Power Is Top-Down; Freedom Is Bottom-Up

Can we change history? Can we drive the “red wheel” of implacable historical force ["ce large contexte, ou elle est a la fois construite et prisonniere"] where we want? Alexeyev, responsible for running the Tsarist war effort at the start of the Russian Revolution, was a good military man. He based his days on the assumption that orders were obeyed. His sense of history centered on the assumption that not only was Tsarism the right system but that the Romanovs were the right family; his simplicity excluded any conscious awareness of the implacable red wheel of history that crushed those whose anachronistic limping prevented them from keeping pace. (No insult, this, for almost all humans have a simplistic view of what is right and proper about leadership, statehood, nationalism; indeed, leaders tend to see the maintenance of those comforting delusions by the masses as the primary function of leadership. How else, in their awesome incompetence, would they ever keep their grasp on power?) It is more difficult for a leader to admit the system he serves has outlived its time than for a lover to face the pointlessness of a failed affair.

Alexeyev was confused. Meeting one General Kornilov just after the abdication of the tsar, he tried to express the new contradiction between continuing the war effort to resist German aggression and the increasingly evident collapse of the regime–not just of tsarism but also of the new, self-anointed, middle-class intellectual replacement regime:

не забывать, что всю эту революцию Ставка допустила лишь для того, чтобы сохранить армию неприкосновенной, для войны. А попытаться бы ему — удержать Петроград в таком виде, чтобы столица если хоть не помогала бы войне, но не мешала бы? Ведь вся зараза растекается из Петрограда, все эти банды по всем железным дорогам, прямо на людей наводят оружие, врываются в учреждения, грабят квартиры…[МАРТ СЕМНАДЦАТОГО, Ch 429.]

il ne fallait pas oublier que la Stavka [WM: Russian Military HQ] avait tolere toute cette revolution a seule fin de conserver l’armee intacte pour la guerre. Kornilov ne pouvait-il pas essayer de continer Petrograd de telle sorte que la capitale, si elle n’aidait pas a la guerre, du moins n’y fit pas obstacle? Car toute la contamination se deversait de la-bas, toutes ces bandes se repandaient par les voies ferrees, partout elles menacaient de leurs armes, les braquaient sur les gens, faisaient irruption dans les administrations, brulaient les dossiers, pillaient les appartements…[Dix-Sept Mars, 237.]

At least, do no harm!

In its magnanimous sympathy for the people, the army “tolerated” their little revolt in Petrograd in order to continue the war effort. If they were no longer able to help, couldn’t the masses and the politicians of the capital at least “avoid interfering with” the war?

When War Minister Guchkov, preoccupied with the power struggle, finally took a moment to get in touch with his commander, Alexeyev proudly reported that:

И вот — поехал Корнилов, надо установить порядок в частях петроградского гарнизона…
Однако Гучков — торопится в Совет министров и должен кончить беседу. Но убедительно просит Ставку, убедительно: не принимать суровых мер против участников этих безпорядков — только подольётся масла в огонь и помешает успокоению в Петрограде.
Вот как. А Алексеев-то думал в простоте: хватать эти шайки и
расстреливать…

Kornilov est justement en route: il faut retablir l’ordre dans les unites de la garnison de Petrograd, recenser les absences irregulieres…

Goutchkov, cependant, se hatait de se rendre au Conseil des ministres—il devait interrompre leur entretien. [WM: conversation by telegraph.] Il insistait de la facon la plus pressante pour que la Stavka ne prit pas de mesures trop dures a l’encontre de ceux qui avaient participe a ces desordres; cela ne ferait que jeter de l’huile sur le feu et empecher le calme de revenir a Petrograd!

Ah bon. Et Alexeiev qui, dans sa simplicite d’ame, avait bien l’intention de faire saisir ces bandes et de les coller au mur…[Dix-Sept Mars, 230.]

The Minister of War had politics to take care of; he did not have time to deal with the war. So would the generals please, please avoid interfering with the revolution?

Politicians want top-down rule (as long as they find themselves on the top), and when control is what you want, that is certainly the way to do it. But when the normally quiescent, subservient, short-sighted people decide they actually want change, bottom-up is the way to go. Persuade the troops to vote with their feet and the greatest leader on earth becomes nothing but a guy tripping on his own shoelaces.

Mirrors Evaporate Your Sense of Judgment

I have never heard a logical explanation of why so-called intelligent Wall Street financial hot-shots could not imagine the possibility of a nationwide collapse in housing prices when the country was (so visibly that practically every citizen could see its potential profitability) riding on the slippery surface of a rapidly inflating housing bubble.

The ability of Wall Street traders to see themselves in their success and their management in their failure would later be echoed, when their firms, which disdained the need for government regulation in good times, insisted on being rescued by government in bad times. Success was individual achievement; failure was a social problem. [Michael Lewis, The Big Short (New York: Norton, 2011), 210.]

Democracy Is Hard

Totalitarianism and democracy are conflicting habits, like gobbling sweets and eating nutritiously, with the lazy indulgence in totalitarian thinking (“our way is right, so we are justified in obliterating opposition”) just as insidiously easy to follow as making room for a few more desserts. Nutritious eating and democracy are hard, requiring constant self-policing. To put it differently, only birds seem naturally predisposed to be democratic: fish can relax and float, animals can relax and stand, but birds that relax will fall out of the sky. Birds must maintain the habit of beating their wings, so perhaps they would find it easier to maintain the equally difficult habit of practicing genuine democratic thinking.

Analyzing the mental and legal contortions Czechs have gone through with their post-1989 lustrace policy to purify their body politic of communists, Tina Rosenberg identifies three core concepts in their thinking that betray old totalitarian habits:

First, that a group of the enlightened know that what the masses think they want is often not in their best interest. Second, that the formalities of democracy are often abused by the unscrupulous old guard to maintain their control. Third, that to do battle, the enlightened must discard these formalities as well when the national interest demands. This thinking has gone by another name in this part of the world: Leninism.

Lustrace, designed in the East Bloc’s most Western nation with the admirable purpose of allowing free men to build free societies, does so by abridging freedom: it passes judgment without due process of law on people who have committed no crime, simply because of their membership in groups considered politically unacceptable today.

Like counting every calorie and assessing each ingredient for its nutritional quality, building democracy requires excruciating attention to detail: what did the accused do, what was his intent, what were his constraints, what did he avoid doing? If you ban opponents from politics, will they gain power through financial corruption? Must their incomes then be controlled? Which individuals? What income level? The irresistible force of psychological gravity always tugs us down the slippery slope of doing things the easy way.

In 1989–despite its democratic traditions, Western support, the complete (formal) collapse of the Soviet system, and all the generations of struggle for good governance that constitute the history of modern Europe—Czechoslovakia experienced a new version of “the law as a child:” returning almost to zero and trying yet again to invent the legal framework of a legal system based not on the ruler but the rule of law.

No, It Did Not ‘Come Out of the Blue’

Impossible d’expliquer__________________ en dehors de ce large contexte, ou elle est a la fois construite et prisonniere. [Fernand Braudel, La Mediterranee V.1  (Paris: Armand Colin, 1966, 84)]

Whatever current event or historical phenomenon one is thinking about, if your thinking does not encompass the broader context, your thinking will  be a prisoner of that context.

Governmental Decline

Is the decline into “political senility” and collapse of a government sufficiently probable so that leaders should guard against it, so that citizens should fear it…perhaps more than they fear foreign enemies?

A dynasty goes through different stages and encounters new conditions. Through the conditions that are peculiar to a particular stage, the supporters of the dynasty acquire in that stage traits of character such as do not exist in any other stage. Traits of character are the natural result of the peculiar situations in which they are found….

The first stage is that of success….the ruler serves as model….He does not claim anything exclusively for himself…because…group feeling…gave superiority….

The second stage is the one in which the ruler gains complete control over his people, claims royal authority all for himself….The first members of the dynasty kept strangers away….[The ruler], on the other hand, keeps his relatives away….Thus, he undertakes a very difficult task.

The third stage is one of leisure….The ruler thus [with a powerful military and generous foreign aid] can impress friendly dynasties and frighten hostile ones….

The fourth stage is one of contentment….He adopts the tradition of his predecessors and follows closely in their footsteps….

The fifth stage is one of waste….[the ruler] acquires bad, low-class followers to whom he entrusts the most important matters….In this stage, the dynasty is seized by senility…[Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah – An Introduction to History, Tr. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 141-142.]

While the term “dynasty” is reserved for regimes led by the blood descendants of a single family line, and is thus anachronistic, the substitution of the “government of a state” may not be too broad a revision and thereby allow application of historical patterns to modern regimes. The shift from continuity via a bloodline to continuity via a nationalistic consensus is thus viewed as a political tactic that may impact the timing of the underlying dynamics of growth and decline without changing the fundamental nature of those dynamics. As a further refinement, replace “government of a state” by something like “factional ascendancy,” to allow analysis of the stages of growth of individual factions that achieve long-term control, e.g., the “New Deal coalition” that essentially held power in the U.S. from FDR until the Bush/Cheney Neo-cons. The perhaps inevitable decline of a state may be postponed by the emergence of a reform faction. In sum, we can apply the predictive “growth and decline” model of historical dynasties that has been famous at least since the days of the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun in the 1300s both to predict the survival of the modern state and to the survival of dominant factions. To put it most bluntly, should the leaders of a state or a dominant faction worry, as a person must, about the danger of senility?

Imagining the Poorly Known Adversary

A key principle of effective foreign policy is to make accurate default assumptions about the make-up of an enemy regime. To treat the enemy as evil, homogenous, and unchanging is the most self-defeating mental model imaginable.

…when all Rome was divided into three powerful parties, that of Pompey, that of Caesar, and that of Crassus (for Cato’s reputation was greater than his power, and men admired him more than they followed him), it was the thoughtful and conservative part of the city which attached itself to Pompey, the violent and volatile part which supported the hopes of Caesar, while Crassus took a middle ground and drew from both. [Plutarch, Life of Crassus.]

This classic exemplar of factionalism constitutes a good initial model for analyzing any political system that one does not know. Thus, foreign policy decision-makers attempting to formulate policy toward a poorly known adversary might begin, rather than by assuming a unitary state actor, by assuming that their adversary consisted of three opposing factions warily circling each other in an endless domestic political dance. Such a perspective might be wrong but would almost surely in most cases contain a greater element of truth than the simplistic assumption of a unitary state actor. More, the blind assumption of a tripartite factional structure of the enemy regime would provoke such questions as, “How do we identify a “thoughtful” faction willing to engage in negotiations?” or “How do we undermine a violent faction before it can gain enough influence to cause us harm?” The latter question would lead naturally to consideration of some unilateral show of moderation – not to engage the “violent and volatile part,” men quite likely to reject any offer of compromise, but to provoke the other factions to resist the violent faction’s calls for war.

Noteworthy in Plutarch’s description is the “middle course” of Crassus, a man surely not unique in his lust for gold. Such men are unlikely to sport a “for sale” sign on their backs and may be very difficult to identify from the outside. Assuming they exist is a safe bet and opens the door to designing low-risk economic policies to entice their cooperation.

True History

C’est justement une des fonctions de l’histoire–la principale, a mon sens, — que de corriger systematiquement la tradition selon laquelle un groups humain ordonne sa vie. A elle d’expliquer le present en montrant comment il s’est fait. Si elle refuse cette tache, la societe laissera deriver son attention sur les faux problemes parce que ce sont les plus faciles ou, ce qui revient au meme, elle cedera a la tentation absurde de regarder les problemes les plus graves comme de vieilles questions depuis longtemps reglees. L’histoire, dit Lucien Febvre, “est un moyen d’organiser le passe pour l’empecher de trop peser sur les epaules des hommes.” Les hommes ont besoin d’histoire parce que, sans elle, le passe risquerait de les ecraser. Mais il va de soi que, s’ils ont un rigoureux besoin d’histoire, ils ont besoin d’une histoire regoureusement vraie. Il faut d’abord ouvrir les yeux sur le reel, si inquietant soit-il, pour se mettre en etat d’en ecarter les perils. [Guy Fregault, La Guerre de la Conquete 1754-1760 (Canada: Fides, 2009), 459.]