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This is my second follow-up post to The Belief Matrix, in which I attempted to advance a universal model for civilizational responses to subsistence crises (The Malthusian Loop) and the Western challenge (The Sisyphean Loop). This time I will look at Germany, a nation that was always torn between its hard-assimilated Roman / Western identity, and German Romanticism – the nativist reaction against the “Idea of the West” (as previously loosely-defined, a set of concepts like the scientific method, rule of law, economic rationalism, and liberalism).

Before World War One, Germany was a confident, expanding power, but one wracked by insecurity. It was encircled by France and Russia on land, and contained by Great Britain at sea. The increasing cooperation between those three nations reinforced Germany’s suspicions and made it resentful about being denied its rightful place in the sun (all the best colonies had already been snapped up by the time Germany came to the imperialist game). In retrospect, much has been made of the balefulness of the Prussian militarist tradition, the influence of German nationalist groups, and the Kaiser’s bombastic antebellum rhetoric as one of the enabling factors of Germany’s Sonderweg. However, one should also note that in 1900 Germans enjoyed a higher level of adult enfranchisement than the British (22% versus 18% of the population, albeit with the caveat that the Reichstag’s powers were far more circumscribed) and that the anti-war Social Democrats won 34.8% in 1912.

The Teutonic Spirit

That said, imperial Germany was different from the Western liberalisms (Great Britain, France and the US) – not even so much in its political economy, an uneasy fusion of “Western” industrialism and “Eastern” autocracy, but also in its reflection in the psychological make-up of the German people, whose defining trait is a constant internal struggle between “civilized” Roman values (Rationalism / “The Idea of the West”) and “barbarian” Teutonic instinct. From Peter Viereck’s Metapolitics: From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler, first published in 1941 (well into WW2):

Almost every major German figure bears within himself both sides of this contrast. That is why German thinkers and bards talk more of “two souls in one breast” than do the thinkers of any national culture. . . . They treat their souls as a fond mother treats an enfant terrible: scolding yet egging on. That may make them “geniuses” and “daemonic,” but this inner conflict over the Roman wall is not always so harmless. Sometimes it is psychologically accompanied by projection, fanaticism, hysteria, instability, delusions of persecution plus persecution of others, and convulsive outbursts of physical violence.

He quotes Gustav Pauli:

Romanticism is Germanic and reached its purest expression in those territories which are freest from Roman colonization. Everything that is regarded as an essential aspect of the romantic spirit, irrationalism, the mystic welding together of subject and object, the tendency to intermingle the arts, the longing for the far-away and the strange, the feeling for the infinite and the continuity of historic development.

There are many more interesting musing on the Teutonic character, particularly in his thesis that the “schizoid polarity in German minds” is not inconsistent with the “German craving for discipline, authority, ruthless order”, since “the excessive and traditional discipline by the German state” is but the “the direct product of the excessive lack of inner discipline of the individual German”, that is, of “their intoxication with chaos, their Faustian romanticism”.

And since “nothing is more typical of the chaotic romantic temperament than this very attempt to escape from itself into the prison of limitless authoritarianism”, this leads to the German “worship [of] a prison-camp type of state with fanatic hysteria so long as it saves each of them, as romantic individuals, from his inner mental and emotional anarchy”. (Hence leading to the rejection of traditional ethics, focused on the individual, in favor of the adulation of the “organic”, all-powerful state. )

Fukuyama on Germany at the start of the war in The End of History:

In Germany, above all, the war was seen by many as a revolt against the materialism of the commercial world created by France and that archetype of bourgeois societies, Britain… But in reading German justifications for the war, one is struck by a consistent emphasis on the need for a kind of objectless struggle, a struggle that would have purifying moral effects quite independently of whether Germany gained colonies or won freedom of the seas…

The Reich Loop within the Belief Matrix

Above is the application of the Belief Matrix model to German history in the 20th C. Note the changes / improvement of terms from the previous model. On the horizontal axis, the Acceptance (of tradition) was replaced by Sobornost – a catch-all term for a deep sense of internal peace and unity between races, religions, sexes, etc, within a society, or in the words of Russian philosopher Nikolai Lossky, “the combination of freedom and unity of many persons on the basis of their common love for the same absolute values”. A good example of such a society would be the 1950′s-1960′s United States, when inequality was (relatively) low, people left the keys in their car doors and there were (as yet) few hippies / feminists / commies / etc to disturb the peace.

Its opposite, formerly Rejection (of tradition), is Poshlost, which according to different commentators is “petty evil or self-satisfied vulgarity”, “triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and a lack of spirituality”, “not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive”, and “corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature”. This is again a good catch-all term for categorizing declining cultures that had lost their belief in themselves, such as Weimar Germany or 1990′s Russia.

On the vertical axis, I replaced the vague Belief in the West / Anti-West (vague because the “Idea of the West”, which is what I meant by using the “West” in this context in previous posts, is not altogether synonymous with specific “Western” countries such as France or the US) with Rationalism (“The Idea of the West” / liberalism / Mediterranean / Greco-Roman civilization / Enlightenment ideal, – NOT necessarily democracy, which in Aristotle’s original conception is the tyranny of the many, and is if anything closer to sobornost than to rationalism – i.e., democracy is perpendicular to liberalism, the two being rather difficult to reconcile) and Romanticism (“irrationalism, the mystic welding together of subject and object, the tendency to intermingle the arts, the longing for the far-away and the strange, the feeling for the infinite and the continuity of historic development”, the sublime, etc – much like postmodernism, it is very hard to define, for definition is contrary to its very spirit).

The Genesis of the Modern Reich Loop

In 1914, a confident, growing Great Power – albeit one beset by labor unrest, social tensions and an acute sense of strategic weakness – rushed into a world war that it was, by most counts, responsible for (it declared war on Russia first and invaded Belgium). This was the first total war of the modern age and decidedly shaped the destiny of the coming century:

After the failure of the Spring Offensive in 1918 and the introduction of fresh, well-equipped American troops, backed by the world’s first industrial power, Germany’s surrender was probably inevitable; by the end of the year, its home front in collapse. The enemy blockade had cut off vital imports such as phosphates for agriculture, fuelled massive inflation (ersatz substitutes could no longer cope) and stirred social discontent… Nationalists would reinterpret the German request for an armistice in November 1918 as a perfidious “stab in the back” by Jews, socialists and civilian politicians – the so-called “November criminals”, and this myth would later contribute to the rise of Hitler.

This was part of the general post-war disillusionment. Gloomy poems and art… war cripples; veterans unable to adjust to civilian life; socialist agitation and right-wing reaction; Spengler’s The Decline of the West; the feeling that it was all for nothing: these are some of the things characterizing the post-war period.In Germany, the once-high fertility rate fell by half within just a decade from 1914 to the 1920’s; until then, a uniquely rapid demographic transition.

The Treaty of Versailles and resulting political turmoil pushed Germans into the top-left part of the Belief Matrix – the Region of Disillusionment. Yet the lack of belief that characterizes the Region of Disillusionment makes it profoundly unstable. The tortured souls caught up in there cannot resist the Romantic seduction of a Great March back to the right of the Belief Matrix, back to sobornost, to save themselves from their “inner mental and emotional anarchy”.

Though the Weimar Republic temporarily stabilized after 1924 under the stewardship of Gustav Stresemann, who brought about a short bout of economic prosperity and reconciliation with the Western powers, this was cut short by the Depression – which comprehensively discredited the Weimar project for a second time in a decade. Add in the political instability inherent of the Weimar system of democracy, the popular fear of Communism and the underlying Romantic / totalitarian tendencies in German society*, and ultimately it is not that surprising that the Nazis ended up coming to power by 1933. * Again from Viereck:

Mein Kampf was a bestseller long before the German people, voting uncoerced in the free Reichstag election of September 1930, increased the Nazi seats from 12 to 107 and made them the biggest party in Germany. By then, Hitler had said in Mein Kampf (to pick a typical threat at random): “If at the start [of World War I] we had held under poison gas twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew subverters of our people… then the sacrifice of a million Germans at the front would not have been in vain.

The Descent into Nazism – “The Wagnerian Volk-Mysticism of Metapolitics”**

One undeniable achievement of the Nazis was that they restored a sense of self-belief to the German people, but one based on racialist fanaticism on the top-right of the belief matrix, where Romantic mysticism is wedded to sobornost. In the top-right of the Belief Matrix, despotisms arise.

** This summation of the spirit of Nazism comes from Viereck, as does the passage below:

Painfully, over eons, civilization stamps its traditional and conservative values on men. Only within these values, or traffic lights, are freedom and objective justice possible. One by one Hitler efficiently smashes the traffic lights of the “common basis of humanity”. With them, freedom and objective justice effectively vanish in Germany. Nazism scorns personal freedom and objectivity and all universal, unnational values as being the “superficial” civilization of the sunny Mediterranean, in contrast with the “deeper” Kultur of northern fogs, that misty metapolitics, that “queer mixture of mysticism and brutality”.

From Rumor and Reflection, Bernard Berenson – written in February 1942.

Nazism is an attempt on the part of Germany to Asiatize itself completely, destroying and eradicating everything in itself that spells Europe, which Europe is equivalent to Mediterranean. It began with the easiest to accomplish, the wholesale massacre of the Jews, always the spearhead of Mediterranean civilization.

From Goebbels:

National Socialism has understood how to take the soulless framework of technology and fill it with the rhythm and hot impulses of our time.

Götterdämmerung 1945.

As a geopolitical power in its own right, much like the German states after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – Germany ceased to matter as a sovereign Great Power.

The Rediscovery of Rationalism

During the 1950′s-1970′s, denazification and the re-imposition of rationalism (liberal democracy in the West, socialist democracy in the East) plunged Germany to the bottom-right, the only area on the belief matrix where liberal democracy can effectively thrive in the long-term, kept inside by the centripetal forces of liberty cycles. Both halves found a new prosperity. In the West, there was a Wirtschaftswunder, enabled by the Marshall Plan, economic deregulation, cheap energy and the possibility of rapid convergence to US / British levels of GDP per capita because of the wartime destruction of its industrial base. The return to sobornost, which the Nazis made possible, ironically reinforced Germany’s ultimate reconciliation with rationalism.

[German historical TFR (total fertility rate) on thick line - since children could be considered a rough indicator of confidence in its future, demography may offer an insight into the state of a society's belief in itself. The beginning of the drop from the 1890's is a natural fertility transition due to urbanization and greater female literacy, but the post-WW1 drop is unprecedentedly rapid and corresponds to a period of poshlost. It recovered somewhat during prewar Nazism and postwar democracy, before plunging again from the late 1960's to sub-replacement level rates - where they remain to this date].

However, the situation in West Germany changed radically from the late 1960′s (see Belief Matrix graph) as economic growth slowed, fertility began to decline rapidly and there appeared new concerns like environmentalism and German historical guilt re-the Holocaust. West Germans began to move to the left on the Belief Matrix, losing faith in their nation. This transition took longer to begin in East Germany, but after the collapse of socialism in the late 1980′s, the sense of disillusionment there was vastly greater, as its newly-discovered freedoms were accompanied by demographic collapse, deindustrialization and disrespect from the “Besser-Wessis”. Despite the limitations on political and civil rights under the GDR, significant numbers of East Germans believe life under was it better – and pine for the return of the sobornost it ultimately represented [my emphasis].

Today, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 57 percent, or an absolute majority, of eastern Germans defend the former East Germany. “The GDR had more good sides than bad sides. There were some problems, but life was good there,” say 49 percent of those polled. Eight percent of eastern Germans flatly oppose all criticism of their former home and agree with the statement: “The GDR had, for the most part, good sides. Life there was happier and better than in reunified Germany today.” …

… “From today’s perspective, I believe that we were driven out of paradise when the Wall came down,” one person writes, and a 38-year-old man “thanks God” that he was able to experience living in the GDR, noting that it wasn’t until after German reunification that he witnessed people who feared for their existence, beggars and homeless people.

… “In the past, a campground was a place where people enjoyed their freedom together,” he says. What he misses most today is “that feeling of companionship and solidarity.” The economy of scarcity, complete with barter transactions, was “more like a hobby.” Does he have a Stasi file? “I’m not interested in that,” says Schön. “Besides, it would be too disappointing.”

… People lie and cheat everywhere today, he says, and today’s injustices are simply perpetrated in a more cunning way than in the GDR, where starvation wages and slashed car tires were unheard of. Schön cannot offer any accounts of his own bad experiences in present-day Germany. “I’m better off today than I was before,” he says, “but I am not more satisfied.”

Schön’s reasoning is less about cool logic than it is about settling scores. What makes him particularly dissatisfied is “the false picture of the East that the West is painting today.” …

In other words, belief is necessary for national survival, whereas freedom is tangential. You don’t even have to ask the East Germans, looking at their fertility rates is enough.

(And in a sense, that describes pretty much all of Europe. In modern societies, it is not individually rational to have more than one or at most two children. The long-term result, barring a technological silver bullet like artificial wombs or robots, is an accelerating national decline and possibly collapse – or the reversal of the very same rational values that made the demographic collapse possible in the first place. Better hope the reversal will not be an overcompensation, e.g. fascism or religious fundamentalism).

Return to the Reich?

Today, Germany is in a strange and unusual position – though it is almost certainly locked into secular decline, it has been unshackled from its long strategic dormancy imposed by the Cold War superpower.

Germany has one of the world’s most advanced industrial economies, but is uncomfortably reliant on manufactured exports to provide the savings needed to sustain its welfare state and rapidly aging population. Speaking of which, its fertility rate has fallen to well below replacement level rates of 2.1 children per woman in the early 1970′s – one of the earliest such fertility transitions (and predating Russia’s by 20 years, which is the reason Russia has some chances of recovery in the next few years). Amazingly, every single year since 1972 saw fewer babies born in West Germany than in 1946, just one year after a crushing defeat and military occupation (the equivalent year for East Germany is 1990).

Furthermore, Germany is the only place in Europe (with the sole exception of culturally-similar Austria), where even the desired TFR is at a sub-replacement level of 1.8 (real TFR is 1.4). Nor is immigration a solution given the sheer scale of the influx needed to maintain current working-age populations and German xenophobia. Projecting to 2050, it would need annual immigration of 487,000 people just to keep the labor size constant and 810,000 to maintain a 3:1 ratio between workers and retirees. This is politically unrealistic. So bearing in mind that Germans have not been reproducing themselves for a full generation now (and have no desire to start doing so) and the infeasibility of large-scale immigration, this means that Germany’s chances of solving its demographic problems in the foreseeable future are next to zero.

Will the world continue to soak up German exports? Probably not as much as before, because of the impending dangers to globalization from peak oil and geopolitical disruptions. (Although one advantage Germany does have is in its strengths in energy efficiency, which constitutes a powerful comparative advantage in a world of soaring energy costs). Even as state revenues drop as the labor force shrinks, welfare demands will increase (e.g. old-age pensions, which already took up 11.8% of the GDP in 2000).

The Bundeswehr is of Cold War vintage, designed to fight a traditional Great Power war on the North European Plain, but with as yet minimal power projection capabilities. (Not that Germany, a mostly land-locked nation with a minimal colonial heritage, would even be able to do much with it). France will lock up the immense energy and fertilizer reservoirs of North Africa, and it will not be interested in sharing its (relative) energy and demographic bounties with a weakening Germany. The world’s major maritime powers will joust in a new scramble for Africa; Sweden looks set to regain its old status as the predominant Baltic Power; and there is little point in surmounting the Alps to expand into Italy.

Facing a subpar energy future, the loss of export markets in a protectionist world, a rapid demographic decline, and an unprecedented fiscal crisis, Berlin will again look east – as it so often has in the past in times of stress. It is in its strategic interests to draw closer to Moscow, given the mutual desirability of setting up a bilateral relationship based on trading Russian commodities (natural gas) for German machine tools and technology, as occurred so often in the past. (For instance, in the Treaty of Rappallo (1922), the two international pariahs signed a peace agreement, forgave each other’s debts and signed a free trade accord. Russia also helped Germany circumvent the Treaty of Versailles by allowing Germany to use its territory to continue military-related R&D and weapons testing, far from the prying eyes of Western spies). Furthermore, Russia could use a neutral-to-friendly Germany as a shield to consolidate its power in the post-Soviet space.

As so often happened in the past, Poland will fall in the way of this Russo-German relationship. Russia is interested in pushing American influence out of East-Central Europe, converting the region into a neutral buffer for its empire. Germany will be interested in furthering its economic penetration of the region, given the losses of some of its other export markets, and in preventively blocking Russia’s further expansion into Europe proper; in addition, there’s also its traditional craving for more Lebensraum.

However, Poland will be supported directly by France, which has a direct interest in guaranteeing its sovereignty in order to prevent the rise of a German-dominated Europe (or a contiguous Russo-German bloc, which would amount to the same thing); and despite its likely retreat from Eurasian power politics in the face of mounting domestic problems, the US too will likely contribute to Polish security (preventing the rise of a Eurasian hegemon will still figure amongst Washington’s priorities). Interestingly, Britain will probably try to maintain neutrality and good relations with all sides: its desire to support France and Poland in order to avoid a united European hegemon, will be counterbalanced by its growing energy dependence on Russia.

The future shape of the post-Pax Americana Europe is already taking shape:

First, Germany is beginning to close ranks at home, and not in terms of political parties. During the past year, rhetoric in the press and among politicians has shifted inexorably away from such modern values as multiculturalism. This is partially due to growing dissatisfaction with Schroeder’s government, but there also are glimpses of something darker. For instance, after state elections in Schleswig-Holstein brought a small ethnic Danish party to power Feb. 20, party leaders found themselves the target of hundreds of threats — some from public figures — of which some of the more polite noted that “what is legal is not always legitimate.”

Countries under stress tend to pull together, and that often can mean identifying outsiders in their midst. The German economy has not performed well for 15 years. It is now in its third recession since 2001, unemployment has reached a 73-year high, and beginning in 2006, changes in social welfare laws mean that literally millions of Germans will cease to receive benefits payments. If these realities do spark some kind of social backlash, it could prove significant that Germany hosts Europe’s largest Turkish population and immigrants from a smattering of many other nationalities. There are plenty of outsiders to choose from.

Second, Berlin is resuscitating relations with Moscow. Germany is Russia’s largest energy and trade customer, and the Schroeder government has gone to great pains to push that relationship even further. Alone among European and NATO states, Germany has kept mum during the recent goings-on in Ukraine, and it alone is standing aside even as the rest of the West is pursuing a broad geopolitical advance throughout all of Russia’s former provinces.

A German-Russian alignment is not only logical in a geopolitical sense, but relations have a long way to grow before hitting any natural constraints. Though the two fought each other bitterly during World War II, it is often forgotten that they cooperated deeply until they actually bordered each other. Right now, there are a dozen countries in the zone of territory between them — broadly the same countries that were there in 1939, when Molotov and Ribbentrop decided to carve out the future.

After 60 years in a geopolitical coma, Germany is not just turning a page, it is beginning to write a new book. This in no way means that Germany is doomed to return to its fascist past, but neither is it a foregone conclusion that the Germany of the future will be an American ally, a British ally or especially a French ally (in fact, the past 60 years are the only period in which Paris and Berlin have seen eye-to-eye).

Where Germany will evolve is anyone’s guess: For all practical purposes, Berlin is only now waking up. A new balance of power must now be crafted. At present, Germany and Russia are both feeling quite unsettled, and some 21st-century version of the Treaty of Rapallo appears to be in the cards. That does not mean war is inevitable.

What is inevitable is change. The least likely result of a major power emerging at the heart of a continent is business as usual. And if history is any guide, Germany’s re-emergence during the next few years will slam into Europe with all the subtlety of, well, the German army.

Germany is a spiritually bifurcated and psychologically tortured nation; though it played a major role in manufacturing the Faustian world of machines, rationalism and the intellect, it is safe to say that a nation which produced the likes of Nietzsche, Spengler and Heidegger possesses a profoundly mystical soul, and secretly yearns to return to its past-and-future despite the ostensible comfort of its material surroundings. The imposition of liberalism on its soil was artificial, not organic, and its social effects have been disastrous of late.

Furthermore, Germany is now facing an unprecedented set of challenges stemming from its economic malaise, demographic collapse and the imminent global energy crisis. The USSR has retreated, NATO is retreating, and the US itself will soon follow; as the last constraint, the EU looks strong, but at its heart it is nothing more than a paper tiger (a very big one, admittedly) that will likely dissolve in the upheavals ahead, leaving behind only a glorified free trade zone, if that.

Germany is now becoming an increasingly free actor in Europe, free to follow its own optimal geopolitical strategy. Although it is now relatively pacifist and militarily weak, but history shows that can metamorphose with unsettling rapidity – just compare the Germany of 1929 with the Germany of 1939. Then as now, momentous change is on its way. This is not to imply that it will become fascist or even abandon its current political system (though those are distinct possibilities), but it will become more a more illiberal, authoritarian and expansionist state.

The return of the Reich is nigh.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Consequent to my post Categorizing the Russia Debate and the lively debate it spawned, it occurred to me that much of Russia’s tortured and intriguing history could be rationalized as a self-reinforcing loop within a belief matrix. This can even be extended further to many other societies – I will also have similar posts up for a) Germany’s “Reich cycles”, b) America’s “liberty cycles” and c) the continuous “radical redefining of terms” that characterized Soviet history from 1914 to 1953. Here I will focus on outlining my theoretical framework (the concept of a belief matrix); then I will post about how it can be applied to different societies.

My assumption is that societies can be defined along two axes – their degree of ease with themselves, and with the West. By the latter, I mean specifically the Idea of the West: acceptance of the scientific method; rule of law; economic rationalism; and liberalism. An important semantic point is that these should not be conflated with “Western countries” (the US, the UK, France, etc); though they have, by most measures, internalized the Idea of the West to a far greater extent than most other cultures, they cannot ever reach unity with it because they are, at root, organic, human societies, whereas the Idea of the West is an absolute.

The other axis denotes how content a civilization is with its traditions. The default steady state is acceptive; though occasionally challenged by dissidents who reject tradition, society is characterized by a state of sobornost – a deep sense of spiritual harmony amongst classes, regions, races and sexes. Or as my definition of Russophilia goes, they understand, accept, forgive and unconditionally love their community / nation. This can break down when a culture is faced with unexpected challenges, such as Malthusian crises in the pre-industrial era or contact with the West (or rather its manifestations in British gunships and American multinational companies) in the modern era. In the latter case, society typically enthusiastically embraces the trappings of the West and rejects its own traditions, after viewing them from the Western frame of reference. This causes severe internal dislocations, leading to disillusionment and culminating in a vehement rejection of Western values, to an extent impossible in its absense. One can view Bolshevism, Nazism, fascism and radical Islamism as extreme forms of this rejection (and by rejection, implicit acceptance), relying as they do on Western technics in their attempts to recreate an imagined past.

The “Western countries” are unique in that somehow or other they have succeeded in substantially imprinting the Idea of the West onto their own traditions. This is much harder than it sounds. The scientific method is alien and unfamiliar to the peasant mind filled with images of rain gods and trickster demons. The rule of law cannot sit well in human societies traditionally reliant on communal coercion, “big man” influence and sacrificial scapegoating. Economic rationalism is anathema to subsistence societies, characterized as they are by reciprocal, socially-determined networks of gifts. Market forces, by destroying this communal spirit, would tear these societies apart, hence the universal disdain for merchants, usury, etc, typical of all rural pre-industrial societies (e.g. see Aristotle discovers the economy, Karl Polanyi). And liberalism (rights for all, including minorities) frequently stands in opposition to democracy (the generally anti-market, conformist will of the people).

It is probably no surprise that capitalism and liberalism historically developed most vigorously in the United States, with its abundant high-quality land and scarce labor yielding massive per capita surpluses. The Idea of the West first appeared in the “West” because of the region’s inheritance of Latin (law) and Germanic (customs) traditions, favorable geographic factors (long coastlines, good rivers and fertile, varied climes) and comparatively successful control of population pressures (through fertility suppression – West Europeans married later and had fewer children than most other civilizations, and later outmigration to their colonies). That said, it should be emphasized that even here relations between the West and tradition were uneasy and factitious; as I emphasize again, the Idea of the West is an ideal which humans can only aspire to, but never reach unity with.

Having laid out the basic concepts, it is now time to look at two general cases of human socio-spiritual dynamics: Malthusian (what happens to belief systems when a traditional society exceeds the carrying capacity of the land and begins to fall apart?) and Western (what happens to traditional societies when they come into contact with the West?). Both begin at the same place.

State of Stasis

At first, society is in a state of stasis, of sobornost. As in all traditional societies the individual submits to the communal will and the sovereign will (the Lord, the Emperor, Allah, etc)… and is all the happier for it. From Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

Hard to comprehend for an individualistic Westerner, perhaps. But this is the way most people lived throughout the eons of human existence. Stadtluft macht frei?? Perhaps Arbeit macht frei isn’t so far off the mark.

(Here I would rush to add the caveat that this only applies to communal work where everyone partakes and lacks knowledge of and is too unimaginative to imagine any “better” alternative, such as aristocratic indolence or financial speculation. This is patently not the case in industrial societies and explains the failure of totalitarian attempts to go back to the future).

The Malthusian Loop

Before the industrial era, all societies were subject to Malthusian dynamics in which population growth saturated the carrying capacity of the land and leveled off at an unstable plateau. The period of high growth was typically regarded as a Golden Age of bucolic virtue (e.g. republican Rome), which I’ve labeled The Rise of Empire. Because of limits to growth, this could not last. Subsistence stress resulted in the growth of cities and large standing armies to soak up the landless poor, and literate bureaucrats to manage the new problems. Paradoxically, even as problems loomed on the horizons many aspects of culture like literacy, inventiveness, etc, flourished. This is because society encouraged its thinkers to “scan” for solutions to these problems.

However, these same cities and intelligentsia fuel feelings of resentment on the part of peasants on account of a) their perceived decadence and lasciviousness and b) the fact that said degenerates are supported by their taxes. To accommodate the rising reaction and diminishing surpluses, politicians and kings are forced to go back to the future. Way back. Quoting from my notes on Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:

At this point, decomposition rapidly becomes inevitable as “scanning” ceases, for the system no longer has the surpluses to do it. In most cases rigid behavioral controls are imposed, innovation and positive change is stymied and corruption, authoritarianism and feudalism begin to dominate … for society is enslaved to its own myths of superiority and delusions of grandeur.

… Censuses and historical detail thin, as literacy and science declined during this period to be replaced by an “increase in mysticism, and knowledge by revelation”, as well as by “increased propaganda about patriotism, ancient Roman values, and superiority over the barbarians”.

Yet this is only a stopgap measure, for by now eventual demise is inevitable:

Increasingly radical attempts to save the system, even cardinally change it, cannot permanently reserve the trend towards further complexity and disequilibrium; eventually, everyone loses faith in the system and there is a severe collapse. …

… According to RM Adams, “By the fifth century, men were ready to abandon civilization itself in order to escape the fearful load of taxes”. In 476, after being denied payment or settlement in Italy, the Roman barbarian army mutinied, sacked Rome and deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Western Emperor.

In other words, society begins by rejecting the Idea of the West (in those times, “rule of law” and Greek scientific-rationalism), and the state intensifies efforts to both legitimize itself and coerce people into believing in it. But nonetheless, a breaking point is eventually reached and society loses faith in the state (hitherto, tradition), culminating in the collapse of civilization, a prolonged period of anarchy and reversion to older forms of social existence focused on family, clan and community (denoted as The Collapse of Civilization).

During the anarchic period, there is a “radical redefinition of terms” as patriotism (faith in country) goes from being an accepted tradition, to a rejected tradition: for once the Sun dawns over the new Dark Ages, the peasant commune; the manor; self-sufficiency, etc – these are now the new pillars of traditions. Any surviving agents of the state (soldiers turned brigands, renegade tax collectors, the urban intelligentsia, etc) are its enemies.

After a few dark centuries, roving bandits seize permanent control of settlements, and become stationary bandits with an interest in development and permanent extraction instead of pillage. Localism, mysticism, anti-statism, etc, once again become heresies. The specter of the state rises anew, rewinding the loop to Year Zero.

The Sisyphean Loop

When a traditional society comes into contact with the West, there occurs a great deal of turbulence, much like in a society in the throes of Malthusian crisis. This loop is reproduced below:

As attested to by numerous chronicles, first contact with Westerners by less advanced civilizations results in fascination and a determination to catch up, especially to acquire its military-industrial technologies to prevent Western predation. The two cleanest examples of defensive modernizations are seen in Japan during the Tokugawa and Meiji eras, and repeatedly in Russian history (Muscovy under Ivan the Terrible, the Russian Empire under Peter the Great and Alexander II, Stalin, Putin?).

Local traditions are seen as incompatible with modernization and are rejected by the ruling elites, often stirring social unrest as the internal balance of power is disturbed. There occurs a growing gap between the Westernizing elites and the more traditional mass of society. The former come to be seen as foreign leeches on indigenous soil, decadent and degenerate; using the rhetoric of Westernization to feed themselves (e.g. see the French-speaking Tsarist aristocracy). This in turn discredits further Westernization, especially once the easiest (and ostensibly most useful) task of military modernization is completed. The people and the elites lose faith in the West: the former because they associate it with degeneracy and corruption (e.g. the Russian workers and peasants most aware of it: because of the development of railway systems, even a peasant from a rural backwater could now comprehend the parasitic decadence of the Court), the latter because of the shallow nationalism consequent from reinvigorated military, economic and cultural strength accruing from limited modernization. There is a gradual movement now back towards tradition (e.g. Slavophilia, the intelligentsia’s idolization of peasant life, etc).

But now one of two things happens. A part of the elite realizes that their decadence is politically dangerous (a large gap between the masses and the elites presages revolution), and tries to move back towards indigenous traditions – back to the people, so to speak. This is opposed by another part of the elite that has gotten used to its perks and privileges, despite the spiritual anomie in which they are stuck because of this. The ruling elites become disunited and weak; the masses are increasingly disillusioned with the whole system; new ideologues appear, preaching about total rejection of the West (e.g. the Bolsheviks) and a return to an imagined past of purity and virtue, i.e. to tradition (e.g. the radical Islamists who overthrew the Iranian Shah).

There appears a crisis, further straining divisions in the government and polarizing society in general (e.g. World War One). Eventually the government is forced to reform, but alas and alack, as per de Tocqueville the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to try to get better. By reversing course and showing weakness, it delegitimizes itself in the face of crisis; furthermore, it frequently becomes more democratic just when the people are becoming more hardline, and extremists (Bolsheviks, Islamists, etc) are waiting in the wings. The extremists moderate their positions to win over the people and consolidate their control; after that they unleash terror, taking the country into the far-top fringes of uncompromising rejection of the West. This is the dark region where totalitarianisms rise and democides are unleashed.

On the other hand, if the elite remains united; if the crisis is not very severe; if the people retain a firm belief in the Idea of the West and are unswayed by the extremists, then a more moderate outcome can be expected – a reversion back to the past, the state of stasis, yet having assimilated some elements of the Idea of the West during its loop so now “better” and perhaps “fairer” than before (at least by the standards of more Westernized states). They remain in this comatose state until another shock (e.g. defeat in war by a more Westernized nation, or recognition of weakness) forced them to act, restarting the loop.

Why do I call this a Sisyphean loop? Because while it lasts this basically explains a tortured nation’s attempts to catch up with “the West” (roll the rock to the top of the mountain), but never managing it (the rock keeps going back downhill). This is very pronounced in Russia – it’s entire history since gunpowder Muscovy has been one of quixotic attempts to catch up to and surpass the West, yet which all too often ended in catastrophes wrought of messianic delusions, and prolonged periods of stagnation, decline and frustration. I will explore its dynamics more closely in an upcoming post, focusing on a) the continuous “radical redefining of terms” that characterized Soviet history from 1914 to 1953, b) the belief dynamics of the post-1988 transition and c) its prospects for the future: sovereign democratization (the “Putin Plan” – democratization / Westernization on its own terms / while retaining belief in tradition), return to authoritarian stasis (Russia’s “natural state”, in both meanings of the term), totalitarianism or liberalization?

Yet this is not specific to Russia, it’s just that the overall dynamic is most visible there. Even nominally “Western nations” like the US – that archetype of the West – is imprisoned within the Sisyphean loop. It’s just that through the accumulated circular momentum of liberal tradition, the structure of its political system that moderates sharp swings towards extremism in the population and of the media which muffles extremist voices, and most importantly its reconciliation of liberalism with popular democracy, its “liberty loops” manage to remain anchored firmly within the bottom-right quadrant, well away from the instability brought on by the disillusionment / rejection of tradition of the left, and the totalitarianism of the top. But what makes the US a spiritually much more satisfied nation is that the very organic nature of the integration of its sobornost and Westernism makes Americans unaware that they life in the Belief Matrix, just like everyone else.

Laws of the Matrix

Why do I call it a matrix? a) because it is a matrix / grid, and b) in honor of the films, of course – whereas people believe they have free will, in reality all choices are predetermined and our only task is to try to understand and accept why we made those choices (in itself a Sisyphean-like endeavor – so yes, don’t bother pointing it out, I know I’m in the Matrix too).

Law of Skewed Perspectives – ideologically skewed people have warped perspectives on other people, interpreting moderates as biased; and those slightly biased, as irrevocably so. If political leaders are sufficiently out of sync, then the people are radicalized in the other direction.

Law of Quantum Truth – any individual finds it hard to judge the position of another, including herself; this is best done by a large number of individual, informed observations which tend to build a probability map around the likely position. Malevolent ideological opponents would represent the extreme edges of that probability map as that individual’s true position, whereas in fact it is not (or at least very rarely so).

Law of Circularity – at its extremes, ideologies converge (or flip). For instance, shout very loudly that you are a zealot for progress, justice, freedom, etc, even as your actions forsake those ideals. Examples: Bolsheviks, neocons, liberasts.

Law of Extremism – they tend to flip if they do, but they need to be in separate enclaves to build up into really extremist movements. Violent revolutions tend to happen during agrarian-industrial transitions because you have lots of self-contained classes thinking similarly and very opposed to each other (e.g. urban proletariat, the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy, etc); these differences tend to become less extreme in the later stages of industrialism when there is greater social mobility.

Radical Redefinition of Terms – how traditions are defined, and hence whom the community accepts and whom it rejects. A good illustration is the Russian Revolution: Bolsheviks came from being viewed as traitorous outcasts in 1914, to heroic defenders of the Motherland by 1918 against the foreign-backed Whites – who had themselves become heretics. During the 1930′s, the Party turned on itself and consigned many Old Bolshevik stalwarts into oblivion. Severe shocks can lead to a RRoT from below, while totalitarian regimes can perform RRoT’s from above.

Law of Chaos – big, sudden changes lead to instability, chaos, unpredictability, e.g. after radical redefinition of terms.

Law of Distance and Antipathy – the more distant you are from a certain viewpoint, the more you hate them. Hence the reason moderates are moderates, and extremists are not.

Law of Social Development – agrarian (collective belief → stability, rigidity, conservatism, but catastrophic breakdown if system fails); industrial (less collective, more skeptical, but still similar); post-industrial (atomized, enclave concentrations, very skeptical).

Law of Heresy – the totalitarian mind, in its rejection of the West and fervent rediscovery of traditional belief, views all deviations from orthodoxy as heresy (see Law of Skewed Perspectives, which applies to ideologues).

As commentators Scowspi and Kolya in the Categorizing the Russia Debate discussion noted, true artists are by definition dissidents (at least in the opinion of other dissident artists ;) ), hence they find life tough in totalitarian societies and may themselves become extreme in their dissidence.

The concept of heresy is alien only to someone who completely internalizes the Idea of the West (this is of course impossible in practice).

Consequences for the Future

We live in a very, very interesting time. I’m sure the next few decades will be far more fun than even the first half of the twentieth century in Europe, though whether this is a good thing is an entirely different question.

1) The Sisyphean Loop will remain as strong as ever as societies try to reconcile their traditions with the West and to internalize the paradox that is liberal democracy. Whereas there have been some major discontinuities this century, the dominant trend is that the power of liberal democracy is taking sway throughout the entire world – if not in reality, at least as an ideal. Practically all nations, except a few in the tortured Dar al-Islam (where Islamism constitutes a major alternative, albeit discredited by rational people), accept liberal democracy as the optimal form of government, much as Fukuyama observed in his “end of history” thesis”.

2) But… there remain lingering attractions for the dark splendor of totalitarian ideologies, which are supported by the eternally valid justifications of moral relativism and post-modernism. All that’s needed is the force to implement it, which is rather lacking as of now…

3) Perhaps not for long though. The Malthusian belief cycle is reasserting itself in the shadows of industrial civilization – the polluted, drying rivers; the depleting oil fields; the melting permafrost releasing Siberian methane into the atmosphere; failed states and spreading chaos; the democratization of the means of making terror from the state to the individual.

4) Right now, I would say the world as a whole turned a corner with the 2008 Crisis (a much less noticed, but in reality more significant thing about that date is that it was most likely the year of peak oil production). “Scanning” was much in progress during the 1970′s-2000′s (clean energy, “sustainable development”, etc), when energy and ecological problems first made themselves felt. I think the 2010′s will see a heightened period of chaos, governments everywhere will become more authoritarian and new colonial empires will emerge. “Scanning” will within one to two decades be suppressed and confined within certain parameters as governments begin to chronically fear instability and collapse, fear that nothing they can do will save their societies from collapse. (They are already preparing: note the proliferation of CCTV cameras, databases, militarized security forces, etc). Quite possibly questioning the health and desirability of industrial civilization will come to be classed as subversive, perhaps under the rubric of the war against terror.

5) Then there’s the Internet and connectivity. Though often touted as democratizing and enlightening, this is not always the case: totalitarianism becomes more total than anything dreamt up by the despots of yore in the age of ubiquitous mass surveillance, and extremism is honed, not blunted (see enclave extremism). Like all previous technologies, the Internet cannot be anything more than a reflection of the society that exploits it. And our societies do not appear to have bright futures ahead of them…

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.