Molecular Civil War

Mike Ma’s “Harassment Architecture”: A Review

“I’m too young to formulate respectable opinions of the world, so I don’t expect anyone to take me seriously. I’m rambling, and someone is listening, even if it isn’t you. That someone is either more naive than I am, or much smarter and enjoying the pompous sting.”
— Mike Ma

Harassment Architecture is one of the self-published titles you’ll find on the obscure end of political twitter. Yes, by this I mean the virtual non-space of anon-avatars and burner accounts which is as weirdly frivolous as it is strangely known to anyone that matters and even commands the attention of heads of states for its infallible instincts. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Voltaire, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer: they would all be on there with us if they were our contemporaries. I am mentioning this because Harassment Architecture is a brain-child of this same bon mot-miasma which has been massaging and deterritorialising polite society’s amygdalae for the past decade or so.

I do not exactly recall how I first encountered this book, but the cover and the evocative title immediately appealed to me. Harassment Architecture: a concise way of feeling about the world. Inside: short bits, impressionistic stream-of-consciousness ramblings of a young man casting drastic abysses between banal everyday situations and intrusive, sweaty, overboarding on-edge violent fantasies. Whatever you think, Ma is certainly thin-skinned, perhaps literally so. Perhaps, this is the mystery of all contemporary Zoomer sensibility: the accelerating dissolution of all biota slowly turning reality into a borderless interplay of unicameral psyche schizoid nightmare. 

If you’re a university type who gets their book recommendation from the Guardian, you will almost certainly think this book is toxic. And no doubt you’ll find plenty of the very fashionable zoomer racism, homophobia, misogyny and other carefully calculated offenses predictably corroding Western posthistoire’s ultimate taboos. 

Concretely, what we find is the mundane safety of Ma’s everyday subverted with malign thymotic mind-chatter which is as ceaseless as it is aimless. The outcome is at times hilarious, at times vapid. Commencing the book, I had to laugh out loud at the thought of the protagonist blasting “Tannhäuser” at some West-Coast traffic light to produce a minor car accident and escape the scene in a hit and run. It emanated all the stunted acceleration in the Human Zoo, universal sentiment of all of today’s young men with a bit of talent. The pace does not keep up throughout. At its worst, Ma approaches the constipated rants of the most sclerotic segments of the online right with its aphoristic absolutes and banal reductive certainties. A bit too 2016, I might say. Then again, I admit we all age horribly quickly today and constantly need to reassess our opinions in light of the ceaseless onslaught of late majorities occupying dead tropes and taking the fun out of everything.  In return, Ma has enough protracted teenage angst to keep the book afloat: megatonnes of romantic longing, of cryptic unrequisited romantic interest, of overboarding disgust, giving it just enough youthful innocence so that even the Guardian crowd might forgive him one day – should he chose to sell out. Nonetheless, the book is entertaining, short-chaptered and eroticised by enough scandalous slurs to keep even the most atrophied Zoomer’s attention span at bay. 

Notably, there are enough disclaimers in the book to safely distance the author from his violent fantasies, a necessary degree of separation to illustrate to the audience the author’s self-awareness which distinguishes the book from an Eliot Rodgers or Anders Breivik manifesto. But perhaps this says more about the world than about Ma. Trying to find out more about the young author, I personally found this strange and frightening anti-terrorism piece about him. I conclude that if the spook-ridden anti-terrorism establishment dedicates you a piece, it is a telltale sign that indicates that this kind of transgression is something you can barely get away with today. A punk-rock street credibility certification of sorts: “unsafe for consumption.” Then again: the now canonised-and-utterly-harmless Naked Lunch was deemed enough of a threat to national morality when it came out to be banned. Perhaps it is a contemporary illusion which makes it seem that the securitarian discourses around culture give this material a different edge, an underlying fear that the system goes full-dictatorship and authors get guantanamoed if they’re insisting too much on ambiguity. Not a good sign that the sweaty fragility of leadership becomes paranoid about every remnant of edginess put onto a hyperscaler. I suppose there is always enough well-meaning humourless people pointing out that there might be even more humourless people who might get all the wrong ideas resulting in some Metcalfe clusterfuck bringing down the Western world in a frantic spasm of apocalyptic chaos.

The reason I liked the book is that it’s violent rants and hallucinations struck me as utterly contemporary. I saw it incarnating today’s collective condition which Enzensberger a quarter of a century ago clairvoyantly called the molecular civil war: a mysterious global phenomenon spontaneously appearing in the world from Los Angeles to Kabul and manifesting itself in the decay of the public sphere and the omnipresence of a latent interpersonal violence. He writes:

“What gives today’s civil wars a new and terrifying slant is the fact that they are waged without stakes on either side, that they are wars about nothing at all. This gives them the characteristics of a political retrovirus. We have always regarded politics as a struggle between opposing interests, not only for power, for resources and for better opportunities, but also in pursuit of wishes, plans and ideas. And although this power play invariably results in bloodshed and is often unpredictable, at least the intentions of those involved are usually obvious. But where no value is attributed to life either to one’s own life or to the lives of one’s opponents this becomes impossible, and all political thought, from Aristotle and Machiavelli to Marx and Weber, is turned upside down. All that remains is the Hobbesian ur-myth of the war of everyone against everyone else.”

Yes, concerned Guardian columnist: This war exists in all young men. And there’s no army of social workers in the world which could solve the problem qua therapy. It’s the inevitable ennui which stems from the impossibility of politics in the 21st century, from being locked into the end of history and death of politics by global governance. In Ma, this condition finds its everyday phenomenology; a spectacle of slow-burning nihilist desperation. Every conversation is stunted, asphyxiated in its roots by the impossibility to find a commonplace against the trash heaps of accumulated niche propaganda polluting every mind with conditioned reflexes. What is the contemporary right-wing but the most violent longing for the real, itself suspended in the formless and anonymous virtual where actions are never followed by consequences. Ma’s work is the poetisation of sound instincts desperately attempting to penetrate through the clutter of this virtual, which carpet bombs the everyday with almost universal demoralisation. 

Overall, I shall thus recommend Harassment Architecture. The author clearly has talent and perhaps even a Celinian lucidity. Despite its raving madness, the work is infused with a clairvoyant irate sanity that pervades it in the paranoia against a world which is all agrochemical death trap: “Fluoride in the water, hormones in the milk, gender dysmorphia in the air,” is the sober and sobering assessment describing our condition. I admit that buried under my placid exterior I still feel the same existential panic of a prison globe slowly territorialising fertility to anticipate history’s most gentle and slow dance universal genocide in the name of Malthusian elite ecology. The success of Ma’s book must be in capturing some of the ominous cultural anxiety whose inarticulate epiphenomenal desperation leaks out of all corners of the internet. If today millions identify with frogs, it is also because they are scandalised about being boiled far too quickly and obviously. The sooner we come to terms with this condition, the better. Why not buy Harassment Architecture for your teenage nephew then? 

I do not know where Ma is taking it from here. I personally believe that we must refuse drowning out and deadening our sensitivity when harassed by the intrusive and omnipresent ugliness of the world. To stay alive in this regime means to use the same wild live existential panic to keep relentlessly fucking this beautiful trash world: against all odds in order to transform it. I believe Ma is doubtlessly doing his part: the only way out is to go deeper in. 

Nicolas Hausdorf is a German writer living in Melbourne, Victoria. He is the author of the “Psychogeography Superstructural Berlin“. You can find some of his work at linktr.ee/nhausdorf. He tweets at: @dcntrrr.


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IM MAGAZINE

The Gift of Post-Liberalism

Liberalism and Post-Liberalism: Philosophical Foundations

In Why Liberalism Failed, according to Patrick Deneen, liberalism, from its foundations in Locke’s Second Treatise to the work of John Rawls posits man as entirely alone, unattached and isolated in a timeless, placeless state of nature. Community is not something man is born into, families don’t exist, and the many layers of civil institutions and groups that comprise society are irrelevant. 

Inheritance is something to deny and escape — bonds that tie of any sort a barrier to the full realisation of freedom and the maximisation of autonomy. Relations are replaced by contracts, made and broken through consent informed by man’s supposed rationality. Traditions as a roadmap for existence have no place and are delegitimised by liberalism’s drive to freedom from constraint.

Liberalism, as Ryzsard Legutko argues, shares with Marxism the teleological drive to a final state of total escape from the constraints of physical, human reality. This heaven is to be brought on earth through constant political churn and change. Liberalism and Communism are each as revolutionary as each other in the final assessment. 

As Reinhold Neibuhr put it, the former is a form of “soft utopianism,” whose faith in progress is its driving force. Liberalism fails “to understand the tragic character of human history.” For Niebuhr, liberalism believes in progress as the perfection of man’s nature: “faith in man; faith in his capacity to subdue nature, and faith that the subjection of nature achieves life’s final good.” The veil of ignorance that Rawls employs to demonstrate its inevitability is reflective of liberalism’s blindness. This blindness, he argued, “does not see the perennial difference between human actions and aspirations… the inevitable tragedy of human existence, the irreducible irrationality of human behavior, and the tortuous character of human history.” 

Material progress is mistaken for moral growth, an illusion shown as delusion by the 20th century. “Since 1914,” Niebuhr writes, “one tragic experience has followed another, as if history had been designed to refute the vain delusions of modern man.” Even despite this, liberalism continues on, unaffected by impingements of reality. Coronavirus might have demonstrated the limits of man and of liberalism itself. But it seems not, given our faith in scientistic technocracy for our salvation. This reveals a spiritual crisis, for as: “the modern world does not believe in sin. Our secular age has rejected that doctrine more whole-heartedly than any other Christian doctrine.” 

None of this accounts for our fallen humanity, our nature “both strong and weak, both free and bound, both blind and far-seeing.” This blindness of human frailty extends to social fragility, civilisation and social comity resting upon “a precarious equilibrium of social forces. This equilibrium may degenerate into anarchy if there is no strong organizing center in it. And it may degenerate into tyranny if the organizing center destroys the vitality of the parts.” The anarcho-tyranny of the last few months, with riots unstopped but lockdown infractions clamped down on demonstrates this for all to see. 

As Deneen argues, “Liberalism has failed–not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It failed because it has succeeded.” A political philosophy created to “foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.” 

In questing for ever greater freedom, enabled and enforced through the state in politics and the market in economics, liberalism leaves us both less free and poorer, in spirit if not in income. The individualism of our liberal order promises freedom from constraint but delivers servitude to loneliness, leaving us bereft of relationships that bring both the blessing and burden of living to full-life. Social liberty is license, enslavement to carnality, while economic liberty is greed, enslavement to acquisitive venality. Loss, loneliness and lowered life-prospects for more and more are the outcomes. 

Post-Liberalism looks at this wasteland and seeks another way. Moving beyond the liberal dispensation does not entail ejecting the beneficial achievements of liberalism. As Deneen writes: “moving beyond [it] is not to discard some of liberalism’s main commitments — especially those deepest longings of the West, political liberty and human dignity — but to reject the false turn it made in its imposition of an ideological remaking of the world in the image of a false anthropology.” To paraphrase Ozzy Osbourne in Supernaut, Post-Liberals have seen the future and we’ve left it behind. Post-Liberalism is, as Unherd columnist Mary Harrington said in an online seminar held by Res Publica in October, “what you get when you have conservative instincts but there’s nothing left to conserve.” It is a worldview of reconstruction and recovery, restoring the ability to live fulfilled lives in common with others. 

Post-Liberalism agrees with the millennia-old wisdom that man is a social creature and is not meant to be alone. It is not about the removal of limits to our unchained desires, but the exact opposite: the chaining of our untutored desires to live lives of purpose in concert with those around us, starting in the family where we learn the language of identity (as Mary Eberstadt puts it).

For Harrington, liberalism — for women in particular — meant the removal of constraint by parental and familial bonds, externalising the cost of motherhood to low-status women lower down the social order. As she argued in last month’s webinar, modern corporate feminism is inherently aristocratic, allowing a prosperous 10% to pursue their dreams of bodily autonomy through economic means, marketizing motherhood. In reality, the very physicality of motherhood itself repudiates the claims of autonomy made by liberalism. 

She further asserted that motherhood reinforces the irreducible interdependence of human relations, our reliance on and need for each other revealed here as nowhere else. Care for children is the foundation to other sorts of care, as Madeleine Bunting also writes. Care sits at the intersection of interdependence, inheritance, and legacy. Care reveals as nothing else does the linked nature of humanity, the interdependence we have on each other. 

None of this is taken into account by a liberal worldview that prizes choice and autonomy over any sense of duty and gratitude. Care, rooted in the most fundamental human relationality, cannot be easily itemised or monetised — but liberalism is blind to this as so much else. Those who give and receive care are seen as less worthy, because the thing that is being done cannot be calculated in a rational system that breaks people down into economic widgets. Motherhood, old-age and disability, cannot serve the market by increasing productivity and GDP. They are less useful to society, and therefore represent loss of human value.

However, as Harrington points out, we belong to each other as much as we do to ourselves. Indeed, it is only in this reciprocal belonging — as Eberstadt drawing on Wittgenstein argues — that we can even begin to understand who we are. Care cultivates identity, and a strong sense of self can cultivate care for those who endowed us with this sense, and towards the wider world, the context in which we situate ourselves. The power of relationships, buried by liberalism, can still rise to the surface of our existence. The rebellion against what Harrington calls “Clinton feminism” may be a sign of this. 

The most fundamental element of relationship is that of a sexual nature. Louise Perry (in the same webinar) argued that the seemingly bizarre agreement on the place of sex in the relationship between men and women that one can see between radical feminists and traditionalist Catholics is — perhaps not so strange after all. There is fundamental agreement between these two disparate tribes that freedom for itself is not the reality nor the goal of life. 

Under liberalism, according to Perry, we have witnessed what Aaron Sibarium calls “sexual disenchantment,” where any strictures and constraints on the self that make sex special, that sacralise it and therefore something to cherish, are removed by the need for ever-greater autonomy. As Eberstadt says, the commodification of sex has created a sexual consumer culture, where women are reduced to options in buffet of sexualised bodies, stripped of their essential humanity. Sibarium writes: “If the scientific revolution disenchanted the world, a la Weber, the sexual revolution disenchanted sex in the process of deregulating it, with free ‘love’ a sterile spin-off of the free market.”

This sexual disenchantment, to Perry, is against our deepest nature and desires, and therefore cannot continue. Intimacy and relationality are a basic part of what makes us human and should be emphasised as central to sexual relationships. We must retain (to return to Deneen’s point about liberalism’s benefits) women’s freedoms while pushing back against the instrumentalization inherent to the world of liberal sexual disenchantment. 

At bottom, Post-Liberalism argues for the reality of human attachment, to each other in the present, to memory of the past and obligation towards the future, Liberty is not license, but the ability to fulfill our human need to live with others, within limits that provide a framework for life. The market serves us, not the other way around. Human flourishing rests in the ability to pursue lives of dignity and purpose in community. 

Post-Liberalism’s view of human anthropology, of our origins and ends is opposed to the aristocratic atomisation of liberalism. Life may be tragic, the vale through which we make life’s journey one of tears. But this realism is balanced with the hope of redemption, with the sun breaking through the clouds to warm us in the knowledge of hope, that life is worth living despite its trials, and that being born was itself a blessing, a blessing we can affirm through the consequences of living.

***

The beginnings of the philosophical reorientation seen in Harrington and Perry’s contributions must be matched by implementation of policies that tangibly improve people’s lives. Journalist Paul Embery and former advisor to Theresa May Nick Timothy (also present) were looking at the situations on the contemporary left and right respectively. Their analysis is needed to ground the metaphysical in the real, and to avoid endless, self-referential abstraction that grows increasingly divorced from the reality of people’s experience of their day-to-day lives. 

We’ve arguably spent so long under a system of government by technocratic managerialism that our elites — a point also made by Matthew Goodwin — have actually forgotten how to exercise power in the name of governing. This makes it especially challenging to implement any new vision going forward — thus our inability to see a way to navigate between the extreme particularism of leftist identity politics and the weightless universalism of neoliberalism. Identitarianism, an exclusivist politics that takes the importance of identity and turns into a weapon for a retribalisation of society. And yet, all of this has its roots in the liberalism held up as the solution to the problem. Woke and far-right identitarianism leaves people adrift on the tides of liquid modernity a sense of community, meaning, and purpose. It gives them a sense of destiny

This is the reaction to what Leo Strauss saw as the insidious, deadening forces of gentle nihilism. A liberal universalism that denies any sense of particularity in attachment or affection is insufficient. As Timothy argues, universalism reached through the particularity of our experiences, place and time — what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called “the dignity of difference” — is one answer to this. 

Part of the solution is to realise that these groups based in immutable characteristics substitute for the mediating institutions of civil society torn apart by 40 tears of neoliberal economics. Both Goodwin and Timothy state that the collapse of these civic institutions in favour of liberal meritocratic governance has been a disaster for solidarity between classes and groups. Shoring up what Christopher Lasch called “the third places of communal life” must be a priority of government.

We’re right where we’ve started: man as connected creature, born into a social ecosystem that like all ecosystems needs cultivation, maintenance, and in our time, new growth. Ultimately our embrace of the limits of time, place, and community and the hope they paradoxically provide, rests on a foundation of gratitude for life itself. Post-Liberalism is the politics of life as gift. Everything flows from there.

Henry George is a freelance writer from the U.K., focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, Merion West, The Post Millennial, Arc Digital, & more. Follow him on Twitter: @intothefuture45.


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Dawn of the Modern World, Part III

This essay is the last of a three-part feature series on “Dawn of the Modern World”. Read Part I, here. Part II, here.


Part III: “From Pirate-State to Third Rome: The Ethnogenesis of the Rus”

So far we have covered the major schism of the Mediterranean. Germanics in the West (whose Church retained the kultur of the Roman empire) and Arabs in the East (whose equivalent was Iranian). 

The two peoples who rose above this division were, first, the Eastern Romans who sustained the notion of an ecumenical romanitas (built, nevertheless, on a form of nationalism) centered on Constantinople. Second, the Rus whose Roman religion was welded to a Norse cum Tatar polity that iced a thick sponge of Slavs (a configuration not unlike the Avar federation). Only one of these units has survived, however, so I shall focus on the unusual ethnogenesis of the Rus.

The legend of Riurik claims that in the ninth century quarrelsome Slavs and Finns invited the Vikings Riurik and his brothers to bring peace and order to their tribes, just as the Britons had once beckoned the Saxons. Their Scandinavian brethren weren’t to be left out of the power grab, however, and so the main motif of early records is how Riurik’s descendants — men like Vladimir — methodically eradicated rival dynasties led by warriors such as Rogvolod. The reasoning being that their leadership should avoid reflecting the scattered units of Slavs.

This might not be a world with which many western readers will be familiar. To orientate ourselves, let’s start with some ethnology. The tribes around Novogorod were Slovenes. To the south around Kiev were the Poliane, Slavicised Iranians. Kievan Rus was fringed in the north by the Finnic Chud. In the north east lay the Muroma and Merya tribes on the Volga. To the south, Slavic agriculturalists occupied the forests that halted the giant steppe populated by nomads. In the east, Tmutorokan formed an entrepôt on the shores of the Sea of Azov.

The most important pins in the early Russian state were Novgorod at its northern end and Kiev in the south. Other important settlements tended to be tribal centres. Smolensk, for example, was the major town of the Krivichi; Turov the same to the Dregovich; Chernigov to the Serveriane tribes. Rostov, though built by Vladimir on Lake Nero, performed a similar function for the Merya people. Meanwhile, Rogvolod’s capital had been Polotsk. And Pereiaslavl stood nearest the steppe frontier. 

If this picture lacks coherence, imagine all the rivers (Volkhov, Dvina, Volga, Oka, Desna, Pripiat, Dneiper, Don etc.) that lead from the northerly Baltic and White Seas down to their southerly twins, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The Rus can fairly be viewed as both a river and a forest people; a bristling wall of nature standing against the steppe peoples of Khazaria[1] (around the Don) and the Volga Bulgars; a string of militarised traders who took the wares of the North (fur, wax, honey, etc.)[2] down river and returned with silver, gold, and silk.[3]

At this early stage the majority were still pagan. Vladimir, for instance, sponsored the erection of a temple on a Kievan hill dedicated to six idols: Perun/Thor (war), Striborg (sky), Dazhboh (light), Mokosh (mother nature), Khors (sun god), and Smimargl (fertility god of Iranian origin who appealed to the Poliane). Christianity had been known however for at least a century. Vladimir’s grandmother, Olga — despite a rather colourful, often vengeful life — had been a Christian.[4] Moreover, the cathedral of St Elias in Kiev had functioned since 944 (when the Christian retainers of Vladimir’s grandfather, Igor, were said to have sworn oaths there). 

According to the Primary Chronicle the subsequent upswing in Christian activity was the result of Vladimir’s diplomatic inquiries to the powers of the major faiths. The Rus subsequently rejected Islam due to its prohibition on pork and alcohol; the Jews because God could hardly be said to be on the side of those who had no country of their own; and the Latin faith because it “contained no glory.” Only in Constantinople did they… 

“Know not whether they were on heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men.”[5]

A continuation of the chronicle, however, noted that Vladimir led a campaign against Cherson, an Eastern Roman city. He then held it as ransom until he received the hand of the emperor Basil’s sister Anna in marriage. When she arrived, Vladimir was baptised and returned the city. Back in Kiev, Vladimir conducted a mass baptism and smashed the pagan idols.[6] In their place, he built the stone church of the Theotokos (AKA the church of the Tithe). The arrival of the clergy (who threw the popular idol of Perun into the Volkhov) was not quite so joyous in Novgorod, however. In fact it provoked a rebellion. Eventually quelled, the city soon boasted its own cathedral dedicated to St. Sophia — surmounted by thirteen domes — though paganism took several centuries to die down.[7]

The faith did little to quell the death machine that was the Riurikid succession model. Ideally, it allowed brothers to play musical chairs within a hierarchy of cities with the head of the family ruling from Kiev.[8] In reality, squabbles over seniority resulted in an eternity of fratricidal warfare that bestowed Rus with its first two native saints (Boris and Gleb) when they were portrayed as martyrs willing to die at the hand of Sviatopolk rather than betray the Christian ideal of brotherly love. 

The best that can be said of these conflicts is that they were good training for the opportunistic raids that spliced life. In 965, for instance, Sviatolslav attacked the fortress of Sarkel, which had a domino effect on Khazaria (most of which subsequently collapsed). A trickier opponent was the Pecheneg who occupied the steppe. Numbering eight hordes, they controlled the trade paths that led to Roman Cherson or Constantinople. Hence Constantine VII’s excursus that:

“Nor can the Russians come to this imperial city… either for war or trade, unless they are at peace with the Pechenegs, because when they come down the rapids of the Dneiper… the Pechenegs set upon them and easily rout their foe.”[9]

Indeed, Vladimir’s father Sviatoslav was killed in a Pecheneg raid. The Primary Chronicle claimed his skull was “made into a cup overlaid with gold,”[10] a steppe habit inflicted on the emperor Nikephoros one-hundred-and-sixty-one years before. Similarly, Vladimir only avoided death in one of the late tenth-century raids by hiding under a bridge. 

What really plagued early Rus, however, was less the lords of the steppe than a plastic notion of seniority in the succession rules. Thanks to its lateral (agnatic) notions of succession (brothers, uncles, etc., taking precedence over direct verticals such as sons in primogeniture) cousins from elder branches of the Riuriks repeatedly challenged nominated heirs. This civil war dynamic became so intense that in the eleventh century that it was agreed only those princes whose fathers had held the throne of Kiev could occupy it.

This had unforeseen consequences, however. First, branches of the dynasty — by becoming ineligible for the Kievan throne — presided over principalities that became increasingly independent. In such circumstances, Kiev adopted an honorary role as the first city rather than a capital giving direct orders. Second, the new rule didn’t stop the keenest contenders (the princes of Polotsk 1067-69, for example) who simply fought for re-entry into the order of succession. In the centrifugal chaos only three cities stood fast as the core of Kievan kingdom: Kiev, Chernigov (on the Desna River) and Pereiaslavl (the steppe frontier city).

The last became famous mainly for its north-easterly acquisitions, lands that are variously called Rostov, Suzdalia, or Vladimir-Suzdal (a region so pagan that its revolts were invariably led by sorcerers). Another important addition was Vladimir, on the bank of the Kliazma River, in 1108. Though none of these cities really shone like Novgorod, which in essence was the font of all trade in Rus and as such suffered a governor sent from Kiev. It also acted as a springboard to the North. Conquering the Finno-Ugric tribes between Lake Onega and the White Sea, it pressed onwards to the Urals to form a giant resource basin.[11]

With such power came the prestige of intra-dynastic marriages. Iaroslav (d. 1054) married the daughter of the Swedish king Olaf. Among his sons, Iziaslav (d. 1078) married the sister of a Polish king, Sviatoslav (d. 1077) married the sister of the bishop of Trier, and Vsevolod (d. 1093) married a member of the [Roman] imperial family. Vladimir Monomakh, a product of the last union, married an English princess.[12] Ties with Constantinople were the most cherished, however. A point most comically demonstrated when the people of Kiev threatened to abandon the city for Byzantium in 1069. 

Before that, however, the Pechenegs had to be definitively defeated, which was achieved beneath the walls of Kiev in 1036. Indeed, its battleground became the site of St. Sophia Cathedral. To reach it, a Golden Gate — in imitation of Constantinople[13] — was built in the southern wall and was — like the Chalke — surmounted by a church (of the Annunciation).[14] A moment nicely crowned by the reception of Kiev’s first native metropolitan, Hilarion, in 1051. 

Though Kiev’s metropolitans were appointed by the patriarch of Constantinople, the Short Pravda — the first law code of the Rus — formed a substantial civilizational counterbalance to Byzantine influence. Codified during the reign of Iaroslav and essentially Norse in character, it contained passages on wergilds (paid in grivnas)[15] and theft (often repaid in marten pelts).

The defeat of the Pechenegs did not spell the end of the steppe threat. They were replaced by Torks, who in turn were displaced by Cumans whose federation was centred around the Northern Donets River basin. The Cumans repeatedly defeated Rus’ princes and devastated much of the country for almost two decades. All looked lost until Sviatoslav’s small retinue of three-thousand made a last stand near Chernigov against over twelve-thousand Cumans. This momentous victory at the end of 1069 clearly signalled that the Rus were not the easy pickings many on the steppe had hoped.

The dystopia that followed, however, was in many ways just as bad as the Pechenegs ingratiated themselves into Rus military culture and allied themselves with princes whose horns were locked in internecine warfare. As Kievan Rus fell into a death spiral (in which Tmutorokan was lost) only the conference at Liubech (1097) saved it. Teaming together (and thus rejecting Pecheneg civil war dynamic), they defeated the Cumans in 1103, repulsed the attacks of 1105 and 1106, and mounted a victorious campaign into the steppe in 1111.

Behind them stood a culture that had developed a sense of style that was not entirely derivative of Byzantine models. Novgorod, for instance, was distinguished by its helmet-shaped domes and austere aesthetic. Vladimir’s Cathedral of the Dormition was a broader, heavier, and brooding animal. The real pearl, however, was the church of the Intercession of the Nerl. Built in the perfect proportions using white stone, bands of arcading and ornate carving, its beauty is now considered archetypal.

Not to be outdone, of course, were the monasteries. The most prominent of which was Pecherskii. Located two miles south of Kiev, it was founded in the eleventh century by St Anthony who had been a monk at Mount Athos before becoming a hermit in the caves near the Rus capital. Home to the nation’s first substantial library, it compiled successive versions of the Primary Chronicle,[16] the book that went on to form the first “national” part of many localised histories such as the Laurentian Chronicle of Suzdal and the Hypatian Chronicle of Kiev.

An equally important development occurred during the reign of prince Iurii Dolgorukii of Rostov (r. 1125-57) when the outpost of Moscow was built in an extension of his principality to Ustiug. It was the rise of regional powerhouses like Suzdal that made the sack of Kiev (1169) by princes of Rus relatively unremarkable. This was, after all, an atmosphere in which Iurii’s son, Andrei, felt able to attempt to remove his domain from Kiev’s ecclesiastical structure. An environment in which Novgorod’s veche (popular assembly) felt entitled to elect their own posadnik (mayor) whose powers overlapped largely with those of the prince selected by Kiev. Sometimes the city even expelled princes sent to it in favour of their own candidate. In 1156, it had the chutzpah to choose its own bishop (who was swiftly raised to the rank of archbishop).

The indulgent chaos of the lateral succession conflicts (exacerbated by centrifugal spin-off principalities) was brought to an juddering halt in 1223 when a Mongol army appeared on the steppe.[17] The astonished Cumans joined the Rus but were defeated at Kalka, where three princes were captured and at least five others perished. The urban death-toll was no less severe. Riazin fell within one week. Moscow, a year later. Then Suzdal was burned. Pereislavl was razed, followed by Chernigov. Finally, Kiev surrendered at the end of 1240.

Kiev, in the words of Friar Giovanni de Pian de Carpine, was reduced to “almost nothing.” The surviving population reduced to “abject slavery.”[18] Almost all its trade was funnelled via Sarai (north of Astrakhan). Furthermore, a bishopric was set up there.[19] And each prince was forced to “go to the Horde” to receive the Great Khan’s iarlyk (patent to rule his domain). 

The Tatar yoke was total. All the fighting men of Rus were drafted into Mongol armies where they were deployed in the most vulnerable forward positions i.e. as fodder. Several leaders were martyred at the horde. Mikhail of Chernigov, for instance, was ordered to purify himself by walking between two fires and then kowtow before an idol of Chingis Khan. When he refused he was killed (and later canonised). Indeed, the process of “going to the Horde” was tiresome statecraft as it had to be repeated each time a khan died. During these lengthy and repetitive sojourns, court factions manoeuvred their favourites like chess-pieces and had a habit of producing the sort of unpredictable results that hardly made for stable government.

The first signs of resistance coagulated around prince Daniil of Volynia and Galicia. Oddly perhaps (considering the behaviour of crusaders in 1204) he established close ties with the papacy in the hope that military aid would follow. To this end he received a crown and the title of ‘Rex Russae Minoris’ from Innocent IV. Though the idea was ditched when a crusade never materialised and Daniil was defeated in 1260. The opposite strategy was most obvious in the figure of Fedor Rostilsavich, prince of Iaroslavl, who married the daughter of Khan Mengu-Timur (though to little long-term benefit).

Beneath these two outliers in elite behaviours, two major currents can be discerned. The south-western lands of Rus became attached to Poland and Lithuania, while the north-western lands slowly fell under the hegemony of Muscovy. The reasons for the latter are twofold. First, Moscow’s clean, vertical succession (at a time when many principalities were cannibalised into ever smaller appanages to provide for multiple heirs) kept it large, powerful and intact. Second, and more importantly, though the Tatars initially confirmed the princely candidates for the grand princedom[20] on the basis of Riurikid principles of succession, by the fourteenth-century they had fallen into abeyance. 

Instead, the khan’s favour — beginning with Iurii of Moscow (d. 1325) — repeatedly fell on the princes of Moscow. Though the Daniilovichi were illegitimate rulers in terms of dynastic traditions (they had never held the grand princedom), it mattered no longer; the Golden Horde had fashioned a new model of legitimacy. And so the remainder of the almighty Rus found itself ruled by some bloke in a little wooden kremlin (fortress) on earthen ramparts; a little rustic idyll, whose rule was achieved mainly by bullying the rich North into giving more silver for Mongol tribute. 

From these inauspicious beginnings, Moscow’s princes married wisely and added several regions to their domain. It was fortunate that its only real competition, Tver, which hosted a line of powerful legitimate princes, was smashed by the Mongols in 1327. Still, historical relics remained. The metropolitanate of Kiev was transferred to Vladimir in 1354. And Tver had its own bishop while Moscow was just one part of the Rostov see. 

These were the awkward facts that Ivan I of Moscow managed to steer around by convincing the metropolitan Petr to sponsor the construction of the church of the Assumption (Dormition) in the kremlin. He then buried the prelate there when he handily popped his clogs (generating an important shrine) shortly afterwards.

More important than domestic politics was the fact that the Ming expelled the Yuan dynasty from China in 1368, producing civil war among the Mongols. When Tokhtamysh established himself at Sarai (1378) Mamai’s fiscal position became untenable. To fight the warlord, he needed revenue and that meant confronting Dmitry, the prince of Moscow, who had a track record of ignoring the fact Mamai had repeatedly bestowed the grand princedom on Mikhail of Tver. 

The battle took place on a field called Kulikovo Pole (Snipe’s Field) near the upper Don River. It was a Russian victory (1380). Though the pudding should not be over-egged in a nationalist manner given the aftermath. When Tokhtamysh subsequently defeated Mamai at Kalka River (1381) and approached Moscow, Dmitry ‘Donskoi’, hero of Kulikovo, fled to Kostroma as his own city was besieged and sacked. More to the point, his tribute was then set at a higher rate than before and his son, Vasily, was taken hostage at court for several years when he’d delivered it.

Moscow, however, was no longer the wooden fortress it had once been. Limestone walls were erected in 1367-68.[21] Inside, the Chudov monastery stood, while to the east and southeast of the city the Andronikov and Simonov monasteries were also built. In the same period, St. Sergei of Radonezh — originally a hermit in the forests north of Moscow — founded St. Sergius Monastery. Other Rus — such as St Stefan of Perm — went on the spiritual offensive too, converting the Finno-Urgic populations along the Vychegda and Vym Rivers. 

It was a golden age for Russian art. In 1378, Theophanes the Greek arrived and decorated several churches before settling in Moscow where he worked on the iconostasis of the church of the Annunciation as well as the church of the Archangel Michael. Andrei Rublev — having spent his early years as a monk at St Sergius monastery and providing assistance to Theophanes in several projects — also began his work. Marked by a certain grace and a distinctive use of ethereal colours for heavenly subjects, as well as brighter, more solid ones for earthly figures, his works are still prized as Russia’s finest today.

Back on the geopolitical stage, the Golden Horde fragmented when Edigei was evicted from the Horde by his son-in-law, Timur (1411). By 1420, a Crimean khanate had materialised. By 1445, another had coalesced around Ulu-Mohammad at Kazan. This left only the Great Horde, a shadow of its former self. And even this morphed still further into the diminished khanate of Astrakhan — a no-mans-land where diplomats (such as Ambrogio Contarini) and merchants (like Afanasii Nikitin) complained they were robbed[22] — though it was still capable of attacking large cities such as Riazan (1460).

Moscow had its own problems. In 1425, Vasily I left both lateral and linear heirs. In a replay of the bad old days, his son Vasily II was opposed by an uncle named Iurii who won several battles before dying in 1434, leaving an heir (Kosoi) who Vasily II promptly blinded. Seven years later the grand prince rejected the union with Rome that Cardinal Isidor offered. And a few years after that the same ruler had the indignity of being captured in battle in 1445 — his release being conditional on raising the Horde’s tribute.

Still more tragedy was on the menu. When Vasily II returned to Moscow, Kosoi’s brother Dmitry Shemiaka had him blinded, ostensibly for being a shill for the Tatars but really in revenge for taking the sight of his sibling. The city subsequently turned against Shemiaka, however, and the blind Vasily II returned in 1447. These politics were par for the course to most travellers, however. What most surprised them more were the markets held on the frozen Moskva River where: 

“Cows are frozen whole. It is a curious thing to see so many skinned cows standing upright on their feet; a meat that has sometimes been killed three months or more before.”[23]

Talking of animals, Novgorod had become sick of playing the golden goose to Moscow and flirted with the idea of Lithuanian protection. This led to its subjugation by Moscow in 1471 and 1478. Serious defeats that resulted in the withdrawal of the city’s rights to select its own prince, summon its own veche, and elect its own officials. As a display of his authority, Ivan III even had the veche bell removed from Novgorod, arrested all its boyars and seized almost all its landholdings.

At roughly this time, the Rus suffered the strange problem of large swathes turning culturally Jewish, most likely in response to the end of time not occurring seven thousand years after creation i.e. 1492. Among the heresies attributed to them by archbishop Gennadius were iconoclasm, anti-Trinitarianism, the observation of the Sabbath on Saturday rather than Sunday, and a rejection of the Orthodox calendar. 

Other confrontations included the non-possessors (who wished the Church would reject the sin of possession/property as it kindled other vices) versus the possessors (who insisted institutional power was necessary to provide charitable functions and provide a check on the secular arm). The former position was held by an important translator that Vasily III had hired for Chudov monastery in 1518: Maxim the Greek. An idealist at heart, the Athonite soon found himself incarcerated for dubious heresies, which essentially boiled down to upsetting Moscow’s applecart. 

The ‘Third Rome’ theory was much more appetising than Maxim’s purism. Articulated in a series of three letters — at least one of which was written by the monk Filofei (abbot of Eleazarov monastery in Pskov c. 1523) to the state secretary of Moscow — they warned that many of the clergy were inadequate to their task; that there was too much diversity in ritual; and that too much suffering cursed the realm. He continued, blending carrot and stick with aplomb:

“If thou rulest thine empire rightly, thou wilt be the son of light and a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem… But now, I say unto thee, take care and take heed… all the empires of Christendom are united… in thine, for two Romes have fallen and the third exists and there shall be no fourth.”[24]

Show Footnotes

1 Its capital at Itil was located on a branch of the Volga delta and was the point at which the Volga route leading to the Caspian Sea intersected with a major east-west route that ran across the steppe.
2 Items imported included silks, satins, brocades, jewellery, goblets, wines, olive oil, naphtha, boxwood combs, spices, fruits and nuts, marbles. The marble used to decorate the church of the Tithe in Kiev, the church of the Theotokos in Tmutorokan, and the cathedral of the Transfiguration in Chernigov were also imported through Constantinople, as were their tiles and icons.
3 Good trade links imitated diplomatic relations. The Rus were still considered Viking in Scandinavia hence the refuge and assistance Vladimir found there when he felt threatened by Iaropolk. Rus similarly offered sanctuary to exiled Scandinavians such as Olaf Trygveson after his father had been murdered. His half-brother, Harald Hardrada, who would become the husband of Iaroslav’s daughter Elizaveta and the the king of Norway, also found refuge at Iaroslav’s court. He served with the prince’s retinue for several years before embarking on a series of adventures including Byzantine military campaigns that eventually led him back to Norway to claim his kingdom.
4 Famous mainly for burying alive the emissaries of the Drevlians after their people had killed her husband (Igor), Olga “radiant as pearl in the mire” (according to the Primary Chronicle) was baptised in Constantinople with the emperor Constantine VII as her godfather in 957.
5 The Russian Primary Chronicle, Laurentian Text, trans. and ed. S. H. Cross and O. P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (1953) 110-111.
6 The chronicle and its continuation is an amalgam of legend and fact. Most historians rationalise the account by portraying as follows. Basil II suffered defeats in Bulgaria and rebels at home. Desperate for military support he requested assistance and found it in Vladimir who sent a large Varangian force. In return, the emperor promised his sister on the condition Vladimir converted to the faith. By the spring of 989 the Varangians had crushed Basil’s foes but the emperor sought to renege on the agreement and so Vladimir attacked Cherson and only returned it once his imperial bride was sent.
7 According to late eleventh-century canonical texts, church marriages made no headway among ordinary folk who preferred to arrange their unions during festival dances. Indeed, bride abduction and bigamy continued into the thirteenth century. Furthermore, mothers with ill children invariably resorted to pagan powers – if nothing else as an insurance policy.
8 Riurik initially ruled the tribes around Novgorod, Izborsk and Beloozero with his brothers. After his brothers died, Riurik ruled alone. This pattern of triad and monarchy repeated itself when Sviatoslav died and his three sons shared the realm: Iaropolk at Kiev, Oleg among the Derevliane, and Vladimir at Novgorod. Through warfare Vladimir became the sole prince but his death caused another round of warfare with Sviatopolk at Kiev murdering Boris and Gleb, as well as a half-brother called Sviatoslav. His brother Iaroslav then defeated Sviatopolk who fled to Poland and later died leaving Iaroslav on the throne.
9 Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, pp. 49-53.
10 RPC, p. 90.
11 The main tribes outside the state were the Karelians beyond Lake Onega and the Komi around Perm.
12 Gyda or Gytha of Wessex, daughter of Harold II. Meanwhile, among Iaroslav’s daughters Anastasia married Andrew I of Hungary, Anna married Henry I of France, Elizaveta married Harald Hardrada, while Agafia may have been the wife of Prince Edward the Exile (N. W. Ingham, “Has a Missing Daughter of Iaroslav Mudryi Been Found?” RH, Vol. 25 [1998], pp. 231-270).
13 Built by Theodosios I in the late fourth century or Theodosios II in the early fifth.
14 Romanos I (r. 920-44) attached a small chapel dedicated to Christ Chalkites to the Chalke.
15 Grivnas were silver ingots that weighed roughly the same as the Roman/Byzantine pound.
16 Also known as the Tale of Bygone Years, it was begun in the 1030s and was written, edited and rewritten by a series of at least six chroniclers including the monks Nikon and Nestor.
17 Though it did not halt immediately, it slowly tapered out. The last case of lateral succession in Moscow occurred in 1353 when Ivan II succeeded his elder brother Semen. This occurred in the absence of any candidates in the vertical line.
18 The Texts and Versions of John de Plano Carpini and William de Rubruquis, ed. C.R. Beazley (1903, repr. 1967) pp. 87-88, 122.
19 In 1267 the Church was exempted from Tatar taxation and conscription.
20 After the bounce-back of the city of Vladimir from the Mongol sack and the absence of an equivalent miracle in Kiev, the grand princedom was transferred to the former. Furthermore, the seat of the metropolitan was formally transferred there in 1354.
21 These were upgraded to thick brick walls in 1485-95. Other improvements occurred around the same period, too. When the cathedral of the Assumption (Dormition) fell into decay, a replacement began in 1472. However, it collapsed two years later, forcing Ivan III to to send for Aristotle Fioravanti to design and help construct the cathedral. It was subsequently joined by the cathedral of the Annunciation (1484-89), the church of the Deposition of Our Lady’s Robe (1485-86) and a new cathedral of the Archangel Michael (1505). The last was designed by Alevisio Novi of Milan and housed the tombs of the Daniilovichi.
22 Despite his loss Nikitin’s travels took him all the way to India. English translations of his account are available in S. Zenovsky’s Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles and Tales (1974) pp. 333-353. The diplomat was Venetian, his account can be read in Contarini, “The Travels of the Magnificent M. Ambrosio Contarini,” in J. Barbaro & A. Contarini, Travels to Tana and Persia (1873) pp. 151-154, 157.
23 J. Barbaro & A. Contarini, Travels to Tana and Persia (1873) pp. 161-162.
24 D. Stremoukoff, “Moscow the Third Rome: Sources of the Doctrine,” repr. M. Cherniavsky, The Structure of Russian History: Interpretative Essays (1970), p. 115; originally published in Speculum, vol. 28, no. 1 (Jan, 1953), pp. 84-101.

Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian from London. Find his articles: byzantineambassador.com, or his tweets: @byzantinepower.


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Das Capitalist, Socialist Utopia

Luxury Socialism and the Triumph of Desire

“Everyone says Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare, a vicious indictment of society, but that’s hypocritical bullshit. Brave New World is our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against aging, the leisure society. This is precisely the world that we have tried — and so far failed — to create.”
— Michel Houellebecq

Perhaps the most salient critique of the left is that leftists are largely liberals. As hallowed standard-bearers of the left like Noam Chomsky have emerged alongside Google, Harvard, and Michael Bloomberg to back Joe Biden in an existential election, the future of the left seems clearly to side with capital in order to defeat red America. This, however, should not be surprising. In many ways, the left has long been allied with liberal conceptions of desire, economics, and the purpose of human life. If ‘conservatives’ tend to be fraudulent allies of capital who conserve nothing, then leftists too are merely the opposite wing of the eternal liberal project.

In a 2017 article titled For a Luxury Leftism, the left-wing magazine Current Affairs made a peculiar argument concerning the rightful nature of wealth in future socialist societies. The socialist editorial board writes:

“The problem is not the existence of riches, but the failure to allow all to share equally in them… The problem with limousine liberalism, then, was not the limousines, but the liberals. Radicals should be chic, revolutionaries should drink excellent wine… The left’s suits must be well-tailored, its pastries must be fattening.”

While it is tempting to consider this sentiment a distortion of the socialist project, the history of left-wing anarchist thought contains similar ideas. In The Conquest of Bread, the 19th century anarcho-communist philosopher Peter Kropotkin wrote that in a society liberated by the left “what is now the privilege of an insignificant minority would be accessible to all. Luxury, ceasing to be a foolish and ostentatious display of the bourgeois class, would become an artistic pleasure.”

The reading here is simple: even the most radical left-wing thinkers among us still envision a world where human beings should strive to live in extreme wealth, enjoying luxury cars, mansions, expensive wine, and making art while living in high, gentrified places. The bourgeoisie lifestyle of so-called ‘late capitalism’ is still the goal of utopian socialists — for liberals and leftists alike, a wealthy artist living in Manhattan’s Upper East Side is indeed inhabiting the fullest life possible, a life that is so noble and fulfilling that it should be granted to everybody.

In his book, Kropotkin argued that “aims of life vary with each and every individual; and the more society is civilized, the more will individuality be developed, and the more will desires be varied.” Yet, the market economies posited to be the opposite of socialism have historically been the primary engines of satisfying the multifaceted desires of individuals who seek the lifestyles of millionaires. Kropotkin emphasizes the satisfaction of individual desire as the basis of his ideal civilization, sharing the end goal of a finely-tuned consumer society. Kropotkin only differs from capitalists on the question of the most effective mechanism for spreading luxurious consumer experiences to every single person on Earth.

Whether we call our economic systems socialist or capitalist, they both seek the same thing: the fulfillment of individual consumer desires, also known as Adam Smith’s maximization of happiness — the achievement of the utilitarian goal of spreading the most pleasure to the largest quantity of people. As Kropotkin writes: “Looking at society and its political organization… we start from a free individual to reach a free society… we study the needs of individuals, and the means by which they satisfy them, before discussing Production, Exchange, Taxation, Government, etc.”

The function of a market economy is to identify and satisfy the desires of free individuals. Manifold consumer products are created in order to gratify the birth pangs of individual desire, as people all the world over demand a better class of product. While savvy Marxists will contend that capitalists use advertising to generate false desires, and that in a socialist society people would live by a different value system which engineers a different set of desires altogether, these claims remain entirely theoretical. Any revolution emerging from the existing society would have to successfully revise the current human understanding of what ‘luxury’ means. As the socialists at Current Affairs have taken it to mean mansions, limousines, and high-class entertainment modules, it remains to be shown exactly how the individual desires of citizens in socialist countries would really break from capitalist precedent.

Socialists might contend that a democratic co-op version of any tech company would generate new products freed from parasitic capitalist incentives, but what’s stopping the previous generation of capitalists from generating addictive and efficient products which ultimately succeed due to the same market motives which make products such as iPhones and Facebook so ubiquitous today? A state-owned monopoly would have to be protected from competition by outlawing private alternatives, creating a scenario more reflective of a Soviet state economy than any kind of anarcho-communism.

This kind of true universality in product adoption is exactly what Jeff Bezos seeks. The only difference between Bezos’ vision and that of luxury socialism is the rate at which all people gain access to Amazon Prime entertainment and futurist products such as commercial spaceflight or virtual reality worlds for all. For the proponents of ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’, many tech firms are creating the correct products — they merely need to bring down prices to the point of universal accessibility in order to achieve true communism. And of course, the workers, not Bezos, would determine which products are made.

But how would a society of workers determine whether or not their products are successful? Here, socialist ideas again regress to the mean of already-existing systems. In socialism, as in capitalism, the foundational idea of the economy is to satisfy individual desires. If people are ‘happy’, or addicted, and continue to access and ‘enjoy’ the product according to metrics of use and the overall progress of the product in gaining users, then it will probably be considered successful.

This paradox exists because in both Austrian economics and in Marxist theory, material well-being is the only valid metric of assessment for the quality of human life. A utilitarian conception of human well-being is accepted as self-evident in both socialist and capitalist systems. The servicing of desire, after all, is the reason why homo economicus exists. All progress is made for the more perfect servicing of desire for the maximum number of humans. The universal maximization of happiness is the win condition of the Civilization game we call Earth.

And yet, the vision of ultimate leisure presented in films such as Wall-E is not a utopia, but a disaster. Great writers such as Dostoevsky foresaw the fulfillment of all human desire through markets and technology as a sham, and that bored, overstuffed human beings would flip the table and reset their living conditions just to feel the engaging torpor of a full, challenging life once more. One of the temptations of Christ in the Gospels is to create bread from stone, but this is presented as the command of the devil, and resisting that temptation to material gratification became a foundation of Western religious morality for two-thousand years. As we now know: “Man does not live on bread alone.”

But if Man does not live on bread alone, what does he live on? Today’s socialists remain enraptured in the spoils capital has given them. Marx and Smith have the same answer to the question of life — eat and be merry. Capitalism and communism both seek to satisfy the desires of free individuals to eat their fill and fill their cups to the brim. Despite mortal opposition, capitalism and socialism have still accepted that the satisfaction of individual desires is the basic foundation of all societal organization.

Inevitably, a socialist utopia modeled on the pursuit of luxury for all comes to resemble the dystopia of Disney’s Wall-E — only the all-inclusive floating entertainment stations are for everyone, rather than only for a wealthy elite. The goal of life for all people under a system of luxury socialism is to attain physical excess, financial and technological, along with top-flight service and entertainment. Fat, comfortable, and rich – this is the hopeful future envisioned even by those who wish to reimagine our civilization in a novel anti-capitalist framework. All the heaven and the earth, at root, is still conceived of as a machine to support the fickle tides of infinite human desire. In the end, even the fiercest of radicals just want a market that works better.

Alex Blum writes fiction and essays. He has written previously for Quillette, Areo, and Psychology Today. His website is www.alexanderblum.net.


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Counting Votes and Drawing Lots

Contrary to pollsters’ predictions of a Democratic landslide or at least a decisive win by Joe Biden, the 2020 election turned out to be the most uncertain since the litigious 2000 contest that put George W. Bush in the White House. Biden’s national popular vote lead was solid but not overwhelming, and the two candidates came within just a few percentage points in almost all of the decisive states for an electoral college victory. The Senate and House of Representatives are nearly split down the middle. A clear referendum on the Trump presidency it was not. The country was divided in 2016, and it’s divided today, if not along exactly the same lines.  

Both before and after Tuesday’s vote, observers worried that a disputed result would further weaken the authority of an electoral system that both the sitting president and his opponents have claimed was vulnerable to fraud and manipulation ever since 2016. For weeks, many warned that Trump’s supporters would not accept the results of the election if their candidate lost. At the same time, Democratic partisans and anti-Trump activists promised to flood into the streets to reject any result they view as illegitimate. Trump, for his part, took to Twitter soon after the election to allege fraud in states where he was losing. Meanwhile, amidst all the uncertainty, the shambling, uneven progress of the vote count raised another specter of illegitimacy: how can people maintain faith in a system unable to determine a clear outcome promptly?  

On the other hand, the idea that the indecisiveness of the result calls the system into question contradicts other common intuitions. After all, closely contested votes are often cited as ratifying the efficacy of voting, since they seem to substantiate the conviction that “every vote matters.” When an election comes down to just a small number of ballots, we would like to imagine, individual voters’ power to reset the course of their nation’s history comes fully into view. 

Conversely, the opposite scenario — a decisive result — does not always bestow credibility on a regime. In fact, nations where a party wins a commanding victory may descend into instability since coups and uprisings can result from a situation where a political faction concludes that it cannot win electorally and must achieve power by other means. In other words, both blowout victories and nail-biters might equally legitimize — or delegitimize — a democratic regime. 

These apparent contradictions suggest that we need to return to the more fundamental question of where a democracy’s legitimacy comes from. In his book The Mark of the Sacred, the philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy notes that universal suffrage, which is “generally thought to be the very essence of modern democracy,” is based on the premise that “human beings [are] solely responsible for creating the society they inhabit.” This “search for immanence,” Dupuy notes, distinguishes our system from those that derive their ultimate authority from the transcendent realm of the gods and the sacred. However, Dupuy argues that voting is more irrational and riven with paradox than we tend to believe. This is because it “exhibits a very curious, indeed suspect, relationship to chance that cannot fail to bring to mind the crucial role chance plays in religious practices and beliefs.” 

Numerous societies throughout history have resolved conflicts and made decisions by drawing lots and similar procedures. One such system was found in ancient Athens, “cradle of democracy,” which incorporated randomized mechanisms into its votation. (Early theorists of democracy saw no problem with this: “[v]oting by lot is in the nature of democracy,” said Montesquieu.) Dupuy attributes such practices to the “need to shift responsibility for decisions on which the life of a community depends away from the members of this community.” They allow a society to offload responsibility for what befalls it onto a transcendent power equivalent to fate, since chance can be seen as manifesting this higher will. This may seem to violate the basic principle of popular sovereignty, but Dupuy argues the opposite is true: democratic systems too “are held to be legitimate and meaningful exactly to the extent that they create exteriority and transcendence.”

To illustrate how this archaic logic still holds in modern times, Dupuy examines the 2000 US election, in which the result came down to a few hundred ballots in Florida. In that election, “for once, each person had the sense that his or her vote actually counted.” However, the reality was far more complicated, since “the point at which the democratic promise comes closest to being fulfilled is also, by logical necessity, the one at which the arbitrariness of the voting process must seem to a neutral observer to reach its height.” This is because “the movement of an almost unimaginably small number of votes from one column to the other is liable to have a major impact, amplified by the presence of unavoidable errors in counting — the ‘noise’ in the system.” What comes to the fore in close votes, that is, is not the decisive impact of individuals but an irresolvable indeterminacy. 

In 2000, the random “noise” took the form of the “chads,” “hanging,” “dimpled,” and “pregnant,” that plagued the Florida vote count. In 2020, it is evident in the “irregularities” alleged by the Trump campaign and Republican observers, but also in a variety of “mundane infrastructure glitches” recently reported on in the New York Times, including a ballot counting machine that was jammed by hand sanitizer. Such incidents, of course, also occur in elections with a decisive victor, but only become politically significant in the case of narrow victory margins. According to Dupuy, this is why the belief that individuals “wield extraordinary power” in tight elections “is an illusion.” On the contrary, in such instances “the voting procedure [is] so sensitive to the noise in the system as to be indistinguishable from the flipping of a coin.” In the end, randomness outweighs deliberation. 

When an election comes down to a margin so narrow that “noise” prevails over rational determination of collective preference, we are faced with the equivalent of ancient societies drawing lots to determine their fate. After all, “a cause so small as to be unknowable, yet large enough to determine a matter of surpassing importance to the future of the world, is the very definition of chance.” In the end, then, the 2000 election (and the current one) “amounted to flipping a coin on a vast scale — the coin spinning about in the air for a very long time, until finally it fell to the ground, deciding the undecidable.” And this, far from an aberration, is the point, according to Dupuy’s account: as he writes, “democracy never so much resembles what it aspires to be as when it is indistinguishable from a gigantic lottery.” Far from discrediting the electoral process, Dupuy argues, such interventions of chance are essential to its perpetuation. 

After the Supreme Court allowed George W. Bush to enter the White House in 2000, pundits and politicians “reaffirm[ed] faith — faith in the abiding power of the Constitution, faith in the rule of law and the greatness of a system that puts the law above men.” According to Dupuy, the system retained this status not in spite of the hanging chads and related causes of indeterminacy, but in part because of them. The final arbitrariness of the result, which despite the controversy and litigation around it ultimately had the same practical consequence as a landslide victory, proved that the electoral process can generate outcomes that transcend the sum of individual preferences. It is not ultimately the voters that decide: rather, the system abstracts the result from all aggregated choices through operations that in some cases may seem patently arbitrary and irrational. 

Dupuy notes that US democracy includes mechanisms that formalize this separation between aggregated preferences and final outcomes, most notably the Electoral College. In both 2000 and 2016, of course, the popular vote and electoral vote diverged, reminding us that convergence of the popular will with the final result is not a necessary outcome. As Dupuy notes, seeing this situation as irrational is not totally incorrect, but the assumption that the system’s legitimacy derives from its rationality is mistaken. As he writes, “[p]ermitting the popular vote and the vote of the Electoral College to diverge appears to be a scandalous defect of this system if one believes that voting is a rational procedure meant to reveal the general will. It takes on a quite different aspect, however, if one conceives of it as a way of referring the decision to an authority that transcends the preferences expressed by individual voters — a substitute for fate, as it were.” The same logic may apply to any arbitrary-seeming final result that emerges from an undecidably close contest. 

Viewed from another perspective, this logic is less counterintuitive than it might seem. Deciding a particular result is erroneous or capricious can perpetuate faith in the electoral system by reinforcing the basic assumption that the process is essentially fair and only contingently flawed. We do not have to go back to 2000 to find a clear illustration of this point. The Democrats’ reaction to Trump’s victory in 2016 points in the same direction. The party and its supporters have asserted over and over that Trump’s victory was illegitimate because of foreign interference, “fake news,” and social media manipulation. But they also told supporters there was only one response: “vote.” 

In a more extreme example, ‘Remainers’ similarly alleged that the Brexit referendum was fraudulent, manipulated, and so on, but their proposed remedy was — another referendum. 

Recent ‘civil war’ fear mongers in the US, while their predictions were hyperbolic, were correct to identify the problem that any political system must solve: preventing the “war of all against all” that threatens to dissolve a society into irreconcilable factions — or at least, in the contemporary context, displacing this war onto the symbolic realm of televised debates and social media disputes. But their diagnosis of the threats to democracy falsely assumed that an election whose results some view as illegitimate will cast a pall of illegitimacy on the whole system — the necessary prerequisite to civil war. In fact, a situation where many view a particular winner as illegitimate may well prop up the credibility of the system as a whole. Both the Bush and Trump administrations have made that clear, and there’s no good reason to think the next four years will be all that different.

Geoff Shullenberger is a writer and academic. He blogs at www.outsidertheory.com. Follow him on: Twitter.


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Dawn of the Modern World, Part II

This essay is part II of a multi-part feature series on “Dawn of the Modern World”. Read Part I, here. Part III, here.


Part II: “Islam’s Late Antiquity”

Just as conventional historiography has typically downplayed the ease with which the philosophical schools of late antiquity segued into the Church Fathers, so it has overplayed the disruption of Islam on seventh-century society. This is because the Arabs’ evangelism was achieved mainly via the sword, a novel means after Judaism’s tribal genesis and Christianity’s martyrs.

Ultimately Islam looks, walks, and talks like a nationalised Judaism for Arabs. Its universalist aspect is almost accidental; a by-product of its semi-unique element: the call to jihad (striving/war).[1] While pagans get short shrift in the Qur’an – a laconic menu of “conversion or death” — several passages argue that non-violence is the best way of dealing with Ahl- al-Kitab “People of the Book” i.e. their monotheistic cousins.[2] These are abrogated, however, by later militant excerpts in which Muslims are urged that the path of God involves war on non-Muslims and that those shirk this duty fail Allah.[3]

During Mohammad’s life, these verses operated (and justified his actions) in an Arabian setting. After his death in 632, however, jihad took his followers across the Levant (642) to Tangier (703) and Narbonne (719). This whirlwind of conquests (the last major victory was Taormina in 902) was halted only by the Spanish (Cantabrian and Iberian) mountains in the West, the Taurus in the East, and the Ferghana range in the Far East.

In the Far East, Talas (751) proved imperialism’s effort-to-gain ratio stopped making sense east of Islam’s barracks, Khorasan. In the Levant, Constantinople’s formidable power was begrudgingly acknowledged. Heraklios, for instance, was admired as a great emperor whose triumph against Iran was supposedly predicted in the Surat al-Rum. In Spain, however, the Christians were deemed barbaric mountain folk who pushed down from Leon and Burgos like slurry through a gutter (not that this haughty self-image prevented intermarriage between the Umayyads and the princesses of Pamplona).[4]

Though the prospect of total victory faded, caliphs upheld their credibility among the ummah by launching symbolic jihad. Al-Mu’tasim, for example, came to the throne by coup d’etat and so sacked Amorion (birthplace of the emperor Theophilos) largely as a flex in 838. Likewise, Muslims razed Santiago de Compostella (another highly symbolic target) in 999.

The pendulum had swung, however. The Eastern Romans took Malatya (934), Tarsus (965), and Antioch (969). Indeed, matters got so bad that armies of volunteers from Khorasan — who demanded that the tide be reversed through jihad — had to be crushed by the Buyids in 966.[5] Worse, riots in Baghdad demanded the caliph lead them in jihad (972).[6] And the political climate looked no better on the other side of the Mediterranean. After the fragmentation of the Cordoba caliphate into factions, the Christians became mercenaries with a danegeld dynamic and took to demanding ever greater quantities of tribute in cash (or even land) from the Taifa rulers in return for their services.

Far from the bookends of the ummah, anarchical bands of Muslims tried their luck. Muslim outlaws took Crete in 827, though it was retaken in 961.[7] Another force set up a pirate base at Fraxinetum in Provence in 891 which operated until 973. Another “emirate” was established at the mouth of the Garigliano river in 881 which – despite raiding prestige sites like Monte Cassino in 883 – survived until 915.[8] These were flies around the cow’s tail, however, compared to the conquests of previous centuries.

To return to the original point, being successful at war hardly disqualifies Islam from late antiquity. Neither does monotheism. In fact, both are leitmotifs of the period. The Arabs, too, had been part of the Middle East’s fabric for as long as anybody could remember.[9] So why do historians take it as axiomatic that Islam knocked the kneecaps off the first civilised chapter of Mediterranean history?

In large part, the answer relies on the fact that — despite belonging to the Mediterranean world for extended intervals — the Arabs took their high culture from Iran rather than Rome.[10] Worse, their low culture was inherited from the jahiliya (pre-Islamic Arabia) with its cult of poetry and warriors, its fierce loyalty to kith and kin.[11] A double (Arabic/Persian) linguistic barrier was therefore erected and it placed even Christian intellectuals (such as Theodore Abu Qurra) and scholars (like Agapius of Manbij) behind it.[12]

Western sullenness at this cultural denouement means it feels justified at dealing all sorts of historiographical sleights of hand. The major one being to compare the Levant of the Abbasids to that of the House of Constantine instead of, say, the Bilad al-Sham of Mu’awiya to the Syria of Heraklios. It’s news to nobody that four centuries (the same interval as Elizabeth II from James I) produces more divergence than two decades.

There’s the sentiment that Arabs were parvenus, too. In other words, the suspicion that — despite the fact their conquest was neither particularly violent nor destructive for the standards of the time — they should never have had the temerity to engage in the enterprise in the first place. Sure, the Persian invasions (602-28) were far more hellish but at least their hell had pedigree.

Caricatures of the Arabs as simpletons on camels have led to all sorts of misconceptions about the conquests. Most of the conquerors were not nomads, for instance, but came from the settled areas of Yemen. They lived in stone towns on terraced mountainsides. Others came from highly irrigated cultures that had produced wonders of the ancient world such as the Marib dam. These were often men who were more acquainted with the lords of Himyar and Dhu Raydan than the Bedouin life. And they fought in Islamic armies that battled mostly on foot, not horseback.

Perhaps it was the novelty of the initial Islamic tax system that struck a discordant note with historians. Structured around booty from war against the kafir, jizya from the dhimmi (non-Muslims) and the ‘ushr (tithe) that wealthy Muslims had to pay for widows and orphans, it admittedly created confessional chattel on a remarkable scale. It was based on the idea that if the Arabs were to retain their culture and elite status then they had to settle as a (parasitical) class of hereditary pensioners in new cities known as amsar. Famous amsar include Kufa, Basra, Fustat, Qayrawan and Jabiya.[13] This caste lived off their subject peoples through ata‘ (gifts/salaries) and rizq (supplies).[14]

Membership to this exclusive club meant one’s name was recorded on the diwan (register). The politics surrounding these documents caused the caliph some of his biggest headaches. The major problem was that the diwan was hereditary and based on sabiqa (precedence based on actions during conquest and to a lesser extent pre-Islamic status). This status quo was accepted by the first generation, of course. But as time passed and these privileges were handed down the generations, they became frustrated at being financially frozen with the status of their grandparents. Worse, few military virtues were passed down these generations so that within a remarkably short period the corps had morphed from world conquerors into corrupt archetypes of the eighteenth-century janissaries i.e. only taking up arms to defend their privileges.[15]

The localism of the diwan (register) and fay (assets conquered)[16] also meant that no matter how impressive the Arabic empire looked on a map, only a tiny fraction of tax was channeled to the caliph.[17] This led the Umayyads to hire (usually Bedouin) private armies and buy up diya (estates) to shore up their position.[18] The Abbasids – unable to recruit from the same tribes[19] thanks to their support for the opposition – went outside the Islamic world and employed Turkic mercenaries.

More seriously, the ‘ata (gifts the diwan bestowed) was not affordable in the medium-term. Not only did those entitled to receive ‘ata increase with each generation but new demographics were continually integrated in order to co-opt groups for political reasons. Revolts then shook the empire as governors found themselves unable to pay the ‘ata. And ultimately Islamic rulers had to reverse their tax positions. Moving away from the diwan, they shifted back into the fold of typical superpower tax systems and (by the end of the eighth century) demanded the kharaj (land-tax) from land-owners – a very late antique device.[20]

If taxes eventually normalised, perhaps Islam’s real imposition on late antiquity was the mosque; that great inversion of the Byzantine genius. Designed to celebrate the Trinity, it perversely proliferated under the crescent to glorify tawhid (one-ness of God) instead. The mosque also becomes associated with a notional upheaval in which a Hippodamian heaven of fora, temples, theatres, baths, and colonnaded streets was assaulted by narrow streets, private courtyards, mosques, madrasas, funduqs, and suqs; the architectural equivalent of a weasel-eyed street-urchin, an evil Aladdin.

This urban transformation had older roots than Islam, however. Civic autonomy, for example, had evaporated between Aurelian and Constantine. Christianity had closed the temples. The monumental baths fell into disuse as budgets or tastes allowed for much smaller alternatives. Even the theatres that still hosted performances tended to specialise more in acclamations, grievances, or punishments i.e. public politics rather than drama. In sum, urban planning adjusted from representing an aggressive, decentralised pagan society to a defensive, centralised Christian one.[21]

Islam simply pushed this logic to its extreme.[22] The streets narrowed as pack animals and porters replaced wheeled vehicles. Churches gave way to mosques. The political functions (such as the recitation of the ba’ya, the oath of allegiance) of the theatre were transferred to the mosque. The sanctity of family resulted in residences turned inwards. Finally, it is no coincidence that the Islamic hammam resembles nothing quite so much as a sixth-century Byzantine bath.

Many cultures that frame their counterparts as antagonists have their hatred ironed out by tourism or trade. But apart from occasional visits by pilgrims (such as Arculf[23] and Willibald[24]) and the occasional monastery,[25] the Levant was only known to the West through biblical reference points. The irony being that when tourism received a real uptick (from 1000 onwards) it heralded a crusade.

Worse, when it came to trade the only thing the West possessed that Islam wanted was slaves — preferably of the occidental variety — sold mainly in Venice.[26] A fact that produced farcical diplomatic exchanges such as when the Margravine Bertha of Tuscany — looking to butter al-Muktafi up in 902 — struggled to think of anything she could add to her gift of Slavic ladies, and eventually had to settle on some swords. The pious fiction that enslavement was fine in the West because the victims were pagan Slavs was threadbare, too, as a travel account by the Bernard the Monk makes clear. In his Itinerarium, he recounts how he took a ship bound from Taranto to Alexandria with nine thousand Christian captives who’d been taken in raids on Italy.[27]

Despite the above, perhaps Islam’s iconoclasm is a better answer as to why it was jettisoned from late antiquity. While Judaism sustained similar beliefs, its aniconism was insular and rarely affected society at large. In Islam’s hands it was a different creature. Quite apart from the friction caused when Muslims assaulted icons and processions, iconoclasm was often the most convenient casus belli for Islamic violence in general. Examples include efforts to forcibly convert Christian Bedouin and the eruption of riots around churches and monasteries — the worst occurring after the death of caliph Harun al-Rashid in 809.

The death of this caliph also signalled the arrival of another stage of ‘otherness’ in the Islamic identity. In the civil war that followed al-Rashid’s demise, the Abbasids were only able to re-establish their rule by recruiting Turkic and Iranian horsemen from the Steppes. Most of these new troops were mounted horse-archers. Deadly on the battlefield and expensive off it, not only was their image[28] foreign to the West but their involvement in politics — namely, taking caliphs hostage in their complex at Samarra — was inimical to the feudal loyalty valued there too.[29]

With the caliphs reduced to puppets, the empire frayed at the seams. Provinces such as Khorasan drifted away, never to return. Egypt had to be reconquered (and even then its yields evaporated). Perhaps most devastating was the Zanj revolt in the Sawad — the jewel of the empire — where East Africans (who cleared salt off the fields) caused chaos for fourteen years (869-883), even sacking Basra. Worse, the salinization of the soil (caused by continuous irrigation and lack of proper drainage) accelerated. All these trends collapsed the tax base, which rulers tried to reverse by handing out state revenues and assets as iqta’ (tax fiefs) to generals. As a result, all control was lost over both the collection of taxes and payments of salaries. Marking in a very real sense an end to the Islamic chapter of late antiquity.

Show Footnotes

1 I’ve qualified “unique” because a doctrine of crusading is discernible in Heraklios’ reign. “Unique” is still the correct word, however, because neither the Torah nor Bible explicitly states that violence is a religious duty unlike the Qur’an (see T. M. Kolbaba, “Fighting for Christianity,” Byzantion, Vol. 68, No. 1 [1998] 194-221).
2 R. Firestone, Jihad (1999) 69-73.
3 Ibid. 84-91.
4 Similarly, many of the Abbasid caliphs were sons of Byzantine concubines. Indeed, there is no record of high-status Muslim women having relations with Christians until Zaida and Alfonso VI’s relationship at the end of the eleventh century.
5 Ibn Miskawayk, Eclipse (1921) I, 234-42.
6 Ibid. 326-28.
7 These reprobates had been expelled from Al-Andalus and then from Alexandria. Their polity sustained itself by indulging in slave raids and sales.
8 The West’s states were often too at odds with one another to provide the Church with any coherent power. In the case of Garigliano, the cities of Gaeta and Amalfi were more concerned with upholding their independence and sustaining their trading opportunities with the Muslims to make a war against the latter viable. It was not until Pope John X (at the head of an army from the papal states) teamed up with the Eastern Roman Empire (which sent its general Nicholas Epigingles with another army) that the Muslim statelet perished at the Battle of Garigliano (915).
9 The historical peoples of these areas were divided by language into Greek, Syriac (a north Syrian and Mesopotamian version of the Aramaic lingua franca of the ancient Near East which also developed as a literary language) and Arabic speakers (who mostly inhabited the desert margins but also places like Damascus and Hira). Greek was mainly spoken in settlements along the Med coast, Syriac in the hinterland. Jews also had large contingents in Antioch, Edessa and the towns of Galillee, the Golan and southern Palestine. While the Samaritans’ HQ was Neopolis/Nablus.
10 A cultural heritage – perpetuated by the dehqan landowners that remained when the Yazdigird III fled east – that reached a triumphant conclusion in Firdausi’s Shahnama c. 1000. Its place at the Islamic table was secure thanks to the desire rulers had to absorb the previous Persian tax administration so it could get the most out of important resources like the awad of Iraq, which had once been dil Iranshahr (the heart of Iran).
11 Collections of poems and legends relating to the ayyam, the “days” or battles of the pre-Islamic tribes were venerated almost as much as Mohammad himself. This corpus was to the Arabs what the pagan equivalent was to the Christian world.
12 See S. H. Griffith, Arabic Christianity in the Monasteries of Ninth-Century Palestine (1992).
13 Interestingly, Jabiya was never settled in large numbers. Muslims in Syria preferred to inhabit the ancient cities like Damascus, Homs and Qinnasrin. This was probably because Syria had been partially Arabised. Many of the conquerors, for instance, came from tribes already resident in Syria or its frontiers such as the Kalb of the Palmyrena or the Lakhm and Judahm of southern Palestine.
14 The fattest calf was the sawad of Iraq, which contributed roughly four times as much revenue as its nearest competitor, Egypt (see H. Kennedy, “The Middle East in Late Antiquity,” Fiscal Regimes [2015] 391). It had been conquered by tribesmen from northern and eastern Arabia who joined the Islamic force at a relatively late stage and continued to emigrate after the battles had been won in order to win booty in the campaigns against Iran. These were very different Arabs to those of the Quraysh and other tribes of the Hijaz who formed the elite of early Islamic society.
15 Sanctioned by no less a figure than caliph Umar I, the system was seen not just as part of the conqueror’s dunya (earthly rights) but their din (religion). Arabs waxed lyrical about the payments but were reluctant to provide the corollary military service. In 695, for example, a fellow was brought before al-Hajjaj for claiming he was too ill to go on jihad and that he’d happily return his salary to the treasury. Al- Hajjaj, however, was not in a good mood and had him executed (Al-Tabari, Ta’rikh, II, 858).
16 When al-Mukhtar wished to recruit mawali into his ranks (mawla was used at this stage to refer to freedmen or non-Arabs who attached themselves as clients to Arab tribes to become part of the Muslim community. It died out at end of Umayyad period as word acquired other meanings) Ibn Muti’ rallied crowds of Arabs against him, saying “Oh people, these people are fewer than you and wicked in religion. Go out against them, defend your women, fight to protect your misr (territory) and defend your fay (assets)” (Al-Tabari, Ta’rikh, II, 627).
17 Dennett, for instance, estimated that no more than five per cent of the revenue of Egypt was forwarded to Damascus in the reign of Marwan II (d. 750). Indeed, Arab politics often revolved around powerful men trying to gain further office by adding new names to the local registers. In 683 for example ibn Ziyad, in seeking to take over Basra, claimed that he had increased the number of the Basrans recorded on the diwan from 70,000 to 80,000. Others squabbled over who had the futm, the right to recruit young men to the diwan. Some even dangled the prospect of a place on the diwan as bait to get men to join unpopular military campaigns (Al-Tabari, Ta’rikh, II, 463-44; 1020).
18 For example, there were 5,000 Dhakwaniya commanded by the mawla Muslim ibn Dhakwan and raised by the Umayyad prince Sulayman ibn Hisham (Al-Tabari, Ta’rikh, II, 1871-82).
19 The tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia had their genealogies written up and elaborated in great detail in the eighth century, with thousands of names supposedly arranged with their correct precedence like a giant decentralised Debretts. This erudition gave a spurious clarity to the question of nomad descent.
20 The development of a new professional standing army led the governor of Iraq, al-Hajjaj, to feel able to send his forces into difficult regions such as eastern Sistan and Zabulistan. The treacherous campaigns, however, resulted in the rebellion of “native” i.e. “Iraqi” men, and from henceforth they were excluded from the army.
21 A. Wharton, Refiguring the Post Classical City (1995).
22 Despite the Islamic reputation for cramped, dark cities within fortifications, the urban citadel didn’t become a typical part of the Islamic landscape until the arrival of the Seljuks in the eleventh century. Marw being the classic example in that century, though Damascus also acquired a citadel at roughly the same time.
23 See De locis sanctis.
24 See Vita Sancti Willibaldi.
25 Such as the monastery and hospice Charlemagne had erected in Jerusalem in the late eighth century.
26 These slaves were usually exchanged for spices like pepper and cinnamon, incense for churches and textiles. The only other major items the West could exchange were furs and timber.
27 Itinerarium Bernardi Monachi Franci, 309.
28 The supremacy of the horse-archer ended in 1514 when Ottoman canon demolished the conventional Qizilbash forces of the Safavid empire.
29 The abandonment of Samarra was due to a number of factors: the gravelly plateau on which it was built prevented the use of canals; the distance from the Euphrates meant that grain could not easily be imported from al-Jazira; while the sawad was further away down the course of the Middle Tigris. Large amounts of money were spent by the caliphate trying to bring water to the city but without effect.

Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian from London. Find his articles at: byzantineambassador.com, or his tweets: @byzantinepower.


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The Sick Man of Europe

There is an assumption that official leadership, although potentially malevolent, is probably intelligent; from this premise, conspiratorial thinking grows wings and takes flight. But no assumption is less justified. Leadership is constituted by the people who excel at playing the specific games which produce the leadership class, but this ability only correlates to excellence in a functional political and social system.

In a dysfunctional system, with misaligned incentive structures, the corrupt, mendacious and incompetent will rise. Much of our current political predicament can be explained by this fact. Across the world, at every institutional level, men of genuine intelligence and real integrity are sidelined; sycophants and people-users are promoted in their place, who promote others like themselves. Over time, the general level of institutional intelligence and character declines, until finally nobody with any influence has any competence whatsoever except in larceny and self-deception.

Nowhere is this now more glaring than in Britain. It is never a good situation when a nation becomes entangled with the psychological pathologies of a single leader, but it is now clear this is what has happened in the United Kingdom, where a fundamentally dishonest, irresponsible man has assumed control over an increasingly dysfunctional and sociopathic country.

Britain has not really been healthy for some time. Already with the disturbing opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, it was clear that something had gone deeply wrong. Emphasizing a ghoulish paean to the NHS and a clumsy multiculturalism, the most revealing moment arrived with the use of Rowan Atkinson’s character Mr. Bean to interrupt footage of the classic movie Chariots of Fire, whose traditional values of self-sacrifice and virtue now seem embarrassing to an irony-poisoned British public conditioned into gimcrack cynicism, and pathos-drenched apologetic masculinity.

Eight years later, Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson, the Mayor of London in 2012, at the time pictured suspended helplessly on a malfunctioning zip-wire, is Prime Minister, and the light-hearted, jolly character who charmed the British public on his way to a historic majority against the dour Jeremy Corbyn has been replaced by an ashen-faced prison warden presiding over a government of destruction.

In retrospect, the darkness and self-hatred lurking behind Johnson’s clown mask should always have been obvious from the broken marriages, disappointed mistresses and abandoned children he has left trailing in his wake. “I have always suspected that Stanley — a pseudo-intellectual, a wanderer and a bore — is the key to his son,” writes Tanya Gold in her review of a new biography of Johnson, “and Bower confirms it: Stanley repeatedly beat his wife Charlotte, an artist, and she spent time in a mental hospital, blaming herself. The children were cast to the four winds: to the English public school system, where hurts are buried and myths self-made.”

Johnson is a “a media invention… willed ironically into life and funny, until it wasn’t.” He is not a politician but a personality, and the essence of his personality is sickness. Driven by “a desire to seek, and to punish, the mother; the mother the child believes abandoned him,” that is, driven by a hunger to fuck his mother, and to kill his father, Johnson systematically seduces and betrays. “Those who call Johnson a lover misunderstand him. He is a seeker: for him the wanting is better than the having.”

Now the father of a newborn child after an affair with an ambitious thirty-year-old Tory Party assistant destroyed his twenty-five-year marriage, Johnson now is acting out his complexes on a larger scale. “For Johnson, the premiership is a woman, or at least it resembles a woman.” Thus it must be punished. Surrounded by acolytes “who, despite his desire to promote only inadequates, sense a vessel to exploit,” what the country is now witnessing is a nervous breakdown in slow motion.

Johnson’s tragedy was getting what he wanted. Consider: a man who has never taken responsibility for anything or anyone is now responsible for sixty million people. Not Boris the Clown, but the grim, unsmiling man who appeared on television on the morning of the day after the Brexit referendum was a forewarning of the mirthlessly despotic Prime Minister with a huge Parliamentary majority whom we are now trapped. For his whole life, Johnson was repeatedly forgiven for his multiple betrayals, a form of acting out intended to produce forgiveness, and now he occupies the highest office in the land. There is no one higher to forgive him, now except for God. But in times of crisis, a weak ruler is the one thing God does not forgive, and until Johnson resigns, or is removed, God going to destroy this country. 

Johnson today looks like a man who has passed directly from childhood to the second child of senility without passing through adulthood first. Appearing now before the public, he babbles platitudes and slogans, forgets the details, and the purpose of the rules he is imposing, and plays dress-up on days-out, but the mirth is gone. How might one imagine Johnson’s cabinet, but the final days in Hitler’s bunker, only with Johnson less a raving psycho, and more a broken and pathetic man, prayed upon by parasites auditioning for future sinecures from international pharmaceuticals companies, and Jesus knows who else.

Johnson did not bring the plague as such. It was here already, latent, in the officiousness, incompetence, and seediness and cowardice of so much of modern British society and its institutions: the emptiness and joylessness, this lack of centre, this fear of death, and therefore life, this urge to punish others, this desire for control and for imaginary revenge, and this sadomasochistic streak, which runs like a red thread through eighty years of British culture. What Johnson brought, however, like Adolf Hitler, in the singular attack surface of his flaws, was the original, oriental virus, hence the unusually devastating aspect of this virtual pandemic, its insanity and cataclysmic force.

The facts must be repeated until they are entered into the record of a parliamentary inquiry, and prosecutions are prepared as necessary. Johnson’s policies have killed more people than the virus, and are killing them today, in suicides, untreated cancers, cancelled operations, unemployment and despair. SARS-2 is no more dangerous than strong influenza. The average age of death in the UK is 82. There is no scientific evidence supporting lockdown policies. There is no evidence supporting the idea there are any benefits from wearing masks, and some evidence to suggest it may be harmful.

So why are these policies continuing to be implemented, not only in Great Britain but all across Europe, as well as elsewhere in the world? Why did Europe decide, as one, to commit collective suicide in August 1914? Because the same faulty decision-making structure, produced by hollow institutions, today further distorted by the dissonant epistemology of cult psychology reiterated on social media, existed everywhere.

Two weeks ago, in a rebuke to Johnson’s government, a group of Tory Peers remarked that if lockdown was an experimental medical trial it would have been abandoned for the side effects. The experiment it most resembles is in fact the Milgram Shock Experiment, where a test subject is invited to push buttons to electrocute another random individual on the basis that a credentialed scientist will take responsibility. Johnson is the test subject, the credentialed scientists are SAGE and the screaming victim is humanity. How long will it scream?

Instinctively attuned to Johnson’s weakness, and their moment in the spotlight, SAGE and their political enablers, men with huge conflicts of interest, and stunted personalities themselves, now revel in fantasies of power, to kill this country so they can tell themselves, and tell each other they are saving it, as they profit from the situation. In the meantime, a totalitarian society is materializing before our eyes and until we recognize the danger we are facing our position will continue to degenerate.

What is happening is not a culture war, or cancel culture, or revolutionary Marxism, but the reality of a parallel structure of power that has come to dominate every institution only to destroy it from the inside out: a spiritual power, not a political power, a parasitic power and also, on some level, an absence of power. Totalitarian systems are not established by a masterplan but a chain of events, with each step more degrading and sadistic than the last. There is nobody in charge: only “individuals who have reached their positions through surrender of self calling in experts to tell them what buttons to push.”

Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash.

Daniel Miller is a writer and Surrealist. In 2017 he protested against the Antifa outside the London gallery LD50. He’s the author of Dracula Rules the World and Mark Zuckerberg is His Son.


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Dawn of the Modern World

This essay is part I of a three-part feature series on “Dawn of the Modern World”. Read part II, here. Part III, here.


Part I: “200-700: The Anvil of Europe”

For answers as to why Europe has its identity, one must return to its formation in the early medieval period. However, the DNA of these cultural kernels can be traced as far back as the third-century crisis. Indeed, while the West likes to paint itself as an iteration of the Antonine Age, in reality, it’s the product of every transformation that followed.

The third-century involved historical firsts on several fronts. Elagabalus introduced official worship of the Semitic sun-god Helios-Baal. The murderers of Caracalla and Severus Alexander were Macrinus (the first non-senatorial emperor) and Maximinus (the first soldier-emperor to rise through the ranks). The costs of the army, reasonable when conquests paid for themselves, absorbed half the state’s income. And its Latin character vanished in favour of troops from the frontier regions.

Going local, however, in a globalised world had its own risks as Constantius II found to his cost when he approached Julian for crack troops (such as the Petulantes) for an eastern campaign. Instead of complying, they complained:

“We are being exiled to the furthest points of the earth like condemned criminals and our families will become slaves of the Alemanni after we have already freed them once from captivity in desperate battles.”

This shift in attitudes can roughly be dated to the 160s. In those halcyon days, the legions could be persuaded to pursue almost any threat. Yet even then it was easier to post smaller detachments (c. a thousand men) known as vexillations. Perhaps these pawns wouldn’t have had to have been pushed around so much if their placement had owed more to grand strategy than political arithmetic (to deter coups).

A glance at any third-century map reveals familiar names. This is because the majority of civitates became medieval cathedral cities. Some boast even older heritages as pre-conquest oppida. To give a single example, the Breton tribe of Namnetes was governed from the Civitas Namnetum, which became the city of Nantes.[2] In France, Bourges, Chartres, or Poitiers also fit this category though the majority of medieval towns were Roman in origin.

It was insecurity on the Danube that produced the keenest figure in the historical imagination of the Dark Ages: the walled city. Most obviously at places like Serdica, Philippopolis, and Nicopolis ad Istrum. This instability snowballed when barbarians learned to sail. In 262, the Germanics hit hard, and in the words of Aurelius Victor:

“Plundered Gaul, seized Spain and, after laying waste and almost destroying Tarragona, eventually took boats and got as far as Africa.”[3]

Five years later the Goths forced the Dardanelles with a fleet acquired on the Black Sea and sacked Greece (though Claudius II thrashed them at Naissus in 268). In 271, Aurelian repulsed the Alemmanic invasions from the Po valley and then fortified Rome in the Hellenistic manner. His walls were completed by Probus who became renowned for having brought almost all the Germanics to heel. The emperor Julian later admired him as the man who “set seventy cities back on their feet in less than seven years.”[4]

But the charisma of emperors could not always be on hand to deliver emergency victories and so Aurelian’s successors ordered the construction of formidable defenses. Some of these Roman fortifications still remain in cities such as Bourges, Le Mans, Tours, or Evreux. This new defensive agenda absorbed even the symbols of Rome’s past. The tombstone of a procurator of Britain — Julius Classicianus — for instance, found itself repurposed in the foundations of a bastion in Londonium’s Roman walls.

In this defensive atmosphere, the circuits of walls took eccentric routes to incorporate monumental architecture such as amphitheatres and fora. This created a new economy of space in which contraction was necessary and so cathedrals and granaries moved within the walls. In fact, Ausonius went so far as to describe the fortifications of northern Gaul to be “non casta, sed horrea Belgis” (not the castles but the granaries of Belgica).[5] These facts all slot conveniently together to form our modern prejudices of what makes a city. Namely, a bishop and walls.

Talking of bishops, the ink on Nicaea (325) had barely dried when the military commander in Britain Magnus Maximus involved the imperial authorities in a quarrel between the Spanish ascetic Priscillian of Avila and his accusers. The trial and decapitation of the bishop (385) — the first time a Christian ruler had executed a subject for heresy — divided the Gallic church into pro-imperial and anti-imperial factions for over a generation.

In Maximus’ reign, the contours of post or sub Roman units (or at least the delusional aspects of the imperial project) can be discerned. This was, after all, a man who felt at ease threatening Ambrose of Milan with his turmae translimitanae (foreign troops).[6] In this topsy-turvy world, the halves of the empire preferred to battle it out (as at Frigidus, 395) rather than fight Franks and Alemanni who had developed a worrying habit of winning the occasional victory (as in 387-8). Such a muddled state of affairs meant that when the Rhine frontier was irretrievably breached at the end of 406, it was Frankish federates who beat the Vandals back (it was the latter’s Alan reinforcements that won the eventual victory).

This caused chaos in Britain where the rapid succession of three leaders suggests a civil war (or at least lethal elite maneuvering) over how to react. One may have wanted to nationalise the Roman army, another to take the fight to the barbarians and make a bid for supreme power, and another a half-way house. Constantine, who clearly supported the aggressive option, crossed to Boulogne in 407 to ‘do another Constantine’, i.e. seize the purple and then crush the Germanic menace. After beating the loyalist general Sarus the Goth, he managed to set up court at Arles and declare himself Constantine III with Apollinaris (grandfather to Sidonius) as praetorian prefect. In an odd twist, it was Constantine’s son Constans who — in the suppression of loyalist elements in Spain — first used barbarians thereby acquainting them with Spain (a knowledge promptly utilised when they invaded in 409).

By Constantine III’s death in 421 the political terrain had again changed. First, the Burgundians had been settled at Worms (413) in the first federate kingdom. Second, the Visigoths were introduced to Spain by Constantius in order to mop up the remains of Constans’ troops, before being placed in Aquitania Secunda as the gatekeepers of Iberia. Third, the ever-dwindling parts of the empire that remained under Rome were plagued by Bacaudae, Robin Hood elements of the population who saw local government (and resistance) as superior to the expensively supine techniques of the imperial seat.[7] Finally, almost no bronze coin reached Britain after 404 and its pottery industry died.

At this point the Goths tried to seize Arles, which would have given them a port and therefore access to African grain. Aetius relieved the city in 427, however, and destroyed a large Gothic force at Mons Colubrarius. In reality, the Goths form a shadow dance to the ultimate show: imperial disunity. If Felix, Aetius and Boniface had formed a triumvirate and fought on their respective fronts, much would have been possible. Instead, Aetius had Felix murdered and was in turn defeated by Boniface at Rimini (432) who did Aetius the favour of dying from his wounds shortly afterward. This left all of Africa save Carthage in Vandal’s hands.

Aetius is the ultimate symbol of the empire’s cannibalisation. Hiring Huns, he promised subsidies and largesse (a credible offer based on his rank — he was a patrician by 434 — and knowledge of the empire) and in return they buffed Rome’s tarnished military standing. Supported by such a force, Aetius played the powerbroker facing down Burgundians on the Upper Rhine, Franks to the north, Goar’s army of Alans, the Bacaudae of Armorica under Tibatto, and the Visigoths.

By this point, the phallic direction tags of ethnic labels often drawn on Volkswanderung maps had receded in importance in comparison to the feminine, assimilative aspect of the land. Romans found themselves de-ethnicising (or should that be re-ethnicising) in the sense that they attached themselves to defenders of their locale (who were often Germanics) against the violent disorders of the Age. Sidonius, for instance, recounted how Romans fought alongside Germanics with their military standards.[8] Prokopios even claimed these men were still identifiable thanks to aspects of their dress such as shoes.[9]

At this point Britain seized the opportunity to request Roman reoccupation, which appeared a delightful prospect to fearing slavery or death at the hands of the Irish, Picts, Frisians, Saxons, Angles or Jutes on a daily basis.[10] This was declined, however, just as a deputation from northern Spain had failed in a similar quest fifteen years earlier.

When Attila attacked, the game was up for Aetius. If the Roman general had lost at the Catalaunian Plains (451) he would have become superfluous to requirements in a Hunnic empire. Yet in victory, his Huns were obliterated as a domestic power base. Time was also called on imperial government in the West, which ended not so much with a bang but a whimper as — after Majorian’s murder (461) — the general Aegidius refused to recognise the puppet emperor Libius Severus or the Eastern emperor Leo I. Instead he staked out a territory around Soissons which he handed to his son Syagrius, a realm that only survived Odoacer’s transfer of Rome’s regalia to Zeno by a decade.[11]

As imperial rule fled to Constantinople, the West entered a ghost story. Literally in the case of Germanus of Auxerre (d. 448) who sought shelter one night in a deserted villa only to find it was possessed.[12] Its torch-carrying ghoul led the bishop through the ruins and told him that he lay with a friend — both executed criminals — enchained and unable to rest. The trauma only ended when Germanus found his skeleton and gave it a Christian burial.[13] A neat metaphor for the post-Roman West.

More to the point, the post-Roman West was haunted by Rome. Take Germanus’ visit to Britain, for instance, the island that had fallen hardest and quickest from its imperial heyday.[14] Still, Rome’s shadow fell on everything. Germanus was met on arrival by ecclesiastics (admittedly Pelagian but that was the reason for the cleric’s visit) from a typical late Roman Church as well as a man holding the rank of tribune. Indeed, the Gallo-Roman aristo’s mix of Romanitas and orthodoxy (the same thing in early medieval eyes) was so potent that it only took a few ‘alleluias’ from him to defeat the combined forces of the Picts and Saxons in battle.[15]

Back on the continent — thanks to two-way Germanic-Roman assimilation — there were many Gallic aristocrats who worked for the Frankish king in parallel with their Germanic counterparts. But the cursus honorum no longer existed, or more accurately only the top five percent of jobs survived and these few posts were the preserve of the potentissimi. A fact that led young aristos to flee to the western outposts of the Eastern Roman empire: Ravenna and Rome to take up the posts of tribune or notary.

Those who remained resigned themselves to the Church or hoped to be appointed comes civitatis (count of the city) by the king. Sometimes a Merovingian king needed a figure who could lead more than a single city into war and so the late Roman military rank of dux (duke) was adopted for the leaders of these larger armies. Indeed, some counts (of Anjou, for example) and dukes (of Aquitaine, for instance) accrued such vast powers that they effectively later became independent rulers.

Despite these measures, the disparity between a centralised imperial and a decentralised feudal state was clear in matters of security. Bandits, pirates, and low-level anarchy was endemic in any part of the West that lacked the presence of a court or army. Into this breach stepped the bishop. Petitioning against rash massacres, ransoming prisoners, and providing famine relief — often facilitated by cathedral bakeries — these actions also handily proved to be very effective means of evangelism.

As courts took up military and diplomatic duties, so the cathedrals took on all the people-facing equivalents. Soon it was the cathedrals — under the patronage of successive bishops — that took centre stage rather than itinerant potentates and their households. Indeed, cathedrals operated like courts. Sat on a cathedra in the apse, the bishop faced his congregation gathered in the nave like a civil magistrate seated in an urban basilica.

The sole arbiter of non-violent power, the bishop had a monopoly on baptism (until rural baptisteries began to compete with this prerogative) and led their communities at the great feasts (Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost) when landowners were forbidden to celebrate at their villa chapels with estate clergy. In so doing, villages and towns with no primary identity slowly but surely came to identify themselves with their local city’s bishop and saint.

Originally, there were too few churches for dedications to matter, as well as a slender number of relics to go around. It was only in the early fifth century when urban churches began to multiply and relics began to migrate West that dedications took on a life of their own. Many of the oldest French cathedrals, for instance, were originally dedicated to St Stephen because his relics were discovered in Palestine (415) and taken to Gaul. Interestingly, Gaul’s earliest taste for martyrs appears to have been inflected by Milan, especially cults sponsored by Ambrose such as Agricola, Vitalis, Gervasius, and Protasius.

With these saints and martyrs, the ‘Dark Ages’ of historiography was lived as an Age of wonders by contemporaries. Often humble oratories or wooden martyria preserved the memories of these heroes until vitae were written and stone memoria/churches erected. These buildings preserved two main Roman architectural forms: the rotunda and basilica. Some parts of these complexes didn’t even need to be built. The baptistery at Marseille, the largest in France, for example, occupied the Temple of Diana. Indeed, in a world of wood and mud, churches and cathedrals were the only ones who could offer a glimpse of orthodox Romanitas, of heavenly permanence. Hence the gusto of the chronicler at Nantes, who enthused about how:

“Bishop Felix put in the cathedral marble altars, the like of which are not to be found even in Rome. He had made very many columns, with sculptured capitals of divers marbles… [and there were] mosaics of marvellous workmanship…”[16]

Beauty aside, it was the saints who provided a strong cultural glue. Beneath frescos of these spiritual superstars, the Romans embraced the Germanics — who’d previously been chalked up as pagans without souls — as brothers in faith. In turn, the Germanics learned to venerate (often exotic) military saints who’d ultimately fought in armies opposed to their presence. And so together they prayed to an unlikely canon that included Marcellus of Tangier, Maximilian the Numidian, St Maurice, and the Theban Legion, etc.

More destructively, their new asabiyya (to borrow Ibn Khaldun’s terminology) was based around clubbing together to fight pagan armies, smash their sacrifices, seize their lands and women, topple temples and columns, and chop down sacred trees. And they did it in the name of a heaven that looked remarkably like a Roman court. Hence all the vitae in which angels drop down from the sky only to look and sound very much like Roman soldiers.

Rome’s heavenly intercession was constantly called upon. As the superpower had receded, unknown powers had taken advantage: magic had come to the fore. And its black form required the Church’s intervention. Sorcery’s efficacy was never denied. Only its source was critiqued as being biblically sanctioned or otherwise. And so the Church found itself at the heart of a magical economy that involved curse tablets, lost items, illnesses, runaway workers, promotions, legacies, tax issues etc. Indeed, uneducated clerics could often find themselves in hot water by solving these problems via bibliomancy and sortres quas sanctorum vocant (the sortes/lots of the saints) — the sort of grey areas that gave the top brass grey hairs.

Rome’s faith was also called upon to tackle the pagan cycle of the seasons. The sixth-century diocesan synod at Auxerre, for example, put a stop to folk dressing up as livestock at winter solstice, delivering new year’s gifts to sprites, having private ceremonies, keeping vows at thorn bushes, holly trees and springs, and carving wooden ex votos of human figures. Pagans were continually looking for loopholes in such legislation, however, hence the persistence of human figures made from wheat-flour cakes into the eighth century.

Just as the Church based its pattern of bishoprics on that of the Roman civitates (split into the pagi, rural districts, that gave pagans their name), so the pattern of its rural churches was based on the vici (towns usually based around a market or an industry like iron smelting or pottery) and villas of landowners. The ecclesiae diocesanae (churches around the vici) were the basis which extended the organisation of the urban church into the surrounding countryside. Bishops toured these dioceses, the units that made up their see, to ensure staff and doctrine were kept up to scratch. Interestingly, in roughly the same period the Greek word ‘parochial’ (parish) also came into use. Its original meaning was a community of Christians within a town under the charge of a bishop but it soon came to mean anybody under the charge of a particular priest in the modern sense.

Under such a set-up, wily magnates trying to usurp the Church’s benefits could be just as trying as pagan confrontation. Often the ratio between private estate and diocesan churches was as bad as three-to-one. And so Church councils, therefore, found it necessary to repeat that estate churches were not private property outside the diocesan structure. Indeed, the Church in Italy refuses churches their consecration unless their founders renounced all rights other than those of a typical layman. Similarly, in Spain, the council of Lerida (524) decreed that no church could be withdrawn from episcopal control.

Defining the parish boundaries became an essential job for those who wished to impose the next stage of Christianisation: tithes. A moral obligation in the sixth century, Pippin III made them compulsory in 765. In England, they became obligatory under Edmund (939-46). This caused a slight clash in ecclesiastical structures, however, as the older financial rights of the ecclesiae diocesanae (which had set up much of the rural pastoral care) rubbed against the new seigneurial parish churches. This often resulted in a division of funds (ratios dependent on politics) between the new parish church and what became the “Old Minister.”

Back on the geopolitical plane, the West’s regions had not totally collapsed in on themselves. In London, there was an emporium visited by every nation. In Paris, the fair of St Denis (founded in 634) welcomed merchants from all over the West. Gaul, as usual, operated as the middle man with a foot in both the Mediterranean and the insular worlds that spun off it.[17] This was, after all, an Age in which a merchant in Bordeaux, for instance, could have a relic of St Sergios of Resafa at his house; a Syrian could become bishop of Paris; and Byzantine merchants of Orleans could celebrate the adventus of king Guntram into the city.[18]

In the mid-sixth century, the eastern Roman emperor still appeared on the gold coinage of the West (including Visigothic Spain).[19] In fact, some regions went even further. Marseille and the rest of Provence struck a pseudo or quasi imperial gold coinage (580-613) in the names of successive Eastern Roman emperors.[20]

Indeed, this was still an Age when “senatorial” families existed, often in ways that belie the fact they are often presented as totally reliant on Germanic patronage. Take, for instance, the senatus Cantabriae, a little state controlled by Roman magnates in the Cantabrian mountains that wasn’t conquered until Leovigild’s reign 570-86.[21] The very fact it had to be defeated shows just how threadbare the legal fiction was by which Germanic rulers were presented as allies of Rome with no sovereign rights.[22]

Despite the continuities, however, long-distance trade came to a permanent end in several parts. Papyrus, for example, was native to Egypt and when Justinian II quarreled with Caliph Abd al-Malik, the latter issued a trade embargo and insisted on placing a Muslim religious formula on the authentication of each sheet. Pope John VII was therefore presumably unaware that one of his papal bulls opened with the statement that there was no God but Allah (in Arabic).[23] The Merovingian chancery suffered no such blunders thanks mainly to a lack of supply. While papyrus use ended north of the Alps, however, appearances were kept up at both Ravenna and Rome until the eleventh century.

If a medieval Age has any historiographical legitimacy — was/is not the entire Western project “sub-Roman” i.e. realising Constantine the Great’s vision, in essence? — then its hinge should be placed squarely on the life of Dagobert I (629-39). Under him, regional powers were trounced and Paris took on its role as the capital of a centralised Frankish state. Indeed, he rebuilt the martyrial church of St Denis and established it as the burial place of Frankish kings, forming an axis of power that remains today.

That this new Paris-centric world was more insular than its predecessor is clear from the fact a place as irrelevant to Rome as Hibernia (Ireland) began to influence it. In 585, Columbanus landed near Nantes with twelve companions where he formed a powerful catalyst to the Church (in types of penance and the development of extramural monasteries) before crossing to Bobbio (Lombardy) where he founded a monastery. Missions like these — which would soon spur the English to evangelise half of Germany — showed that the Atlantic seaboard was no longer the Mediterranean’s backwater; that the peoples who bordered great Oceanus had the potential to be a cultural engine room.

The ‘West’ was no longer an agglomeration of faithless fools. As it moved into the seventh century, the landmass realised it had the potential to be a Kingdom for Christ (Christendom) that looked east to Constantinople for culture, south-east to Jerusalem for faith, and south to Rome for guidance. The Gallic hinterland and Atlantic fringes suddenly mattered: missionaries went on hobbit-y adventures in their hundreds to evangelise the pagenses of the wooded and remote regions that would one day become the cockpit of Europe.

Show Footnotes

1 Ammianus Marcellinus XX, 4.
2 Sadly, the ecclesiastical geography of France was swept away by the revolutionary government and its old names replaced by rather banal river names. The same logic doesn’t apply to England due to the Anglo-Saxon conquest, nor Spain thanks to the Islamic invasions.
3 Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus XXX, 3.
4 Julian, Convivium 314b. Interestingly, S. Frere (Britannia [1987]) suggests that Probus may have created the litus Saxonicum.
5 Austonius, Mosella 456-7.
6 Letter of St Ambrose, P.L.16, 1036.
7 The Bacaudae appear in the late third century with the requisition in kind of the annona militaris, then disappear from our sources in the fourth century when monetary taxation and an effective western regime had been restored, only to reappear in the fifth century. Almost certainly a reversion to local leadership among peoples who believed imperial authority had failed them or required “illegal exactions,” they retreated to easily defensible places such as forests and woodlands. Romans tended to depict them as stupid provincials who sought to revert to type i.e. their older barbaric ways.
8 Sidonius, Panegyric on Majorian 211-56.
9 Prokopios, History of the Wars V, xii, 8-9.
10 This missal is known as “gemitus britannorum” (groan of the Britons) or “ter consuli” (thrice consul) which can only refer to Aetius.
11 Soissons was lost to Clovis in 486.
12 Constantius of Lyon, Vita Germani 10.
13 Similar hauntings may be why skeletons at places like Brislington villa (Somerset) were thrown down wells and buried beneath over six feet of rubble (see K. Branagan, The Romans in the Bristol Area [1969] 25).
14 Germanus appears in British history cum legend as a major opponent of Vortigern and a teacher of St Patrick. See N. Chadwick, Poetry and Letters in Early Christian Gaul (1955).
15 Constantius, Vita Germani, 17-18. M. E. Jones reckons the miraculous elements of Germanus’ victory formed a Christianising cloak to excuse the fact such a prominent cleric was also a great military leader (see “The historicity of the Alleluja Victory,” Albion, Vol. 18, No. 3 [1986]).
16 Chronicle of Nantes (ed. R. Merlet, 1896), quoted Pietri T.C.C.G. V Lugdunensis Tertia, 90.
17 Though this dynamic should not be over-emphasised. Insular import wares for instance arrived in Britain via the straits of Gibraltar and the Atlantic seaways, not southern Gaul. Despite these impressive connections, some of the geographic links vitae throw up are not what they seem. The life of St John the Almsgiver, for example, contains a story connecting trade between the Eastern Roman Empire and Britain. The original of this text written by Sophronios of Jerusalem in 633-7, however, is lost. Instead, we have a supplement added by Leontius of Neapolis containing an episode in which a captain clams to have sailed to Britain. This was conflated with two earlier vitae and produced a story in which an Alexandrian ship captain down on his luck is given money for a new boat by the patriarch John the Almsgiver. After two unsuccessful attempts he managed to sail to Britain with a cargo of corn (with the aid of a magic mist and a ghostly helmsman) and returns with the “British metal” lead that is miraculously turned into silver.
18 Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum, VII, 3; X, 26; V, 1.
19 The exception was Theodebert I of Metz (534-48) who acquired so much gold in booty and subsidies that he managed to have a coinage struck in his own image. This breach of the imperial prerogative caused a grave scandal in Constantinople.
20 Currency is the most obvious inheritance from this period. Late Roman coinage was based on the solidus and its third, the tremissis. While the Franks imitated the latter in the seventh century, its content had been increasingly diluted with silver. Around 670 this pale gold coinage was replaced with silver deniers. The English followed suit and c. 675 the pale gold English shillings were replaced by new silver coins called “pennies.” Ultimately, gold had been better for long distance trade but for a smaller world framed by places like Hamwic (Southampton), Lundenwic (London’s port in area of Covent Garden and Aldwich) and Frisia, silver did the job.
21 In its last stages the Roman empire seems to have egotiated tax settlements with leaders of communities. Subsequent Germanic kings appear to have had the same relations with these seniores, principes or reges and forced new settlements upon them through arms or simply conquered them. Apart from the subjugation of the senatus Cantabriae, there’s the case of Aepidus, senior loci in the Aregenses montes, who appears to have been forced into submission too.
22 Two of the most important early medieval missions from Rome were Gregory the Great’s mission to England and his work with Leander of Seville (d. 600) to convert the Goths to Catholicism. In many ways the pope’s relationship with England and Spain prefigured the relationship of the papacy with the Carolingians.
23 J. K. Knight, End of Antiquity (2007) 168.

Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian from London. Find his articles at: byzantineambassador.com, or his tweets: @byzantinepower.


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End the Cosmopolitan Monopoly

As of late, discussion of cosmopolitanism has been… quite cosmopolitan. Hardly a day has passed in the media without a mention. This is understandable, given that Covid-induced border closures have left many of us with a less vibrant (the euphemism most commonly employed to describe cosmopolitanism) and more parochial public square than we’ve been accustomed. Comparing the cosmopolitanism that has come to describe much of what is now the status quo with the homogeneity that defined our more distant past is now desirable, perhaps even inevitable. Yet it’s far from clear how cosmopolitanism will (nor it ever could) emerge victoriously.

As Aris Roussinos and Rob Henderson allude in their respective essays, liberal cosmopolitanism — an outlook that venerates the exotic and the different over the local and the common (a view in line with its Greek etymology) — has come to be the regnant ideology of most of the West. It’s the viewpoint favored and promoted by the upper tiers of society — often narrowly and exclusively for their own benefit — hence becoming the currently fashionable effect that has percolated down through society, emulated by large parts of the middle reaches as a means for their own social advancement.

Such is the situation Henderson illustrates; the dilemmas that confront many (Asian) immigrants as they navigate and ape many of the pieties of upper-class Western progressives in their push for social advancement and material progress. Whilst for Roussinos, Western cosmopolitanism may now be the reigning viewpoint, but its duration appears limited. It is a modish and shallow doctrine, prevailing mainly as a consequence of the US hegemony that enforces it, not due to any innate beneficence of its own. As he states, an alternative hegemon, e.g. China, would undoubtedly create their own — presumably non-cosmopolitan — doctrine, hierarchy and patronage.

Cosmopolitanism, after all, has not only become descriptive (we are, in demography and culture more diverse than ever) but prescriptive: ‘this is how things ought to be’, and anyone questioning the dogma deserving of the vituperation and ostracism that we see meted out to our current-day heretics on an almost daily basis.

The parlous state we found ourselves in is very much the same American historian and social critic Christopher Lasch predicted in the early 1990s, whereby the common and the local is denigrated, and the high and the foreign elevated. For Lasch, the citizenry of ‘Middle America’ is unfairly derided by the elites as “politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy” — whilst the cosmopolitanism partaken in by the upper classes is obviously lauded, “conjuring up the agreeable image of a global bazaar in which exotic cuisines, exotic styles of dress, exotic dress, [and] exotic tribal customs” can, and should, be experienced. This “tourist’s view of the world” has become boringly mainstream.

But that such a putatively benign doctrine is unable to exist without (the threat of) abuse and ostracism, is itself a rather large concern, drawing attention to its ultimate viability. What must be drawn enough attention to is the failure of cosmopolitanism as an ideology per se.

As another tragic event in France has confirmed, our deluded emphasis on liberal cosmopolitanism is the direct cause of most of the maladies that currently confront us. (And, has there been a more tragic case than France? — the nation that most strongly believed that secular ideology and citizenship could trump natural rights and norms?) No cosmopolitanism-no problem is far too simplistic. But it’s hard to argue that without it we’d still have most of the issues roiling us today.

For one, the nations that are currently busying themselves in toppling their own statues and icons, tearing at their own social compact and themselves apart, tend also to be the ones that are most broadly liberal cosmopolitan. Whilst there has always been tension and conflict in countries – be it largely religious (e.g. Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants), colonial (e.g. the US revolution) or class-based (e.g. the French revolution) — it’s clear that this year’s ‘events’ have been either directly caused, or at minimum intensified by, its societies’ increasingly cosmopolitan nature.

If we compare the liberal and diverse nations of the West and the more traditional and homogenous nations of the East we arrive at the same conclusion. On a deeper level, this exposes the often-proffered lie that we all live in universally turbulent and fractured times. This isn’t true. Yes, the liberal cosmopolitan West lives in fractured times, but most of Asia, and many parts of the rest of the world, carry on as per normal — mostly maintaining its (relative) degree of harmony.

This is what allows leaders of the non-cosmopolitan parts of the West to fire back at their Western confreres in our, possibly undeclared, internecine tensions. The most prominent of these critics is probably Hungary’s leader Victor Orban — himself a relative model of permanence in our ostensibly unstable times. His piercing and damning critiques of Western liberal cosmopolitanism render further criticism as largely futile. For Orban, Western cosmopolitanism is a destructive and failed ideology, imported across the world and imposed on peoples against their will and interests. As he states:

“Liberal imperialism reigns in Western Europe, and they [the liberal political and commercial establishment] are trying to force their worldview on countries that think differently. A position that nations wishing to retain their sovereignty should well resist. If not, then a situation akin to the one currently confronting the nations of liberal and cosmopolitan Western Europe awaits — that is, one where [a] wave of violence is sweeping through these countries, [with] statues… being toppled, and gang wars being fought in the streets of the beautiful small towns.”

Orban’s reaction to such events, whereby our putative superiors lecture us as they throw more and more stones from within their own glasshouses, is one now echoed by us all:

“I take a look at the countries which keep sending us messages about how to live our lives correctly, and how to govern and to operate a democracy well,” he says, “and I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry.”

Moving further East, cosmopolitanism is neither more prevalent nor venerated. In fact, the opposite is largely the case. The lengths that Henderson mentions some Asian immigrants are willing to go to in order to ingratiate themselves with Western cosmopolitan norms are amusing, given how anathema and non-reciprocal such a stance is in Asia itself. For one, the idea that East Asian universities would open their tertiary programs (especially high-tech programs of potential national import) to large numbers of foreign students — à la the West — is absurd. Western cosmopolitanism is undoubtedly flawed, but at least a veneer of its possible success remains evident (see Rishi Sunak in the UK, for example). Yet the doctrine of cosmopolitanism is so rare in Asia as to be essentially a chimera. Even to raise such a prospect would be met with howls of laughter, if not outright contempt.

Consider this: the safe and prosperous nations of Japan and South Korea — home to some of the best-educated and longest-living peoples in the world — are still some of the most ethnically homogenous and exclusive nations on the planet. But contra the cosmopolitans is largely the reason for their stability and success; not an achievement that occurred in spite of it. In China, at the same time — a much larger country — any attempt to amplify the natural cosmopolitanism and difference that must occur across a land of such a size is either discouraged (to put it mildly) or violently quashed, as we are now seeing with the treatment of the Muslim Uighurs in Xin Jiang province in the West of China, and (to a lesser extent) with their Tibetan and Mongolian minorities.

In Asia, the veneration of diversity as a value holds little weight. Such a thing is more readily seen as the destabilizing phenomenon that it often is. It’s an incoherent pose inconsistent with the far more important values of social cohesion, and assimilation into the broader cultural norms. This is itself a reflection of the differences between the Eastern approach to life — which values harmony and group solidarity — over the Western one, which deifies liberty and elevates individualism. Such often leads to a state of unbridled licentiousness that is frequently indistinguishable from disorder and chaos. Orban isn’t the only leader to look at the fractured state of the West and don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

In Asia, the only real liberal cosmopolitan success story, Singapore, is such precisely because it’s not that ‘liberal’ — nor entirely cosmopolitan. The tempering of both was seen as a necessity for social harmony and success by its founder, Lee Kwan Yew. Lee was well aware of the natural tendency for fracture in cosmopolitan communities and thus set about using the power of the state to overcome this. Largely-benevolent diktats were introduced as a means to ensure the cohesion necessary for the country’s further economic and educational success: housing quotas were used as a means to override natural ethnocentrism (the presence of slums or enclaves was deemed too great); whilst a rigorous education system and strict laws were enacted — like the famous chewing gum prohibition, or the exorbitant anti-littering fines, or the treatment meted out for drug offenses. Lee was also far from sanguine about any presumed natural equality between people and peoples, nor for lauding such differences per se: difference isn’t to be celebrated, excellence is. And, in spite of the easy praise of Singapore as a ‘cosmopolitan paradise’, the island is still largely dominated by the Chinese majority, and the current long-serving prime minister is none other than Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong.

Henderson further refers to data from the American writer Amy Chua in her book World on Fire, regarding the disproportionate success of a small demographic minority of Korean-Americans in their ownership of a majority of supermarkets and produce stands in New York City. Yet, its main function and other similar examples in Chua’s book are like a cautionary tale. The book’s purpose is to explain the fragile state that ‘market-dominant’ ethnic and religious minorities find themselves in as they become greatly despised, shunned, and often violently persecuted by the ethnic and religious majorities; a situation experienced by Chua herself with the murder of her wealthy ethnically-Chinese aunt by one of her native Filipino employees. World on Fire‘s key theme is the utter failure of capitalist cosmopolitanism in protecting minorities from the wrath and envy of majorities. In such situations, capitalist cosmopolitanism is largely incapable of ameliorating or overcoming natural tensions and hatreds, although it can often heighten and hasten them.

From a literary and philosophical perspective, cosmopolitanism is hardly afforded any more esteem. Two works of Shakespeare himself have as one of their major themes the problems inherent in cosmopolitanism. His plays Othello and The Merchant of Venice are, inter alia, nothing more than an explicit rejection of cosmopolitanism. They show what we’re experiencing: that despite the lure and promise of universal prosperity and brotherhood promoted in that great cosmopolitan commercial republic of the time, Venice, the financial gain is no match for two of the other great forces in men’s souls: race and religion.

The tragic lesson in Othello is that — despite the possession of a local wife, Desdemona, and of military valor and success for his adopted city — Othello’s foreignness (he is a Moorish general) remains as the unassailable obstacle that precludes him from obtaining ultimate respect and stability within the Venetian community. A lesson that we are meant to take as one not only applicable to Venice, but one that endures in all times and places. The Merchant of Venice, essentially, teaches the same lesson of ultimate rejection, yet on the religious plane. Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, can’t ultimately be harmoniously integrated into the political community because of the unbridgeable metaphysical differences between him and the people of Christian Venice. He can’t possibly bring himself to believe what the city believes, and vice-versa. Thus, Shylock’s appeal away from religion and culture to one based on our common humanity, famously manifests in his ‘hath not a Jew eyes’ speech.

Both these works show us the problems inherent in the cosmopolitan project as such — as well understood by the American philosopher Allan Bloom in his book Shakespeare’s Politics where, echoing Bard’s pessimism on this issue, he states:

“Men can only be men together when they mutually recognize their sameness; otherwise they are like beings of different species to each other… neither can regard the other as a human being in any significant sense because in all that is human they differ.”

The reason for the failure of cosmopolitanism is deeply profound, grounded in our ultimately ethnocentric and tribal natures (a point also noted by Chua in her book, Political Tribes). This is how Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, is able to say that a very great narrowness is not incompatible with the health of an individual or a people. As contrarily — as our current situation confirms — that a great openness brings about a circumstance where it’s hard to avoid decomposition.

Bloom’s view was no doubt informed by his famous teacher, Leo Strauss, who had similar anti-globalist sentiments. For Strauss, as he says: “the society by nature is the closed society.” A position advanced in direct contrast to the post-war zeitgeist, and that of another famous, 20th Century German-speaking émigré philosopher, Karl Popper. The latter’s most famous work, The Open Society and Its Enemies has both lent its name to one of the most famous and maligned proponents of cosmopolitanism now operating, George Soros, and his Open Society; and encapsulated the prevailing spirit of our own time too — i.e. cosmopolitan openness.

Cosmopolitanism fails elsewhere. As the recent Covid crisis has illuminated, the presence in certain countries and climes of large numbers of peoples more naturally suited to other — hotter, more tropical — ones is an obvious and evident failure, such as in countries like Sweden where it has taken a toll on immigrant communities. But it’s a narrative that runs counter to our current cosmopolitan obsession, and so it must be ignored, obfuscated, or rendered verboten. It’s easier to just avoid such difficult questions, and relegate the blame to other factors — such as social and economic circumstances.

Our current indulgence of cosmopolitanism can’t endure. It’s ultimately a facile and feel-good doctrine employed by the elites in direct contradistinction to the wishes of the majority. It’s a point of view and state of mind that contains too many inconsistencies, and that causes too much damage. Ultimately, it’s anti-natural. It can’t endure: what can’t go on, won’t go on. And cosmopolitanism won’t. What we must work towards is a program that peacefully moves us away from this failed doctrine. Only this can ultimately return us to a healthy cosmos of distinct polities — the only real cosmopolitanism worth applauding.

Ryan Anderson is a teacher, traveler, and essayist based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on: Twitter.


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SPOTLIGHT

The Gift of Post-Liberalism

Liberalism and Post-Liberalism: Philosophical Foundations

In Why Liberalism Failed, according to Patrick Deneen, liberalism, from its foundations in Locke’s Second Treatise to the work of John Rawls posits man as entirely alone, unattached and isolated in a timeless, placeless state of nature. Community is not something man is born into, families don’t exist, and the many layers of civil institutions and groups that comprise society are irrelevant. 

Inheritance is something to deny and escape — bonds that tie of any sort a barrier to the full realisation of freedom and the maximisation of autonomy. Relations are replaced by contracts, made and broken through consent informed by man’s supposed rationality. Traditions as a roadmap for existence have no place and are delegitimised by liberalism’s drive to freedom from constraint.

Liberalism, as Ryzsard Legutko argues, shares with Marxism the teleological drive to a final state of total escape from the constraints of physical, human reality. This heaven is to be brought on earth through constant political churn and change. Liberalism and Communism are each as revolutionary as each other in the final assessment. 

As Reinhold Neibuhr put it, the former is a form of “soft utopianism,” whose faith in progress is its driving force. Liberalism fails “to understand the tragic character of human history.” For Niebuhr, liberalism believes in progress as the perfection of man’s nature: “faith in man; faith in his capacity to subdue nature, and faith that the subjection of nature achieves life’s final good.” The veil of ignorance that Rawls employs to demonstrate its inevitability is reflective of liberalism’s blindness. This blindness, he argued, “does not see the perennial difference between human actions and aspirations… the inevitable tragedy of human existence, the irreducible irrationality of human behavior, and the tortuous character of human history.” 

Material progress is mistaken for moral growth, an illusion shown as delusion by the 20th century. “Since 1914,” Niebuhr writes, “one tragic experience has followed another, as if history had been designed to refute the vain delusions of modern man.” Even despite this, liberalism continues on, unaffected by impingements of reality. Coronavirus might have demonstrated the limits of man and of liberalism itself. But it seems not, given our faith in scientistic technocracy for our salvation. This reveals a spiritual crisis, for as: “the modern world does not believe in sin. Our secular age has rejected that doctrine more whole-heartedly than any other Christian doctrine.” 

None of this accounts for our fallen humanity, our nature “both strong and weak, both free and bound, both blind and far-seeing.” This blindness of human frailty extends to social fragility, civilisation and social comity resting upon “a precarious equilibrium of social forces. This equilibrium may degenerate into anarchy if there is no strong organizing center in it. And it may degenerate into tyranny if the organizing center destroys the vitality of the parts.” The anarcho-tyranny of the last few months, with riots unstopped but lockdown infractions clamped down on demonstrates this for all to see. 

As Deneen argues, “Liberalism has failed–not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It failed because it has succeeded.” A political philosophy created to “foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.” 

In questing for ever greater freedom, enabled and enforced through the state in politics and the market in economics, liberalism leaves us both less free and poorer, in spirit if not in income. The individualism of our liberal order promises freedom from constraint but delivers servitude to loneliness, leaving us bereft of relationships that bring both the blessing and burden of living to full-life. Social liberty is license, enslavement to carnality, while economic liberty is greed, enslavement to acquisitive venality. Loss, loneliness and lowered life-prospects for more and more are the outcomes. 

Post-Liberalism looks at this wasteland and seeks another way. Moving beyond the liberal dispensation does not entail ejecting the beneficial achievements of liberalism. As Deneen writes: “moving beyond [it] is not to discard some of liberalism’s main commitments — especially those deepest longings of the West, political liberty and human dignity — but to reject the false turn it made in its imposition of an ideological remaking of the world in the image of a false anthropology.” To paraphrase Ozzy Osbourne in Supernaut, Post-Liberals have seen the future and we’ve left it behind. Post-Liberalism is, as Unherd columnist Mary Harrington said in an online seminar held by Res Publica in October, “what you get when you have conservative instincts but there’s nothing left to conserve.” It is a worldview of reconstruction and recovery, restoring the ability to live fulfilled lives in common with others. 

Post-Liberalism agrees with the millennia-old wisdom that man is a social creature and is not meant to be alone. It is not about the removal of limits to our unchained desires, but the exact opposite: the chaining of our untutored desires to live lives of purpose in concert with those around us, starting in the family where we learn the language of identity (as Mary Eberstadt puts it).

For Harrington, liberalism — for women in particular — meant the removal of constraint by parental and familial bonds, externalising the cost of motherhood to low-status women lower down the social order. As she argued in last month’s webinar, modern corporate feminism is inherently aristocratic, allowing a prosperous 10% to pursue their dreams of bodily autonomy through economic means, marketizing motherhood. In reality, the very physicality of motherhood itself repudiates the claims of autonomy made by liberalism. 

She further asserted that motherhood reinforces the irreducible interdependence of human relations, our reliance on and need for each other revealed here as nowhere else. Care for children is the foundation to other sorts of care, as Madeleine Bunting also writes. Care sits at the intersection of interdependence, inheritance, and legacy. Care reveals as nothing else does the linked nature of humanity, the interdependence we have on each other. 

None of this is taken into account by a liberal worldview that prizes choice and autonomy over any sense of duty and gratitude. Care, rooted in the most fundamental human relationality, cannot be easily itemised or monetised — but liberalism is blind to this as so much else. Those who give and receive care are seen as less worthy, because the thing that is being done cannot be calculated in a rational system that breaks people down into economic widgets. Motherhood, old-age and disability, cannot serve the market by increasing productivity and GDP. They are less useful to society, and therefore represent loss of human value.

However, as Harrington points out, we belong to each other as much as we do to ourselves. Indeed, it is only in this reciprocal belonging — as Eberstadt drawing on Wittgenstein argues — that we can even begin to understand who we are. Care cultivates identity, and a strong sense of self can cultivate care for those who endowed us with this sense, and towards the wider world, the context in which we situate ourselves. The power of relationships, buried by liberalism, can still rise to the surface of our existence. The rebellion against what Harrington calls “Clinton feminism” may be a sign of this. 

The most fundamental element of relationship is that of a sexual nature. Louise Perry (in the same webinar) argued that the seemingly bizarre agreement on the place of sex in the relationship between men and women that one can see between radical feminists and traditionalist Catholics is — perhaps not so strange after all. There is fundamental agreement between these two disparate tribes that freedom for itself is not the reality nor the goal of life. 

Under liberalism, according to Perry, we have witnessed what Aaron Sibarium calls “sexual disenchantment,” where any strictures and constraints on the self that make sex special, that sacralise it and therefore something to cherish, are removed by the need for ever-greater autonomy. As Eberstadt says, the commodification of sex has created a sexual consumer culture, where women are reduced to options in buffet of sexualised bodies, stripped of their essential humanity. Sibarium writes: “If the scientific revolution disenchanted the world, a la Weber, the sexual revolution disenchanted sex in the process of deregulating it, with free ‘love’ a sterile spin-off of the free market.”

This sexual disenchantment, to Perry, is against our deepest nature and desires, and therefore cannot continue. Intimacy and relationality are a basic part of what makes us human and should be emphasised as central to sexual relationships. We must retain (to return to Deneen’s point about liberalism’s benefits) women’s freedoms while pushing back against the instrumentalization inherent to the world of liberal sexual disenchantment. 

At bottom, Post-Liberalism argues for the reality of human attachment, to each other in the present, to memory of the past and obligation towards the future, Liberty is not license, but the ability to fulfill our human need to live with others, within limits that provide a framework for life. The market serves us, not the other way around. Human flourishing rests in the ability to pursue lives of dignity and purpose in community. 

Post-Liberalism’s view of human anthropology, of our origins and ends is opposed to the aristocratic atomisation of liberalism. Life may be tragic, the vale through which we make life’s journey one of tears. But this realism is balanced with the hope of redemption, with the sun breaking through the clouds to warm us in the knowledge of hope, that life is worth living despite its trials, and that being born was itself a blessing, a blessing we can affirm through the consequences of living.

***

The beginnings of the philosophical reorientation seen in Harrington and Perry’s contributions must be matched by implementation of policies that tangibly improve people’s lives. Journalist Paul Embery and former advisor to Theresa May Nick Timothy (also present) were looking at the situations on the contemporary left and right respectively. Their analysis is needed to ground the metaphysical in the real, and to avoid endless, self-referential abstraction that grows increasingly divorced from the reality of people’s experience of their day-to-day lives. 

We’ve arguably spent so long under a system of government by technocratic managerialism that our elites — a point also made by Matthew Goodwin — have actually forgotten how to exercise power in the name of governing. This makes it especially challenging to implement any new vision going forward — thus our inability to see a way to navigate between the extreme particularism of leftist identity politics and the weightless universalism of neoliberalism. Identitarianism, an exclusivist politics that takes the importance of identity and turns into a weapon for a retribalisation of society. And yet, all of this has its roots in the liberalism held up as the solution to the problem. Woke and far-right identitarianism leaves people adrift on the tides of liquid modernity a sense of community, meaning, and purpose. It gives them a sense of destiny

This is the reaction to what Leo Strauss saw as the insidious, deadening forces of gentle nihilism. A liberal universalism that denies any sense of particularity in attachment or affection is insufficient. As Timothy argues, universalism reached through the particularity of our experiences, place and time — what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called “the dignity of difference” — is one answer to this. 

Part of the solution is to realise that these groups based in immutable characteristics substitute for the mediating institutions of civil society torn apart by 40 tears of neoliberal economics. Both Goodwin and Timothy state that the collapse of these civic institutions in favour of liberal meritocratic governance has been a disaster for solidarity between classes and groups. Shoring up what Christopher Lasch called “the third places of communal life” must be a priority of government.

We’re right where we’ve started: man as connected creature, born into a social ecosystem that like all ecosystems needs cultivation, maintenance, and in our time, new growth. Ultimately our embrace of the limits of time, place, and community and the hope they paradoxically provide, rests on a foundation of gratitude for life itself. Post-Liberalism is the politics of life as gift. Everything flows from there.

Henry George is a freelance writer from the U.K., focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, Merion West, The Post Millennial, Arc Digital, & more. Follow him on Twitter: @intothefuture45.


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Counting Votes and Drawing Lots

Contrary to pollsters’ predictions of a Democratic landslide or at least a decisive win by Joe Biden, the 2020 election turned out to be the most uncertain since the litigious 2000 contest that put George W. Bush in the White House. Biden’s national popular vote lead was solid but not overwhelming, and the two candidates came within just a few percentage points in almost all of the decisive states for an electoral college victory. The Senate and House of Representatives are nearly split down the middle. A clear referendum on the Trump presidency it was not. The country was divided in 2016, and it’s divided today, if not along exactly the same lines.  

Both before and after Tuesday’s vote, observers worried that a disputed result would further weaken the authority of an electoral system that both the sitting president and his opponents have claimed was vulnerable to fraud and manipulation ever since 2016. For weeks, many warned that Trump’s supporters would not accept the results of the election if their candidate lost. At the same time, Democratic partisans and anti-Trump activists promised to flood into the streets to reject any result they view as illegitimate. Trump, for his part, took to Twitter soon after the election to allege fraud in states where he was losing. Meanwhile, amidst all the uncertainty, the shambling, uneven progress of the vote count raised another specter of illegitimacy: how can people maintain faith in a system unable to determine a clear outcome promptly?  

On the other hand, the idea that the indecisiveness of the result calls the system into question contradicts other common intuitions. After all, closely contested votes are often cited as ratifying the efficacy of voting, since they seem to substantiate the conviction that “every vote matters.” When an election comes down to just a small number of ballots, we would like to imagine, individual voters’ power to reset the course of their nation’s history comes fully into view. 

Conversely, the opposite scenario — a decisive result — does not always bestow credibility on a regime. In fact, nations where a party wins a commanding victory may descend into instability since coups and uprisings can result from a situation where a political faction concludes that it cannot win electorally and must achieve power by other means. In other words, both blowout victories and nail-biters might equally legitimize — or delegitimize — a democratic regime. 

These apparent contradictions suggest that we need to return to the more fundamental question of where a democracy’s legitimacy comes from. In his book The Mark of the Sacred, the philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy notes that universal suffrage, which is “generally thought to be the very essence of modern democracy,” is based on the premise that “human beings [are] solely responsible for creating the society they inhabit.” This “search for immanence,” Dupuy notes, distinguishes our system from those that derive their ultimate authority from the transcendent realm of the gods and the sacred. However, Dupuy argues that voting is more irrational and riven with paradox than we tend to believe. This is because it “exhibits a very curious, indeed suspect, relationship to chance that cannot fail to bring to mind the crucial role chance plays in religious practices and beliefs.” 

Numerous societies throughout history have resolved conflicts and made decisions by drawing lots and similar procedures. One such system was found in ancient Athens, “cradle of democracy,” which incorporated randomized mechanisms into its votation. (Early theorists of democracy saw no problem with this: “[v]oting by lot is in the nature of democracy,” said Montesquieu.) Dupuy attributes such practices to the “need to shift responsibility for decisions on which the life of a community depends away from the members of this community.” They allow a society to offload responsibility for what befalls it onto a transcendent power equivalent to fate, since chance can be seen as manifesting this higher will. This may seem to violate the basic principle of popular sovereignty, but Dupuy argues the opposite is true: democratic systems too “are held to be legitimate and meaningful exactly to the extent that they create exteriority and transcendence.”

To illustrate how this archaic logic still holds in modern times, Dupuy examines the 2000 US election, in which the result came down to a few hundred ballots in Florida. In that election, “for once, each person had the sense that his or her vote actually counted.” However, the reality was far more complicated, since “the point at which the democratic promise comes closest to being fulfilled is also, by logical necessity, the one at which the arbitrariness of the voting process must seem to a neutral observer to reach its height.” This is because “the movement of an almost unimaginably small number of votes from one column to the other is liable to have a major impact, amplified by the presence of unavoidable errors in counting — the ‘noise’ in the system.” What comes to the fore in close votes, that is, is not the decisive impact of individuals but an irresolvable indeterminacy. 

In 2000, the random “noise” took the form of the “chads,” “hanging,” “dimpled,” and “pregnant,” that plagued the Florida vote count. In 2020, it is evident in the “irregularities” alleged by the Trump campaign and Republican observers, but also in a variety of “mundane infrastructure glitches” recently reported on in the New York Times, including a ballot counting machine that was jammed by hand sanitizer. Such incidents, of course, also occur in elections with a decisive victor, but only become politically significant in the case of narrow victory margins. According to Dupuy, this is why the belief that individuals “wield extraordinary power” in tight elections “is an illusion.” On the contrary, in such instances “the voting procedure [is] so sensitive to the noise in the system as to be indistinguishable from the flipping of a coin.” In the end, randomness outweighs deliberation. 

When an election comes down to a margin so narrow that “noise” prevails over rational determination of collective preference, we are faced with the equivalent of ancient societies drawing lots to determine their fate. After all, “a cause so small as to be unknowable, yet large enough to determine a matter of surpassing importance to the future of the world, is the very definition of chance.” In the end, then, the 2000 election (and the current one) “amounted to flipping a coin on a vast scale — the coin spinning about in the air for a very long time, until finally it fell to the ground, deciding the undecidable.” And this, far from an aberration, is the point, according to Dupuy’s account: as he writes, “democracy never so much resembles what it aspires to be as when it is indistinguishable from a gigantic lottery.” Far from discrediting the electoral process, Dupuy argues, such interventions of chance are essential to its perpetuation. 

After the Supreme Court allowed George W. Bush to enter the White House in 2000, pundits and politicians “reaffirm[ed] faith — faith in the abiding power of the Constitution, faith in the rule of law and the greatness of a system that puts the law above men.” According to Dupuy, the system retained this status not in spite of the hanging chads and related causes of indeterminacy, but in part because of them. The final arbitrariness of the result, which despite the controversy and litigation around it ultimately had the same practical consequence as a landslide victory, proved that the electoral process can generate outcomes that transcend the sum of individual preferences. It is not ultimately the voters that decide: rather, the system abstracts the result from all aggregated choices through operations that in some cases may seem patently arbitrary and irrational. 

Dupuy notes that US democracy includes mechanisms that formalize this separation between aggregated preferences and final outcomes, most notably the Electoral College. In both 2000 and 2016, of course, the popular vote and electoral vote diverged, reminding us that convergence of the popular will with the final result is not a necessary outcome. As Dupuy notes, seeing this situation as irrational is not totally incorrect, but the assumption that the system’s legitimacy derives from its rationality is mistaken. As he writes, “[p]ermitting the popular vote and the vote of the Electoral College to diverge appears to be a scandalous defect of this system if one believes that voting is a rational procedure meant to reveal the general will. It takes on a quite different aspect, however, if one conceives of it as a way of referring the decision to an authority that transcends the preferences expressed by individual voters — a substitute for fate, as it were.” The same logic may apply to any arbitrary-seeming final result that emerges from an undecidably close contest. 

Viewed from another perspective, this logic is less counterintuitive than it might seem. Deciding a particular result is erroneous or capricious can perpetuate faith in the electoral system by reinforcing the basic assumption that the process is essentially fair and only contingently flawed. We do not have to go back to 2000 to find a clear illustration of this point. The Democrats’ reaction to Trump’s victory in 2016 points in the same direction. The party and its supporters have asserted over and over that Trump’s victory was illegitimate because of foreign interference, “fake news,” and social media manipulation. But they also told supporters there was only one response: “vote.” 

In a more extreme example, ‘Remainers’ similarly alleged that the Brexit referendum was fraudulent, manipulated, and so on, but their proposed remedy was — another referendum. 

Recent ‘civil war’ fear mongers in the US, while their predictions were hyperbolic, were correct to identify the problem that any political system must solve: preventing the “war of all against all” that threatens to dissolve a society into irreconcilable factions — or at least, in the contemporary context, displacing this war onto the symbolic realm of televised debates and social media disputes. But their diagnosis of the threats to democracy falsely assumed that an election whose results some view as illegitimate will cast a pall of illegitimacy on the whole system — the necessary prerequisite to civil war. In fact, a situation where many view a particular winner as illegitimate may well prop up the credibility of the system as a whole. Both the Bush and Trump administrations have made that clear, and there’s no good reason to think the next four years will be all that different.

Geoff Shullenberger is a writer and academic. He blogs at www.outsidertheory.com. Follow him on: Twitter.


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Tilting at Windmills

DOUGLAS MURRAY’S “THE MADNESS OF CROWDS”: A REVIEW

The greatest libertine pleasure for the liberal-conservative is to submerge himself in decadence and then to feel like a dirty, soiled thing. One pictures him slumped in his plum-coloured armchair in his white cotton shirt, a glass of Condrieu in one hand and a smartphone in the other. One imagines his face, illuminated by the glow of his screen, wrinkling with every filthy little item which drops into his feed, his slightly muscular frame, in turn, squirming from an obscure (but not unwelcome) frisson. One imagines Spectator columnist Douglas Murray.

At other times, one imagines him in a situation which he outlined in one of his Spectator columns, and which I think captures the tragic ideological crossroads at which he sits. (In this crossroad metaphor, he is sat sternly at the wheel of a yellow Nissan Figaro, wearing driving gloves, and gripping the wheel firmly while Classical FM plays indifferently from the radio, though this information is not indispensable.) A member of the Church of England, Murray is asked taciturnly by his vicar during a private chat if certain rumours that he has heard about Murray and his relation to the faith are true. Murray responds in the positive. “Yes,” he says. “I am not a believer.” The vicar responds with an awkward “Oh!” and without putting up any sort of fight assures Murray that this is perfectly alright, that even he himself isn’t all that sure about the business.

In 2017, as a young man who had already begun to think regularly about Murray, I went into my local library to order a copy of his then-latest book, The Strange Death of Europe. I lived then in a London neighbourhood with one of the highest muslim populations, and in taking out Murray’s polemical work I feared for my life. After a couple of days of attempting to obscure the cover of the book from the largely muslim and immigrant population with which I rode the bus, I realised that none of them really cared what I was reading. As national and as urgent as the debate on Islam seemed, it was really only being whipped up by left-leaning, Guardian-reading liberals and right-leaning liberals who read the Spectator. I realised, too, that very few of my fellow-passengers could read English anyway.

That book treated what Murray considered to be a general decline in the cultural and political life in Europe, the disappearance of what one might call a European culture, and the supposed role that Islam had played in this change. In it, I detected a longing for the return of Christianity and the often-cited but loosely defined Judeo-Christian values which it promised to bring. Two years previous to the publication of Murray’s book, the French author Houellebecq had published the novel Soumission, in which an academic, hungry for salvation in a now-absent Christianity, submits instead to Islam. I suspected then that Murray, who has read the book — I know, I have seen sat upon his bookshelf — had returned to the Christian faith, not as a little child, but as a regretful liberal seeking some ballast for his political convictions.

The great puzzle for Murray then, as it is now, was how to synthesise one’s liberal values of tolerance and freedom of expression with the culture of intolerance and censorship which it inevitably invites. In The Madness of Crowds, the question of the paradox of liberalism is much the same, but now Murray turns his sights on more fashionable targets. Muslims, after all, are démodé; one hardly sees them in the news anymore. The book is neatly divided into four sections entitled: GAY, WOMEN, RACE, and TRANS with three interludes: The Marxist Foundations, The Impact of Tech, and On Forgiveness. The general thrust of Murray’s book is explained by the Saint George in Retirement metaphor of liberalism, pinched from Australian conservative Kenneth Minogue. The story goes like this: Saint George, long retired after having defeated the dragon, gets bored and decides to get back in the game. Donning his rusty armour and mounting his old nag in the stable, he scours the land looking for a fight. Finding very little in the way of dragons, but still very much in a dragon-slaying mood, he refuses to stop, slashing now at smaller and smaller foes, eventually fighting the wind.

This is all a rather convoluted way of saying that liberalism has gone a little bit too far for Murray’s liking, and the analysis of those four principal topics which make up the chapter headings doesn’t get any more profound. Instead, we are invited onto the plum-coloured armchair, and given an item-by-item list of every event in mainstream discourse over the past five years which Murray has found objectionable. The average reader will already know about many of these events, and will hardly be enriched by learning about those that they are ignorant of. I was unaware, for example, that an actress from a show named The Big Bang Theory had gotten her breasts out on live television until I read Murray’s book, but neither did I need to know that information. It’s not the sort of thing that invites invite any significant analysis, and indeed Murray gives them none; he just holds them up as exemplary of what has gone wrong with feminism, or gay rights, or women.

Liberalism in itself as a political philosophy is, predictably, never identified as a culprit for these cultural shifts, nor considered as untenable. To do so would force Murray to admit that the progressivism, which has already given him what he wanted, has always carried the kernel of the horrors that it is now producing. Liberalism, he says instead, has gone off its natural course, hijacked by Marxism. Michel Foucault (a thinker who should be as indispensable to the right as it is to the left) is identified as one of the culprits for having framed human relations by their relation to power rather than, say, love. Baudrillard, in his criticism of Foucault, explains beautifully the operation of his target’s linguistic power game:

“These procedures of truth are of no importance, for Foucault’s discourse is no truer than any other. No, its strength and its seduction are in the analysis which unwinds the subtle meanderings of its object, describing it with a tactile and tactical exactness, where seduction feeds analytical force and where language itself gives birth to the operation of new powers. Such also is the operation of myth.”

As Murray notes, many of the cultural shifts which he finds distasteful are taking place on the linguistic plane. Novel terms are introduced, met with some resistance, and then eventually accepted into everyday discourse, at which point their function — to normalise what was once a perversity, or to turn a desire into a ‘human right’ — is realised. The nature of our reality is changed by their introduction into the discourse. Murray, for example, is willing enough to accept that gay and straight are ontological realities, but remains skeptical when it comes to bisexuality or transsexuality, not because of a lack of evidence, but because these terms are still wiggling their way into accepted nomenclature. Liberalism, both that of Murray and of his opponents, functions by taking the millennium of human experience, orchestrating it with precision, and then stamping it with precise, practical terms. As Baudrillard says:

“In a certain way, psychoanalysis puts an end to the unconscious and desire, just as Marxism puts an end to the class struggle, because it hypostatizes them and buries them in their theoretical project.”

Both left and conservative liberals are engaged in this reality-altering word game, only that the former advances new realities, while the latter refines them through challenging them. But both the so-called social justice warriors and those who dedicate entire books to writing about them are essential to the process. Life is whittled down and brought into increasingly tedious realities by the bickering of liberal and conservative columnists.

In Cervantes’ El Quijote, a dispute takes place over the exact nature or name of an object. Don Quijote insists that it is the helmet of the mythical Moorish king Mambrino, while the barber claims that it is a simple basin. Sancho Panza, wishing to keep the peace, settles the question by naming it a basinelmet. While the characters argue, a pronouncement from the author on the exact nature of the object is absent. The work lacks an absolute truth, and there are as many truths as there are points of view. For Cervantes as his reader, the object exists as both a basin and the helmet of Mambrino. Don Quijote’s various conditions — idealist, madman — run parallel throughout the novel, and it is the reader who has the privilege of experiencing every reality without settling upon one.

A failure to accept this is perhaps Murray’s problem. These interlocking power games, he says, “do not all lock neatly together, but grind hideously and noisily both against each other and within themselves. They produce friction rather than diminish it, and increase tensions and crowd madnesses more than they produce peace of mind.” But this is the very vitality of life and politics, and Murray ought to get his own hands dirty. He is a mere spectator to the madness who refuses to advance his own folly.

William Guppy is a writer from London. His book “Ha Ha Ha Delightful“, is now available. You can find him on Twitter at: @w_guppy.


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The Heavy Chains of Liberalism

Many of those opposed to the accelerating corrosion of Western civilization see it as a battle between ‘liberalism’ and ‘illiberalism’. Illiberalism seems to be rearing its monstrous head again in a demonic whack-a-mole game, from the ominous ‘democracies’ in places like Turkey and Hungary, to the stifling environment of cultural revolution in Western universities. Freedom of speech, freedom of association, the seemingly fundamental right to walk down the street — in this time of the great plague — have been summarily suspended, and don’t seem to be making a full return soon.

But we hear that liberalism, correctly applied, is here to solve these problems, and we have just the right people to implement the solution. The centrists, the moderates, the people who are privy to the knowledge of the true goldilocks zone of both market and social freedoms are here to guide us. They will use both their keen intuitions and the latest tools of political science to nudge, regulate, and liberate. If only we could get back to true liberalism, they could do their jobs.

Liberalism, like ‘democracy’, has a certain ring to it. It is a mythical value with the gleam of an unalloyed good. It’s the virtuous opposite of illiberalism — a darkness synonymous with constraint and oppression. Suppose we take liberalism at its word. In that case, it stands to reason that the long arc of history is a journey from a sterile illiberal past toward a luminous liberal future. We’re on rails to the promised land, and we just need to liberate a bit harder to get there. But the record of liberalism, in both its market and social variants, is spotty. If we persist in misdiagnosing the problem, our solutions will remain ineffective and may even be destructive.

Liberalism is the water we swim in. It’s permeated the nature of the West so profoundly that it’s become almost undetectable. Liberalism is the idea and the ideal that power both conservative and liberal parties, albeit at different speeds and with varying areas of interest.

The philosophical groundwork for our liberation was prepared a long time ago. In John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, we discover that the individual’s independence from the artificial constraints of custom is necessary for progress. Mill asserted that freedom lies in elevating choice and leaving aside burdensome custom, that the only way to be truly free is to unshackle yourself from the bonds of social mores, into ever freer choice. As he writes:

The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice.”

Only in this way, unconstrained by the crusty baggage of social custom and opinion, can the virtuous — the smart and industrious and Mill’s “persons of genius” — rise to the top and assume their role as de facto overlords. The fact that this is what happened in reality, is a testament to Mill’s keen talent as both a philosopher and a prophet. Today, we live in an age where Mill’s righteous meritocracy has taken over the world, drained the brains of the global periphery, and has created a class of overworked and under-reproducing urban royalty. With this trick, we’ll have whittled down this self-selected caste of high intelligence ‘knowledge workers’ in a few generations of barren striving to ‘make partner’. You couldn’t design a better way to annihilate human capital, but yet, freedom finds a way.

Conservatives are nominally congealed in the amber of 1950s social norms – though not really, as they’re typically trailing only a few years behind on the latest facilitation of social freedom favored by the opposition. The freedoms conservatives like even more than those they have to regularly concede are market freedoms. And who can blame them? The market works, and it has been nothing short of miraculous. But it has also led to the despoiling of the planet, the destruction of local communities, and boom and bust cycles of ever-increasing intensity. The technology it birthed is the stuff of both amazement and nightmare, as a good fraction of culture is now a dedicated release valve for our most dystopian fears: Black Mirror, Westworld, The Matrix… One thing is made clear: there is no way back, and the Singularity is almost certainly malignant.

On the Liberal end of liberalism, freedom is just as salient. It’s simply directed at a more intimate area, the body. The Liberal wants to free the individual from the more immediate constraints of life, to move him into an unshackled, transhumanist state. The body itself needs liberation. Its unrealistic proportions and symmetries and ratios become an offense to liberty. Customary constraints on managing its hairs, its dimensions, its surfaces, its color schemes, and even its odors become arbitrary, stifling.

Inhibition becomes another grave societal constraint. Criminality is now a complex socioeconomic problem, passing judgment on it and its ever more permanent denizens — the real crime. To not indulge in any desire that floats into consciousness, be it food, sex, drugs, or mindless consumption, makes you a sucker. You’re judging yourself with the mind of the oppressor.

Women melt into inert puddles of deconstructed identity, only to be recomposed later by capital, in derriere hugging pantsuits, or in the camouflaging moo-moos of the permanently unhappy, harmonizing in a choral whine about representation in Fortune 500 companies.

Sex — then Gender — spiral out into fractals of ever more nuanced and thin-skinned identities. From the shattered cage of heteronormativity emerge a dazzling kaleidoscope of sexual options and identity-worthy kinks, so plentiful that they start to evade classification. Speaking of which, the act of classification itself becomes ‘problematic’, as do many more things that try to tie the individual down to the prosaic. The Liberal conception of freedom is to be let loose, on yourself, on others, on damned society itself.

Where do these developments leave the enlightened centrist, the meter out of liberalism, the stalwart straddler of ‘the extremes’?

He is always on the front lines of ever-shifting moderation but somehow knows that his current position on things like injecting pre-teens with sex hormones, the age of consent, and heck, let’s throw incest in there — is the right one. He reasons from first principles like: “It’s none of my damned business,” and the insights naturally follow.

On an issue like abortion, he presides over Schroedinger’s baby, a creature simultaneously alive and dead, and like the modern-day Solomon he is, cuts more and more to the left with every passing year. Because the point of incision lies with his ever-shifting centrism, every 10-or-so years, the centrist emerges reborn with new, more liberal, and thus good, energies, and reevaluates his previous heresies.

On guidance on how one should run this ten year Phoenix cycle, one can look to the patron saint of the supposed center-left: Barack Obama. He himself recoils at his heresies on things like same-sex marriage now, but he has repented and found himself where he left himself — in the center.

Therefore, to become the mighty individual, liberty means we have to make ourselves free to inhabit the ‘state of nature’. This process involves molting — getting rid of the heavy shackles of the flesh suit, ridding ourselves of our culture’s constraints, our obligations to kin, our community, and our place of origin. It involves freeing ourselves from the paternalistic obligations of moderation, chastity, and other passé virtues that reek of mothballs and the cardinal sin of judgment.

The liberated individual man or woman is a creature free from the constraints of nature, unchained, scrubbed clean, and ready to enjoy freedom in all its forms, to consume — to eat, drink and screw itself into ever truer liberation through ever freer choice.

Cover by Yuri Zalevski.

Alex Kaschuta is a writer and essayist from Romania. She writes on: sortalexout.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kaschuta.


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