The Islamic State’s Victory in Vienna

Judging from the official document released by the participants in the Vienna talks on Syria, the Islamic State won a smashing victory simply by sitting on the sidelines watching the international cockfight.

The first two conclusions of the “mutual understanding” resulting from the October 30 Vienna peace talks on Syria expose the fundamental flaw: both points say the same thing – that the “state” is more important to these officials than the “people.” Point 1 calls for preservation of Syria, even though it is precisely the existence of that post-colonial institution that lies at the root of the endless mistreatment of the minorities shoved into it. Point 1 serves the convenience of global leaders eager for stability and influence rather than helping the people who live there. Point 2 calls for the preservation of “state institutions;” in so far as I am aware, the only state institution that currently functions in Syria is Assad’s barrel-bomb war machine. Only with Point 3 is any attention granted those poor people in what used to be called “Syria” who have not yet succeeded in emigrating. And who in this world ever remembers “point 3” of any list?

Whatever may have been accomplished with a wink during lunch, the document these diplomats released gives no hint of anything more than a tragic lowest common denominator sellout of the Syrian people by governments trying to maximize short-term benefits and apparently incapable of imagining creative, positive-sum solutions. The participants in this little meeting should contemplate this: the failure of the Vienna meeting to demonstrate progress constitutes a huge victory for the Islamic State.

This is a curious outcome. If the Islamic State threat does not suffice to focus the minds of global leaders, then exactly what will it take? Certainly, Putin is riding high for the moment, but he could have been happy with consolidating his links to the Allawites, keeping his naval base, and taking home his new position as one of the arbiters of the Mideast. Iran could have been satisfied with its new acceptance by everyone as a member of that arbitration committee, a huge step forward for Iran’s prestige and national security, plus a clear message from Washington that its military presence in some portion of post-Syrian space would be acceptable; from that the U.S. and Iran and Russia could have proceeded to elimiinate their common Islamic State enemy, with the now non-existent Syrian state replaced by Russian, Iranian, Saudi, Kurdish, etc. spheres of influence.

Indeed, this outcome is so obvious given the fear inspired in everyone (except of course the odd couple Erdogan and Assad) by the increasingly well entrenched Islamic State that perhaps, with a wink and a nod, the participants indeed did agree to exactly that but are all just too embarrassed to admit it in public. Well and good, except that agreements kept secret when they should be trumpeted as historic successes just set up the good guys for becoming the road kill of extremists. So, tragically, at the moment, the Islamic State appears to have won a very dangerous victory that can only fill its propaganda machine with new energy.

Whatever the real story of the Vienna meeting, it was handled badly and for that the world will pay.

Helping a Desperate Flea

Should a state help a weak neighbor? In one of the first lessons in his history of China up to his day (Song dynasty), Sima Guang counsels, by implication : Certainly not for the neighbor’s sake, but still…perhaps it could be advantageous to one’s own agenda.

魏 庞 涓 伐 韩。 韩 请 救 于 齐。 齐 威 王 召 大臣 而 谋 曰:“ 蚤 救 孰 与 晚 救?” 成 侯 曰:“ 不如 勿 救。” 田 忌 曰:“ 弗 救 则 韩 且 折 而 入于 魏, 不如 蚤 救 之。” 孙膑 曰:“ 夫 韩、 魏 之兵未 弊 而 救 之, 是 吾 代 韩 受 魏 之兵, 顾 反 听命 于 韩 也。 且 魏 有 破 国 之志, 韩 见 亡, 必 东面 而 诉 于 齐 矣。 吾 因 深 结 韩 之 亲 而 晚 承 魏 之 弊, 则 可受 重利 而得 尊 名 也。” 王 曰:“ 善。” 乃 阴 许 韩 使而 遣 之。 韩 因 恃 齐, 五 战 不胜, 而 东 委 国 于 齐。

[司马光 (2012-11-23). 资治通鉴(1) (Kindle Locations 277-279). . Kindle Edition.]

When the Chinese Warring States period state of Wei threatened tiny Han, Han asked Qi for help. Strategist Sun Bin counseled the Qi king to wait until Han was attacked and turned in desperation to Qi, then to rescue it for the double purpose of enabling him to take revenge against Qi for personal reasons and to achieve fame (presumably for the state, though this is ambiguous). Exactly what kind of “fame” Sun Bin wanted to achieve by this duplicitious behavior may be questioned. By the same token, the purpose that Sima Guang had in selecting this historical vignette from among many for inclusion in his history is equally ambiguous. The sneering nature of the Qi counselors is indicated by their use of the word “flea” [蚤] to describe their Han neighbor.

Multiple lessons can be derived from the broader story, among which is a lesson taught by the personal story of Sun Bin. As a successful strategist in his later years for the state of Qi, he both helped his new state and took revenge for his personal mistreatment in earlier years as an official in Wei, revenge that destroyed the power of Wei. Let the powerful think twice before mistreating subordinates.

Note: This strategic analysis led to the Battle of Maling. For Sima Qian’s account, see the Sun Zi’s Biography in the Shiji.

君臣 之 礼 [Chaos Between Rulers and Officials]

君臣 之 礼 [Chaos between rulers and officials]…the endless lament about those who presume to govern us:

乌呼! 君臣 之 礼 既 坏 矣, 则 天下 以 智力 相 雄 长, 遂 使 圣贤 之后 为 诸侯 者, 社稷 无不 泯 绝, 生民 之类 糜 灭 几 尽, 岂不 哀哉![Sima Kuang 司马光 (2012-11-23). Comprehensive Mirror 资治通鉴(1) (Kindle Locations 42-43).  . Kindle Edition.]

More subtle than the commonly criticized tendency of the powerful to believe that the people exist for their pleasure, rather than that they serve for the people’s benefit, is the cancerous corruption of competition between the leader and the elite—the high officials, local barons, major CEO’s, and generally the super-rich. The elite always strive to select, manipulate, and bribe the leader. Any leader with a spine will naturally struggle for independence, which may serendipitously lead to some benefit for the oppressed if not forgotten masses…albeit perhaps only after centuries (e.g., the Magna Carta contest opening the door to democracy) or to the people becoming grass under the feet of political elephants. This corrupt and self-serving contest of elephants seems independent of time and culture.

“Chaos between rulers and officials!”The endless lament about those who presume to govern us:

乌呼! 君臣 之 礼 既 坏 矣, 则 天下 以 智力 相 雄 长, 遂 使 圣贤 之后 为 诸侯 者, 社稷 无不 泯 绝, 生民 之类 糜 灭 几 尽, 岂不 哀哉![Sima Kuang 司马光 (2012-11-23). Comprehensive Mirror 资治通鉴(1) (Kindle Locations 42-43).  . Kindle Edition.]

More subtle than the commonly criticized tendency of the powerful to believe that the people exist for their pleasure, rather than that they serve for the people’s benefit, is the cancerous corruption of competition between the leader and the elite—the high officials, local barons, major CEO’s, and generally the super-rich. The elite always strive to select, manipulate, and bribe the leader. Any leader with a spine will naturally struggle for independence, which may serendipitously lead to some benefit for the oppressed if not forgotten masses…albeit perhaps only after centuries (e.g., the Magna Carta contest opening the door to democracy) or to the people becoming grass under the feet of political elephants. This corrupt and self-serving contest of elephants seems independent of time and culture.

Austerity for the Poor, Then and Now

The “grandmother of the Russian Revolution,” Yekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya, who spent half a century fighting for justice for Russia’s poor or in jail, came of age as Russian nobles were manipulating the landmark 1861 decision to free the serfs by transforming them from starving slaves into starving “free men,” a process that any “free black” in the U.S. South in the 1870’s would have found very familiar, not to mention the people of Detroit, Greece, Puerto Rico in the current era. After liberation in 1917 (her personal liberation from the Tsarist gulag, that is), Breshko described in her oral memoirs the shock of the newly freed serfs at the betrayal of the rich:

The peasant was free. No longer bound to the land, his landlord ordered him off. He was shown a little strip of the poorest soil, there to be free and starve. He was bewildered; he could not imagine himself without his old plot of land. For centuries past, an estate had always been described as containing so many ‘souls.’ It was sold for so much per ‘soul.’ The ‘soul’ and the plot had always gone together. So the peasant had thought that his soul and his plot would be freed together. In dull but growing rage, he refused to leave his plot of land for the wretched strip. ‘Masters,’ he cried, ‘how can I nourish my little ones through a Russian winter.’^ Such land means death.’ This cry rose all over Russia.

The government appointed in every district an ‘arbiter’ to persuade the peasants. The arbiter failed. Then troops were quartered in their huts, families were starved, old people were beaten by drunkards, daughters were raped. The peasants grew more wild, and then began the flogging. In a village near ours, where they refused to leave their plots, they were driven into line on the village street; every tenth man was called out and flogged with the knout; some died. Two weeks later, as they still held out, every fifth man was flogged. The poor ignorant creatures still held desperately to what they thought their rights; again the line, and now every man was dragged forward to the flogging. This process went on for five years all over Russia, until at last, bleeding and exhausted, the peasants gave in. [Breshko-Breshkovskaia, Ekaterina Konstantinovna Verigo, 1844-1934. [from old catalog]; Blackwell, Alice Stone, 1857-1950; Catt, Carrie Chapman, 1859-1947, former owner. DLC [from old catalog]; National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection (Library of Congress) DLC [from old catalog]. The little grandmother of the Russian revolution; reminiscences and letters of Catherine Breshkovsky (Kindle Locations 254-259). Boston, Little, Brown, and company.]

Of course, there is a difference between austerity for the poor in the 1860s and in the second decade of our highly civilized 21st century. In that time long past, the poor and the sympathetic intellectual had an answer for oppression by the rich: revolution.

Leaders, Not Dissidents, Make Revolutions

Le cardinal de Richelieu avait affecté d’abaisser les corps, mais il n’avait pas oublié de ménager les particuliers. Cette idée suffit pour vous faire concevoir tout le reste. Ce qu’il y eut de merveilleux fut que tout contribua à le tromper et à se tromper soi-même. Il y eut toutefois des raisons naturelles de cette illusion ; et vous en avez vu quelques-unes dans la disposition où je vous ai marqué ci-devant qu’il avait trouvé les affaires, les corps et les particuliers du royaume ; mais il faut avouer que cette illusion fut très extraordinaire, et qu’elle passa jusques à un grand excès. Le dernier point de l’illusion, en matière d’État, est une espèce de léthargie, qui n’arrive jamais qu’après de grands symptômes. Le renversement des anciennes lois, l’anéantissement de ce milieu qu’elles ont posé entre les peuples et les rois, l’établissement de l’autorité purement et absolument despotique, sont ceux qui ont jeté originairement la France dans les convulsions dans lesquelles nos pères l’ont vue. Le cardinal de Richelieu la vint traiter comme un empirique, avec des remèdes violents, qui lui firent paraître de la force, mais 3une force d’agitation qui en épuisa le corps et les parties. Le cardinal Mazarin, comme un médecin très inexpérimenté, ne connut point son abattement. Il ne le soutint point par les secrets chimiques de son prédécesseur ; il continua de l’affaiblir par des saignées : elle tomba en léthargie, et il fut assez malhabile pour prendre ce faux repos pour une véritable santé. Les provinces, abandonnées à la rapine des surintendants, demeuraient abattues et assoupies sous la pesanteur de leurs maux, que les secousses qu’elles s’étaient données de temps en temps, sous le cardinal de Richelieu, n’avaient fait qu’augmenter et qu’aigrir. Les parlements, qui avaient tout fraîchement gémi sous sa tyrannie, étaient comme insensibles aux misères présentes, par la mémoire encore trop vive et trop récente des passées. Les grands, qui pour la plupart avaient été chassés du royaume, s’endormaient paresseusement dans leurs lits, qu’ils avaient été ravis de retrouver. Si cette indolence générale eût été ménagée, l’assoupissement eût peut-être duré plus longtemps ; mais comme le médecin ne le prenait que pour un doux sommeil, il n’y fit aucun remède. Le mal s’aigrit ; la tête s’éveilla : Paris se sentit, il poussa des soupirs ; l’on n’en fit point de cas : il tomba en frénésie. [Cardinal de Retz, Memoires.]

A series of minor events can invisibly construct a revolution, each event preparing the way for a new and slightly more serious step. From the outside, these tiny changes, appearing either invisible or separate from each other and thus apparently of no long-term consequence–are ignored altogether or noted only in passing and then forgotten; it is so much easier to ignore details than to inquire endlessly into whether or not some long list of details appearing over a prolonged period of time together constitute something of significance. Is not the significance of all these trivial events precisely that not one of them amounted to anything? Perhaps, but not likely: politics is a complex adaptive phenomenon, not amenable to reductive reasoning. Cardinal Retz, in modern parlance, is portraying Richelieu as a master capable of seeing the complexity of reality and Mazarin as but a simple schemer capable perhaps of brilliant manipulation of the political game of the moment but–crippled reductionist thinker  that–to Retz at least–he was, blind to the long-term underlying dynamics.

The Cardinal’s summary of the causes of the Fronde revolt–a classic example of the long-term damage resulting from war, the insidious undermining of society resulting from bad government, and the harm that results from putting power in the hands of the blindly arrogant–constitute a good start for an explanation of many of history’s political disasters:

on ne doit rechercher la cause de la révolution que je décris que dans le dérangement des lois, qui a causé insensiblement celui des esprits, et qui fit que devant que l’on se fût presque aperçu du changement, il y avait déjà un parti. Il est constant qu’il n’y en avait pas un de tous ceux qui opinèrent dans le cours de cette année, au Parlement et dans les autres compagnies souveraines, qui eût la moindre vue, je ne dis pas seulement de ce qui s’en ensuivit, mais de ce qui en pouvait suivre. Tout se disait et tout se faisait dans l’esprit des procès ; et comme il avait l’air de la chicane, il en avait la pédanterie, dont le propre essentiel est l’opiniâtreté, directement opposée à la flexibilité, qui de toutes les qualités est la plus nécessaire pour le maniement des grandes affaires. [Retz.]

While the Cardinal may have been as arrogant and self-serving a politician as any of the other actors who manipulated affairs leading up to the Fronde for their own benefit at the expense of the common good, at least he left behind some thought-provoking memoirs with considerable contemporary relevance.

The Invisible Staircase of Small Event Series

Pendant ces six semaines d’absence, il s’était passé en France tant de petites choses qu’elles avaient presque composè un grand événement. [Alexandre Dumas, Vingt Ans Apres, 250.]

A series of pebbles linked by cause and effect so B builds upon A can be as significant as a single mountain…and with the additional significant trait that perhaps no one will notice–and thus no one will oppose–the rising influence of the staircase of pebbles; the mountain may be as high but invisible. A series of small events may go unnoticed because most observers will assume that after each individually insignificant event, the situation will “return to normal.” If, instead, each event causes a change in behavior that prepares the way for a new change that would otherwise have been less likely to occur, then the result will be: surprise!

The Expediency of Justice

Words carry cultural, philosophical, ideological overtones far more significant than their bare, stripped down dictionary definitions, the term “justice” being one of the most loaded. From the Western democratic perspective, a very short-lived and geographically marginalized perspective (as Solzhenitsyn has pointed out) not to mention being a concept that no state has ever managed to implement, “justice” is defined from near the individual extreme of a political continuum that reaches a social extreme at the other end. The historical roots of this view, which 21st century Westerners are mostly content to take credit for may well extend back to early Christian days. In any case, the contemporary view in a U.S. that likes to forget how recently it has accepted anything remotely resembling individual rights (the morality of slavery split the nation to the point of nearly provoking self-destruction only 150 years ago and only that battle paved the way to ending the economic slavery of restricting voting rights to those with property and the sexual slavery of restricting voting rights to men, while the rich in the U.S. in 2010 won a historic battle to reverse centuries of struggle and legalize the purchase of elections) is so far over on the individual end of the continuum that it is constantly necessary to remind people that individual liberty does not confer the right to poison the commons or ignore the rights of other individuals, be they fellow drivers or victims of an oil corporation’s poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico.

There is of course an alternative perspective, as implied by the existence of a continuum, and that, to simplify the already simplified view of a single continuum into a neat, black vs. white choice, is to place society firmly ahead of the individual. (How some faction is to be selected to define the “needs of society” once the individuals in that society are denied that right is a second-stage question not to be addressed here.) Other continua may well be more important in evaluating the concept of justice than the choice between individual and society; for example, one might argue that the most important choice is between conflict resolution by discussion vs. force truly lies at the foundation of any structure of justice. In any case, those who put society first have a very different definition of justice than those who put the individual first, and when members of these two groups talk to each other, the delicate ship of communication is likely to founder on the sharp reef of how each implicitly, if not secretly, defines “justice.”

Потому не нужны юридические тонкости, что не приходится выяснять — виновен подсудимый или невиновен: понятие виновности, это старое буржуазное понятие, вытравлено теперь (стр. 318).

Итак, мы услышали от товарища Крыленки, что Революционный Трибунал — это не тот суд! В другой раз мы услышим от него, что Трибунал — это вообще не суд: «Трибунал есть орган классовой борьбы рабочих, направленный против их врагов» и должен действовать «с точки зрения интересов Революции… имея в виду наиболее желательные для рабочих и крестьянских масс результаты» (стр. 73).

Люди не есть люди, а «определённые носители определённых идей». «Каковы бы ни были индивидуальные качества [подсудимого], к нему может быть применим только один метод оценки: это — оценка с точки зрения классовой целесообразности» (стр. 79).

То есть ты можешь существовать, только если это целесообразно для рабочего класса. А «если эта целесообразность потребует, чтобы карающий меч обрушился на головы подсудимых, то никакие… убеждения словом не помогут» (стр. 81), — ну, там доводы адвокатов и т.д. «В нашем революционном суде мы руководствуемся не статьями и не степенью смягчающих обстоятельств; в Трибунале мы должны исходить из соображений целесообразности» (стр. 524).

В те годы многие вот так: жили-жили, вдруг узнали, что существование их — нецелесообразно. [Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 287-288.]

The reason that fine points of jurisprudence are unnecessary is that there is no need to clarify whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty: the concept of guilt is an old bourgeois concept which has now been uprooted…

“A tribunal is an organ of the class struggle of the workers directed against their enemies” and must act “from the point of view of the interests of the revolution…having in mind the most desirable results for the masses of workers and peasants.” People are not people but “carriers of specific ideas.” “No matter what the individual qualities [of the defendant], only one method of evaluating him is to be applied: evaluation from the point of view of class expediency.”

In other words, you can exist only if it’s expedient for the working class. And if “this expediency should require that the avenging sword should fall on the head of the defendants, then no…verbal arguments can help. (Such as arguments by lawyers, etc.) “In our revolutionary court we are guided not by articles of the law and not by the degree of extenuating circumstances; in the tribunal we must proceed on the basis of coonsiderationsn of expediency.

That was the way it was in those years: people lived and breathed and then suddenly found out that their existence was inexpedient. [Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Arch

The Bolshevik thinking portrayed here by Solzhenitsyn lays out bluntly their stunning (to a naively modern Western democrat) dismissal of individual rights, but the Bolsheviks had it wrong in calling individual justice a bourgeois concept. Anyone is in principle capable of understanding the idea of individual rights, from Christians in Rome’s catacombs to a slave seeking freedom like the eloquent Frederick Douglass. In practice, it is not entirely clear what enables one to differentiate right from wrong or to visualize distinctions between liberty and oppression or to seize abstract visions of “justice” and apply them appropriately to real life. Perhaps the key to achieving that is simply to know that fundamentally different assumptions about the meaning of certain common words underlies one’s definitions. It is not just the Bolsheviks who defined “justice” in ways most Americans today would consider alien.