Anglo-American history back to the 1450s. They say more about moving forces than how those forces will necessarily be directed, and avoid “see, I told you” political interpretations.

Nevertheless, their analysis of history has political implications. A cyclical pattern of history has a far different future than a linearly expansive pattern of history. Could the United States return to an era of deference to authority and high levels of social conformity? It is neither inevitable nor desirable, but it could happen. The current condition of the public square does remind me of the late 1850, when the nation became increasingly polarized. In 1856, when Representative Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner unconscious with his cane in the Senate chamber, Brooks became a hero in South Carolina.

Whatever the size of a person’s group, he or she is more likely to feel fairly treated in a High, where a shame ethos fosters togetherness and gratitude — and victimized in an Unraveling, where a guilt ethos fosters separation and blame.
The Fourth Turning, p. 112

I found the model of a shift back and forth between shame and guilt cultures particularly interesting, and having some degree of explanatory power. I can see why such a model might bother the people over at The New York Times; are we going to have to fight to defend our hard-won social gains?

Nevertheless, Strauss and Howe are not promoting a rigid pattern. There is no guarantee of what will happen, when it will happen or how it will all turn out. For example, the Civil War period broke the pattern; there was no Hero generation produced.

In the Civil War Saeculum, the Third and Fourth Turnings together covered the span of just one generation and produced no Hero archetype. By the usual pattern of history, the Civil War Crisis catalyst occurred four or five years ahead of schedule and its resolution nearly a generation too soon. This prompts the question: What would have happened if tempers had cooled for a few years, postponing the Crisis for another presidential election and slowing it down thereafter? … Imagine what might have happened differently in the South (which was devastated), in race relations (which reverted to Jim Crow), in the women’s movement (which collapsed), and to the Gilded and Progressive Generations (both heavily damaged by war).
The Fourth Turning, p. 262.

Here the authors directly address variations in the patterns. This also provides a cautionary note to those who would attempt to accelerate change in the hope of bringing about an earlier resolution. The requisite conditions for a satisfactory outcome may not be there.

This is where Bannon’s obsession with this book should cause concern. He believes that, for the new world order to rise, there must be a massive reckoning. That we will soon reach our climax conflict. In the White House, he has shown that he is willing to advise Trump to enact policies that will disrupt our current order to bring about what he perceives as a necessary new one. He encourages breaking down political and economic alliances and turning away from traditional American principles to cause chaos.
— Linette Lopez, “Steve Bannon’s Obsession with a Dark Theory of History Should Be Worrisome“, Business Insider, 2 Feb 2017.

So if Steve Bannon does believe that he should create disruption to accelerate the coming crisis, he needs to go back and re-read the book.


Written by srojak

August 6, 2017 at 7:30 pm

William Pitt the Elder

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William Pitt the Elder, by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder, by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778), later 1st Earl of Chatham, was a chief minister of Great Britain (there was still ambivalence to the title of Prime Minister). He was bombastic, mercurial, confrontational and he may have been manic-depressive.

He changed Anglo-American politics forever. If you live in Pittsburgh, Pittston, Pittsboro or various Pittsfields or Chathams, your place of residence was named in recognition of William Pitt.

Paymaster of the Forces

Between 1746 and 1755, Pitt served as Paymaster of the Forces, effectively the treasurer of the British Army. At that time, the office was extremely lucrative for the holder, with two principle perquisites:

  • Ability to skim the interest in army funds, including the soldiers’ pay;
  • Ability to skim the profits of sale of military assets, such as the sale of old military supplies.

Although Henry Pelham, who has previously been paymaster of the forces, had refused these perquisites, he had been private about it. Pitt publicly renounced them. This example initiated a change in the way we conceive of the conduct of a political office holder. What had been looked upon as standard operating procedure, and remained so in many other countries, became viewed as corruption in the Anglo-American tradition.

Pitt initiated this change, and he did it not through introducing laws or launching a crusade, but by the simple force of his own example.

The Seven Years’ War

The Seven Years’ War began in 1756 and initially went very badly for Britain and her allies. The Braddock Expedition had been smashed in 1755. In the early years of the war France took Minorca, Fort Oswego and Fort William Henry. Hanover, allied to Britain through the King, was forced to withdraw from the war.

I know I can save this country and that I alone can.
— William Pitt, 1756

In 1757, Pitt entered into a coalition government with a man who had been his enemy: Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle. They divided their responsibilities: Pitt managed the war against France in their colonies, while Newcastle managed the war in Europe. Pitt obtained the funding to support world war, while Newcastle handled the patronage needed to keep the coalition in power.

Our bells are worn threadbare with the ringing of victories.
— Horace Walpole, 1759

1759 is remembered as an Annus Mirabilis for the harvest of victories over the French. In North America, Britain captured Fort Ticonderoga and Quebec, and drove the French from the Ohio Country after taking Fort Duquesne the previous autumn. British forces captured Guadeloupe. In Europe, the Navy destroyed the French capacity to launch an invasion of Britain, establishing itself as the dominant naval power, and Britain with her allies won the Battle of Minden. In India, British forces relieved the Siege of Madras.

For the remainder of the war, Britain consolidated and expanded on these gains, collapsing French holdings in India and North America east of the Mississippi.

The American Colonies

The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!
— William Pitt, speech in Parliament, 1763

Britain had become concerned about how to pay for the enormous army it had created during the Seven Years’ War. Sons of powerful landed families had purchased commissions as officers in new regiments. It would have been unthinkable to buy them out, but how were these regiments to be supported financially? A plan for an excise tax on cider, which would have landed principally on the country gentry, had gone down to dramatic defeat in 1763, taking George III’s favorite, the Earl of Bute, along with it.

George Grenville then became first minister, and sought to solve the problem by taxing the American colonies through the introduction of Sugar and Stamp Acts. More odious than their tax effects was their intent to bypass colonial legislatures in imposing taxation. Townshend and his allies maintained that the colonies had “virtual representation” in the British Parliament.

The Stamp Act led to riots in America and attacks on British agents who collected the taxes. By January, 1766, there was sharp division in Parliament. Grenville had worn out his welcome with the King, who replaced him with Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, who brought Edmund Burke along with him as personal private secretary. Rockingham wanted to repeal the Stamp Act, but a substantial number of MPs were unwilling to yield the conceptual right of Parliament to impose taxes. Virtual representation was also seen as essential; the same doctrine addressed the representation of cities such as Manchester, which had no representatives of their own in Commons.

Pitt was not buying the idea of virtual representation, and foresaw the future of reform:

This is what is called the rotten part of the Constitution. It can not continue a century. If it does not drop, it must be amputated. The idea of a virtual representation of America in this House is the most contemptible idea that ever entered into the head of a man. It does not deserve a serious refutation.

The Commons of America represented in their several assemblies, have ever been in possession of the exercise of this, their constitutional right, of giving and granting their own money. They would have been slaves if they had not enjoyed it! At the same time, this kingdom, as the supreme governing and legislative power, has always bound the colonies by her laws, by her regulations, and restrictions in trade, in navigation, in manufactures, in every thing, except that of taking their money out of their pockets without their consent.

After this, Grenville rose to voice his objections, and then Pitt returned in reply.

The gentleman tells us, America is obstinate; America is almost in open rebellion. I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people, so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.

Pitt concluded:

Upon the whole, I will beg leave to tell the House what is my opinion. It is, that the Stamp Act be repealed absolutely, totally, and immediately. That the reason for the repeal be assigned—viz., because it was founded on an erroneous principle. At the same time, let the sovereign authority of this country over the colonies be asserted in as strong terms as can be devised, and be made to extend to every point of legislation whatsoever; that we may bind their trade, confine their manufactures, and exercise every power whatsoever, except that of taking money from their pockets without consent.

[Full text of speech and rebuttal:]

The distinction between binding their trade and taking money from their pockets without consent escaped many of the members in attendance.

If you understand the difference, it is more than I do, but I assure you it was very fine when I heard it.
— Lord George Germain, 1766

Whigs were always having to navigate the treacherous space where liberty and order met; it would ultimately undo them. But that was more than a century in the future.

Rockingham yoked a Declaratory Act, asserting the theoretical right of Parliament to tax the colonies, to repeal of the Stamp Act, recognizing the impracticality of doing so in this manner.

Chief Ministry

Being responsible, I will direct and will be responsible for nothing I do not direct.
— William Pitt, speech in Parliament, 1761

His time as chief minister was short: 1766-1768. He selected a cabinet of very capable men, but there were no precedents by which he could require them to work together or to all pull in the same direction. Pitt himself was too obstinate and too much of a loner to do the backstairs politicking that would have been necessary to bring the group together as a team. His term as chief minister is generally considered a failure.

In 1767, Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced the Revenue Act of 1767, first of a series of bills remembered to history as the Townshend Acts.

Pitt himself, now Earl of Chatham, had gone into seclusion in 1768. Only in 1770 did he return to his seat in the House of Lords. He was still an intermittent participant. Without his leadership, his allies — Rockingham, Burke, the Earl of Shelburne — were in disarray the government’s back-and-forth measures in America spun out of control.

Weakened by illness, Pitt played an increasingly marginal role in British politics, until he finally collapsed on the floor of Parliament in 1778.

Nevertheless, he had a profound effect on our political traditions.

Written by srojak

March 4, 2017 at 1:23 pm

US Constitiution 1.1

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In 1979, Theodore Lowi released the second edition of his book The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States. Lowi teaches at Cornell and would be characterized as a liberal; for example, he advocates government planning. However, he is also a proponent of the rule of law. The evolution of the political processes away from law and representative government toward bargaining and interest-group government began to trouble him by the time he wrote the first edition of the book ten years earlier.

Where contemporaries saw government departure from formalism as pragmatic, Lowi saw it as corrupt. Where reality deviates from formalism, we find arbitrariness, influence-peddling and injustice. He wrote the best defense of political idealism I have seen:

The gap between form and reality gives rise to cynicism, for informality means that some will escape their fate better than others. There has, as a consequence, always been cynicism toward public institutions in the United States, and this, too, is a good thing, since a little cynicism is the parent of healthy sophistication. However, when the informal is elevated to a positive virtue, and when the gap between the formal and the informal grows wider, and when the hard-won access of individuals and groups becomes a share of official authority, cynicism unavoidably curdles into distrust. Legitimacy can be defined as the distance between form and reality. How much spread can a democratic system tolerate and remain both democratic and legitimate?
The End of Liberalism, p. 297.

Although he did not use the term, the mechanisms that Lowi describes are that of corporatism: public-private partnerships in rule-making and governance. Although Lowi did not name it, he described it well enough:

The state grows, but the opportunities for sponsorship and privilege grow proportionately. Power goes up, but in the form of personal plunder rather than public choice. If would not be accurate to evaluate this model as “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor,” because many thousands of low-income persons and groups have provided within the system. The more accurate characterization might be “socialism for the organized, capitalism for the unorganized.”
Ibid, pp. 278-9.

For the second edition, Lowi reverse engineered a new constitution for the government from actual practice, in an attempt to highlight the spread between form and reality.

There ought to be a national presence in every aspect of the lives of American citizens. National power is no longer a necessary evil; it is a positive virtue.

Article I. It is the primary purpose of this national government to provide domestic tranquility by reducing risk. This risk may be physical or it may be fiscal. In order to fulfill this sacred obligation, the national government shall be deemed to have sufficient power to eliminate threats from the environment through regulation, and to eliminate threats from economic uncertainty through insurance.

Article II. The separation of powers to the contrary notwithstanding, the center of this national government is the presidency. Said office is authorized to use any powers, real or imagined, to set our nation to rights by making any rules or regulations the president deems appropriate; the president may subdelegate this authority to any other official or agency. The right to make all such rules and regulations is based upon the assumption in this constitution that the office of the presidency embodies the will of the real majority of the American nation.

Article III. Congress exists, but only as a consensual body. Congress possesses all legislative authority, but should limit itself to the delegation of broad grants of unstructured authority to the president. Congress must take care never to draft a careful and precise statute because this would interfere with the judgment of the president and his professional and full-time administrators.

Article IV. There exists a separate administrative branch composed of persons whose right to govern is based upon two principles: (1) the delegation of power flowing from Congress, and (2) the authority inherent in professional training and promotion through an administrative hierarchy. Congress and the courts may provide for administrative procedures and have the power to review agencies for their observance of these procedures; but in no instance should Congress or the courts attempt to displace the judgment of the administrators with their own.

Article V. The judicial branch is responsible for two functions:
1. To preserve the procedural rights of citizens before all federal courts, state and local courts and administrative agencies, and
2. To apply the Fourteenth Amendment of the 1787 Constitution as a natural-law defense of all substantive and procedural rights.
The appellate courts shall exercise vigorous judicial review of all state and local government and court decisions, but in no instance shall the courts review the constitutionality of Congress’ grants of authority to the president or to the federal administrative agencies.

Article VI. The public interest shall be defined by the satisfaction of the voters in their constituencies. The test of the public interest is re-election.

Article VII. Article VI to the contrary notwithstanding, actual policymaking will not come from voter preferences or congressional enactments but from a process of tripartite bargaining between the specialized administrators, relevant members of Congress and the representatives of self-selected organized interests.

How did he do? How closely did he bring the form of his constitution to matches what actually happens?

Written by srojak

October 15, 2016 at 2:48 pm

Guess What! Lindy Made It!

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Did you know that we have a gravely ill Constitution? Garrett Epps does, and he wants to tell us all about it in The Atlantic. Of course, you know there is going to be a convenient explanation for all this:

“Political correctness” is out of favor, so I won’t pretend that “both sides” bear responsibility. The corrosive attack on constitutional values has come, and continues to come, from the right. It first broke into the open in 1998, when a repudiated House majority tried to remove President Bill Clinton for minor offenses.
— Epps, “Trumpism Is the Symptom of a Gravely Ill Constitution”

I did just discuss the price to be paid for trying to nullify an election.

According to his bio, Epps teaches constitutional law and creative writing at the University of Baltimore. Obviously, his article owes more to the creative writing side than the constitutional law side. Can Epps really be that ignorant of history? Or is he hoping to put one over on us unenlightened rubes? We can’t settle that question, but we can review some history. Here are some years to remember from a constitutional perspective.


The Sixteenth Amendment is adopted, which strikes out the wording in Article I, Section 9 that:

No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken.

The framers of the Constitution inserted that because they feared a mob would use the police power of the state to steal from a minority of the people. But, hey, nothing to worry about now!

As if that weren’t achievement enough, the Seventeenth Amendment follows three months later. This establishes direct election of Senators, thus eroding the status of States as mediators between the Federal Government and the people. The Senate becomes an Upper House with really expensive seats.


In A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States [295 US 495], the Supreme Court for the last time throws out delegation of lawmaking by Congress to the executive branch, holding:

A delegation of its legislative authority to trade or industrial associations, empowering them to enact laws for the rehabilitation and expansion of their trades or industries, would be utterly inconsistent with the constitutional prerogatives and duties of Congress. P. 295 U. S. 537.

Congress cannot delegate legislative power to the President to exercise an unfettered discretion to make whatever laws he thinks may be needed or advisable for the rehabilitation and expansion of trade and industry. P. 295 U. S. 537.

The sitting president was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his response was to threaten to pack the Court. Did it work? Nobody will say, but since then no court has had the insolence to make Congress do its job.


In Susette Kelo, et al., v. City of New London, CT [545 US 469], the Supreme Court ruled that a municipality could use its eminent domain powers to force the transfer of land from one private owner to another. This is the “Kelo” case and the source of the questions about eminent domain that Donald Trump artlessly glossed over earlier this year.

What’s not to like about this? The dissent of Justice O’Connor explains it:

Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.

Either Garrett Epps is stupid or he believes we are; more likely than not the latter. The Constitution has been in real trouble for my entire life. Where was his impassioned defense of the Tenth Amendment? Now that the chickens are coming home to roost, he wants to start worrying about process. It’s a little late.

Written by srojak

September 22, 2016 at 10:18 pm

What Do Russians Want?

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It is clear that Americans and Russians attempting to understand each other on their own respective terms is a counterproductive effort, destined to lead to misunderstanding, misinterpretation and suspicion. Exhibit A is provided by Igor Panarin, a former KGB colonel who went on to be a political scientist and who has been predicting a US breakup since 1998. In 2008, he projected that in two years the US would split apart along these lines:

Igor Panarin's projected map of 2010 United States territory. From WSJ.

Igor Panarin’s projected map of 2010 United States territory. From WSJ.

My point here is not that this did not happen or that there are not tremendous unresolved political conflicts within the United States — although, from even a 2012 vantage point, the thought of the Eastern Seaboard joining the European Union is a bit of a hoot. What I want to draw attention to is that Panarin saw the conflicts playing out in terms that Russians would well understand:

Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar.
— Andrew Osborn, “As if Things Weren’t Bad Enough, Russian Professor Predicts End of U.S. “, Wall Street Journal, 29 Dec 2008 (the map is from the same source).

To give Panarin his due, mass immigration has become a political flashpoint this year, and parts of the country are experiencing economic decline. However, these parts are in the same states as other parts of the country that are doing relatively well. The divisions we are seeing are not along geographic lines.

I also believe there will ultimately be trouble for the dollar, but do not see the consequences playing out in sectional terms. Panarin had an understanding of the political forces at work, but viewed them through the lens of Russian political thought to make his predictions.

We also make mistakes when we look at the people of a country like Russia in American terms. Russians have different political traditions and expectations than we do. How are we as citizens to find out how to look at the world like Russians?

It is not practical for us to travel to Russia and interview a statistically significant sample of Russians, and even if we could, their political heritage would not necessarily lead them to be honest with us. Meanwhile, we have the advice of self-styled Russia experts such as Stephen Cohen, whom we know we can’t trust. It also doesn’t help that an estimated 56% of us have no plans to leave our home state, let alone visit another country. So what’s a citizen with a life and a day job to do?

Certainly, Russians do not have group minds any more than Americans do. There were 143.5 million people in Russia as of 2013, before the annexation of the Crimea added almost 3 million more people. Nevertheless, there are themes in the political currents of any country, and one has to be able to generalize somewhat in order to have a basis for understanding.

We can start by learning history and listening to actual Russians.

Snapshots of History

When times are bad, Russians say, “Things could be worse.” Often they have been.

Russia and the Ukraine were overrun by Mongols between 1237 and 1240. For the next 140 years, Russia was essentially a colony of the Mongol-Tartars. Russian princes who failed to produce enough wealth to satisfy their Tartar overlords would get a summons to the seat of the Golden Horde at Sarai; it was usually a one-way trip.

The Muscovite house of Rurik lead the reclamation of Russia from the Tartars. Ivan III (“the Great”) married a niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, and after the fall of Constantinople Moscow claimed to be the world capital of the Greek Orthodox church. There were continued Tsarist claims to be the Third Rome, after Rome itself and Constantinople.

Russia was remote and religiously disconnected from Roman Catholic Europe. The Renaissance hardly touched Russia. Western ideas such as, “treat your fellow man as an end and not a means,” never got wide circulation. Serfdom was only abolished in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II, who received his thanks twenty years later by being assassinated.

Lest you think that Byzantium is some minor cultural influence on Russia, it is, in fact, rather key. Byzantine cultural influences, which came along with Orthodox Christianity, first through Crimea (the birthplace of Christianity in Russia), then through the Russian capital Kiev (the same Kiev that is now the capital of Ukraine), allowed Russia to leapfrog across a millennium or so of cultural development. Such influences include the opaque and ponderously bureaucratic nature of Russian governance, which the westerners, who love transparency (if only in others) find so unnerving, along with many other things.
— Dmitry Orlov, “Peculiarities of Russian National Character” (

Because Russian political development missed out completely on the evolution from divine right of kings to constitutional monarchy the way Britain did, intellectual dissent developed differently as well. The well-meaning sons of the nobility who came back from study in nineteenth-century France were returning to a nation with a much more feudal starting point than the nations in Europe where they obtained their ideas. You could call the nation they were returning to “pre-Hobbesian”: the surrender of individual freedom to obtain security and order was not a rationally chosen social contract, but the condition of humanity ordained by God and instinctively preferred by any decent man. In effect, these intellectuals were attempting what we now call “nation-building” in their own country, attempting to leap from the high Middle Ages into the modern world. Where intellectuals in Britain or France might have sought greater autonomy for citizens within existing political frameworks, in Russia the development was more toward anarchism.

Russian society before World War I was very rigid, hierarchical and authoritarian.

Until Peter the Great, Russian officials were paid no salaries. They were expected to “feed themselves from official business.” And when the Marquis de Custine traveled through Russia in 1839, he encountered a member of the czarist aristocracy who said, “They tell me that in France, at present, the highest noble can be put in prison for a debt of two hundred francs; this is revolting. How different from our country! There is not in all Russia a tradesman who would dare to refuse us credit for an unlimited period.”
— P. J. O’Rourke, Eat the Rich (1998), p. 144.

All the Russian Tsars and Tsarinas remembered as “The Great” imposed themselves on the nation by force. Most of them also won wars. It is very unhealthy for a Russian government to lose a war. Nicholas II suffered a humiliating defeat by the Japanese in 1905 and was forced to accept a Parliament, called the Duma. He lost to the Germans in 1917, and paid for it with his life. From Peter the Great through Joseph Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev, Russian regimes take action not because they want to provide their citizens with a better life, but because they don’t want to be militarily defeated by nations that can outproduce and outspend them.

The documentary War of the Century records a highly illustrative incident. In late August 1944 the Red Army crossed from the Soviet Union into Romania. Eastern Romania was hardly a wealthy area, but the Red Army soldiers saw houses with furniture and mirrors and thought, “This is where the rich people live!” Most of the soldiers had no such conditions at home. They shot up the villages and sacked the houses.

.. the Russian reaction to terrorist attacks, which is, typically, “They can’t kill us all.”
— Dmitry Orlov, The Five Stages of Collapse, p. 148.

Because the Russians have low expectations of life, their worlds are less likely to be thrown out of kilter when trouble strikes. Americans seem to believe that, if something bad happens, it is someone else’s fault and that someone else should be prosecuted, tortured or at least professionally ruined. Russians are used to having bad things happen, and are prepared to ride them out. Things could always be worse.


Since the New Deal, we have become used to taking our problems to the government. In most of the world, including Russia, you stay away from the government or you will have more problems.

Taxation is the price which we pay for civilization, for our social, civil and political institutions, for the security of life and property, and without which, we must resort to the law of force.
—  Special Committee Report to the Governor of Vermont, 1852.

Most Russians would spit their vodka across the room if they heard somebody say that. They live under the law of force most of the time, and they expect to. Much as they did in the time of the Golden Horde, Russians see taxes as tribute and government as a racket.

Central authority, in the form of security, regulatory and judicial bureaucracies, then tends to become the most effective protection racket available. As long as it remains powerful enough to suppress its competitors, it can keep random, opportunistic violence in check at the expense of perpetuating a system of organized, legally enshrined violence. In recognition of this, even those whose fortunes are continually eroded by central authority come to support it, because they come to see the alternative as being even worse.
— Orlov, The Five Stages of Collapse, p. 173.

What the Russians want out of a government is the best bargain: the most benefits for the least amount of tribute. A government that imposes violence on its own people but cannot hold its own with other governments is a travesty, unworthy of respect.

Russians would burst out laughing at a bumper sticker that said, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” They live in a world where stronger people can take away your toys any time they want.

Consider the romanticism around the memory of Stalin. Who would want that? Well, imagine your parents made it through the Stalin regime without having been slung into a concentration camp (no mean feat). You grew up in a nation that had defeated the Germans (with material assistance from the Americans, sure, but you did the bleeding) and asserted its parity with the United States. Since 1990, everything seems to have fallen apart. Drunken gangsters rule the streets of Moscow, the economy is shrinking and the West wants to push your country around. Wouldn’t the Stalin era seem like a period of national greatness to you?

Moral Degeneracy

Periodically, as exemplified in the Panarin pronouncement, Russians in positions of authority will make references to “moral degeneracy.” They do this in the expectation that this will be understood and resonate with the Russian people who are their audience. If you want to understand Russia, you have to get your mind around this.

Because of Russia’s history as an intellectually isolated nation, disconnected from European political and social developments, there is very limited support for the idea of personal autonomy, which is essentially an Enlightenment innovation. It is not your life to live as you want, unless you want to exclude yourself from the community and die an early death. If you’re going to live among other people and be able to rely upon them for protection against the various social predators roaming the landscape, then they have to be able to rely upon you as well. If you are going to reject community norms, the community can reject you, and watch how long you last on your own.

To Russians, individualism in general is a moral degeneracy. The biological purpose of predators is to cull the herd of the weak, and inability to function as a part of a community, performing one’s responsibilities to the community in exchange for mutual protection, is seen as a weakness. Many Russians do not want such weak people around, seeing them as parasites, and applaud efforts by the state to squash them.

After the suffering of many years of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.
— Aleksandr Solzenitsyn, 1978 Harvard commencement speech (

Even Solzenitsyn did not understand the West. He, like many outside the West looked at the randomness of Western society and saw only weakness. How could there be strength in a society in which people were free to do anything they wanted, to chase after nothing higher than their own happiness?

This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.
— Solzhenitsyn, 1978.

I am rather partial to individualism and autonomy myself, but this is not about me or us. This is about Russians. If we are to understand them, we must do so on Russian terms.

Dmitry Orlov is a follower of Prince Pyotor Kropotkin, who is remembered as an anarchist. However, he did not advocate individualism, but only absence of central control. In this anarchism, the communities would be free to self-organize and barter without interference from a higher authority (including the authority to coin money). Do not confuse this with some kind of radical libertarianism, which would make no sense in Russia. Orlov went so far as to present a “human relationship guide pyramid,” which he describes as analogous to the food pyramid.

Healthy and unhealthy human relationship pyramids, from Dmitry Orlov.

Healthy and unhealthy human relationship pyramids, from Dmitry Orlov.

The base of my pyramid, representing a royal share of a healthy human interaction diet, is made up of family, extended family, clan or tribe — those people who are closest to you, and whom you have known all your life (or all of their life if they are younger). These are your people — those before whom you have irrevocable obligations, who you can trust completely and will support, defend and protect unconditionally as a matter of family honor. This is the context in which all of the most important social interactions, such as nurturing, social grooming, teaching and learning, take place. Next, a somewhat smaller slice is made up by friends and allies — those people with whom you are united by bonds of friendship or solemn promise, but who are not your people. Next, an even smaller sliver is made up of strangers: those with whom you are drawn together, not through blood relations or personal allegiance but through accident or necessity or fleeting circumstance. While accident and necessity are to be avoided, a fleeting circumstance such as hosting a performance by an itinerant musician may be pleasant, but it cannot be prioritized above the needs of those who are not strangers.
— Orlov, The Five Stages of Collapse, pp. 85-86.

Note well: family are “your people — those before whom you have irrevocable obligations …” To think that you have no irrevocable obligations is, in this view, moral degeneracy and will lead to expulsion, oppression and a lonely death.

Over the past five years, there has been a lot of hand-wringing among the chattering classes in the West about illiberal democracy. Many Russians see little to recommend liberalism as it has come to be understood, only offering alienation, isolation and moral degeneracy.

Written by srojak

August 14, 2016 at 11:03 pm