I have long admired Hernán Cortes, conqueror of the Aztecs. He may not have gotten to Heaven, though who can say, but he exemplified the spirit of the West, that which from Charlemagne to Frémont drove the world forward. Fifth Sun would have us stop and shed a tear for the Aztecs, considering them on their own terms. It’s a modest request, and when done is modestly interesting. But we should remember that unlike the Spanish, the Aztecs never accomplished anything notable, and never would have accomplished anything notable. Which raises the question—what price glory?
It helps the reader of this book that the author, Camilla Townsend, is a very good writer. Her method is to use post-Conquest writings of descendants of the Aztecs, combined with a small number of plausible fictional vignettes, to attempt to recapture the history of pre-Conquest Mexico, to “conjure the world of [the] long dead.” (The book’s title comes from the Aztec creation myth, in which the cyclical rebirth of the Sun is triggered by an ordinary man choosing to sacrifice himself to the gods.) This method is more successful that it sounds it should be, but its accuracy is open to question. Nonetheless, I think it lets us get as much of a handle on the Aztecs as is worthwhile. Townsend further offers a good deal of detail about how she conducted her scholarship, her different sources, and an extensive bibliography, all of which are interesting in their own right.
Why are there few writings of Aztecs prior to the Spanish conquest of 1519, that Townsend could have used instead? Townsend says in passing that many were burned by the Spanish, although many also simply decayed, being composed on plant material. But the far more important reason, which Townsend at no point specifically admits, is that the Aztecs didn’t have any writings in the modern sense, that would allow real transfer of information, because they lacked an alphabet. Their “writings” were mere pictographs, and Aztec culture an oral one, like primitive cultures the world over. We might learn a little if we had more of their pictures, but not likely much. Townsend claims the Aztecs used these pictographs as “records of business decisions and chains of authority,” but that seems very unlikely; certainly surviving pictographs don’t allow any such precision.
Moreover, Townsend faces two problems as regards accuracy of the post-Conquest writings she uses (none of which are newly-discovered, despite breathless claims made on the book’s blurb). First, those recording what supposedly happened decades before they were born are very likely to introduce distortions, either by choice or as a result of being given bad information by informants. Townsend claims to be able to tease out the truth; maybe she’s right, but probably not, in many instances. Second, those recording here were not Aztecs, nor were they, as the blurb also claims, “indigenous people”; they were Spanish subjects, largely or completely Hispanized, most or all devout Roman Catholics, some of them of mixed parentage. Townsend assumes that when criticizing the Aztecs, they were lying or exaggerating, and when saying something positive, they were recording accurately. When writing a revisionist history, this approach gives the desired result, but it’s not objective. And much of what these writers wrote are obvious tall tales and legends, so again, where the precise truth lies is open to question. On the other hand, this is often the historian’s lot. One cannot uncritically rely, either, on Spanish reports contemporaneous with the Conquest, in particular reports to the King or his ministers, and much Spanish history of Mexico in this period was also written well after the fact.
Townsend is most of all keen to dispel what she claims are simplistic myths about the Aztecs at the time of the Conquest, such as that their leader when Cortes arrived, Moctezuma II, believed the Spanish to be the returning god Quetzalcoatl (a story I learned as a child). This notion only appeared a few decades after the Conquest, and Townsend makes a strong case it is a fiction. The Aztecs were primitive, not dumb, and as I have said before, it is a great error to believe that people who came before us were stupid—in fact, they usually had to be smarter than modern people. When the Aztecs captured cannon or crossbows, they couldn’t use them, but they didn’t consider Spanish technology magic. As with all peoples of the Americas, when the Europeans arrived, they simply lacked good choices. That’s not some great tragedy; it’s the normal course of all human history. Reading books like this isn’t, or shouldn’t be, some call to a ludicrous irredentism, merely a way to learn more about the human story.
Townsend proceeds chronologically, covering events pre-Conquest, during the Conquest, and for a hundred years after the Conquest. In general, Townsend spends more time than I would have liked on trying to reconstruct Aztec lineages and politics, and not as much as I would have liked on Aztec daily life. But it’s her book. Other than a few ideological blind spots, she tries hard to not blur the truth, as when discussing population she calculates that the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, might have had a maximum of 50,000 people. She says claims for populations greater, up to 400,000, are “wild exaggerations,” and obviously so, because they claim a density greater than modern Manhattan for a clearly-defined area composed of single-story homes.
The Aztecs, whose youthful minor empire was centered on what is now Mexico City, had only arrived in the Valley of Mexico recently, and had cemented their power less than a century before the Spanish arrived in 1519. The Mexica, as they called themselves (though that covered their enemies, too, and those in Central Mexico were collectively the Nahua), came from the north; where exactly we do not know (although maybe this is one of the many historical questions DNA evidence will answer). Migrations of nomadic peoples are the norm throughout history, and the same was true in the Americas. They were farmers, after a fashion. In the Americas, farming arose millennia after it did in the Old World, and was considerably cruder than in the Old World, as well as always combined with hunter-gatherer activities, but still often provided enough surplus to allow stratified societies.
Aztec social organization was complex, with extended families sharing power. Constantly shifting alliances with other tribes and groups, combined with continuous warfare, was the norm in Mexico. Within the Valley, links of kinship and marriage bound most or all of the tribes, sometimes to a degree that prevented war, sometimes causing war as an ambitious man sought the main chance. Crucially, with polygamy and an extractive society that ensured the nobility was well-fed, along with wars that killed few because of crude weaponry and cultural dictates, elite over-production very rapidly became a problem; the cracks were showing in the Aztec edifice before the Spanish arrived.
The upper classes kept the lower classes down. Slavery was extensive. As Townsend delicately concedes, Aztec slavery is rarely mentioned today, but as with all ancient non-nomadic societies, it was a key part of the social structure. “Because the Aztecs were disparaged for so long as cannibalistic savages, serious scholars have been loath to write anything that might be perceived as detracting from their moral worth.” In other words, any “scholarship” about the Aztecs from the past sixty years or so should be considered prima facie unreliable, because edited by the authors to present the Aztecs in the desired positive light.
And, in fact, the Aztecs were cannibalistic savages. There’s no getting around that. They were cannibalistic, certainly, and they were savages in two ways. They behaved barbarously, famously engaging in massive amounts of human sacrifice, including of children, something Townsend tries to downplay but does not deny. And they were quite primitive, even by pre-modern standards, using only modest technologies (no smelted metal; no wheels) and developing none themselves. As extractive top dogs in the Valley, for a few decades, they were able to buy shiny baubles from far away (turquoise, feathers) and to use slave labor to build reasonably impressive temples, but that’s about it.
Townsend tries to claim that had agriculture existed in Mesoamerica for longer, the Aztecs would have been the equal of the Europeans, but that’s silly. The Europeans were unique in world history; as I like to say, without Europe, the world we live in would be the world of the sixteenth century, or before. How long the ground had been cultivated had nothing to do with it. Even by non-European, pre-Christian Old World standards the Aztecs were primitives. If not for the Spanish, we would probably know next to nothing about the Aztecs, as we know next to nothing about the other Mesoamericans who preceded them, whom they conquered or exterminated, because they would have been conquered or exterminated in their turn.
Unfortunately, one short section in Fifth Sun makes Townsend seem unserious, and casts doubt on the rest of her work. She pushes homosexuality among the Aztecs in an attempt to make them seem like good modern Americans. I know nothing about Aztec homosexuality, but Townsend’s claim is that for the Aztecs “there was a range of sexual possibilities during one’s time on earth, understood to be part of the joy of living, and it certainly was not unheard of for men to go to bed together in the celebrations connected with religious ceremonies, and presumably at other times as well.” Her footnote to this passage, however, lends exactly zero support to this contention, and Wikipedia, always aggressively curated to cosset sexual deviants, says (citing a Spanish-language source), “[Aztec] law punished sodomy with the gallows, impalement for the active homosexual, extraction of the entrails through the anal orifice for the passive homosexual, and death by garrote for the lesbians.” I’m putting my money on the impalement as the reality, not Townsend’s gauzy and unsupported fantasy. That elsewhere she notes that “Adultery, for example, was a crime for everyone, punishable by stoning or strangling,” suggests that in fact the Aztecs were very strict about sexual crimes. Once again, this sort of thing makes the reader wonder what else is being shaded.
The Aztecs were already tottering when Cortes arrived. Townsend admits that human sacrifice absorbed more and more of their energies and that “Moctezuma himself spent an exorbitant amount of time playing a sacrificial role,” so much that he couldn’t even attend battles. They also had innumerable bitter enemies surrounding them, and this, of course, is one important reason why Cortes was successful (the other reasons being steel, attitude, and the diseases the Spanish brought). Townsend insightfully points out that even had Moctezuma managed to defeat the Spanish, he still would have fallen, because the cost would have been enormous and the resulting weakness would certainly have led to the Aztecs being exterminated by their indigenous enemies. Thus, Moctezuma had to bargain, which is what he tried to do, but failed because he had nothing to offer the Spanish. He didn’t understand the bigger picture, that the Spanish had vastly more resources and power than he could ever hope to command.
Once they defeated the Aztecs, events Townsend describes relatively quickly and from the Aztec perspective, the Spanish only took a few years, less than a decade, to transform the Aztec capital into Mexico City. (Roma Agrawal’s Built describes in fascinating detail the engineering behind the five-hundred-year-old Cathedral of the Assumption, built by the Spanish on the site of a razed human sacrifice pyramid.) “By the early 1600s, Mexico City had become one of the wealthiest and most impressive metropolises in the world.” The Aztecs were, and are, nothing but a memory.
Would the Aztecs, and more broadly the Indians in Mexico, have been better off if the Spanish had never arrived? Not in the long run, and probably not in the short run, either, except for the upper classes. Switching suzerains has no moral component and little impact on most in a primitive society, and that’s what happened here. After all, the rest of the globe, disease and all, would have intruded sooner or later into Mesoamerica. Moreover, the Aztecs acted in an evil fashion; their human sacrifice alone made their destruction a virtue. It was less virtuous that the Spanish often mistreated the Indians, arguably worse than their own lords mistreated them, although to their credit they argued about it, and frequently undertook initiatives to curb the worst excesses. The Aztecs would have thought it bizarre to have an internal debate on how to treat their defeated enemies, and this debate shows how very different Christian Europeans were from any other human civilization (we retain some of these impulses, but they will soon be entirely gone).
The world is undoubtedly a better place, spiritually and physically, as a result of Cortes defeating the Aztecs. I shed no tears for their demise, any more than I shed tears for Neanderthals or the Hittites. In fact, less. The West was, before it fell in the twentieth century, an immeasurably superior civilization, and on balance, its expansion a high good in all the places to which it expanded. But what is the limiting principle in this conclusion? Or, as I asked at the beginning, what price glory?
Cortes, in the words of David Gress, “conquered Mexico for God, gold, and glory, and only a mundane imagination would distinguish these impulses, for they were one and the same.” But what acts should we allow to be washed clean by this goal? How much brutal seeking after gold, or more broadly material advantage and advancement, can or should we tolerate, if that is part of God and glory? Cortes was not a nice man, and although his sins have long been exaggerated, even in his own time, for propaganda purposes, they were real enough, as were those of his lieutenants, such as Pedro de Alvarado, who slaughtered the Aztec nobles while Cortes was absent. We retrospectively sanitize great men of the past, and yes, it is true that the past is a foreign country. Nonetheless, it can’t be that all violence and suffering inflicted on others is justified by the inseparable ends that drove Cortes. But if we can have “God, gold, and glory,” is that possibility, or its achievement, and the passage of time, enough to balance the scales of justice? I am not sure.
Certainly, for our own civilization to be renewed, or more likely a new one to be born, extremes of violence and cruelty will be commonplace, and the basest of motives compete eagerly with high motives. Such is the way of change, and the greater the change, the greater the sins in the transition, as men seek all of God, gold, and glory. I suppose my first-cut conclusion is that men being who they are, the evil will always accompany the good, and there is no cure for this. So we should accept it, as the price of necessary change. That, as with the Aztecs, what the West has become is truly evil makes this conclusion easier. We may not have racks of tens of thousands of skulls on display, but that’s just because we hide them in the abortionist’s dumpster, after we sell our children’s other organs for experimentation and profit. Therefore, we should accept the costs of renewal, and as the Spanish did, try to curb the worst excesses that result, both juridically and ad hoc, hoping to get to a more stable and less brutal future as quickly as possible.
No doubt that I ask these questions itself proves I will never be the Man of Destiny, yet who can tell, if participation is offered, and the exchange of God, gold, and glory for the death of globohomo is offered, whether I would yet not seize the brass ring? Probably I am too introspective, and ultimately fearful of judgment, and would rather participate in a secondary capacity. We will see, each of us, what our choices are, in the times ahead. With luck, they will be better choices than those faced by Moctezuma and his people.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
Ah, Carl Schmitt, Carl Schmitt! No man like him exists today. Political philosophy in our time is, and for many decades past has been, largely the domain of intellectual pygmies and outright morons; the age of gold has degenerated into the age of brass, or of plastic with yellow paint. Schmitt is dead, but his work is not, and this, one of his series of books published during the early Weimar period in Germany, illuminates much of our own present condition. That’s not to say The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy is an easy read. Like much of Schmitt’s writing, it is somewhat elliptical, alternating great insight with moments of “where are we going with this?” But the payoff is worth the effort.
This is the only translation in English, done in 1985, of the 1926 (second) edition of Schmitt’s Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlamentarismus, first published in 1923. The word “crisis” does not appear in the original German title; rather, the term used is roughly “spiritual-historical situation,” in the non-religious sense of “spiritual,” for which there is no equivalent English word (but there is in Hungarian, lelki, as my mother never tires of reminding me). Moreover, it’s a bit strange that the German word for “parliamentarianism” was translated as “parliamentary democracy,” given that Schmitt spends a good portion of the book distinguishing parliamentarianism and democracy.
To be sure Schmitt saw fatal problems, if not yet precisely a crisis, in the foundation of the German parliamentary system. Schmitt does mention a crisis of parliamentarianism within the text, but he means that not in the sense of an existential crisis of the nation (although famously much of Schmitt’s political thought revolved around what a sovereign might do, legitimately or not, in such a crisis) but in the sense of unbridgeable contradictions having surfaced in what was once thought to be a clearly-defined system. He says the same of both democracy and the modern liberal state, which is why one of his aims is to explore alternatives to played-out systems of the time. Whether he saw a crisis in his day or not, it is certain Schmitt would be horrified, but not surprised, at the utter degradation of today’s politics. But the wreckage of liberal democracy we see all around us is merely the inevitable end state of the contradictions and debilities Schmitt analyzes in this book.
It is hard for us to recapture the degree to which the Western European ruling classes in the early twentieth century worshipped the parliamentary system, and had faith that the end of political organization had arrived, just needing a little polishing here and adjustment there. After a century of struggle against monarchy and aristocracy, it seemed to most elites as if history had evolved to a modern system that truly represented the nation (though there were more than a few dissenters, mostly outside the elites, some of whom Schmitt covers in this book). Schmitt is famous in part because he broke that spell, and soundly spanked parliamentarianism, in its then-existent form, as outdated and inadequate for the challenges facing Germany. Parliamentarianism was an integral manifestation of liberalism, however, so Schmitt’s criticism went deeper than mere political form, or the mechanisms of political decision making. Schmitt thereby heralded both the looming troubles of the decades immediately following this work, and the troubles that have resurfaced after the end of the Cold War.
The translator, Ellen Kennedy, offers an excellent and lengthy Introduction. The edition she translates begins with a Preface, in which Schmitt responds to criticism of the first edition by one Richard Thoma, a law professor, who accused Schmitt of crypto-papism and a lust for dictatorship, which are pretty much the stock attacks on Schmitt to this day (although his Catholicism assumed less importance in his later thought than it had occupied in his earliest works). Despite Thoma’s attack, this book is in fact a turn away from the focus on dictatorship and the imposition of good government by a sovereign above the people, found in three earlier books (Political Romanticism; The Dictator; and Political Theology), towards a more favorable view of popular sovereignty. Nonetheless, the Preface, putatively a response to Thoma, actually most clearly pulls together the threads of Schmitt’s claim in the rest of the book that parliamentarianism is contradictory to democracy, and should be re-read after the book in order to grasp the practical realities of Schmitt’s theoretical analysis.
Schmitt’s original Introduction outlines his project. He notes that since the inception of the parliamentary system, it has been intermittently criticized, despite its general acceptance. Some criticism comes from those who would restore the absolutism of monarchy. More importantly, in the world of the Germany of 1923 (almost all of Schmitt’s focus is Germany, occasionally touching on France, but mostly for theory, not practice), were criticisms from those on the Left who desired some form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and those on the Right who desired some form of corporatism.
Although he acknowledges many and varied currents criticizing parliamentary theory and, even more, practice, Schmitt’s purpose is not to himself critique the parliamentary system, even if that’s the effect of much of what he says. He rather wants to “find the ultimate core of the institution of modern parliament,” which he regards as being very different from its original conception and practice. “[T]he institution itself has lost its moral and intellectual foundation and only remains standing through sheer mechanical perseverance as an empty apparatus.” To understand why this is, Schmitt tells us, we must clearly define and distinguish parliamentarianism and related concepts, “such as democracy, liberalism, individualism, and rationalism.” He wants to “shift away from tactical and technical questions to intellectual principles and a starting point that does not once again lead to a dead end.” He wants to offer a positive way forward, by examining the system and alternatives, not merely carp about problems in the politics of his society.
Taking the bull by the horns, the first chapter tackles democracy. Legitimacy is associated, Schmitt says, with democracy, and legitimacy at the time Schmitt wrote meant recognizing the people’s right to self-determination. Popular sovereignty had been the wave of the nineteenth century, it “appeared to have the self-evidence of an irresistible advancing and expanding force.” It seemed allied to “liberalism and freedom”—but was not, because democracy is only an organizational form without content. Only by linking democracy with another concept, such as social or economic relationships, or a national will, or national homogeneity, does democracy acquire content, and even then the content can be wholly inconsistent from place to place, depending on the characteristics and heterogeneity of the population. (In fact, in the “Preface,” Schmitt denies that a more than nominally heterogenous polity, to the extent it extends the franchise across different groups in society, can be a democracy at all, something modern America is proving him correct about. Schmitt’s focus in other works on the inherency of enmity in any polity also suggests democracy is never workable, as does his point that political equality of all, which he regards as “irresponsible stupidity, leading to the worst chaos, and therefore to even worse injustice,” is “a liberal, not a democratic, idea,” but those are topics for another day.)
What then are the core realities of democracy? First, the actual will of each citizen, however he votes, is the same as the result obtained through majority vote. Failure to vote with the majority merely shows a voter has mistaken the general will. There is therefore “an identity between law and the people’s will.” Second, “all democratic arguments rest logically on a series of identities,” including “the identity of governed and governing . . . the identity of the people with their representatives . . . and finally an identity of the quantitative (the numerical majority or unanimity) with the qualitative (the justice of the laws).”
Of course, these identities are theoretical and never fully realized in practice, and the single most significant problem for theorists of democracy is that the will of the people as expressed may be deceived or malformed, in which case it is the minority which actually represents the will of the people. Thus democratic methods can be used to defeat or destroy democracy itself (Schmitt gives the example of newly-enfranchised women voters who commonly voted for authoritarian government), and if a theorist with power believes that democracy has, in itself, “self-sufficient value,” this cannot be permitted. This problem was identified since the Levellers of 1649, who as a result wanted to restrict power and voting to the “well-affected.”
The “solution” usually adopted is that the people must be educated to know their true will, and such education will be conducted, if necessary, by a dictatorship, one that nonetheless remains democratic, because the will of the people is still the exclusive criterion of what is democratic, and the will of the people is thereby being correctly revealed. This is the key identity, that of democracy with the real will of the people, and the aim of every modern political power of every stripe, from royalists to Bolsheviks (with the exception of Italian Fascism, Schmitt notes) is to achieve that identity with itself. The ongoing problem of democracy is that it is impossible to disprove this “Jacobin argument” that the minority is qualitatively the legitimate representative of the will of the people if they have not yet been adequately informed and educated.
Next, of the principles of parliamentarianism—what are its “ultimate intellectual foundations”? Crucially, parliamentarianism is not democracy; it is not popular sovereignty in its pure form, and does not contain the core realities, the identities, Schmitt identifies in democracy. Schmitt notes that a representative of a parliamentary system is not, or should not be, a direct representative; he more than once cites Article 21 of the Weimar constitution, “members are representatives of the whole people; they are only responsible to their own consciences and not bound by any instructions.” (Although Schmitt does not mention it, not infrequently you hear this view ascribed to Edmund Burke, in his speech to the electors of Bristol, but according to Schmitt, this is the very essence of parliamentarianism, and nothing new.) Counterposed to this is not only the sometimes-found idea that representatives should, in fact, reflect the desires of constituents, but also the party system, which constrains parliamentarians from making individuated decisions.
What justifies the parliamentary system? The oldest, and once standard, justification for parliamentary rule is expediency—if a polity contains many people, an “elected committee of responsible people” can make decisions for the whole. This appears democratic, an extension of an assembly on the village green, but it is not, for “If for practical and technical reasons the representatives of the people can decide instead of the people themselves, then certainly a single trusted representative could also decide in the name of the same people. Without ceasing to be democratic, the argument would justify an antiparliamentary Caesarism.” So it would.
Then what is the justification for parliamentary rule? Schmitt identifies the modern “liberal rationalist” justification as the “dynamic-dialectic, that is, in a process of confrontation of differences and opinions, from which the real political will results. The essence of parliament is therefore public deliberation of argument and counterargument, public debate and public discussion, parley, and all this without taking democracy into account.” This is merely an extension of the broader liberal idea that the free market, competition, “will produce harmony,” and that truth is “a mere function of the eternal competition of opinion.”
Such competition manifests in two principles which are, at root, contradictory—the paramount importance of openness, particularly of the press, allowing public opinion to surface and compete, and the division of powers, another type of competition, but one that thwarts the democratic will, because parliament, the fruit of openness, as a result only has legislative, not plenary, power. In Western thought, division of powers has become synonymous with constitutionalism (and dictatorship is a suspension of the division of powers), yet this is actually a retrenchment from Enlightenment rationalism, which posited the general will as the touchstone of proper governmental authority.
This contradiction exists because the division of powers is inherent in the intellectual distinction between legislation and executive action. Schmitt repeats his famous formulation, the first sentence of Political Theology, “Sovereign is whoever decides what constitutes an exception”; the division of powers is a pushback against this reality. Law, the absolute norm, is distinct from authority, the active application of the law. Seeking context for these abstractions, Schmitt surveys a wide range of thinkers, from Aristotle to James Madison, noting that the closer a system came to true Enlightenment rationalism, the more this key distinction was denied and the more parliament, the legislative power, became unitarily supreme. But to the extent the executive has power, openness and discussion do not determine its actions; here the idea of rationalism based on openness reaches its limit.
For decades, Schmitt says, openness and discussion “seemed to be essential and indispensable. What was to be secured through the balance guaranteed by openness and discussion was nothing less than truth and justice itself.” Society was to achieve “discussion in place of force.” In practice, however, “the reality of parliamentary and party political life and public convictions are today far removed from such beliefs.” Parliament is a facade; all real work is done in committees or in parties, far from public view and public discussion; thus parliament “is losing its rationale.” “Small and exclusive committees of parties or of party coalitions make their decisions behind closed doors, and what representatives of the big capitalist interest groups agree to in the smallest committees is more important for the fate of millions of people, perhaps, than any political decision.”
To the extent public opinion, or the sovereignty of the people, is valued, society is worse off than under “the cabinet politics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” Equally corrosively for the theoretical principles of parliamentarianism, modern mass action techniques, such as radio, have “made argumentative public discussion an empty formality.” “There are certainly not many people today who want to renounce the old liberal freedoms, particularly freedom of speech and the press. But on the European continent there are not many more who believe that these freedoms still exist where they could actually endanger the real holders of power.” Zing. (It’s certainly no better today. Nobody would say that any modern Western system is one revolving around rational discourse. To enunciate the idea is to refute it). “[P]arliament, as it developed in the nineteenth century, has also lost its previous foundation and its meaning.” Thus, by implication, parliament has a crisis of legitimacy for, after all, any number of other forms of government could allow the same type of system, forms that did not falsely claim to implement popular sovereignty—such as, let’s say, Mussolini’s corporatism.
So what does that mean? What can replace the empty shell of parliamentarianism? Rather than talk of Mussolini, Schmitt turns to two great currents of his age that both claimed to represent the general will: Marxism and anarcho-syndicalism. Schmitt never mentions it, but none of this analysis in the second half of the book was abstract in the years leading up to 1923; great currents rocked the German scene, of which these two held pride of place, with violent Communist rebellion and general strikes in many big cities, all capped by hyperinflation and the destruction of much of the German middle class. Mussolini had marched on Rome in 1922. Thus, Schmitt knew perfectly well that his bloodless analysis had real world implications and consequences, and these real-world events no doubt dictated the choice of what he would analyze.
He first examines Marxism, something about which he thought a great deal and analysis of which appears in several of his books (one reason Schmitt is still widely read on the Left). Marxism is the inheritor of the “Jacobin argument” about democracy, where open discussion fails to produce the correct result and must therefore be adjusted. Marxism casts itself not only as rational but also scientific (up to a point; only “vulgar Marxism” is unaware of historical contingency), and follows this to its logical conclusion, that force, rather than education, is necessary to achieve the sovereign will of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Schmitt outlines the relationship, or contradiction, of Marxism with parliamentarianism; much of what he says seems uncontroversial, but I believe this was the first time much of this analysis was done, including discussing the consequences of Hegelianism for Marxism (at least Schmitt offers no footnotes, which are extensive elsewhere in this book), and what we think today of Marxism as related to true, parliamentary-type popular sovereignty springs largely from Schmitt’s thoughts. Most importantly, in 1923, it was Marxism that seemed poised to sweep away parliamentarianism with dictatorship; Schmitt could not see the German future, and the Weimar Republic, despite its troubles, was not yet at death’s door, but the Communists were the most threatening opponent. The practical point Schmitt makes is that “A new theory of the direct use of force arose in opposition to the absolute rationalism of an educational dictatorship and to the relative rationalism of the division of powers.”
Then Schmitt turns to another alternative, anarcho-syndicalism. Here he focuses on Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, with nods to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin. These thinkers reject the dictatorship of reason, which received its purest manifestation in Marxism, one reason the Marxists hated the anarchists (while still having much in common with them, just as Oliver Cromwell did with the Levellers, yet he destroyed them). Sorel’s anarcho-syndicalism was based on “a theory of myth” based on “absolute rationalism,” which rejects the “relative rationalism” of “balancing, public discussion, and parliamentarianism.”
Liberal democracy, the engine of parliamentarianism, is merely “demagogic plutocracy,” a worn-out system lacking the power of true myth. That power can only be found in the proletariat, through their use of their great weapon, the general strike, a chthonic upheaval not based on political theory but on the needs and demands of the workers. Such power is focused, through “the social theory of myth,” to “create an image of the enemy that was capable of intensifying all the emotions of hatred and contempt.” (I wonder if a general strike is possible in America today? It would seem not, in our low-trust, Zoom-capable, handout-oriented society, but maybe it will come back into fashion if something unites normal Americans against our ruling class.)
This line of thought leads to enthusiasm for a final, decisive battle, for a political myth reified to the benefit of the whole polity. Here Schmitt adduces as a parallel one of his heroes, Juan Donoso-Cortes, Spanish mid-nineteenth-century reactionary monarchist. “All the Spaniard’s thoughts were focused on the great battle . . . the terrible catastrophe that lay ahead, which only the metaphysical cowardice of discursive liberalism could deny was coming.”
Both Donoso-Cortes and Sorel rejected all the principles of parliamentarianism, and loathed the bourgeoisie, just from opposite directions. Sorel inherited Donoso-Cortes’s battle mindset; “Every rationalist interpretation falsifies the immediacy of life.” Sorel’s “great battle will not be the work of an academic strategy, but an ‘accumulation of heroic exploits’ and a release of the ‘individualistic forces within the rebelling mass.’ ” (Curiously for us today, this refracts the thought of ascendant currents on the American Right, exemplified by Bronze Age Pervert, as those begin to sweep away the tired remnants of twentieth-century American conservatism, which conserved nothing at all.) The result, for Sorel, is not the dictatorship that characterizes Marxism, but the “immediate life” of the masses, of which the France of 1793 is an exemplar.
Not that Schmitt thinks much of Sorel as a logical thinker. He notes that Sorel was far more similar to Marx than he liked to believe, and he claims that Sorel, obsessed with the bourgeoisie, had followed the bourgeoisie into “economic-technical rationalism,” whether he intended to or not. The proletariat “will be forced, through the superior power of the production mechanism, into a rationalism and mechanistic outlook that is empty of myth.”
The inevitable way out of this is to turn to a national myth, and Schmitt explicitly predicts that “all of [this] tends toward a national rather than a class consciousness today.” (One example he gives is the cohesion during the Irish Easter Rising of 1919 between socialists and Irish nationalists, an episode of rebellion, or civil war, I know little about but intend to turn to, as I continue my study of little Western wars with great relevance to today). He also again obliquely adduces Italian Fascism, noting that “wherever it comes to an open confrontation of the two myths [class and nation], such as in Italy, the national myth has until today always been victorious.” He points out that until Mussolini, the Italians seemed devoted to the “democratic and constitutional parliamentary tradition [and] appeared to be completely dominated by the ideology of Anglo-Saxon liberalism.” Not so much anymore, in 1923. Schmitt therefore predicts the continued resurgence of myth and, through that, myriad alternatives to parliamentarianism, not just Fascism.
“Every epoch of political and state thought has conceptions which appear evident to it in a specific sense and, even if also with many misunderstandings and mythologizing, are, without anything further, plausible to great masses.” Schmitt said this in the context of the nineteenth century being the great century of movement toward democracy, toward popular rule, and we instinctively think of democracy as self-evident and dictated by the arrow of history, because we have absorbed this history and we have been so indoctrinated. But the principle is wholly independent of democracy, and wholly applicable to a system that is an enemy of democracy. How does a political conception become self-evident, though?
Well, for the Germans, a new one became self-evident a decade after this book, and although it didn’t work out for the Germans, it wholly absorbed the great masses of Germany, and completely unexpectedly so. I predict the same thing will happen to us, though with an entirely different political philosophy, that is also distinct from democracy and parliamentarianism, neither of which has improved with age since Schmitt wrote this book.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The featured image shows, “Universal male suffrage given by Ledru-Rollin;” colored lithograph by Frédéric Sorrieu, 1850.
Private equity has made me rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Yet private equity can be, as this book shows, a tool of the devil, a corrosive and destructive force in American life. Still, I do not think the story is as simple as Brian Alexander, the author of Glass House, would have it. The town in which he grew up, and which he profiles here—Lancaster, Ohio—has fallen far from its glory days, as have hundreds of similar towns across America. But the responsibility for that lies not just with the shady private equity companies that looted its largest employer, glass manufacturer Anchor Hocking, or with other elements of our rotten ruling class. It also lies with all of us, who bear more than some responsibility for the degradation of our towns, and of ourselves.
Although there are variations, in general “private equity” refers to a certain type of investment firm. Those who manage the firm collect money from investors seeking high returns, and use that money, along with copious additional borrowed money, to buy private companies. They then seek to resell those companies at a higher value within a few years, thereby returning money to investors, and more to themselves, while extracting money along the way. If done competently, those who manage private equity firms can become extremely rich, and they never become poor, since they are not risking their own money. The risks are instead borne by the passive investors, the banks who lend money, and by the companies they buy. Think of those, in most cases, as a goose force-fed to massively increase its liver size. Time is short, and it rarely ends well for the goose.
In my past life, I was a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer; the nature of that business, buying and selling companies, often involves private equity firms. I also studied private equity, and related fields, a great deal in business school, which I attended after being a lawyer. For most of 2020, as I worked toward selling my business, I interacted with a number of private equity companies, who constitute the buyers of most businesses today. This sale process showed, although I already knew them, the differences among private equity firms. As with any firm, each has a personality, and while they are subject to economic incentives, much of their behavior is actually driven by personality. For example, I had signed a letter of intent (an agreement to agree) to sell my company to one private equity company last July. Their personality was a common one for private equity—slick, overconfident, far less smart than they thought, and people I wouldn’t trust to buy me a sandwich, if I were relying on them to bring me the change. Although they were the initial high bidder, it was in their nature, again as is common with private equity companies, to chisel. Failing to read my personality and thinking that I would be desperate to keep a bird in the hand, and so be willing to give up some money for their benefit, they tried to lower the price before the transaction closed. It took me thirty seconds to kill the deal, and I never spoke to them again.
But other firms have different personalities. Soon enough, a bidder that had earlier dropped out, because of the impact of the Wuhan Plague on other companies it owned, came back to the table, offering an even higher price, and quickly closed the deal. This private equity company represented not many investors seeking returns in the traditional way, but family members of one wealthy family (with politics very opposed to mine). This firm’s personality, and all its representatives, were always honest and aboveboard in every way and they were a pleasure to deal with. Moreover, they have successfully continued to run and grow my company, with what appears to be a long-term focus.
Alexander would say that despite differences in personality, private equity firms are all subject to similar incentives—to pump up the value to a third party of an entity they buy, by minimizing expenses and maximizing EBITDA (an indirect measure of cash generated by the company), and then to sell it to someone who will pay them more than they paid for it. And that is true enough. It is equally true that private equity firms extract money from owned companies prior to sale, through fees and special dividends. They often claim that this is compensation for providing guidance, a bogus claim, since except in rare instances those who work at private equity firms have no idea how to run a business (although often those who run the business also have no idea how to run a business), because financial engineering is a completely different skill set from running a business. Hubris is the defining characteristic of private equity, but nemesis never arrives, because of the political power of the financial engineering class.
One might legitimately ask, given that private equity has so many cretins in it, why did I sell to private equity? Because I wanted the money, of course. It so happened that the buyer was the bidder most aligned with all stakeholder interests, not just my interests, although the shift from a firm run by a single man to one run by a larger entity necessarily results in some change, disadvantaging some stakeholders and advantaging others. To be fair to me (something I never fail to do), I should mention that I distributed around ten million dollars to my employees, for although successful entrepreneurship almost always centers on the work of one indispensable man, he cannot do it without others, and the laborer is worthy of his hire. But I would have sold to a greaseball private equity company if that was what got me the most money, if I am being honest. The official mission statement of my company was “The purpose of this company is to put sweet cash in the pocket of Charles Haywood,” and so it turned out. That’s all there is to it. I’m avaricious, not so much for cash as the marker of success, but for what cash will let me do. Perhaps this merely proves I am part of the rot of modern America.
So, of Glass House. As with many books in the genre that combines social analysis with business analysis, the book is somewhat confusing, because it hops around in time and among people. But the basic story is relatively simple. Once upon a time, glass manufacture (not of windows, but of articles) built the modern version of the town of Lancaster, which is some distance southeast of Columbus. The city has plentiful supplies of natural gas, which made it, starting in the late nineteenth century, an ideal place for glass manufacture, an energy-intensive process. The biggest of these glass manufacturers was, and the only one left in or near Lancaster is, Anchor Hocking. Through the lens of Anchor Hocking, Alexander concisely explains glass manufacture, a heavy industrial process requiring hard and dangerous work. This Lancaster was a successful town, and in many ways the image of America in the 1950s, a decade that we are told now was awful, but which was in reality an awesome decade, and the last decade before America hurtled into the pit. Any person in Lancaster could, with a modicum of hard work, have a more than decent life. He wouldn’t be rich (nobody was truly rich in Lancaster, nor were there sharp class distinctions—Anchor Hocking executives drank at the same bars as men who worked the machines), but he would be able to raise a successful family and have a successful life, as success was once defined.
As with many companies, in the 1970s Anchor Hocking ran into trouble. Some of that was the sclerosis that affected many American companies of the era, the result of decades of little competition. In 1982, Carl Icahn bought a block of stock in Anchor Hocking and threatened that he would try to replace management, that is, directors and officers. What he wanted was “greenmail”—to have management repurchase his shares at an above-market price, a practice that is bizarrely not illegal (though a special tax is now imposed on such payments, making them less common today). He got what he wanted, starting a cycle of Anchor Hocking being led around, like a bull with a ring through its nose, by one “investment” firm after another.
The Icahn episode demonstrates a key underlying structural problem with all corporate entities—what is called the “agency problem,” the separation between ownership and control. Those who made the decisions for Anchor Hocking, the officers and directors, were not significant owners, or owners at all in many cases. That means they made decisions with other people’s money, and they could benefit themselves, here by keeping their jobs, at the expense of the owners, the stockholders. Managers say they act (as they are legally required) to benefit the stockholders, not to keep their jobs and perks. But that is at best a half-truth; rare is the manager devoid of self-interest. The agency problem is an eternal challenge for any firm, but in a firm that needs reform, it ensures that reform is unlikely to come except under extreme pressure—often in the form of being bought by private equity. Whatever may be the deficiencies of private equity, as an owner private equity firms take direct, immediate action to benefit the owner, largely removing the agency problem. This means that managers who are fat, lazy, and stupid stay in charge until private equity forces changes; this all-or-nothing approach tends to lead to undesirable outcomes for those who work for or rely on the continued stable existence of a company.
Alexander mostly ignores it, but it is entirely true that American industry in the 1970s and 1980s had fallen behind and needed reform, living large off two decades of riding high and made resistant to pressure by the ever-increasing pie allowing everyone to do well. It is no surprise this led to complacence; that reaction is simply the default for most human creations, whether firms or governments. With the right leadership, complacence can sometimes be avoided, but that leadership is extremely rare. Such sclerosis was before extreme globalization and the ideology of free trade wiped out our industrial capacity, though lean and hungry foreign competitors already were starting to enforce some discipline in the 1970s. (The classic example of this dynamic was the auto industry, whose lunch was eaten by the Japanese.) Anchor Hocking, however, wasn’t much subject to foreign competition (it’s expensive to ship glass across the ocean, although Anchor Hocking did sell overseas, and some foreign glass, especially Mexican, competes in America), and had enormous amounts of difficult-to-replicate tacit knowledge (something Matthew B. Crawford writes very well about). Thus, while it no doubt had become somewhat inefficient, it continued to operate adequately, and it spent money on necessary capital improvements while offering good wages and benefits to workers and being closely tied to the continued success of Lancaster. It’s hard to tell from this book, but there’s no real indication that Anchor Hocking in the 1980s needed to do much differently than it already was. Icahn was looking for a quick buck, not to improve the company.
Coincident with rising sclerosis among American firms, however, was the rise of libertarian economic ideas, epitomized by Milton Friedman, with his idea that the sole purpose of any firm was to make a profit for its stockholders. This was a rejection of the stakeholder view of corporate decision making, in which the corporation is run for the benefit of all those with an interest in its success, in particular the employees (though this concept is too often stretched far from real stakeholders). I used to have quite a bit of sympathy with Friedman’s idea, but it’s become clear that such an imbalanced focus is one of the drivers of American economic decay. On the other hand, it’s also true that the agency problem is real, that managers very commonly line their own pockets and protect their own jobs and perks while lying that they are doing so for all the stakeholders. And more recently, a great many managers have destroyed enormous firm value for all stakeholders by using their firms to virtue signal with leftist agitation, another example of the agency problem, and the most pernicious one yet. The question, again, is where and how to strike the balance in deciding for whose benefit a firm should be operated.
Certainly, we don’t need total laissez faire. The bizarre idea that many supposed conservatives advance, that corporations should be free to do what they want, even monopolistic ones that use their massive power to aggressively advance left-wing goals, is just that—bizarre. It ignores that corporations, which are creatures of the state, are told all the time what they can and cannot do—but only to advance left-wing goals, like forcing small businesses to bake celebration cakes for homosexual “weddings.” The sooner this idea of keeping hands off corporate entities dies, the better. When I am in charge, corporations will work to advance, or at least not hinder, the societal goals of Foundationalism, or they will be dissolved, and regardless of that, no giant corporations at all will be allowed, following Tim Wu’s neo-Brandeisianism.
As for Anchor Hocking, the next four decades of its history were one of decline combined with endless financial engineering machinations. More investments by raiders who demanded short-term returns at the expense of all other stakeholders; spinoffs that lined the pockets of a few; declining quality and declining sales; cutting investment in capital improvement in an attempt to raise cash flow; and all the usual common events in the many American industries choked by financial engineering. The long-standing ties of the company’s managers to the town frayed and then severed. An endless churn of new owners and managers became the new norm, in the corrosive manner modern corporate America endorses. The union was cowed and forced to repeatedly retrench wages and benefits, threatened with shutdowns otherwise. Public money was extracted by one owner after another; school funding was cut in order to meet the demands of voracious new owners. The left-wing critics of the “greed is good” attitude, which tried to justify dishonesty and the quick buck, were, it turns out, correct.
Notably, one short-term owner of the company was Cerberus Capital Management, of which one Stephen Feinberg, a top economic advisor to Donald Trump, is CEO. This simple fact explains a lot about how Trump’s term in office went. Feinberg is laughably described in his Wikipedia profile as a “businessman”; nothing could be further from the truth. He’s a parasitical extractor of value created by others. As Robert Nisbet said, rootless men always betray.
One result of this ruination wrought by financial engineering was that working at Anchor Hocking, which used to be the goal of most young people in the town, became a low-prestige option, where nobody ambitious wanted to work given that upward opportunities were few and the company might shut down at any time. By when this book was written, in 2016, Anchor Hocking was still around, shrunken (as it is to this day, though it seems to be a big seller of bottles for premium liquor), but sadly diminished as a pillar of Lancaster, which itself was, not coincidentally, also sadly diminished. Alexander weaves, among the business discussion, profiles of local residents, not connected to the glass industry, mostly drug addicts. There’s a little too much of this, which becomes repetitive. All you need to know is that like most towns, especially in this area of the country, drug use is ubiquitous and hugely destructive, and a very large percentage of the population cycles in and out of the criminal justice system. The details don’t really matter; what matters is that this is indicative of a blasted and destroyed society. Did that have to happen? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?
The root symptom of Lancaster-style societal destruction is the alienation and isolation that characterizes most of America today, even in economically-thriving areas. From that follow numerous secondary harms. Alienation led to the destruction of the virtues that used to be the norm, and which were enforced by the community. Chief among those disappeared virtues were hard work and thrift; as Alexander says, now “Modesty was out; acquisitiveness was in.” As everywhere, consumerism, usually of cheap Chinese crap, substituted for community, aided by easy credit and easy bankruptcy (and more recently by our government printing money). (If you need more proof of the attitude this creates, I passed a bus stop bench the other day, printed with an advertisement, “Bankruptcy By Phone!”) As the community corroded, those on the edges fell out, creating new edges, that also fell out. As a result, it became increasingly difficult for businesses to find good workers, further fueling decline. Numerous other indicia of decay, such as illegitimacy, soared. The result is that Lancaster today is a drug-addled and poverty-stricken town, where most people who work are employed in health care, an industry pumped up by the vicious cycle of poor health leading to yet more social decay leading to more poor health, and where the only people in Lancaster with good jobs are those who work in Columbus and commute, who have no time to participate in the community.
Many locals blame government handouts for the decay, and there is no doubt much truth in that—as Chris Arnade’s Dignity reveals, government handouts are often what allow many people to wallow in degradation. If they disappeared, we’d have a lot less degradation. But even if there were no payments, and if Anchor Hocking and other employers paid the inflation-adjusted wages and benefits they paid in the 1960s, it’s not clear it would be enough for people in Lancaster to lead the lives our consumerist culture demands they live. The deeper problem is societal expectations and changed structures. The most important changed structure is sex roles—a significant degree of our national fracture of community is the direct result of the poison of Betty Friedan and her ilk, and a huge percentage of alienation and atomization comes from mothers being employed outside the home. Aggressively stigmatizing such work, and ensuring that no subsidies go to encourage it, rather the reverse, would go far toward restoring a decent American society, though you’d need to do a lot more than just that to actually reverse decay, or more accurately, forge a new society.
It’s somewhat sad that a core of older residents keeps hoping to renew Lancaster, and trying to do so, and keeps failing. It’s essentially impossible to renew a town without an economic engine and with a broken society. As Alexander notes at one point, a town that works is “governed by a set of long-held rules and customs.” In a world that celebrates emancipation and autonomic individualism, this evanesces, and cannot be recaptured. I found it particularly interesting how Alexander profiles one young man, Brian Gossett, a fourth-generation employee of Anchor Hocking. Gossett rejects “the System,” by which he means the complex of pernicious societal drivers that creates dead-end lives for young people like him. He’s employed (though he quits Anchor Hocking), and he’s not a drug user, but he drifts, atomized within an atomizing society. This is the kind of young man who in another time would have been guided by his elders, and welcomed less autonomy and more community, but now is cast adrift, offered nothing but temptations. Yet, exemplifying the spirit that much of America fails to understand, that of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (also set in Ohio), he and many others want to stay in Lancaster, which is their home. He just doesn’t see a path forward. He’s been betrayed by our ruling class, which runs the System. The solution, which he can’t see but he would no doubt endorse under the right circumstances, is to bring down the System.
You can’t go back. So what does that imply? Saying you can’t go back is not the same thing as insisting that all the nightmarish social consequences of financial engineering are simply natural, the result of “being part of a modern economy.” Still, the type of sclerosis that affected American industry in the 1970s and 1980s is very real and largely inevitable; although Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of creative destruction is overstated and overvalued, it has a grain of truth, in that change disciplines. The problem, I think, is that we got the wrong type of change, benefiting at the expense of most of America a thin slice of Americans (the 1% of the subtitle of Glass House), as well as various foreigners.
How to address this, and try to move ourselves to a sounder, more broadly socially beneficial, industrial economy, that still allows America to move forward to a new dawn (assuming we also solve all the other problems we have, a big assumption)? First, we should start by breaking the political power of the financial engineers—not just private equity, but hedge funds, big banks, and a vast host of other parasites who have manipulated our entire society to their benefit, on every front from taxes to regulation. Half measures won’t do; I’d not just tax the carried interest at ordinary income rates, but implement confiscatory taxation on financial engineering profits, looking backward (separately from my intent to wholly confiscate the fortune of any wealthy person who has funded destructive left-wing programs, such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs’s widow; the assets of all left-wing foundations, such as the Ford Foundation; and all college endowments above a de minimis amount). We also need a robust antitrust regime that allows no single company, or companies under direct or indirect common ownership, to control more than five percent of any given market, whether internet search or breakfast cereal, no matter the source of that control.
By itself this won’t be enough. The American economy produces less and less of value, but this truth is largely concealed by financial chicanery. We don’t need more cheap crap from abroad to feed the destructive consumerist mill, and we don’t need the fictitious increases in GDP that result from everyone buying more cheap crap, or for that matter, expensive crap, every year. Thus, second, we should massively increase tariffs on any goods coming from low-wage countries, or from China, regardless of its wages. NAFTA and all similar agreements should be voided. It’s just dumb that we allow our manufacturing to be stripped from the country, relying on the continued goodwill of our enemies, on that globalism will be stable and wonderful forever. And cheap is rarely better, even if we have been propagandized into that belief. For example, the other day I needed to buy a drill chuck for a metal mill. The gold standard at one time was Jacobs chucks; but now, having been bought by Danaher, a conglomerate driven by financial engineering, they are made in China, and their quality has plummeted. Or, to take another example, a few days ago I tried to purchase a second Ursa garden wagon, for a long time the pinnacle of garden wagons. But I was told they don’t sell wagons anymore, just parts; Gorilla Carts copied their designs and sells Chinese knockoffs. So when China cuts us off, we won’t have any chucks or wagons at all. That, multiplied across a thousand industries, is a big problem. We can kill both consumerism and our dependency by simply increasing tariffs.
Yes, increasing tariffs would likely diminish American exports and cause short-term economic pain; that’s not necessarily desirable, but it would be desirable if the crisis, following the immortal words of Rahm Emanuel, allowed us to make other required social changes, such as eliminate the BS jobs that are most of what our professional-managerial elite does; eliminate the massive racial grift industry of diversity commissars and the like; and end the idea that it is desirable for mothers to work outside the home. A tall order, but in social change, upheaval is usually necessary first, and this upheaval would be worth it. Along with raising tariffs, we should destroy every other pernicious element of globalism, such as allowing American firms to offshore assets to reduce their tax burden, and allowing any immigration, legal or illegal, of any unskilled workers at all. And I should note that as with most of what I recommend these days, none of these are really policy recommendations in the traditional sense, because in the present dispensation they will never happen. Rather, they are parts of the new dispensation, when the present one is destroyed, root and branch.
The goal of all this, and much more, is to create a society where the working class is aligned with the ruling class, as opposed to what we have now, where the ruling class makes degraded slaves of what remains of the working class. Foundationalism will have, to be sure, a ruling class, though no member of today’s ruling class will be in it. The working class will not be in charge, because the working class is not capable of being in charge. Nonetheless, for us, today, the key is the working class, because their aid in the wars to come will be crucial. To prevent them choosing rightly, our overlords rely on sedating the working classes with consumerism, drugs, porn, and video games. Thus, they have become degraded to a great degree, just like all of us. We can see, though, from Brian Gossett, and from phenomena such as Jordan Peterson, that many young people in the working class don’t want those things. The solution is to, at the right moment, weaponize the working class against the ruling class, and against their foot soldiers, the woke professional-managerial elite and the myrmidons of Burn-Loot-Murder, for both of whom the working class, of all races, have nothing but contempt. A new social compact, for a renewed society. Stephen Feinberg can move to Canada or England, or better yet, Mexico, with the one suitcase of possessions he’s allowed. Then Lancaster can flourish again.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The featured image shows, “The Glass Engraver,” by Charles Frederic Ulrich, painted in 1883.
Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, written in 1921, is the ur-dystopia of all modern dystopias. True, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, both of which this book influenced, get more attention today. In fact, it is nearly a cliché, at least on the Right, that we are heading to some combination of the two, the only question being which our future society will resemble more, if we do not first overthrow the lords of the present age. That is as it may be, but Zamyatin’s novel offers a third future, certainly a future more to the liking of today’s ruling class than either of those other futures. And, crucially, its story ends with a lesson lacking in those other books, even though that lesson is, it appears, universally ignored by those who discuss this book.
I warn you now, this entire review is one big spoiler. We is written as a journal of sorts, the stream of consciousness of a man named D-503. He is a mathematician and the Chief Engineer of a spaceship, named INTEGRAL, being prepared for imminent launch to explore Venus, Mars, and beyond. D-503 is a citizen of OneState, under the absolute rule of, apparently, one man, the Benefactor. D-503, along with other members of the citizenry, has been ordered by the Benefactor to create intellectual cargo for INTEGRAL, to be delivered to inhabitants of other planets in order to propagate the ideology of OneState. He decides to simply record what he sees around him, because what he sees is the “mathematically perfect life of OneState.” To speak of it is to herald its perfection. But D-503’s journal turns out to be, without his intent, a journal of his awakening.
Why does D-503 consider OneState perfect? It is the twenty-sixth century; OneState is two hundred years old, and followed two hundred years of war that killed the vast majority of Earth’s population. OneState is a single city, surrounded by an impenetrable glass wall, the Green Wall. All construction within is also of glass, both a technological achievement and a means of ensuring every citizen may be observed. Nobody ever goes beyond the Green Wall—not because the wilderness is a blasted wasteland, but rather because it is the opposite, an area of uncontrolled growth, a riot of plants and animals.
It is not random that D-503’s rocket is named INTEGRAL. The theme of calculus is shot through this book, and the purpose of the rocket is to “integrate the indefinite equation of the universe”—that is, to subject the rest of the universe to the perfection that is OneState, to turn the natural curves of the universe into the straight line and finite quantity of OneState. It will be, for those unknown peoples in space, “the fiery Tamerlane of happiness.”
OneState aims to order the life of man rationally, in contrast to the disordered irrationality of past ages, that led to war, disease, and suchlike unclean and inefficient happenings. The ideology of OneState is not Communism, or any other modern ideology that actually gained traction in real life. We should remember that Zamyatin wrote in the early days of Bolshevism, and before any example existed of the modern cult of personality. Thus, not only is this book not an attack on Communism, the Benefactor is not an analog of Stalin or other Communist big men. He is not even an absolute ruler, but simply the manifestation of the ruling class that has created and maintained this supposed utopia. Who the others at the top are, how they live, and how power is handed onward, is unclear. It doesn’t matter; what matters is the ideology of OneState, and what that does to the minds and lives of the mass of citizens.
The ideology of OneState is Taylorism, or rather the perfectibility of man through Taylorism, the achievement of his total happiness through a total loss of freedom. Frederick Winslow Taylor, who died in 1915, was, of course, the apostle of efficiency engineering—the breakdown of industrial tasks into smaller tasks and an obsessive focus on completing each such task as efficiently as possible, that is in minimum time with minimum labor. (Very strangely, a translator’s footnote says that the Taylor constantly mentioned in the book was “long thought to be” an obscure early eighteenth-century British mathematician, Brook Taylor, who worked with calculus. How that mistake could be made is beyond me, even with the frequent references to mathematics in the book.) Taylor’s “motions per second” are the underpinning of the Table of Hours, which for each citizen, each Number, is a breakdown of what he is to be doing at any given moment throughout the day, down to “fifty statutory chews of each mouthful.” The story sold by OneState to the citizens, as the narrator tries to remind himself as the truth dawns on him, is that because of the reduction of all action to pure rationality, “the gods have become like us—ergo, we’ve become like gods.” This fake theosis is what the ruling class of OneState offers the regimented citizenry.
Conformity to the Table of Hours is enforced by the secret police, the Guardians. They are needed because not all is as perfect as it seems. In fact, public executions for crimes against the state are common, for such crimes as writing a poem that criticizes the Benefactor. Such executions are a public religious ritual, a type of Girardian scapegoating. Zamyatin describes one, conducted as always through dematerialization by the Benefactor’s Machine. He explicitly analogizes it to the ancients’ “divine service” and the Benefactor to a high priest, who “slowly passed through the stands—in His wake were gentle white female hands raised aloft like branches and a million hosannas in unison,” with the invisible (to the populace) Guardians standing in as angels.
The government’s control over the minutes of citizens’ lives is subject to only one limit: two hours in the day when citizens have Personal Hours, and can occupy their time with what they please, within strict limits, naturally. This highlights the interesting separation between the ideology of OneState and that of Communism, or more broadly the ideology of the Left, of which Communism is merely one branch. Left ideologies desire to control the thought of the people; this is what Orwell got right. To that end they use many tools, among the most important of which are the mutilation of language and the perversion of justice. But even as their thoughts are constrained, citizens can spend their time largely as they please, the opposite of OneState. As Orwell pointed out, in a review before he published 1984, in which both thoughts and actions are regimented, Zamyatin offers a much more realistic dystopia than Brave New World, which would in practice immediately collapse of ennui and enervation. Here, the citizenry has a feeling, even if wholly artificially inculcated, of meaning, unity, and accomplishment, which can continue indefinitely—until the spell is broken.
We should remember that in 1921, all elite opinion, or at least that found in decent circles, West or East, assumed the scientific perfectibility of man, and that is still a core belief of the Left. (This was one reason the Bolsheviks were treated as serious thinkers; there was some small excuse for reasonable people thinking that at the time.) Still, the idea of regimentation under total government control has always seemed undesirable to most of us in the West; that’s why We has always been thought of as a dystopia. Liberty, or now libertinism, sells better. Or at least it did until 2020, when our own governments reacted to the very modest problem of the Wuhan Plague with a grab for total control, aided and abetted by large swathes of the population, ants who were suddenly revealed as eager for safety and the comfort of being regimented.
As I have noted before, there is something in human nature, and in particular in those who climb the greasy pole of political power, that loves an unfettered ability to minutely control others—but they need an excuse to get the people to swallow it, and usually the excuse fails to convince the populace (as was the case with global warming alarmism). Rarely does the populace cooperate, but when they do, climbing back out is not allowed, as we see all over the West today. The desire for control is not purely a Left impulse, to be sure, although because extreme control is needed to allow rule while denying reality, as the Left inherently does, it is necessarily a very prominent trait among all Left regimes. But maybe, if there were any Right regimes, it might be evident there as well. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, generally center-right and reality-based, has implemented an extremely strict plague regime, which surprises me, and is something I cannot understand, but perhaps this is the answer. After all, virtuous regimes that enforce limited government reach are not thick on the ground of modern history.
Despite the best efforts of the ruling class, peeking through the Taylorized life of OneState are human emotions such as jealousy, and the desire of the woman sexually “assigned” (non-exclusively) to D-503 to have a child, forbidden to her because she is short, and eugenics demands she meet the Maternal Norm for height to be allowed to reproduce. D-503 largely lacks the vocabulary or thought patterns to identify emotions, however, making such things, and any non-rational human behavior generally, an irritation to him, because they are something unquantifiable and therefore disturbing. But, as happens, he falls in love, another emotion that has been supposedly Taylorized out of existence. The object of his love is I-330, a mysterious woman he meets, whose public behavior skirts the boundaries of acceptability, and whose private behavior, smoking and drinking and talking treason, goes far beyond it. The meeting is not coincidental; she has targeted him, because she is a leader of a group desiring the overthrow of OneState, the Mephi, and he is the operational leader of INTEGRAL, which they wish to hijack.
No surprise, falling in love troubles D-503, who cannot understand what is happening to him. When I-330 fails to follow the Table, he knows he should report her to the Guardians, but finds excuses to not do so. He logically concludes that he is sick. This sickness is not just his newly discovered romantic feelings, but all his newly discovered emotions and unbidden thoughts, slowly morphing into the realization that he has been lied to his entire life—a realization against which he struggles mightily. He intermittently tries to retreat into the linear realities of mathematics, which he has always believed are the same realities as those offered by OneState—but even there, reality pursues him.
As he descends into what feels like madness, but is really coming awake, D-503 realizes that the conspiracy of the Mephi is broad, and extends through tunnels to outside the Green Wall, where live wild, fur-covered humans. It even extends to within the Guardians, perhaps. He also realizes that I-330 is, if not wholly using him, at least partially using him. But he doesn’t care. Tension rises in the city as the Mephi begin to move—a mini-riot ensues when a marching citizen (they all march in unison as a matter of course) breaks ranks to try to free a prisoner of the Guardians he sees on the street. The newspapers start to make strange statements: “Reliable sources report the discovery once again of signs pointing to an elusive organization whose goal is liberation from the beneficent yoke of the State.” Then comes the annual Day of Unanimity, where the Benefactor is reelected by the assembled populace, the “We” of the title, who vote publicly to show their devotion. He descends from the sky, explicitly a divine figure—and when the pro forma question is asked who votes “No” to his reelection, thousands of hands are raised, instantly casting the city into chaos, as the Guardians pursue those who have dared defy the power of OneState.
The city is, to a small degree, as the organs of OneState retreat, left free. Yet for every action, a reaction, and only a fool ignores this truth in his battles. The powers of OneState announce “Rejoice! For henceforth you are perfect!” In what way? In that every person is to complete the transition to a machine of flesh, through an operation to burn out the “imagination”—meaning independence of thought, including emotion. (This being allegory, we can ignore that turning a person into a calculating machine might very well result in him calculating that the overthrow of the Benefactor made mathematical sense, even for a purely rational actor.)
Perhaps surprising the ruling class, the Operation is greeted with widespread opposition from the populace at large. Wildfire, disorganized resistance arises. Meanwhile, the Mephi implement their plan to seize INTEGRAL—which is thwarted by the Guardians, who had caught wind of the plan. No matter—fighting spreads in the City, and the Mephi smash through the Wall, something thought impossible, letting in the wild outside, heralded by the appearance of birds of prey in the air. Free men skirmish with Guardians and “postoperatives,” bringing up light arms and then heavy weapons; D-503 perceives his civilization collapsing.
Or does he? The last pages are written deadpan again, without the strained emotion characterizing those immediately before; D-503 has been seized and subjected to the Operation. He then gladly, or rather without emotion, betrays what he knows of the Mephi. I-303 and her compatriots have been tortured and are to be executed the next day. But why tomorrow? Because OneState actually is collapsing. The executions “can’t be put off, because in the western quarters there is still chaos, roaring, corpses, animals, and, unfortunately, quite a lot of Numbers who have betrayed reason. But on Fortieth Avenue, which runs crosstown, they’ve managed to build a temporary wall of high-voltage wires. And I hope we’ll win. More—I’m certain we’ll win. Because reason has to win.”
But of course, reason, with its ever-fluid meaning in the modern world, doesn’t have to win. Reality has to win, and that final sentence reveals the truth—OneState is doomed. D-503’s journal is a narration, though he never realizes it, of the inevitable reimposition of reality. Reality cannot be made to conform to calculation; this is the flaw in all ideologies that purport to perfect mankind, because reality always returns, whatever its opposition. The revolt of the citizens of OneState could, for example, be an allegory of the January 2021 Electoral Justice Protest (which, I just noticed, took place nearly one hundred years to the day after this book was written). The parallels between this book and that event are not coincidental; they are the nature of resistance to the loathsome tyrannies of the modern age, which resistance will always rise in a recognizable shape.
As I say, Zamyatin’s book has of late started receiving more mention on the Right, as intellectuals on the Right try to understand the present moment. Yet they ignore the crucial lesson of the book—that OneState is tottering and about to fall, not because of an inspiring book or pithy article, but because the Green Wall has been breached with explosives, corpses litter the street, and the Guardians have been reduced to cobbling together makeshift barriers to the advance of militia forces. Our Right intellectuals ignore that the road back to reality when oppressed by a pernicious ideology, forward to renewal, is always steeped in blood, because ideologues never give up their power voluntarily. He who denies this lies to himself. Once all men knew this; they will be reminded of it, to their sorrow and pain.
Those on the Right who wail about the coming dystopia, whatever brand they forecast, are entirely right that we have already long passed the foothills of dystopia, though its shape remains to be revealed precisely. But most refuse to countenance that the Mephi are right, and they are wrong, with their Benedict Options and grey-man passivism. In a passage that some say was the cause of Zamyatin being exiled by the Bolsheviks, even though his book was not published in Russia until 1988, I-330 says just as infinity dictates there can be no final number, then “how can there be a final revolution? There is no final one. The number of revolutions is infinite. The last one—that’s for children.” So it is.
What does that imply for us? Does it imply that we should join whatever the equivalent of today’s Mephi is? Not necessarily—though not because things aren’t that bad. On the contrary, they are that bad. Our current state is fully as evil as OneState (with our internet standing in for their ubiquitous glass). It offers less Taylorism, and more of an even fouler tyranny of false emancipation and forced egalitarianism, combined with sedation through catering to each citizen’s emotions and base desires, as long as those emotions and desires are approved ones. These are distinctions without a difference; the control sought by our rulers is the same as the rulers of OneState, as is their behavior. Just ask Derek Chauvin, this week sacrificed in a Left religious ritual, a parody of justice, on our equivalent of the Benefactor’s Machine.
To be clear—our current American state is entirely illegitimate and a criminal organization; it has no moral claim on our loyalty, and actively working for its complete destruction is wholly morally justified, that our children may live decently. Paradoxically, however, the reason it now makes little sense to form or join our own Mephi is because our Brawndo Tyranny is far more fragile than the state Zamyatin portrays. Unlike the Benefactor and his myrmidons, our overlords are incompetent idiots, disunited, fragile, stupid, and cowardly. Perhaps that means they could be pushed over the easier, but cornered rats fight, and why pay the cost if not needed? We can be sure they will begin to fracture of their own accord, or under the pressure of external events, at which point the equivalent of the Mephi will be much more effective, though no doubt the types of costs borne by our Mephi, even then, will be the same as those borne by Zamyatin’s. It is in denying that the Mephi are ever necessary that the error lies, not in refusing to build the Mephi now.
To be sure, this is the easier and safer course, and lays the proponent open to the charge of dissimulating, trying to avoid risk while talking big. Perhaps this is a fair charge. Time will tell, and not much time, either.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
Peter Turchin leads a recent academic movement to quantify and mathematize human history. That is, instead of analyzing history thematically, or engaging in broad analysis of happenings and trends, he aims to use processed data to prove hypothesized truths about our collective past. Turchin calls this new science cliodynamics (after the Muse of history), and I thought this effort was largely successful in his Ages of Discord, in which the focus was cycles of stability and instability. I think the effort much less successful in Ultrasociety, which tries to explain all of human history as inevitable cultural evolution towards cooperation; but still, it’s an interesting, if bumpy, ride.
Turchin begins by telling us, accurately enough, that humans are unique in their ability to cooperate at scale. When Turchin says “cooperate,” he means individuals choosing to act in concert with others in pursuit of at least a modestly complex common goal, such as hunting. He says that cooperating only in small groups with known others is the norm among all primates, and that was once also the limit of all human cooperation. Turchin’s bad habit of blurring inconvenient facts shows up early here, however—he ignores that cooperation among non-human primates is actually sharply different than that among primitive humans, so the smooth evolutionary line he is trying to draw from our most distant ancestors to us is not accurate. For example, Turchin does not say, but it is true, that non-human primates cannot even cooperate in small mechanical tasks, such as two chimpanzees carrying a log (they lack “shared intentionality”), and the very earliest humans apparently could.
Anyway, for humans, Turchin contrasts limited cooperation among hunter-gatherers with what is true in the twenty-first century, where some societies are now extreme cooperators, meaning they coordinate voluntarily across millions of people and many years to produce costly public goods (those to which equal access for everyone is the default; air is a public good, for example). Turchin’s aim, therefore, seeing where we began and where we are now, is to explain how this happened “through the new science of Cultural Evolution,” which is a subset of his larger field of cliodynamics.
Turchin never offers a pithy definition of cultural evolution, but he means that cultures evolve through natural selection, that is, competition that drives one society to extinction and enhances the survivor. In an initial sleight of hand, in one glancing reference, Turchin dismisses as the cause of increased cooperation recent biological evolutionary changes such as those proposed by Gregory Clark and Nicholas Wade. Considering that possibility would detract from his thesis of cultural evolution, but he is too honest to reject the reality of biological changes entirely, so he ignores them instead. He traces back the modern version of cultural evolution to E. O. Wilson in the 1970s, and views his own contribution as adding data and mathematical synthesis, which gives “us the tools to analyze societies as coherent, integrated wholes,” strengthening what otherwise might be perceived as mere anecdotes.
In these introductory sections, Turchin previews the rest of the book by informing us that the driver of cultural evolution, more than anything else, is war, which paradoxically, after much tears and blood, creates “large, peaceful, and wealthy ultrasocieties.” (“Eusociality” is the instinctive large-scale behavior of honeybees and certain ants; “ultrasociality” is, we are told, the term for similar cooperative behavior by choice, only found in humans—thus the title of the book.) In short, therefore, this book is an explanation of why war is necessary for peace. I think Turchin is probably right in that, but I think he’s wrong that humans qua humans have reached some unique level of beneficial cooperation in the modern world, and in fact it’s pretty obvious we’ve either passed over into diminishing returns from cooperation, or discovered the hard-coded limits of cooperation. But more on that later.
To prove his claims, Turchin offers selected history from the past ten thousand years. He points out the extreme violence that characterizes all tribal hunter-gatherers (which all humans were ten thousand years ago, with some variations in societal complexity), from American Indians to pre-pharaonic Egyptians. No cooperation existed between tribes, rather a state of war. Turchin wants to offer an explanation of what changed and what made the cooperation of today possible. This is another way of asking how human societies became more complex than tribes, a question that has exercised very many great minds. The short answer given by Turchin’s version of cultural evolution is that the need to not be wiped out led, in zigzag pattern, sometimes up, sometimes down, to greater cooperation and societal size. This is basically Francis Fukuyama’s idea, and not new with him either, but Turchin puts an original gloss on it.
He sets the stage by complaining that cooperation has been declining in America, no doubt trying to offer a compelling hook to the casual reader. He does identify correctly that America is now a far lower cooperation society than it was in 1955. But he does himself no favors with his tendentious and wholly inaccurate capsule history of the last sixty years, in which he ascribes this problem to one cause—the ideology of Ayn Rand, filtered through and popularized by Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, and politicized by Ronald Reagan, who channeled Gordon Gekko (occasionally spelled by Turchin “Gecko,” not lending confidence to the reader). This led to Enron, which was Very Bad. The ludicrous silliness of this trite and superficial analysis cannot be overstated—it completely ignores the several real drivers of this decline, and grossly overstates the influence, and unitary philosophy, of dead European refugees.
Economically the global free market, in what is now in retrospect obviously a mistake, was indeed allowed to overwhelm America. But that’s among the minor reasons that social trust and cooperation has disappeared; the rot of the elites and the dominance of leftist narratives are far more important, as I have discussed more than once elsewhere. Ayn Rand and Mises have no relevance to anything in 2021 America.
From here, though, Turchin improves (even if there’s lots of bouncing around, and a distinct odor of cherry-picking, easy to do with archaic history). He discusses when it is rational to cooperate, most of all to produce public goods, and when it is rational to free-ride. (Answer: always the latter, absent some larger framework that changes incentives; contra Richard Dawkins, there is no biologically-evolved altruism toward strangers, and the “selfish gene” is a myth.) Team sports teach us about cooperation (although reader confidence drops again when Turchin refers to the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team as “famous” and its wins resulting in the campus “celebrat[ing] for days on end”—the former is not true, and I doubt the latter). For a team, maximizing individual performance (and therefore benefit to that player) will almost always lead to not maximizing team performance. According to Turchin, data across multiple sports shows that teams which have higher inequality of performance among team members perform worse, on average, than teams with less inequality of performance. Egalitarian cooperation, that is, on average maximizes returns to the group.
Then Turchin turns back to “the study of how and why the frequencies of cultural traits change with time.” He talks about social trust (which he seems to treat as a subset of social cooperation, though I’d invert that), citing Edward Banfield’s The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, which studied a mid-twentieth-century Italian village with very low trust (although Turchin is wrong that Banfield identified this as a trait passed down over the generations; he actually said the opposite). “Evolution,” Turchin hastens to add, doesn’t mean progress; it just means some change in an otherwise stable cultural system.
From these small-scale societal anecdotes Turchin generalizes a theory of “Multilevel Selection.” He offers some basic (but confusing) math, the “Price equation” (a way to measure the generational effects of covariability), to show that given intense competition between groups, more variation within groups leads to worse outcomes, but more variation across groups leads to better outcomes—for the winning group, that is. “Variation” here includes degrees of cooperation; thus, if a group has more free riders than another group has cooperators, the second group will, on average, out-compete the first (because, as for basketball teams, egalitarian cooperation is better). It will grow more crops, it will get bigger, it will win more battles—as long as the cooperators don’t lose out to free-riders within their own group. To avoid this, they must suppress internal competition, and not allow free-riding within the group.
Having set the evolutionary scene through a mathematical lens, Turchin purports to apply it directly to human history. In this telling, projectile weapons were more important to human evolution, biological and cultural, than fire; they allowed felling large animals and eating the marrow, moving from scavenging corpses to making corpses (and helping to increase brain capacity). Humans were still hunter-gatherers, and fitting with Turchin’s theory, hunter-gatherer societies appear to have been universally (and are today) notably egalitarian, with a “reverse dominance hierarchy” where the group strongly discourages attempted domination by any one person.
Why, though, when other primates have normal dominance hierarchies? Turchin says it was because projectile weapons allow those who set themselves up to be alpha males to be easily killed by the others—unlike among other primates, whose lack of such weapons invariably means an alpha male-headed hierarchy. This meant that evolution selected men (who of course still led, as they have led every group in human history, with zero exceptions) not so much for strength, but for social intelligence, the ability, among others, to build coalitions through cooperation. And in this process, when groups competed with each other, in war, those with more cooperators tended to win out, because of Multilevel Selection.
Cultural evolution isn’t inevitably the result of intense inter-group competition, however. Turchin details the constant warfare of the New Guinea highlands, which continued into the modern era. No cultural evolution resulted at all; some war is just counter-productive, leading to endless death with zero change. For the most part, such wars are either wars within societies or inconclusive wars, as both of which Turchin counts New Guinea wars. He also goes on a pages-long digression, an attack on Victor Davis Hanson’s claim that the “Western way of war” is a “decisive clash with close-range weapons.” Turchin says this is a “delusion,” and all that matters, or has ever mattered, in warfare is long-range weapons, in the West and elsewhere.
But, paradoxically, egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies evolved, zig-zagging, not to larger egalitarian societies, but to the most extremely non-egalitarian societies in human history. Turchin uses the example of Hawaii, where a version of god-kingship evolved, in which lower caste people were often killed for looking incorrectly at the king, or sacrificed in religious rituals. Most or all archaic societies developed in a similar strongly inegalitarian direction, including the earliest human civilizations in Mesopotamia. Turchin ascribes this to the development of agriculture—not at the inception of agriculture, though. He claims that small-scale agriculture, with societies still egalitarian yet capable of cooperation, prevailed for thousands of years before larger archaic states came into being. He ascribes this stasis to people resisting inegalitarianism; his perspective is basically that of James C. Scott (whom he does not cite), that the agriculturalist is much worse off than the hunter-gatherer.
Still, societies gradually moved toward being more agricultural and less egalitarian, even against the interests of most individuals in the society. Why did societies so develop? War—bigger societies win against smaller ones, and a bigger society only works if you culturally evolve to cooperate, to produce crops, among other things. Societies that don’t cooperate get exterminated, using the Price equation. And you can have top-down cooperation; Turchin is not using “egalitarian” as a synonym for “cooperative,” although he frequently blurs the difference in a confusing way.
Turchin offers an unconvincing explanation for why it took thousands of years for this cultural evolution to happen, alleging that anyone trying to grab power was assassinated until “new cultural methods for legitimating” the power of chiefs evolved. He uses the example of the Germanic tribes and Arminius, who was assassinated despite his success against the Romans, and concludes “there must have been thousands of upstarts in human history who failed to make the leap to a permanent kingship.” Then he ascribes success to “avoiding arrogance and cultivating modesty [and] demonstrat[ing] to the people that the hierarchical social order is preferable to the alternative.” Turchin rejects alternative explanations of the masses voluntarily giving up egalitarianism, such as the need for irrigation, economic benefit, or the masses being hoodwinked.
Still, in these early years of the new agricultural mega-societies, those men at the top who were successful in war somehow managed to achieve the right aura to become god-kings, the top of the heap. These god-kings behaved in terrible ways, unrestrained by any moral code, including as a rule “massive human sacrifice.” Cultural evolution nonetheless proceeded; competition among these new larger societies led some to survive and some not; “by eliminating poorly coordinated, uncooperative, and dysfunctional states, [this process] create[d] more cooperative, more peaceful, and more affluent ones.”
So in a sense the societies of god-kings “worked.” But their reign of personal terror was ultimately tempered by the spiritual awakening of the Axial Age—not ended, but refocused onto the well-being of the people. The Axial Age, a term coined by Karl Jaspers, began roughly at the same time as the Greek archaic age (800 B.C.) and lasted for six hundred years, or so. Jaspers’s, and Turchin’s, theory is that a great spiritual awakening took place all over Eurasia during this time, everything from Confucianism to Zoroastrianism, commonly in connection with a clearer separation between the gods and men, and in particular introducing the idea of gods who monitored and cared about human behavior (thereby increasing trust as a result of fear of displeasing the gods). Turchin refers to this as a “universal egalitarian ethic” and says that the god-kings changed their ways as a result. That claim is pretty dubious, given the massive differences among the cited religions (or philosophies), and Turchin ignores inconvenient examples not fitting this claim, such as the Greeks and Romans during the Axial Age.
At the same time, horses, iron, and archery allowed the expansion of horse warriors on the Eurasian steppes; these threatened the existing agricultural empires, wherever they were on the egalitarian scale, which responded with further cultural evolution towards cooperation to meet the new threat. Those societies that failed to adapt in this way, such as the Assyrians, disappeared. States therefore continued to increase in size—and the new Axial religions assisted by gluing multi-ethnic empires, such as the Achaemenid and Mauryan, together, allowing “imagined communities” to arise.
We then skip nearly directly to the modern era, with a lengthy pause to attack Steven Pinker. Turchin rejects Pinker’s theories in The Better Angels of Our Nature; he agrees that violence is down; he just denies Pinker’s claim of a smooth decline over the ages, and rejects Pinker’s claimed drivers, in favor of, no surprise, increased cooperation, and a direct correlation and causation between increased cooperation and decreased violence. Pinker has, apparently, attacked cultural evolution (he instead, like Dawkins, points to the desire to help kin and reciprocal altruism as the origin of cooperation), so Turchin is here repaying the favor; the result is fairly boring inside baseball. (And again, Turchin does not inspire confidence when he refers to the eighth to twelfth centuries A.D. in Europe as “a period of retreat of reason also known as the ‘Dark Age.’ ” One wonders if his history knowledge is anything but surface deep; there is little evidence it is.)
Now we have arrived in the twenty-first century. Turchin uses as his exemplar of modern human ultra-cooperation, the claimed pinnacle of human achievement, the International Space Station. In a sense this is true (even if it’s mostly a United States achievement); the ISS is shiny and fancy, and nobody could make and operate such a machine a hundred years ago. But the ISS also shows that cooperation is not a good in itself; what it produces matters. And the ISS is a dead end, a waste of space, a sink of corruption, and an anchor weighing down human achievement. You never hear about the ISS, because there is nothing worth talking about. Not to mention that government by committee, which is the nature of the ISS, never accomplishes anything except dissipating resources. The ISS is basically a bigger, and not especially better, Skylab—which fell to earth in 1979. It has cost around $200 billion (mostly funded by the United States), with nothing to show for the money. Turchin says “What needs to be destroyed [through cultural evolution] are those cultural traits that make societies less successful—less cooperative, less internally peaceful, and less wealthy.” But what if cooperation, past a certain point, leads not to success, but to stupidity, waste, and retrogression? That’s certainly what it’s led to in the case of the ISS.
Turchin’s other examples of modernity’s cooperative achievements fare no better as proof of progress. CERN (the particle accelerator) is nice, I suppose, and I like scientific research, but it’s been going on for many decades without pushing the human race forward in any meaningful way. And the United Nations?! Please. I could write ten pages on that, but really, does any sensible person think the UN does anything of value? No, it’s a combination of cover for thug regimes, and a poisoned spear used by the global elite to forcibly infect countries with globohomo. In both cases, it’s not some impressive example of cooperation; it’s an engine of corruption and backward movement.
Thus, modern humans simply don’t cooperate for worthwhile purposes on the unprecedented scale that Turchin says. Most large-scale cooperation produces merely diminishing returns and bureaucratic sclerosis; look around. Does the now more than one trillion dollars spent on the Department of Education make you feel good about our ultrasociety’s accomplishments? In fact, history shows societies only effectively cooperate on the scale of the nation-state (or smaller)—and almost always only where there is a starkly homogenous culture; Turchin ignores that the Price equation implies that more than a small amount of diversity, along any variable tied to societal cohesion, is likely fatal for a society.
Moreover, the only cooperators with a lengthy track record of any cooperative ultra-achievement are Western countries. Many non-Western countries have cooperated to a reasonable degree for centuries, and what have they ever added to humanity? Nothing of any importance. There also exists no worthwhile global-scale cooperation, whatever Turchin optimistically claims, and none appears on the horizon. The Wuhan Plague turned out to be not very important as a plague, though very important for other reasons, but certainly global cooperation wasn’t the response, even among Western countries.
Turchin, a prolific and ambitious author, didn’t write this book as an isolated project. As he discusses, ten years ago he started a “global history databank,” named Seshat (after the Egyptian god of scribes), to collect and code historical data. The goal is to mathematically analyze the data collected to prove (or disprove) theories tied to cliodynamics. This sounds good, but it’s not clear to me such a project makes sense.
In Ages of Discord, Turchin tied certain quantifiable indicators, such as elite overproduction, to societal changes, and predicted the 2020s would be a decade of chaos. That he seems to have been right makes that effort seem prescient. But the far broader application of mathematics Turchin tries here doesn’t convince the reader of anything that wasn’t already obvious, and my expectation is that Seshat has the same impact. I could easily be wrong, though, and whatever my reservations about this book, it makes one think about both our history and our future, which is certainly something beneficial.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The featured image shows, “Ice landscape,” by Hendrick Avercamp, painted ca. 1610.
It has long been fashionable to regard Christianity as myth, no different in substance than many other ancient myths. Sometimes this is done to glibly dismiss Christ’s message; sometimes it is done in sorrow, viewing, as C. S. Lewis did before his conversion, Christianity as one of many lies, even if was “breathed through silver.” René Girard entirely rejects this idea, offering an anthropological, rather than spiritual, argument for Christianity being a true myth, and for the complete uniqueness of Christianity, as well for as its centrality to the human story. Girard’s appeal is that his framework explains the core of all human societies, and thus explains, at any moment, the present. Therefore, though he died in 2015, Girard says much about America in 2021.
Girard was a devout Roman Catholic, a Frenchman who spent much of his academic career in the United States. (He has gotten some extra attention from the fact that he taught Peter Thiel, who became a big admirer of Girard and who gave a eulogy at his funeral). Girard first published his theory of mimetic contagion in 1978, in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. I was going to read that book, but was encouraged to start with the more recent, and much shorter, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. So here I started, although I glanced at Things Hidden from time to time, as well as at several other books Girard wrote. This edition of I See Satan Fall contains an excellent Foreword by James G. Williams, summarizing the basics of Girard’s thought on mimetic contagion, making it a good place for a novice to start.
Girard begins by announcing his intent to explore and highlight, rather than minimize as most devout people do, the similarities and parallels between the Gospel and pagan myths, and for good measure his intention to dismantle Friedrich Nietzsche. He then outlines his theory of mimetic contagion, using as his frame the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet. . . .” “Covet” for Girard means not an untoward desire, but simply any desire for what others have. He identifies this not as God’s mere prohibition on greed, but rather, far more fundamentally, as a unique early attack on the internal cycle of violence that is the basis of all human societies.
One of Girard’s purposes has nothing to do with religion, and that is to explain how human societies began, namely in violence, a specific kind of violence with a specific kind of purpose. But as can be seen from his dissection of the Decalogue, his other purpose is to prove that Christianity (and to a lesser extent, Judaism) is unique among all human religions, able to release mankind from the prison into which the forms of violence the underpin all human societies have placed us. Christ’s death on the Cross was fully as meaningful as Christians would have it—even if Christ was not, in fact, as he claimed, the Son of God, his sacrifice upended the entire anthropological order of the world. He showed a path of redemption, both secular and divine (reflecting the hypostatic union) previously unknown to mankind.
Violence in human societies arises because we desire what our neighbor has, because our neighbor desiring it makes it desirable in our eyes. “Our neighbor is the model for our desires. This is what I call mimetic desire.” That is to say, despite our own perception that our desires are internally generated, in most instances they arise by imitation; we desire what others desire, not what we independently want. (A related principle is well-known in the context of how wealthy people feel about their wealth, but Girard’s vision is far broader).
My neighbor, however, by his possession of what I desire, thwarts my desire, at the same time my desire, in a reflection of my own actions, perceived by my neighbor, intensifies my neighbor’s desire for what he already has. Girard calls this “double desire,” and the rivals are “mimetic doubles,” very similar to each other but perceiving unreal huge differences. (This insight is part of why Thiel admires Girard; it has obvious applications in many human realms, including business.) We perceive ourselves as autonomous, when in fact we are “enslaved to our mimetic models.”
This spiral of rivalry and its consequences Girard calls “scandal,” and he says this process inevitably engulfs entire societies through a process of “violent contagion,” citing Matthew 18:7, “Scandals . . . must come.” The original rivalries are often forgotten entirely as new ones arise with blinding speed, eventually converging on one society-wide scandal. This violent contagion convulses a society; it will tear itself apart in mass violence unless something is done.
That something is to identify a single innocent on whom the concentrated fury of the accumulated rivalries can be directed, through the killing of the innocent by the society acting as a whole. This killing produces a superbly cathartic effect on the society, and peace is restored, for a time, as everyone in society congratulates himself on a job well done—even though this killing is invariably, in reality, utterly unjust. (Girard focuses on a “single victim,” but elsewhere suggests that the victim can be more than one individual, and just as easily a large identifiable group).
Girard thus sees social conflict as normal, not accidental. It is inevitable in the nature of man. Not for Girard fantasies of peaceful societies of the distant past; he would not be surprised at the evisceration of such silliness by Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization, and he would no doubt agree with Carl Schmitt’s thoughts on the friend-enemy distinction. But it is not any violence that is Girard’s focus, but this very specific kind of violence. At the same time, he sees mimetic desire, because it allows us to choose what we desire, as what makes us human, rather than animals driven purely by instinct, and therefore of itself intrinsically good. “Our unending discords are the ransom of our freedom.”
Girard then turns to the Passion of Christ, demonstrating that the behavior of the men surrounding Christ’s death, from Saint Peter to Pontius Pilate, and even the Jews who had so lately cheered Jesus, are examples of mimetic contagion, where the players are driven to give in to the rising violence even when that is not their intention, and in fact wholly contrary to their declared and actual intention. Neither Peter nor Pilate wants Christ crucified, yet they are swept up in the contagion. In this the death of Christ is entirely unexceptional, and it echoes a long list of similar episodes in the Bible, both of the persecution of various Old Testament prophets (and of the prefiguring Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah), and of, more recently in Biblical time, the death of John the Baptist.
From whence comes mimetic contagion? It comes from Satan. Now, it is never precisely clear, at least in this book, if Girard sees Satan as an individual and entity. It does, in fact, appear not; at one point, Girard refers to the Devil as “totally mimetic, which amounts to saying nonexistent as an individual self” (italics in original). Yet as a devout Roman Catholic he probably did (my guess is this is addressed elsewhere, perhaps in the several books of interviews of Girard that have been published recently). Maybe this apparent confusion results from Girard’s stated intention to make his book wholly scientific, rather than theological, in focus.
Regardless, Girard heaps contempt on modern attempts to write Satan out of the Bible and Christianity; in his view, Satan is the hinge around which our temporal world turns. Satan is responsible for mimetic crisis, by showing us what we desire and then blocking our acquisition of what we desire, thereby creating scandal. Girard cites the episode in Matthew 16, where Peter “invites Jesus, in short, to take Peter himself as the model of his desire,” and Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are a scandal to me.” Jesus instead demands we, like him, avoid mimetic rivalry by focusing our desire on the desires of the Father.
But, in the words of Mark 3:23, Satan can cast out Satan. He initiates the cycle of mimetic violence, and also, through the catharsis that follows the killing of the scapegoat, restores order and harmony to society, a feeling of having been purified. This is the key to his being the prince of this world, for if he merely brought chaos and anarchy, he would have no power. Yet he continuously plays both sides of the game, thereby maintaining his power.
The Crucifixion is an exemplar of this process; “[w]hat makes the mimetic cycle of Jesus’s suffering unique is, not the violence, but the fact that the victim is the Son of God.” His sacrifice ended the rule of Satan—because it broke the cycle of mimetic violence that was the formation of all human societies prior to Christianity, founding an entirely new anthropology. Jesus is wholly different, because he invited his disciples to desire what he desired, however that desire was not a mimetic rivalry, but the desire to imitate the Father in all things. If accepted, this protects us from mimetic rivalries entirely, and is thus an upgrade to the Tenth Commandment.
After outlining this cycle, Girard proceeds to contrast myth and Christianity, what he calls a study in comparative religion. He does this by analyzing the hagiographical Life of Apollonius by Philostratus, a militant pagan. (Apollonius was a wonderworking guru of the first century A.D., a great favorite of shallow-thinking New Atheists, such as Matthew Ridley in his execrable The Evolution of Everything, who think that the parallels to Christ in the supposed life of Apollonius disprove the existence of Christ).
Girard discusses at length how Apollonius ended a plague in Ephesus by egging on the pagan Ephesians to stone to death a crippled beggar, overcoming their hesitation by enticing them to throw the first stone, whereupon the dead beggar was revealed to have been a demon, and the plague ended, with the intervention of the god Heracles. Girard believes this was a real episode, though certainly no demon was revealed and no god intervened, but the plague, one not of disease but scandal resulting from mimetic rivalries engulfing the city, was still by this blood sacrifice cured. Moreover, contrasting Christ’s defusing of the proposed stoning of the woman caught in adultery (John 8), Girard notes that even the process of killing itself is the result of mimetic contagion—it is difficult to get the stoning started, but once it begins, it becomes unstoppable.
From this jumping-off place Girard moves backward, to earlier myths, such as those of Oedipus and those surrounding the cult of Dionysus. Girard interprets various founding myths that involve a murder followed by the divinization of the object of the murder, often in a form of resurrection, as evidence of the universal pattern of mimetic contagion resulting in a crisis existentially tearing at the social fabric and its cure through the single victim mechanism. (His book The Scapegoat analyzes many more examples).
Through this mechanism false gods are often created, because it seems divine how the victim can bring society together, and these new gods underpin the creation of human societies. This is the “founding murder”; the story of Cain and Abel is one, as is that of Romulus and Remus. Girard takes these myths as representative of multiple cycles of mimetic violence surrounding the formation of societies and ensuring their stability. Religion forms the core of every social system; it is essential to humanity, not a parasite upon the real mechanisms of societal formation. Girard has no truck with theories of social contract, and no doubt thinks equally little of other theories of societal formation, such as Francis Fukuyama’s.
Turning back to Christianity, Girard analyzes passages from the New Testament that suggest the Gospel writers recognized, for the first time in human history, the “powers and principalities,” that is, Satan, as complicit in this process of societal formation. A key point of Girard is that Gospel passages that seem opaque or obvious are often nothing of the sort, but rather encapsulate enormous insights we typically miss. His book is filled with passages from both the Old and New Testaments that could be seen as banal but into which Girard breathes life. The passages Girard cites are often read as superstitious or magical thinking, but he rather interprets them as deeply insightful into human nature and conduct, and what is more, aware of how Jesus, true man and true god, upended this age-old human mechanism.
It is to this last point that Girard devotes the final third of his book. He directly attacks the view that the Gospels are just another myth. Anti-Christian apologists have long tried to show that the Gospels differ only in the particulars of myth; the broad themes are just the same as all other myths. In a jujitsu move, however, Girard entirely agrees with these critics—the Gospels are substantially identical in their form to other myths, because both the myths and the Gospel are part of a larger, essential truth, that of the cycle of mimetic violence. The difference of the Gospels is that that Christ completely inverts, and thereby utterly destroys, the universal pattern that existed before his sacrifice.
To demonstrate this, Girard steps back to the story of Joseph, comparing it to the story of Oedipus. There are a great many broad similarities—but the crucial difference, in which the ancient Jews prefigured Christ, is that Oedipus was guilty of the crimes for which he was punished, and Joseph innocent. In the Bible, the guilty are the accusers—that is, Satan; in the Greek myth, the righteous are the accusers. In other words, the Bible, both Old and New Testament, is unique, because it, even before Christ, attacks the standard mythic narrative. “The story of Joseph is a refusal of the religious illusions of paganism.” Similarly, the Psalms “are the first [texts] in human history to allow those who would simply become silent victims in the world of myth to voice their complaint as hysterical crowds besiege them.” And Job “not only resists totalitarian contagion but wrests the deity out of the process of persecution to envision him as the God of victims, not of persecutors…No one and no tradition before the Bible were capable of calling into question the guilt of victims whom their communities unanimously condemned.” Judaism was the first religion to reject the mimetic contagion and the divinization of victims.
So what then of Christianity, which does indeed divinize the victim? It merely appears to follow the form of myth; but in fact is a complete inversion of myth. Girard here explicitly rejects Marcionism, the ancient heresy that the God of the Old Testament is a mere demiurge and entirely distinct from the God of the New Testament. Rather, the Old and New Testaments are not in any way in contradiction. Not only is Christ innocent, as Joseph was, but there is no violent unanimity in the community as to his death (though due to the process of mimetic contagion, unanimity is near complete at the moment of the Passion), and thus Christ’s death does not bring harmony—it brings not peace, but a sword.
The Gospel therefore reveals truths hidden since the foundation of the world, a crucial anthropological reality. “The Gospels reveal everything that human beings need to understand their moral responsibility with regard to the whole spectrum of violence in human history and to all the false religions.” In fact, Christ himself repeatedly cites passages from the Psalms revealing this reality, further showing the continuity of the Old and New Testaments. By the Cross, mankind escapes Satan, and thus the Eastern Orthodox view (largely disappeared in the West) that Christ by his sacrifice on the Cross duped Satan to his irretrievable detriment contains great insight and truth (although, Girard notes, it is perhaps less trick than simply “the inability of the prince of this world to understand the divine love”). Christ thereby subverts mimetic contagion, releases us from its hold, and redeems mankind.
Not that mankind often takes the opportunity to accept the redemption that Christ offers. Yes, Christianity has spread widely, and mimetic contagion is no longer the core of societies, or at least of Christian societies (though the entire world is influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the Cross). We still scapegoat, but we are ashamed of it, and try to hide our participation in any mimetic contagion in which we become involved. We accuse others of scapegoating in order to criticize them, in particular to stigmatize perceived discrimination.
This leads to the modern phenomenon of victimology. “Our society is the most preoccupied with victims of any that ever was.” Yet we often tell ourselves that we are inadequately compassionate and we must do more. What is this? Merely another instance of mimetic contagion. “The victims most interesting to us are always those who allow us to condemn our neighbors. And our neighbors do the same. They always think first about victims for whom they hold us responsible.” Nonetheless, Girard ascribes the modern concern with human rights “to a formerly unthinkable effort to control uncontrollable processes of mimetic snowballing.” This is the result of Christianity, of course, even though moderns frequently, in a bizarre error, scapegoat Christianity as the cause of victimization.
Finally, and crucially, Girard examines modern trends of thought that reject Christianity’s view of the victim as innocent, and attempt to reintroduce the pagan view of the victim as the justified target of mimetic violence—justified both by his supposed actual crime, and by the benefit to society that results, both cathartically and instrumentally, from his death. He ascribes to Nietzsche the rediscovery that pagan violent unanimity was an identical process to that taking place in the Passion. But Nietzsche falsely concluded from this insight that the pagan view was superior, and, famously, Christianity a “slave religion,” born of resentment, that hampers human flourishing by excessive concern for the victim, when in fact Christianity is “heroic resistance to violent contagion.” Nietzsche exalts Dionysus over Christ; this is a regression, not an advance.
Here, and really only here in the book, Girard enters choppy waters. He makes several claims that either make little sense or have been disproved. In the first category, he ascribes to the concern for victims “colonial conquests, abuses of power, the murderous wars of the twentieth century, the pillage of the planet, etc.” It is unclear how such a causal mechanism would work and he does not explain. In the second category, he denies that the West is decadent or (spiritually) aging; rather, it “seems to have extraordinary longevity, due to renewal and perpetual enhancement of its leadership and institutions.” No comment is necessary, although this book was published in 1999, so Girard’s apparent optimism is more understandable.
Regardless, Girard did foresee the logical consequence of excessive focus on victimization. “The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition… The fact that our world has become solidly anti-Christian, at least among its elites, does not prevent the concern for victims from flourishing—just the opposite… We are living through a caricatural ‘ultra-Christianity’ that tries to escape from the Judeo-Christian orbit by ‘radicalizing’ the concern for victims in an anti-Christian manner.” Yet at the same time Nietzschean influence grows, in part because Christianity is made the common scapegoat. Those on the Right can see the Nietzschean strain rising in reaction to the Left’s advances, most notably recently in the work of Bronze Age Pervert. Girard would not be a BAP fan.
But this rising Nietzschean influence is not the real threat; those ideologies that reject the concern for victims, especially National Socialism, never got much traction. The real threat, “the most powerful anti-Christian movement… is the one that takes over and ‘radicalizes’ the concern for victims in order to paganize it,” which “presents itself as the liberator of humanity . . . in place of Christ,” but is actually a mimetic rival of Christ. This ideology has brought back Satan, because it both creates mimetic contagion by “borrow[ing] the language of victims” and offers the age-old solution to contagion, violence against the innocent who are seen to oppose social justice. In other words, the modern Left (though Girard does not use that term, or identify this tendency by name) is literally Satan, the prince of this world, the accuser of the innocent, the tempter from the beginning, Antichrist.
Yet Antichrist is not an entity but something “banal and prosaic,” by which Girard means not inefficacious at creating evil, but something existing since the foundation of the world. “The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver. Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victimology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc. . . . . Neo-paganism locates happiness in the unlimited satisfaction of desires, which means the suppression of all prohibitions.” This is not surprising. Christ did not imprison Satan when he defeated him; he fell like lightning, and he fell to earth, “where he will not remain inactive.”
Yes, Christ showed us how to resist Satan, but we have, more often than not, failed. Thekatechon, the power that holds back the Antichrist that Saint Paul mentions in Second Thessalonians (and a key focus of Carl Schmitt), only holds back Satan in part. Christianity can redeem the whole history of man, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete (whose name in Greek, parakletos, means “defender of the accused”). But we must choose; for God gave us free will. And our record is not good.
Girard does not say what must be done, but it is obvious. We must break this renewed cycle of mimetic violence brought to us by modern neopagan philosophies, by our restoring the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice, refusing to participate in mimetic scapegoating and rejecting concern for false victims.
This is easy enough to apply to 2021 America. To take only one example (there are many), Girard would see clearly that George Floyd was no victim; he is just a tool in a massive ongoing scheme of mimetic scapegoating by the Left/Satan. The real victims, the focus of the violent unanimity of Burn-Loot-Murder joined with a constellation of other powerful groups, are white people as a group, especially those who refuse to deny their supposed “whiteness” and join their persecutors, and most of all devout Christian white people. They are demonized by the Left as it inflates a Girardian scandal.
You only have to glance at the vocabulary of critical race theory with its core ideology of demanding the violent elimination of white people to see the truth of this. As I have been saying for some time, the result is likely to be violence when a leader arises to defend, and to focus the mimetic rivalry of, whites.
This social situation is, shall we say, extremely unfortunate, but Girard would not be surprised—white people are simply today’s Ephesian beggar, but with a lot more guns. This will not end well, but it will be their fault, not ours. Girard would ask, with Rodney King, that we all “just get along,” yet he would know that against this type of action of Satan, such a plea is unlikely to work—unless a society adopts the true vision of Christ, thereby breaking the mimetic rivalry.
I’m not hopeful that’s about to happen, because as Girard says, the Left is an ideology, a satanic one, and ideologies can only be broken by force. Maybe after that’s finished, we can try again to master the cycle.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The featured image shows, “The Last Judgment” by Jan Mandyn, painted ca. 1550.
I recently wrote of the Finnish Civil War, where the Whites defeated the Reds. In the twentieth century, that pattern was unfortunately the exception, with the more common result being seen in the Russian Civil War of 1918–20, where the Russian Reds defeated the Russian Whites. That struggle, though not as forgotten as the Finnish Civil War, does not loom large in modern consciousness, and books on it are rare. This volume, the recently-reprinted war memoir of Peter Wrangel, probably the most successful and certainly the most charismatic of the White generals, addresses that gap. It also carries many lessons, including about what might occur in a twenty-first-century ideological civil war in a large country.
The Whites lost for more than one reason, including poor generalship, inability to work in a unified fashion, and betrayal by the Allies, particularly Britain. We will return to all of these as seen through Wrangel’s eyes. He was a Baltic German, born in 1878 in the Russian Empire, what is now Lithuania. Trained as a mining engineer, he volunteered for Imperial service, and became a cavalry officer in the prestigious Life Guards. He fought in the Russo-Japanese War, and then all through World War I, receiving numerous decorations for bravery. This book picks up in 1916, as the war dragged on for Russia, and as the Russian elite, corrupt and clueless, shattered upon the shoals of destiny.
Wrangel’s memoir, essentially an edited war diary, was first published in 1928, the year Wrangel died, serialized in German in a White émigré magazine. Translated into English the next year by one Sophie Goulston, it fell from view, but was republished in 1957. This second edition added a preface written by Herbert Hoover, but also fell from view. It is not obvious from within the pages of this book why Hoover wrote a preface. It is because when Wrangel died, probably by poison, at only forty-nine, all his papers were sent to the new Hoover War Library, which was aggregating information about the former empires of Europe.
Apparently, to this day the Hoover Archives harbors the single largest collection pertaining to Russian émigré documents, presumably still containing all of Wrangel’s documents. (They also contain much else interesting, such as the archives of the Tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana, a sadly ineffective body.) Thus, what is now the Hoover Institution must have had a connection to Always With Honor being republished in 1957.
Until very recently, therefore, this book was functionally unavailable to the public. You could buy a copy for hundreds of dollars, if you were lucky. But as I have noted before, a new publishing house, Mystery Grove Publishing, has been doing yeoman’s work in rescuing important books with a right-of-center tilt from the deliberate obscurity into which they have been placed, and this book made their list. True, most people today are frighteningly under-educated, so no doubt sales are not in the millions. It doesn’t matter for current purposes; reading the Mystery Grove books allows our future elite to self-educate, avoiding or repairing the indoctrination the Left has used to ruin America.
Other than Always with Honor, there appears to exist only one English-language biography of Wrangel, published in 2010: The White Knight of the Black Sea, by a Dutchman, Anthony Kröner. Although it was blurbed by the Hoover Institution, suggesting an ongoing connection, Kröner’s book is obscure and nearly impossible to obtain. After chasing down leads (Twitter is sometimes good for something), I was able to order a copy from a Dutch bookstore. But it just goes to show that even today, serious, mainstream books can become functionally unavailable – it’s not just books published decades ago.
If there is a defect to this book, it is that you have to know at least the basics about Russian history from 1914 through 1918 in order to understand its contents. Wrangel wrote for an audience that was intimately familiar with that history, and makes no effort to either explain events or introduce individuals; he merely drops them, uncoated, into his own personal story. Wrangel begins in 1916, when World War I had ground on for three years, and there was great turmoil at the top of Russian society.
He saw this first hand, because for a brief time he was aide-de-camp to the Tsar, leaving to return to the front right before Rasputin was killed. Although he only touches glancingly on Russian imperial politics, Wrangel seems to blame the Tsar for not seeing how corrupt many of the men surrounding him were, and for ignoring the needs of the people. He does not offer the details of what was happening as Russia came apart, merely a sketch, along with making two key points.
First, the generals, the High Command, increasingly felt that “things could not go on as they were,” and many sought a solution that involved removing the Tsar—and not only to serve Mother Russia. “Others, again, desired a revolution for purely personal reasons, hoping to find in it scope for their ambitions, or to profit from it and settle their accounts with such of the commanders as they hated.” That is to say, a fragmenting society finds many eager to accelerate the fragmentation. Second, the people as a whole, and the upper classes in particular, acted as if everything was normal, they paid “no heed to the approaching storm.” That is to say, apparent normalcy says nothing about whether a society is about to founder.
In early 1917, after the February Revolution, Wrangel was sent back to St. Petersburg by his superior to remonstrate with the new Minister of War, Alexander Guchkov, who was promoting disorder in the Army, mostly by undermining authority through promoting “democracy” in the Army, in the form of Communist-dominated “soldiers’ committees.”
Arriving in St. Petersburg (after having on the train thrashed a man with a red ribbon for insulting a woman), he was appalled to see the widespread disorder and profusion of Communist paraphernalia, most of all red ribbons and flags. Although officers not wearing a “red rag” were often attacked, Wrangel, all 6’ 7” of him, refused, and seems somewhat surprised nobody bothered him. Wrangel’s aim was to strengthen the Provisional Government’s hand against the expanding power of the “soviets,” that is, groups organized to seize power by the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and the Socialist Revolutionaries, but he discovered the truth for himself – the Provisional Government was utterly incompetent.
Wrangel in passing mentions meeting General Baron Mannerheim on a train, who was leaving St. Petersburg after the ascendancy of the Provisional Government, as Wrangel himself was returning to Petersburg. In fact, Wrangel’s career bears more than passing parallels to those of the Finnish hero. Both were born on the outskirts of the Empire and ably served the Tsar, then fought his enemies after he abdicated. Like Mannerheim, Wrangel was extremely competent and decisive. And both had little patience for politicians, less for bureaucrats, and struggled to balance political imperatives with military dictates. Mannerheim won his struggle against Communism, at least his first one, though, and Wrangel lost.
He describes, from a ground-level view, the struggle between the Provisional Government and the new Petrograd Soviet, including how the Bolsheviks, subsidized by Germany, rapidly expanded their power. It wasn’t just money—they seized whatever property they wanted to use, and the Provisional Government took no action against them.
The new government was eager to suppress the conservative press, but never bothered the left-wing press, which was openly treasonous. Sounds familiar. Guchkov, who had rejected Wrangel’s pleas, was replaced as Minister of War by Alexander Kerensky, and Wrangel went back to the front in June 1917, in what is now Ukraine, as part of Kerensky’s major summer offensive, which he hoped would unify the Russians.
It did not; the unrest Wrangel witnessed in St. Petersburg was merely the run-up to the “July Days,” where the Bolsheviks attempted to seize power and were defeated, but unwisely were not slaughtered. The commander-in-chief of the army, Lavr Kornilov, whom Wrangel knew, assaulted the Petrograd Soviet, in what may or may not have been a coup attempt against the Provisional Government. This failed, strengthening the Soviet.
The October Revolution soon followed, and Kornilov, escaping prison, went on to create the Volunteer Army, the largest military grouping of the Whites. Meanwhile, Wrangel had been discharged by the Provisional Government—he was, no doubt justifiably, regarded as completely politically unreliable. Thus, he went with his wife and four children to Yalta, in the Crimea, where he had a home.
Soon enough, though, war came to him. The postwar events in southern Russia are enormously complex. It was not just the struggle of the Reds to establish power, opposed by the gradually coalescing Whites, but also involved many other players, such as the Ukrainian Parliament, seeking independence but willing to cooperate with the Whites, seeing the Reds as joint enemies, and various Cossack groups, generally hostile to the Reds but desirous of managing their own affairs.
For the Whites, whose internal interactions often featured disunity, one point of unity was opposition to breaking up Russia. Thus, a constant challenge was how to fight side-by-side with groups opposed to maintaining the Russian Empire, or who wanted some degree of independence within the Empire. With the Cossacks, federation was a possibility, given history and their own organization; with the Ukrainians, not so much (as we see even today, though I know little about the modern specifics).
Wrangel joined the Volunteer Army, soon commanded by Anton Denikin. In Wrangel’s telling, much of the blame for ultimate White failure lies on Denikin, whom he faults for bad leadership and terrible strategic decisions, most of all requiring a premature march by all White forces on Moscow, in 1919. “We wanted to do too much and make ourselves master of every position at once, and we [succeeded] only in weakening ourselves and so becoming powerless.”
Wrangel also faults squabbling among the Whites, corruption among their leaders, and a lack of discipline among the men. He admits that “requisitioning” is necessary, but gives constant pained descriptions of how many White officers of all ranks simply engaged in organized looting for personal advantage, turning the Army into “a collection of tradesmen and profiteers.”
He also faults Denikin for inflexibility in coming to terms with the Cossacks and the Ukrainians. His relations with Denikin were further soured by third-party agitation for Wrangel to supplant Denikin. “As is usual in such cases, as one man was more and more discredited, another became dearer and dearer to the people. Unfortunately, this other was myself.”
One of Wrangel’s chief talents appears to have been as a judge of men. I cannot say if his portrait of Denikin is accurate, but it comports with what history I know, and the results Denikin achieved. Nearly every other important person with whom Wrangel meets is judged and given an incisive summary (and Wrangel admits where he made errors, as well).
Thus, in passing, Wrangel mentions that Captain Baron Ungern Stenberg, or simply ‘the Baron,’ as his troops called him, was more complex and interesting. He was of the type that is invaluable in wartime and impossible in times of peace.” This talent to judge men is completely invaluable in a Man of Destiny and completely inborn (though it can be polished with training); it also seems nonexistent in today’s American political leaders, perhaps because they have come to rely on money and the media to achieve their ends, rather than on forming a cohesive and dedicated group of men with the same objectives, on whom they can rely.
The main White armies, including the Volunteer Army, were largely defeated by early 1920. Again, this is an area I am not expert in, and one that does not have a lot of historiography directed at it, although I have ordered what appear to be the two main scholarly works on it, by Peter Kenez, written forty years ago. I don’t know why this is, though certainly most histories of Russia, or of the Russian Revolution, cover the Civil War to some degree. Wrangel then went into exile in Constantinople, and thus ends Part I of his memoir.
But by April 1920, he was back, after Denikin resigned and the remaining military commanders asked Wrangel to be Commander-in-Chief of the remnants of the Whites. Part II narrates two difficult tasks Wrangel had—trying to reverse military defeat while achieving political renewal. His hope was that if he could achieve both, and establish stable White rule in Taurida (the Russian province composed of Crimea and “mainland” Russia north of it, including parts of Ukraine and the Kuban), that could form the “healthy nucleus” of a new Russia. From there, they could ultimately completely defeat the Bolsheviks and rebuild a new version of old Russia.
To win militarily, Wrangel had to reconstruct the shattered White forces, gather new men, and not only resist, but push back, the Reds, most of all from the rich agricultural land of northern Taurida. To win politically, he had to satisfy multiple constituencies—the Army, of course, but also the peasants, terrified of the Reds but desirous of land reform, and the middle classes, mostly also terrified of the Reds but many still holding, stupidly, to non-Communist leftism and hoping for the return of something like the Provisional Government. He had to run a government, as well, with too few competent bureaucrats. These intertwined tasks were monumental (and the strain, combined with the morale crusher of ultimate failure, may, in fact, account for Wrangel’s early death, rather than poison).
To head the government, he recruited Alexander Krivoshein, who had been Minister of Agriculture under Pyotr Stolypin. Krivoshein had a reputation as being competent, fair, and focused on a good deal for the smallholding peasant. His choice was not random—agriculture was everything to Wrangel in his time in Crimea and the Taurida Governate, since not only was solving the political question of land ownership paramount, agricultural exports were critical to obtaining any supplies from abroad, since foreign governments had abandoned the Whites, and nobody would loan them any money, assuming (reasonably) they had zero chance of repayment.
Wrangel promptly issued proclamations not only ordering land reform, but rejecting the earlier White insistence that national minorities abandon all traces of their own nationalisms. His explicit goal was to create the new, improved Russia (he insisted that his was the “Russian Army,” and the Reds merely contemptible “Bolshevists”). Wrangel himself was a monarchist, but he saw the old monarchy was spent, and something new was needed.
For land reform, Wrangel quickly implemented a policy whereby any peasant could buy, over time, the land he farmed, with compensation to the landowners. Decisions were decentralized, with safeguards to prevent either capture by the landowners, or stealing from the landowners. Wrangel wanted, after the disorders caused by war and revolution, to “reinstate the hard-working peasants and set them up on their land again, to weld them together and rally them to the defence of order and national principles.”
Thus, the rural proletariat, wage laborers, would not necessarily receive free land, though they too could purchase land if not currently farmed. It seems like a good system, and crucially, one that recognized that returning to the old system, which had led them all to this pass, was not an option. It never is.
Wrangel was a hard but just man, and a stickler for order and discipline. In June of 1917, when sent back to the front and waiting for the arrival of the division he commanded, other troops in the town (Stanislavov), retreating ahead of the Reds, pillaged widely and engaged in a pogrom. Wrangel put the disorder down with floggings and executions.
Early in the Civil War, he needed to replenish his ranks, and he had captured a sizeable number of Reds. “I ordered three hundred and seventy of the Bolshevists to line up. They were all officers and non-commissioned officers, and I had them shot on the spot. Then I told the rest that they too deserved death, but that I had let those who had misled them take the responsibility for their treason, because I wanted to give them a chance to atone for their crime and prove their loyalty to their country.” No surprise, everyone volunteered, and Wrangel says they became among his best troops. (Elsewhere he notes that later in the war most Red troops were conscripts, and eager to join the Whites. And he faults Denikin for not taking a more capacious approach to recruiting Red prisoners, or those who had treated with the Bolsheviks earlier in the war).
Every several pages, Wrangel notes some execution in passing – for example, of some railroad employees bribed to carry passengers rather than munitions, “I had these three employees court-martialed, and they were hanged the same day.” (Later, though, he stopped public executions, on the basis that “In view of the prevailing callousness, public executions no longer served to intimidate, they merely aggravated the existing state of moral apathy”). Of course, executions are only a small part of the mountains of corpses that appear in this book. Civil war is a brutal taskmaster; nobody should forget this.
Military victory was not to be. Wrangel did get a breathing space as the Russians fought the Poles in 1919 and 1920. The British government had abandoned him, and in fact pressured him to end the war on Red terms equivalent to unconditional surrender. The English, opportunists all, wanted to reopen trade with Russia, and David Lloyd George wanted to pander to those of the British working classes who saw in Bolshevism their own possible, supposedly bright, future.
Wrangel views this betrayal with bitterness, and he views Lloyd George with the greatest contempt – although he gave interviews to British and other foreign newspapers, trying hard to shore up support. But the French found it convenient to offer support, including de facto recognition, in order to assist the Poles. However, when the Poles beat back the Red menace, the French withdrew support, and the Reds were able to concentrate their forces on the southern front, dooming the Whites. Nonetheless, Wrangel organized and conducted one last major offensive; it was defeated by the Reds, who thereupon advanced through Taurida towards the Crimea.
Wrangel and everyone else in the Crimea knew what this meant for most of the population. Therefore, moving heaven and earth, Wrangel organized a massive boatlift, such that anyone who desired to go into exile could, though he made no promises of the future. After himself checking all the ports of embarkation, Wrangel was the last White to step off the shore, on November 14, 1920, ending the dream of Red defeat, at least for the next seventy years.
He himself accompanied the diaspora of the Army, at first initially in Greece and Turkey, then mostly forced out of those places by the English, who wanted the Army disbanded, because the Reds wanted it disbanded. Many moved to Serbia or Yugoslavia. Wrangel notes how he tried to get the Army transferred to Hungary, which had itself just suffered under, then defeated, a Red dictatorship and terror, but the French stopped the transfer, because “anti-Bolshevist intrigues [were] contrary to the true interests of Hungary and of the civilized world.” Typical. He himself lived for several years in Belgrade, heading up an organization he praises and of which he expects great things in a speech given in 1927, attached as the last chapter, the “General Union of Old Soldiers of Russia.”
The truth was much more bitter, as it always is for defeated émigrés, a topic about which I know something, for my grandfather was a Hungarian émigré, who fled Communism in 1945 (and as it happens, I am currently helping edit his own war diary for private, family use). The men were forced to earn their bread any way they could in their new countries, in the Russians’ case, usually by hard manual labor such as mining. Wrangel ends with a lament for this, tempered by the hope “But we are confident the hour of recognition is at hand.” He was wrong. In 1927, Wrangel reluctantly handed over control of the General Union to a Romanov grand duke, and moved to Brussels to return to mining engineering. He died within eighteen months.
I find it hard to get a handle on the last generation of the Russian ruling class. My father was a professor of Russian history, so I was exposed to thought about Russia growing up, but perhaps one has to be embedded in Russia to really understand. Was their time just up? Is it the nature of all civilizations that the ruling class eventually becomes unable to overcome a crisis? Wrangel’s focus, where and when he ruled, suggests that some in the ruling class were capable of reforming their society.
Now, the word “reform” today has a bad odor; like “dialogue,” it is simply a cant word of the Left, used to ease the forcing of their program on an unwilling and unreceptive audience. But it is the nature of all human institutions, because they are human, that they come to require legitimate reform. And it is also in the nature of all human institutions to resist that reform. I suspect there is no way out but to break the society and remake it, which is always a dangerous roll of the dice.
So what does Wrangel’s story say of civil war in America, which more than a few people think is looming? Well, the Whites as a whole certainly show what not to do in a civil war. Other than that, it is often supposed that given the intermixing of Red and Blue America, old-fashioned territory-based civil war is impossible here. (We really need to flip those monikers, so the descendants of the Bolsheviks, today’s “Blue America,” get called what they really are).
The Russian Civil War disproves this. In truth, most people just want to keep their heads down, and will hew to the line of whoever controls the land where they live. Also, complete armies can arise nearly overnight, formed from fragments of an older army, or just organically. Perhaps occupying territory adverse to the occupiers would be harder in America, particularly in heavily-armed Red America (notably, both the Reds and Wrangel made civilians give up their weapons in the areas they controlled).
But maybe even Red America would bow to an occupying force – after all, people here have accepted without revolt the arbitrary and oppressive diktats, issued by modern commissars, tied to the Wuhan Plague. In fact, in other countries, notably recently the Netherlands, they have showed far more resistance. I am just not sure how much resistance Red America would offer an occupying force.
But I am sure that most of all, as Wrangel’s career shows, it’s all about the leadership. I suspect that if Red America perceived the costs of the insane reactions to the Wuhan Plague as higher, and if they had a leader around whom to coalesce, something could be done. Mutatis mutandis, the same is true, but much more true, of the inevitable final ideological clash looming in America. Let’s hope we find that leader soon.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The featured image shows, “Baron Petr Nikolaievitch Wrangel, by G.M Nedovizi.
The Roman Empire gets a bad rap. This is particularly true of the members of its ruling class, who get the worse of the obvious comparison with Republican virtue, and are often viewed as placeholders and strivers orbiting around one emperor or another, offering nothing to the rest of mankind. No doubt many such existed.
But we should not forget that the Empire was a very successful endeavor, especially in its early years, and success would not have been possible without at least some competent and virtuous men in the ruling class. Daisy Dunn’s The Shadow of Vesuvius profiles two such men: Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus; A.D. 23–79) and his nephew and adopted son, Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (A.D. 61–c. 113). The two men were very different, yet each strove to benefit and serve Rome, as well as to achieve great things himself, in a way our own ruling class has long since abandoned.
Dunn’s book is a joint biography, though it focuses more on the Younger (whom she calls simply “Pliny,” and the Elder she calls “Pliny the Elder,” a usage I will adopt). As it happens, I recently bought, in physical form, the entire Loeb Classical Library (544 volumes), as I amass a library that seeks to contain all the core of Western civilization. (I estimate it will end at somewhere north of 20,000 volumes; that’s what my daughter calls a “flex”).
So I was able to read chunks of each man’s own writing as I went through Dunn’s book, which helped bring the narrative to brighter life. Creating a biography about the two Plinys was, I am sure, a challenge, since few primary sources exist for their lives, other their own (few) surviving writings. No doubt trying to make the story more compelling than the Wikipedia entries for the men, which are very dull, Dunn organizes her book around the Roman seasons, and parallels them to Pliny’s life and times, weaving in backwards-looking references to Pliny the Elder.
Each man, while he accomplished much, is remembered today most vividly for one deed. For Pliny the Elder, it was dying in the ash of Vesuvius, rushing across the Bay of Naples towards danger with the dual goal of organizing a rescue operation (his duty as admiral of one of the Roman fleets) and trying to examine the eruption up close (for scientific purposes). Hence the title of this book – his nephew was near the eruption, too, but stayed safely on the other side of the Bay. For Pliny, it was his correspondence with the Emperor Trajan about how he should treat the ever-growing numbers of Christians in the Black Sea province he was governing at the time, which provides a crucial piece of historical data. Yet, as Dunn shows, there was much more to each man.
Until quite recently, in fact, Pliny the Elder was primarily known not for how he died, but for his magnum opus, the enormous Natural History. It is a confection of Pliny’s own observations and facts taken from a vast number of then-extant sources. The Natural History was the first encyclopedia – thirty-seven volumes of description of practically everything under the sun, much of it very inaccurate, we now know, yet astounding to his contemporaries, and used as a reference work for well more than a thousand years.
He had just finished it when Vesuvius erupted, in A.D. 79. Of the two Plinys, the Elder was better known in the West until the late Middle Ages (and in fact the two Plinys were for a long time confused as one), because his Natural History survived, and little survived of the Pliny the Younger’s writings. But a treasure trove of his letters was discovered in an abbey in Paris around 1500, and when printed, ensured his reputation. For Pliny’s Letters give an unparalleled glimpse into the mind and practice of a senior administrator of the Empire, who did everything from work as a lawyer to administer drains.
The primary career of both was serving the Roman state; writing was a sideline. They managed to do both, in large part because to an obsessive degree, they tried to not waste time. Once Pliny the Elder lectured a dinner companion who corrected the pronunciation of a slave reading a poem that, because of this pedantic correction, they had lost time they could never get back. The Natural History showed what could be accomplished by continual study and work. I have a lot of sympathy for this desire not to waste time, although one of the downsides of modern life is that sustained focus is far harder, given the inevitable and innumerable distractions, and, for almost all people, the need to make a living. Not to mention that having slaves tend to your every need certainly helps focus, and that’s not on offer today either.
Although Pliny the Elder was educated as a lawyer, his twenties were spent in the military, a typical path for a member of the equestrian class. Even then, he was writing – though as with so many ancient works most of his books are lost. Early on he wrote technical works, such as, On Throwing the Javelin from Horseback, and later a twenty-volume history of the Roman experience in Germany. When he returned to Rome, practicing as a lawyer and working as a public servant, his career spanned several of most colorful, and dubious, Emperors, including Nero. He avoided the fate of Seneca, but retreated during times of trouble from writing history, which could be dangerous if perceived as a challenge to the present regime, to writing technical manuals on grammar.
Once Nero was gone, life became more settled, and Pliny the Elder was able to focus on, and complete, the Natural History. In A.D. 79, he was fulfilling his duties to the Emperor Vespasian, living at Misenum, on the Bay of Naples, across from Vesuvius. Never married, he was staying with his sister and her son, Pliny. Seeing the eruption, and receiving a message from a terrified friend, the Elder launched the fleet across the bay, into a rain of ash and pumice that was so intense it formed islands in the sea. His nephew remained at Misenum, obsessively studying, training to also become a lawyer. The next morning, Pliny the Elder was dead, suffocated in Stabiae (south of Pompeii); his nephew had temporarily fled Misenum, driven out by ash and earthquakes.
Soon after his uncle’s death, Pliny began his career, at eighteen, as a lawyer for civil cases, mostly inheritance, in Rome. This was a career choice that could make a man’s name, through his oration and logical skill, which is why Pliny chose it. Amusingly, many of the cases were not that different than today’s, such as a woman suing to void her octogenarian father’s resettling of his estate on his new young wife, whom he had married ten days after meeting her. (Strangely, elsewhere Dunn suggests that the Romans considered forty-three to be “elderly,” when the Romans were very clear that the forties were the prime of a man’s life).
It used to be common knowledge, and is now forgotten, the huge emphasis the Classical world put on rhetoric, now completely a lost art. (Pliny was taught by Quintilian, one of the most famous Roman teachers of rhetoric). It makes one wonder what a skilled orator could accomplish in politics today – would his talents be wasted on the masses, with their short attention span and low intelligence? Or would his oration, if pitched correctly, sway the masses? I suspect the latter. But nobody trains for this, and the ancients recognized that training was crucial – talent alone was not enough, though it would certainly help.
We remember Pliny not as a lawyer, but for his Letters, which are our only detailed record of a man of his station’s daily activity. He began life in the equestrian class, but rose through position and wealth to the senatorial class, and served in several key functions of the Roman state. The Letters were edited for publication by Pliny himself; unfortunately, he removed dates and much technical matter that we would find interesting, in order to make smoother reading.
As shown by his publishing his own correspondence, he was very desirous of eternal fame, and this made him receptive to flattery from friends such as Tacitus that he was on the road to achieving that fame. Flattery didn’t ruin him, though; it just made him work even more obsessively. Yet, as Dunn discusses at length, he was equally interested in domestic contentment.
He was devoted to his second wife, Calpurnia (the first had died), and very sad they had no children. He was equally devoted to the natural world, spending much time on the land around his villas. Pliny enjoyed both the city and the countryside; the former appealed to his sense of ambition (and he generously funded public works in the towns he lived near), the latter to his interest in nature and the ability to focus on his work. No doubt he was an interesting man to talk to, though maybe a bit pedantic.
Pliny’s home town, and where he often lived when he was not in Rome or fulfilling some other duty, was Comum, modern Como, on the shores of Lake Como. He lived not far from where George Clooney spends his summers now, although nobody has ever accurately accused Clooney of benefiting mankind in any material way (and somehow his invitations to his parties keep getting lost on their way to me).
Both Pliny and his uncle recorded a spring that ebbed and flowed near their villa. That spring ebbs and flows to this day, now within the confines of a luxury villa rented as a hotel, the Villa Pliniana. It sleeps twenty and can be yours for roughly $20,000 a night. Pliny also inherited a villa in Umbria, where he spent his summers – and which was closer to Rome, which depending on his responsibilities and the risks of being in the city at the time, might be desirable or not.
Pliny’s goal was to achieve some sort of magnum opus, as his uncle had, but this was doomed not to be. A competent poet, an excellent lawyer, a diligent administrator, he worked hard, but never focused enough on a single thing. He might have written memorable histories, had he tried – but the times, especially under the Emperor Domitian, made that a risky business, as friends and acquaintances of his found out to their sorrow. Domitian was erratic and dangerous, and ultimately assassinated in A.D. 96;
Pliny claimed that Domitian was about to attack him when he died first. Yet Pliny’s career flourished under him, something he tried to downplay in his later letters. Regardless, again like his uncle, after an inconstant emperor Pliny was able to enjoy stability under a more even-keeled emperor, in his case Trajan. Other than his Letters, the only writing Pliny is remembered for is his Panegyric in praise of Trajan, an effusive but informative speech praising the new emperor. In the end, Pliny the Elder wrote about things outside himself and objectively achieved more, while Pliny, in the modern vein, wrote about himself, even if that was not his goal in life, and accomplished less.
I found it interesting that the morals of Rome often come through in the writings of both Plinys (and if you read all their writings, no doubt they come through even more often). For example, Dunn notes that abortion was an extremely serious crime in Rome, and when Domitian impregnated his niece, his crime of aborting the baby was regarded as equally unacceptable as the incest. No doubt part of this was the increasing Roman concern at the failure of the elite to have enough children, a major focus of Augustus – but it was more than that.
The HBO series Rome, which went to some lengths to ensure accuracy in detail, showed one of the main characters throwing his dead wife’s body in the sewer after she confessed while dying to having earlier had an abortion. Other excellent laws and customs we should also imitate also tried to address the need for children – for example, that a man who had three children was granted significant privileges, including being able to stand for office early, and his wife was granted extra legal privileges as well.
Nonetheless, given that some of the earliest Christian writings condemn abortion, the practice must have been widespread, and certainly, as Sarah Ruden has pointed out in her excellent Paul Among the People, much of Roman morality seems monstrous to us, with the Christian framework being the base of all our morality, even among those who today disclaim Christianity. Still, the Romans were reality-based, and that means that in many things, they came to sensible moral and legal conclusions, something that can no longer be said of our own government and ruling class, God rot them all.
Pliny ended his career, and as far as we can tell his days (we do not know exactly when, or how, he died), in Bithynia-Pontus, a Roman province on the north shore of the Black Sea, in what is now Turkey. He corresponded regularly with Trajan (although it is hard to tell whether some of the letters from Trajan were really written by secretaries), and this produced what Pliny is most remembered for – the first detailed description of the Roman administrative response to the exploding Christian population.
At first, he summoned local people before him on the basis of anonymous accusations, executing Christians who would not recant (except Roman citizens, who were sent to Rome for trial). Nonetheless, Pliny was confused, because there was no clear rule regarding Christians, and he could not figure out, from a Roman state perspective, what the Christians were guilty of. He executed them for defying a magistrate, himself, not for the content of their religion. To ease his confusion, Pliny sought guidance from the Emperor.
Pliny’s goal, his assignment, was to maintain order. Concern about groups that might threaten order was not limited to Christians (although Christians were a particular target, because of rumors spread by their enemies of particular social abuses: cannibalism, orgies, and the like). The fundamental matter for Pliny, and for Trajan, was that the Christians constituted a type of group that the Roman state found very problematic – a private group that met in secret, often at night, for uncertain ends. Earlier Pliny had proposed to Trajan, after a disastrous fire in Nicomedia, to form an organization of 150 firefighters.
Trajan overruled this, and instead ordered Pliny to ban any such group. He feared it would become a hetaeria – a political club. (Supplying firefighting equipment and teaching citizens how to use it was fine; it was the organization that was the problem).
The Roman state was very suspicious of hetaeriae; they were unreadable by the state and could easily form the locus of rebellion. Not all were forbidden – for example, funerary societies, formed for narrow, open purposes, were accepted. This governmental attitude has a lot in common with the attitude of the modern state as described by James C. Scott in Seeing Like a State – a “cadastral” approach, where the state wants the citizenry to be readable at all times like a map. Truly private groups make this impossible, by making themselves illegible to the state, and thereby threaten the state – not just an oppressive state, but any state that seeks to maintain strict order from the top down.
As far as the Christians, Trajan struck a middle ground, dialing back Pliny’s initial response. In response to Pliny’s puzzled query, Trajan emphatically rejected using anonymous accusers as the spring for investigations (under Domitian, and frequently in Rome, informers stirred up trouble, and Trajan wanted to discourage the practice). He also discouraged hunting out Christians, although he agreed those proven guilty of being Christian should be punished – something the Christians pointed out was incoherent, because if they were guilty of something, they should be hunted, and if it was not necessary to hunt them, they were clearly not guilty of anything.
We should be clear that the Roman government was correct about private groups being problematic for the cadastral state. A great many of the significant societal changes in history have been sparked by private groups organized around a common political goal. All history is full of innumerable such episodes. Why is this?
No doubt it is because such groups make possible successful conspiracies against the powers of the age. They provide psychological support among the like-minded, and if a conspiracy advances, they provide logistical support, and ultimately the nucleus for action to change some aspect of the state.
The problem, from the perspective of the government, is not that all the members of hetaeriae may act in concert to achieve political ends that are not to the taste of those in power. Any successful sizeable group tends to be too unwieldy for coordinated action that directly opposes the government. The problem is rather that a subset of the group may secretly act together to become, to repurpose a modern term, changemakers, and when they implement their plan, will have a ready and receptive audience and set of potential helpers in the larger group.
Although they know no history, today’s Left, temporarily ascendant, can sense this, which is why the obsessive desire to censor communications and therefore prevent, or failing that to break up, Right organizing. I doubt if this will work; if history is any guide, the clowns will get taken out easily enough, and also some people who are not clowns, but unstable times call forth hard, determined men who find each other – and the same technology that can be used to control the Narrative today also enables these men to communicate privately over distance.
Now that the Old Pretender, Joe Biden, has taken the title of President and grasped the scepter of power in his trembling hands, even if he has no idea anymore what a scepter is, I suspect there are more than a few such groups forming – probably, crucially, among the military. It’s going to be an interesting decade – a prediction that Pliny, or Trajan, would have no difficulty endorsing.
And when things settle down, with our current ruling class reeducated or exiled from the revived America, or the revived sections of America? Well, we’ll need a new and improved ruling class – who can learn from the lives of the Plinys how one should act to advance a society. Thus the use of this book, beyond simple interest in the history it competently narrates. You should make your children read it.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The featured image shows, “Eruption du Vésuve arrivée le 24 août de l’an 79 (Eruption of Vesuvius that happned August 24, in the year 79),” by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, painted 1813.
In their eternal quest to remake reality, a perennial target of the Left is the family: man, woman, and children, the bedrock of all human societies. The family, by its existence and by what it brings forth, mocks the Left project, and so the Left has tried to destroy it for 250 years. But only in the twentieth century did this effort gain real traction, when our elites became converts to the fantasy that sex roles as they existed were artefacts of oppression, not organic reality. What followed was mass indoctrination in falsehoods about men and women, in which this infamous book played a key role. If you see a sad wine aunt (they are all sad), and you see them everywhere, you see a small part of the resulting social wreckage.
The Feminine Mystique was chosen in the 1960s, the decade that really began our decline, as the central pillar of the enormously destructive myth that a woman can “have it all” – both a fully-realized family in the home and a fully-realized career outside the home. Many elements of our present ruin can be traced back to this propaganda. The myth itself is duplicitous, however. For its purveyors, a woman’s career is far more important than the family – lip service is only paid to the family because women keep stubbornly insisting they want a family. To their great frustration, this is a problem our rulers have been unable to solve, causing them to resort to ever more extreme and ultimately self-defeating falsehoods about men and women. It would be funny if it had not been so catastrophic.
I could spend hours amusing myself blowing holes in this execrable book, but I have sworn off reviewing books merely to show how they are wrong. Therefore, we will instead use this book to discuss some of the defects in societal structures in America today as they relate to men and women, and how those structures should be remade. A sneak peek: men and women are very different. They always have been, and they always will be. And from a societal structure perspective, the crucial truth is that men drive a society forward, while women bind a society together. So, it will always be in any successful society, and any society that attempts to contradict truth will only find its own obliteration.
But you will be disappointed, I am sure, if I do not at least summarize this book, and doing so is helpful to frame discussion about recapturing our future. It’s not easy – a reader has to excavate in layers, removing all the primitive psychobabble and 1950s ephemera. Moreover, he must reconcile himself that there are no hard facts in this book with which to grapple. None. It is purely a series of cherry-picked anecdotes, presented in a pseudo-scientific manner in order to compel conclusions the author, Betty Friedan, had already reached about society.
She was born into and raised in a far-left family, and from her earliest youth to her death in 2006 worked unceasingly to impose on our society all her radical politics. Agitation was her life. In 1957 Friedan, bored with her part-time job writing for the radical press and unhappy with her marriage to an advertising executive, sent an amateurish questionnaire to her classmates from her 1942 graduating class at Smith College (an all-women’s college still extant).
The survey had thirty-eight questions, all yes-no or multiple choice. None are surprising or all that interesting, and the survey is loaded: the desired responses are indicated by the choice of questions and by using guiding adjectives (e.g., “Is your marriage truly satisfying?” – meaning that unless it is truly satisfying, the only possible answer is “no”). Friedan claims that the responses surprised her, so she then conducted interviews with eighty women. Upon the supposed results of these interviews a book claiming to show a new understanding of all of American society is built.
What, then, is the “feminine mystique?” It is the “strange discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we were trying to conform.” “Our” and “we” here mean a small set of women very similarly situated to Friedan, but in a neat sleight of hand, Friedan manages to pretend that “our” and “we” is all American women, or at least all educated, married, upper-middle class American women. (Working-class women receive a grand total of zero words in this book, other than a suggestion that career women hire cleaning women. LGBTQQIP2SAA people get more attention, at least – in the form of Friedan’s complaint that bored women without careers turn their sons into homosexuals).
According to Friedan’s “data,” women are “unsatisfied,” even though they objectively had gotten everything they wanted. They have “a hunger that food cannot fill.” They all say “I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.” The “mystique” is the supposedly-false belief that they don’t have a hunger, that they don’t want something more, but are instead very happy, or at least satisfied, with traditional sex roles, the “image to which we were trying to conform.”
OK, then, what do women actually want, if it’s not family and home? Well, Friedan meanders a lot, but basically she tells us women want self-fulfillment through “the life of the mind and spirit.” So, do we all, I suppose, but to Friedan, this means a job, any full-time job, outside the home – nothing more. A housewife, that is, a woman who raises children, has a sound marriage, and acts feminine, but does not work full-time outside the home, is a sad and contemptible person in Friedan’s eyes.
In an early instance of the scientism that has, during the Wuhan Plague, swallowed the world, Friedan lectures us that “In [the] new psychological thinking… it is not enough for an individual to be loved and accepted by others, to be ‘adjusted’ to his culture. He must take his existence seriously enough to make his own commitment to life, and to the future; he forfeits his existence by failing to fulfill his entire being.” This piece of infantile babbling is illustrative of the entire book.
Friedan faces a problem in selling this story, though, which she grudgingly admits – all other contemporaneous surveys showed that what women actually want is to be a housewife. This makes Friedan angry. She is greatly offended that at a time when more and more women are getting college degrees, an ever-higher percentage of women show no interest in a career.
But there is an easy answer! They are not lying; they have been tricked. They have been bamboozled by women’s magazines written by men, which exist to sell them products they will only buy if they are kept in the home, just like Adolf Hitler did, you know. If these poor, deluded women could only be objective, they would all know they suffer “terrible boredom,” which can only be cured by working outside the home.
Without a career, you see, a woman can have no identity at all; she is “barred from the freedom of human existence and a voice in human destiny.” She’s also “doomed to be castrative to her husband and sons” (a clear instance of projection by Friedan, who was nothing if not that to her own husband and sons). But good news! Friedan has uncovered the “truth” that has escaped us all.
The rest of the book, 500 sophomoric, tedious pages in all, is terrible. Repetitive anecdotes interspersed with bad history; cut-rate Freudian analysis (Friedan can’t get enough Freud) that no doubt seemed very daring at the time; praise for the ludicrous and discredited Margaret Mead’s fantastical lies about sex relations in primitive cultures; claims that colleges are failing women because women don’t choose the same subjects as men; demands for population restriction; psychological drivel about nuclear weapons; praise for the silly Dr. Spock; comparing the position of American housewives to that of inmates in Nazi death camps; endless pushing the idea that women are kept in the home so they will buy things (ignoring that they can buy a lot more things if they work outside the home); lecturing the reader that women forced to be housewives “offer themselves [sexually] eagerly to strangers and neighbors” because they’re so bored; and numerous variations on the claim that any woman without a career is infantile and prone to “severe pathologies, both physiological and emotional.”
All this is gloriously evidence-free; Friedan’s usual technique is to make a sweeping statement, quote from an (always anonymous) “expert” supporting her, and blare triumphant conclusions.
The author’s contempt for children permeates the book. The only thing worse than a woman who wants to stay home and make her and her husband a happy home is one who wants to add children to her living nightmare, which only seems like a dream to her because she can’t see as clearly as Friedan. She herself threw over her family, including three children.
In an Epilogue, written in 1970, Friedan crows about how wonderful the reception to her book was. As a result, she “finally found the courage to get a divorce,” from which she concludes that “I think the next great issue for the women’s movement is basic reform of marriage and divorce” (the wreckage of which we can see all around us today). She herself has moved into “an airy, magic New York tower, with open sky and river and bridges to the future all around.” She has “started a weekend commune of grownups for whom marriage hasn’t worked – an extended family of choice, whose members are now moving into new kinds of marriages.” She does not mention that she conducted a long affair with a married man (who refused to leave his wife); it seems likely that, like John Stuart Mill, she constructed an entire philosophy around justifying her own bad behavior.
You get the idea; there is no need to continue examining the details of this book, the pages of which are only useful to line birdcages. This is all propaganda, which we have been fed so long that we believe it as history. As with other, slicker propaganda, such as the television series Mad Men, it portrays a set of falsehoods, laced with enough true background facts to pacify the reader eager to agree and comply. (It is always crucial to remember that much of what “everybody knows” now about many periods in the past is simply lies, and there is no better example of this than the 1950s and 1960s, in nearly every facet of their history, fed to us through our screens). Boring. Let’s talk instead about what a well-run society would look like.
But first, let me expand my thinking about why this book “succeeded” in its goal of massive social change. As with all major social changes, mere propaganda is not adequate explanation. The propaganda was successful because it hit our society at precisely the right moment, when it was open to the infection. First, emancipation was in the air; as Yuval Levin discusses at considerable length in The Fractured Republic, the 1950s were a unique moment in American history, when it falsely seemed like everyone could have unlimited freedom without cost, and this belief was not confined to those on the Left, but permeated society.
Second, and tied to the first, intermediary institutions, and the thicker web in which families were set, had already evaporated. Housewives, at least the suburban housewives who are Friedan’s sole focus, were in fact very frequently alienated and atomized, because the organic social structures that had supported both men and women had declined sharply (and would disappear entirely, as Robert Putnam narrated in Bowling Alone). These women did have more free time as the result of labor-saving devices; Friedan claims work expands to fill the time available – but the real problem is that given their removal from the thick social structures of previous decades, free time had no satisfying social outlet, giving Friedan’s explanatory fantasies a surface appeal, like a poisoned apple.
Third, and perhaps most important, the Left goal of destruction of the family fit precisely, in this case, with the unbridled capitalism, the excessively free market, that has worked hand-in-glove with the Left for decades to destroy our society (aided by the government). As a result of this book, or rather the propaganda campaign built around it, we got a massive movement of women into the workforce. Did those women get fulfillment, as Friedan promised? Maybe a few did, but most of them got BS jobs of various types, and we all got a massive increase in consumerism, which we are told is wonderful, because “look how much GDP has increased as a result of women entering the workforce!”
Of course, even this “fact” is a lie, because GDP excludes work inside the home. If two women raise their children, their work is excluded from GDP, but if each is paid by the other to raise the other’s children, GDP expands. But then GDP is largely a fake statistic and much of our economy a fake economy; and anyway it is simply false that any expansion in GDP is a social good, especially when the resulting costs, in the form of mass social destruction, are treated as disconnected, mere happening coincident in time but unrelated.
Regardless, with the assistance of the government and free-market enthusiasts eager to enrich a rotten ruling class, now a two-income family is required for what is regarded as a decent lifestyle, or even just to make modest ends meet, and this was independently a goal of too many in our society.
Better yet for our neoliberal overlords is a one-income family consisting of a permanently single woman. If you want to shudder, read a completely insane CNN article from 2019, titled “There are more single working women than ever, and that’s changing the US economy.”
The point is that single women spend an ever-greater proportion of the money spent on consumer goods, so we must further this trend, in particular by ensuring that those such women foolish enough to have children are given a place to park their children while they work to get money for the consumer goods that should be the real focus of their lives. There is more and more advertising, if you pay attention, to single women of luxury goods that in the past would be bought as gifts for those women – who now have nobody in their lives who will buy them any gifts at all, and must purchase artificial joy. It is enough to make one cry, if one wasn’t already fully occupied in flogging the cretins who brought us to this stupid pass.
So, enough abuse of the stupid. What should the social roles of women and men be in a well-run society? As you can doubtless tell, we are working our way to a call to limit women working outside the home. Let’s start by asking what women want. We are often lectured today, by the commissars of the loathsome ideology of “diversity and inclusion,” that fifty percent of all jobs should be held by women (or at least desirable jobs – men will keep all the dangerous and dirty jobs).
The usual response of “conservatives” is to point out that, empirically, most women simply don’t want the same jobs as men, so in a world of perfect choice far fewer than fifty percent of most jobs would be held by women. This fact is on actual display in countries that are most egalitarian about sex-role choice, notably the Scandinavian countries, where women choose traditional roles at very high rates. The timid “conservative” naturally begins, as demanded by the Left, with a preemptive apology. “Of course, I think women should be allowed to choose the path they want.”
Wrong. I don’t think women should be allowed to freely choose the path they want (nor should men). They should make the choice for family. To that end, society should largely nullify choosing career over family as an option, and coerce women into certain occupations and modes of life – and should in like manner coerce men, among other things to lead a life of being the sole provider for a family (unmarried men, beyond say, thirty, and men who fail to provide, should also be socially penalized)
In other words, society should reflect the natural division of the sexes, regardless of whether some people in society would prefer to make some other choice, whether because of their outrider nature, excessive focus on self, or because of ideology. We should return to social compulsion, shame and ostracism, to achieve this, as well as major changes to tax and legal structures, such as by absolutely barring no-fault divorce and offering (like the government of Hungary) massive payments to married couples with multiple children.
I’ll end with more thoughts on specific structural changes, but to expand on this positive vision, let’s begin with the end in mind. How should society recognize and beneficially implement the telos of both men and women? Therefore, let’s talk about astronauts. That is, let’s discuss Space, the first pillar of Foundationalism’s twelve pillars, and the role of women in Space.
The overriding principle of Foundationalism is reality, and restoring a realistic understanding of the roles of men and society is another pillar of Foundationalism. The crucial fact about men and women in society is that they are, and must be, partners. That women cannot do everything that men can do, and men cannot do everything women can do, and that even when each can do what the other can do, usually cannot do it as well, does not make one sex subordinate. But without recognizing and honoring this basic fact of different competencies, no society can operate for long.
Astronauts show how this works in practice. What is the purpose of astronauts? This is really one question in two parts. First, what is the purpose of astronauts in the present day, when astronauts are limited to short trips to, and short stays in, near-earth orbit? At most, perhaps, astronauts might visit Mars in the relatively near term, if Elon Musk has his way, although I’ll believe it when I see it. And second, what is the purpose of astronauts if humanity were to expand permanently, as often depicted in science fiction, such that astronauts are not just travelers, but off-earth inhabitants, the conquerors of a new frontier?
There are quite a few female astronauts today. If sex were ignored, would there be as many? Of course not. Far more men than women have the characteristics that make one want to be an astronaut, and make one a good astronaut. All our children are collectively assaulted from their earliest youth with massive propaganda pushing the idea of female astronauts.
Try something – go to any museum exhibit related to Space, and count the number of female astronauts depicted. It’ll be around eighty percent of the total, always with hagiographic sub-exhibits about specific women astronauts who accomplished nothing at all. Women who express any interest in being an astronaut are giving an unmerited boost at every stage, beginning in kindergarten, and when the time comes to choose astronauts, are placed at the front of the line. I doubt if astronaut selection were sex-blind there would ever have been a single female astronaut.
The purpose of astronauts today is to increase our knowledge and make possible future expansion outside the confines of Earth, what I think is a very important part of our society’s work. What are the costs and benefits of distorting the reality of female astronauts? Among other costs, choosing inferior candidates must mean, on average, not only that inferior work is done. It also means that the pool of outstanding candidates diminishes, because there is a strong incentive for the most talented and driven, and thus the most prideful, all men, to walk away in disgust from a rigged system.
A society that does not seek out and reward its best is a doomed society, and this is just one example of our such habits tied to sex roles. There are other costs to coddling female astronauts, of course – many of them very similar to the costs of allowing women in the military. What are the benefits? None, really, but I suppose the argument is that some women feel better about themselves, in the same way a child praised for crude finger painting by his parents feels better about himself. That is, unjustifiably, but in this case, knowing the praise is unjustified, and thus made simultaneously humiliated, and aggressively on the lookout for anyone adding to the humiliation by pointing out the obvious.
As to permanent human expansion, an excellent depiction of this is the books and television series The Expanse. Well, it’s excellent, except for its depiction of women, which is insane. In fact, there are no women at all in The Expanse. There are many men, each of whom acts like a stereotypical high-testosterone man, who are given female names and female physical characteristics, but none of them bears any resemblance to actual women (except for one, a Margaret Thatcher type, real but extremely rare).
In real life, if our society were to expand into the solar frontier, no “female” character in the show would occupy any position she occupies in the show – even if there were no social barriers to occupying that position. Real women as characters are totally and completely absent. Children almost never appear, and never under the care of any female character (except the lesbian “wife” of one character, who abandoned her “family”). All this is extremely jarring, making the show difficult to watch, except if you are deluding yourself, or have given it no thought at all. Yet, sixty years after The Feminine Mystique, this lying propaganda is not only ubiquitous, but ever more aggressive – probably because our ruling classes feel their hold on the greased pig of reality slipping away.
If we really got the frontier world of The Expanse, as far as sex roles, it would be like Little House on the Prairie with fusion drives and rail guns. Not only would no woman fight, and spaceships crewed only by men, both military and commercial, be the absolute rule, but women would have large families, over which they, embedded in a larger web of families and women, would exercise most of the responsibilities.
The simple reality is that men, far more than women, are interested in what’s involved in conquering Space, or conquering anything: fighting, risk-taking, adventure and glory, as well as dangerous and physically demanding jobs. Men and women would partner to achieve the near impossible tasks required to push mankind forward, but men would do the pushing and take the risks, in large part to protect the women. Such natural partnership is demanded by any harsh environment – it is only in our current softness that we can pretend otherwise. When reality is busy asserting itself in the form of hard vacuum silently waiting to kill you and your children, nobody will pretend that women and men are interchangeable.
Sadly, we must return to today, and hope our future in Space will work itself out, or that we can work our future out to make that possible. What did women, and all of us, get when women were pressured for decades to work outside the home? Let’s see – the women got BS jobs, often make-work funded by government dollars or the expansion of worthless work such as human resources, or innumerable other forms of paper pushing (many the result of pointless and destructive government regulation of one sort or another).
Friedan promises that women who listen to her siren call will be “mastering the secrets of the atoms or the stars, composing symphonies, [or] pioneering a new concept in government or society.” A wave of bitter laughter from millions of women can be heard, women who discovered too late that those type of jobs were not on offer, and they gave up children and a decent family life for a delusion. It’s not just women, though – only a tiny segment of men has a job that offers real accomplishment, “the life of mind and spirit,” either.
The job does not give them fulfillment; it is a means to their real method of fulfillment, providing for and protecting their family. And two careers maximizes success for neither spouse; meaning that men, who in their nature do get meaning much more than women from their success in the outside world, are more damaged by the demand for two careers – not collateral damage, but intended damage in the Left’s age-old war on the family. The result, when the natural order of sex roles is upset, is that nobody benefits, and society circles the drain.
I keep banging on about the differences between men and women, as if they were self-evident. They are, of course, and that used to be a commonplace, but dispelling the fog of self-induced unknowing is, I suppose, necessary. There are many differences between the sexes, and I have discussed them before in other, but related, contexts, such as the insanity of allowing women into the military.
As regards the question of work within and outside the home, the key facts are as follows. First, women are far better suited to, and far more interested in, raising children than men, and the point of the family is children – a family consisting of a childless couple has a great sadness at its core (yes, I know we’re not supposed to say that out loud).
Second, men seek glory, power, and dominance. Women simply don’t. (Offering exceptions to this general rule does not prove anything; it is equivalent to pointing to hermaphrodites to argue against the unalterable truth that mankind is divided universally into male and female). True, few jobs offer the chance for glory – but providing and protecting largely satisfy, for most men, this urgent drive.
Women therefore don’t choose to do what it takes to have a successful career, meaning achievement in a hierarchy earned through competition. The vast majority of women lack the drives necessary. They may in fact be smarter, better organized, and have other traits associated with career success. But their essential drives are directed toward family.
By studying societies of the past, we can see how a non-ideological society organically develops. In Western countries, the usual structure for well over a thousand years has been a partnership between men and women, where each is supreme in one sphere of family life, contained in a larger family web, but consults the other. Women do hold up half the sky – it’s just that their role, in its nature, is inward-facing, and men’s is outward-facing.
In the West, there has never been any equivalent of the “eastern” approach, typified by purdah, the separation and seclusion of women (driven by defective religious or cultural imperatives that, just as Friedan did, mar the natural order of a society).
Muslims during the Crusades were famously scandalized by how the men of the Franks allowed their women not only to appear in public, but to scold them and order them about. To take a more recent example, one cannot do better than Matthew B. Crawford’s talk in Why We Drive about women and men in Appalachian motocross racing, where, on and off the track, men and women act in (sometimes coarse) partnership, together striving towards excellence (something Crawford heretically contrasts with the sickening inversions he sees in Portland).
As with any human society, within this broad truth, there have been many local variations. Even Friedan admits that until near her present day, American women were not oppressed or unhappy. (Friedan does not make the flatly untrue claims about historical “patriarchy” that are the norm now, such that “everybody knows” that The Handmaid’s Tale is both history and future. She doesn’t because everyone would have laughed at the obvious untruth and pitched her book into the trash; it is only now, after sixty years of propaganda, that we believe there ever was a patriarchy). “Until, and even into, the last century, strong, capable women were needed to pioneer our new land; with their husbands, they ran the farms and plantations and Western homesteads.” (She should be cancelled for mentioning plantation).
Friedan doesn’t make the obvious conclusion – that if the subset of women on whom she is focusing are alienated by their circumstances, returning to the thicker social web even Friedan praises, not destroying the family, is the answer. But then, after all, destroying the family in the pursuit of emancipation from all unchosen bonds was her real end, not offering fulfilment within families to women.
This does not exclude women from ever working outside the home. Quite the contrary, actually. In the past, young women often worked. When rural life was the norm, women and men both worked, but neither could be said to have a career – this was division of labor, rather. As city life became the norm, young women often worked, until they found a husband. Often this was in work at which they excelled and tied to female talents and preferences, such as teaching and nursing.
Higher-status women, like Friedan, went to college and found a husband there (something Friedan, famously masculine and no doubt finding it hard to find a husband, bitterly complains about). Women whose children had left the home might work as well, or women with children might work-part time upon necessity. There is nothing inherently societally destructive of this. What is destructive is where the woman prioritizes that work over family, demanding it become a career – that is, a main focus of her life, and the driver of her happiness, or more likely, the lack of it.
What of a woman who does not get married, not purely by choice? That is, some women, because of their personality or physical appearance, find it difficult or impossible to marry. Or maybe failure to marry is some combination of bad luck and bad management; past a certain age, as everyone knows, a woman’s ability to get married drops precipitously (hence wine aunts). Usually, in our modern atomized society, such women have no choice but to substitute career for family – in the past, they would be woven into the structure of an extended family.
Until we can return to that latter, career is really their only option – like my own recently-deceased aunt, who chose a career in virology, after getting an M.D. from Harvard, and with whom I was close. She loved children, but never married (though she could have – she was indoctrinated into “career first”), and as a result was desperately lonely and unhappy for decades. I blame Friedan (and my aunt’s mother, my grandmother, who pushed anti-family ideology years before this book was published).
I have to admit, though, that had you had asked me twenty years ago, I would have largely bought into the myth that women having a career, and being treated as the equivalent of men in pursuit of that career, was a sound social choice. My wife and I met as big-firm M&A lawyers in Chicago; we presumed, early on, that we’d both end up with legal careers at large firms, with a nanny for our children.
We were conditioned to believe that any other system is monstrous, and that women lawyers should be viewed the same as male lawyers, even though everyone knew that women lawyers dropped out of law firms at vastly greater rates than men, either after they had a child or simply because the aggressive, high-pressure, competitive hierarchy of a large law firm is not congenial to the nature of women in general. (That it is congenial to some is irrelevant; one can always find exceptions to most general rules, and social structures are built on general rules, not exceptions).
My wife soon realized that wasn’t for her, though, and quit her law firm job some time before I quit mine to become an entrepreneur. But what followed has been an organic partnership. I was the public face of our company, but it would have been a failure without her guidance, encouragement, and support, since she balanced, among other defects, my disagreeable tendencies and limited ability to judge character (although, contrary to questions I get sometimes, I am not in the least autistic).
On the other hand, along the way we formed a spin-off company for which I suggested, or insisted, she be CEO, and that was a grievous mistake, only corrected after some years. But it all worked out great for us. For many of our friends, who refused to change course as we did, it has not worked out so well at all.
It is true that if women are discouraged from working outside the home, there will be some price to pay. Nothing is free. First, some women will be less happy than if they had careers – few perhaps, but not zero. Second, to the extent women working outside the home are producing real value, actual economic output will dip, and people will be able to afford fewer goods and services.
This may or may not be a problem; the reason most two-parent families must have both parents work is to make ends meet, because unbridled capitalism has allowed employers to squeeze “efficiencies” out on the backs of the workers, in order to enrich executives and stockholders, and claim these steps are necessary (expertly covered by James Bloodworth in Hired). Yes, it’s also social expectations on the consumer side; if you “need” a large house, frequent new cars, and a $1,400 phone, you need more income. Changing this terrible system to make it the norm that one income adequately supports a family, by limiting the “free market,” will be essential.
Third, you will give up those relatively rare occasions when a woman working outside the home makes, through her employment, a significant contribution to advancing society. I don’t mean, say, women working as scientists at pharmaceutical companies – any discoveries made by them would also be made by men, and probably sooner and better, given the real differences in men’s and women’s capabilities and drives, and the destructive advantages bestowed on women in any male-dominated profession. I mean exceptional production.
True, the bumper sticker phrase, “Well-behaved women rarely make history” is only fully accurate if you delete the “Well-behaved.” As I say, men drive a society forward, while women bind a society together; and this necessarily means that all, or nearly all, spectacular achievements will be those of men. But this is still a potential cost.
What structural/legal changes should be made, other than the social compulsion mentioned earlier? No, not ticky-tack programs such as new family leave policies, which anyway just encourage women to work outside the home. Rather, government policies, tax and otherwise, should massively favor single-income married families where the man works.
Employment discrimination (and all other types of discrimination) on the basis of sex, and marital status, should not only be completely legal, but socially encouraged, even demanded. Not only is sex discrimination, like age discrimination, almost always entirely rational, such discrimination is affirmatively necessary to accomplish the desirable society.
Again, no-fault divorce should be banned, and modern technology that erodes healthy relationships between men and women, from Tinder to online pornography, should be rigorously suppressed. No doubt other matters will deserve similar attention, and a new propaganda campaign, especially in popular entertainment, to reverse sixty years of indoctrination will also be needed. Let’s get started!
Life being what it is, some women will always choose to work outside the home. Sometimes this is in their particular nature; sometimes they actually need the money. This should not be made illegal, but there should be a substantial social penalty for women who make work a career.
In the same way as for decades women who choose not to have a career have been held in contempt, viciously portrayed across all popular media and vilified by our ruling classes, a married woman who chooses to have a career should be looked down upon, especially if she has children, and most of all if she chooses not to have children. (One can multiply special cases – what if a woman cannot have children? Hard cases make bad law, and bad social policy; the median case is what matters). And a “career woman” should presumptively be discriminated against in favor of a man competing in the same career path, and most of all in favor of men with children.
It is doubtless true that we cannot turn a switch. If all women in the workforce today left the workforce tomorrow, much disruption would result. A lot of it, that tied to BS jobs, would be temporary. But in some jobs, such as family-practice physicians, where women are the majority, rebalancing jobs could only be done over time. And some jobs, such as elementary-school teaching and nursing, will always have women in the majority, since those jobs always appeal more to women, and it is possible to enter and leave those jobs as a woman’s life changes – most of all, before, and perhaps after, a woman marries and has children. The exact result will derive organically from general rules, not from an artificial ideology.
The goal, across all of society, is to return to a natural partnership between men and women. This is very much not a siloed partnership, where the man and woman each operate completely separately in pursuit of a unified goal. Instead, there is necessarily overlap – a woman advises her husband in his role outside the home, and the husband assists his wife in her roles inside the home, in particular with children, especially with boys as they come of age, but also simple relief of the drudgery that characterizes much household work. But human nature dictates that those spheres and roles be different, and only by a return to this can human flourishing be reborn, relegating this book to history as an unfortunate footnote.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The image shows, “Dans le bleu (Into the Blue)” by Amélie Beaury-Saurel, painted in 1894.
I have always been aware of the great Shawnee Indian war chief Tecumseh. I grew up within walking distance of the site of his confederacy’s defeat, by William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe, and often visited the battlefield as a child. Tecumseh himself wasn’t at the battle; he was far away, trying to raise Indian allies. The battle was instead lost by his inconstant brother, Tenskwatawa, known as the Prophet, with whom Tecumseh had a fraught, but close, relationship. In this book, Peter Cozzens expertly and evocatively traces the lives of these once-famous brothers, the last of the eastern woodlands Indians of North America to mount an effective challenge to the expanding United States.
Cozzens, though the author of many books, is best known for an outstanding 2016 work on the Indian Wars in the West, The Earth is Weeping. That book, focused on the nineteenth century, did not cover the defeats of the eastern Indians. Here Cozzens turns to the earlier period, roughly 1750 to 1820, in which the Indians of the Ohio Valley lost their lands. Before 1750 the Europeans had already broken the power of the Six Nations (of whom the Iroquois are the best known), thereby consolidating control over the Eastern Seaboard. British, and soon enough American, settlers kept pushing west, despite promises made to the Indians, and the resulting conflicts are the topic of this book.
Tecumseh was born in 1768 into a division of the larger Shawnee tribe. The Shawnee were an Algonquin tribe – Indian ethnography is complex, but the two major groupings of North American eastern woodlands Indians were the Algonquin and the Iroquois, who, broadly speaking, were ancient enemies. The Shawnee were then resident in southern Ohio (where my grandparents lived, and I often visited Shawnee State Park with them, giving me more childhood doses of Tecumseh). They had not been in Ohio for long; Shawnees were peripatetic, in their culture and as the result of decades of attacks from the Iroquoian tribes.
The French and Indian War, that is, the Seven Years War, had ended in 1763, with the British defeating the French and taking Canada. The Shawnee did not participate in that conflict, in which the Six Nations did actively participate. This was the first major involvement of the Indians in the wars of the Europeans. The core Indian interest was to maintain their own lands, something that, in retrospect, was always doomed to fail. After that big war, small Indian wars continued off and on, notably Pontiac’s War, which ended in 1766.
All the Indian wars followed the same basic pattern. The government, whether the Crown or later the United States, would promise or agree to a boundary line, beyond which white settlement would not be allowed and the Indians could lead their traditional lives. White men would ignore this – some combination of, as Cozzens says, “hardscrabble farmers in search of better land, fugitives from justice, and the congenitally restless of slack moral fiber.” The Indians would become fed up and slaughter dozens or hundreds of white men, women, and children, often in the most gruesome ways. (Daniel Boone’s sixteen-year-old son was captured and tortured to death, for example.) The white man would react by organizing punitive military expeditions to kill Indians, in usually, but not always, somewhat less gruesome ways, and drive the Indians off the land.
If there is a crucial fact about the Indian Wars, and in general the relationship between Indians and Europeans, it is that the North American Indian population was shockingly low, and always had been. When Tecumseh was born, a mere fifteen hundred Shawnees claimed most of what is now the southern half of Ohio.
True, disease had earlier decimated many of the tribes (although the idea that the Europeans deliberately gave them smallpox is probably a myth – no matter, they got that, and other diseases, anyway; Tecumseh himself survived smallpox), and we don’t know how many Indians there were before the Europeans arrived. But likely not that many more than later – the eastern Indians were primarily hunter-gatherers, and the land simply didn’t support huge numbers, as can be seen by frequent references to game totally disappearing, and starvation looming, when any sizeable group of Indians gathered for even a few weeks.
This problem was exacerbated by white overhunting in the borderlands, and by the fur and skin trade – as Cozzens notes, Indians began to kill just to have something to trade for alcohol, of which more later. Even at the height of their power, in the mid-seventeenth century, the Iroquoian Confederacy, aggressively expansionist and ruling over a vast area of what is today northeast and upper-midwest America, totaled no more than 50,000 people. Cozzens estimates that the total Indian population of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley in 1768 was approximately 60,000 – at the same time the thirteen British colonies had two million inhabitants. Moreover, the Indians, resource poor, deliberately kept their birth rate low (though they did not practice infanticide). Thus, they could never have hoped to compete with the white man in numbers.
Even with their small numbers, the Indians mostly competently played a losing hand. Their only real possible move was to involve themselves in the wars among the French, British, and Americans – the Long Knives, as the Algonquins called the last – and hope to side with the winning team, with the expectation they would then be left in peace. Thus, despite no real interest in the white man’s wars, they were inevitably forced by circumstance to join. That, man-for-man, Indians were far better warriors than the whites, and they were quick to adopt European technology, could not compensate for their small numbers and democratic method of fighting, “every man his own chief.” Indians often won battles when allied with regular European troops, or alone when fighting poorly trained troops, but usually lost against any sizeable European force that maintained order.
Tecumseh’s father died in 1774, when Tecumseh was five, at the Battle of Point Pleasant, in what is now West Virginia. This was one of numerous skirmishes in Dunmore’s War, a brief but brutal war caused, predictably, by Virginians pushing west. The British then formally set the Ohio River as the boundary of the Indian lands. This boundary was a key fact of Tecumseh’s childhood, and its inevitable breaching by the white man the ground of his life’s work. His early years were spent near today’s Chillicothe; Cozzens does an excellent job of sketching the culture of the Shawnee, which we will discuss later.
The years of Tecumseh’s youth and early adulthood involved the further splintering of the Shawnee, some of whom moved west, and the grinding advance of the white man, sometimes in arms, but more often with a toxic joint offering of alcohol to dull the Indians and money to bribe tribal chiefs to sell land for a tiny fraction of its true worth. In 1782 the uneasy peace ended. In the Gnadenhutten Massacre, Pennsylvania militia, responding to Indian raids, killed nearly a hundred Delawares, men, women, and children (who were completely uninvolved in the raids, and in fact were farming Christians). The Shawnees and other Algonquins went on the warpath, killing hundreds of white settlers, and fighting pitched battles.
At the Battle of Blue Licks, in what is today Kentucky (and is considered one of the last battles of the Revolutionary War), they (along with their allies and some British rangers), killed sixty-seven Kentucky militia. (Among those were another son of Daniel Boone; no wonder Boone wasn’t a big fan of the Indians. But then, who even knows today who Daniel Boone was?) George Rogers Clark, a regular army officer in charge of the Kentucky militia, responded with organized expeditions that pushed the Shawnee out of southern Ohio, which was promptly overrun with American settlers.
Tecumseh moved north too, although as a young, unattached warrior he ranged widely, and he participated in various skirmishes and fights, as well as piracy against Ohio River settler flatboats. But fewer than a thousand Shawnee remained east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio. The rest moved to Missouri, or to Creek country in the south, or to join the Chickamaugas who lived on the Tennessee River, near today’s Chattanooga. For a while, Tecumseh, and his brothers, visited Louisiana, then Tennessee.
He eventually returned to the Ohio Valley, however, and took part in the crushing 1791 defeat of Arthur St. Clair’s chaotic expedition against the Ohio Indians, which, in the usual pattern, was followed a few years later, in 1794, by “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s destruction of a large group of Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, where Tecumseh also fought.
Tecumseh gradually raised his profile and attracted followers, mostly aggressive young men and those who wanted to maintain the traditional Indian life, as many of the tribes became less warlike and dependent on annuities and other handouts. He and his extended family moved to today’s eastern Indiana, maintaining reasonably good relations with the local whites (helped by that Tecumseh spoke some English).
Some years passed, and the Indians south of the Great Lakes continued their slow decline. Harsh winters, vanishing game, American pressure, and alcoholism told on them. Then Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh’s younger brother, regarded as a useless, drunk buffoon (he had shot his own eye out as a child), suddenly claimed to have received a series of visions giving him divine revelation. He informed their small Shawnee village that the Great Spirit had told him that to gain heaven Indians must give up alcohol, and all the white man’s ways, and from this base he developed a new syncretic religious doctrine, with bits and pieces of earlier Indian mysticisms, Christianity, and Shawnee culture.
Tenskwatawa’s religion was only the latest in a series of Indian religious revivals. A Delaware, Neolin, had preached a similar set of doctrines in the 1760s, which was adopted in part by the Ottawa war chief Pontiac to fuel his eponymous war. In the Prophet’s doctrine, there were two opponents: Americans and witches. As far as Americans, however, Tenskwatawa’s doctrine wasn’t militaristic, but particularistic. Despite American fears, he did not, at first, preach going on the warpath. As far as witches, Cozzens frequently mentions the woodland Indian obsession with witches. Very often supposed witches, usually elderly chiefs whom younger men wanted to move out or unmarried women with enemies, were tortured and killed; the Prophet eagerly participated in these killings as a judge. You won’t read that in the sanitized Indian hagiographies they teach schoolchildren as history nowadays.
Almost all the Shawnee immediately converted. Other surrounding Indians were a harder sell, though some took to the new religion, especially Wyandots and Miamis, and many expressed interest, travelling to hear the Prophet speak. Thus, Tenskwatawa quickly became regionally famous, but at this time, around 1806, Tecumseh continued to be obscure – if mentioned at all, mentioned as “the Prophet’s brother.” Nonetheless, those who noticed him observed his charisma, presence, and leadership ability, and his rise to prominence can be dated to this time – perhaps prefigured by the name his parents gave him, which meant “shooting star” or “blazing comet.”
Tensions between the young United States and Great Britain were rising again, primarily the result of the Napoleonic Wars and their impact on American trade. The Indians held frequent conferences with various representatives of the United States, in a complicated dance asking for money and goods, but also reassurances about their land.
Meanwhile chiseling agents of the government, including William Henry Harrison, sometime military leader and now governor of the Indiana Territory, steadily ate away at Indian land title by bribing chiefs to sell land at pennies on the dollar. The United States was well aware, though, that if war came with Britain, the Indians might ally with Britain and attempt to retake their lands. And so it happened.
Tecumseh, in the years leading up to open war between Britain and the United States, acted as a Shawnee ambassador, both spreading the message of his brother and trying to create a new political alliance among different contiguous tribes. Indian alliances were notoriously short-term and opportunistic, making this an uphill climb, and in general both of Tecumseh’s messages were received coolly. Moreover, the Americans were aware of these efforts and opposed them, manipulating those Tecumseh sought to persuade with cash and alcohol. The ins and outs of the period 1806 to 1812 are complex, but covered in detail by Cozzens, including a famous and acrimonious council between Harrison and Tecumseh in 1810 at Harrison’s estate in Vincennes.
In 1811 Tecumseh finally achieved greater success recruiting Indian allies, helped by the belief among some Indians that war with the Americans was inevitable, and also by the Great Comet of 1811, visible for five months and sold by Tecumseh as an omen of their coming victory under his leadership. Tecumseh even made a long southern journey, trying and failing to convince the Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokee, in today’s Mississippi and Alabama, to join his confederacy.
Cozzens casts Tecumseh as a firm believer in his brother’s faith, a matter of historical dispute, but this was primarily a political recruiting effort – the Prophet’s message never resonated much beyond the Prophet himself. Yet we should remember that this effort was nearly unprecedented; Tecumseh was a visionary, the rare man who can see and act beyond the constraints of his upbringing and culture, seeing what has to be done and doing it.
Meanwhile, the Indians Tecumseh had already recruited, Shawnees and parts of allied tribes, were grouped around Tenskwatawa in Prophetstown, near today’s Lafayette, Indiana. The others were Wyandots, Kickapoos, Potawatomis, and Miamis, but no tribe joined the Prophet and Tecumseh wholesale; it was usually belligerent young men who flocked to them.
Harrison, in a military role though he was still governor, marched up the Wabash from Vincennes in southern Indiana, fearing that Tecumseh would bring more warriors from the south and start a war, which Harrison figured to nip in the bud. The Prophet did not want to fight Harrison, but the warriors around him were young and impatient, and he had sold them on the belief that his magic would guarantee victory.
Harrison, camped near Prophetstown, made impossible demands that the Indians disperse and leave Indiana. So the Prophet’s forces, while Tecumseh was hundreds of miles away, in the early morning of November 7, 1811, attacked Harrison – and were defeated, although not as badly as Harrison, eager to burnish his political image, would have it. This is the battlefield I wandered in my youth.
Tecumseh returned and rejoined his brother and what remained of the Indiana Shawnees; what they said to each other is not recorded. The winter of 1812 featured widespread, but sporadic, Indian violence across the Indiana Territory, also ranging up through today’s Chicago and into Wisconsin, as well as Michigan.
The Shawnee brothers threw their lot completely in with the British, who held forts in and around Detroit, and who were now formally at war with the Americans. The latter sent strong forces northwards to subdue British Canada; the British promised the Indians they would never retreat. But after American naval forces succeeded in dominating the Great Lakes and thus cut British supply lines to western Canada, the British felt they had to abandon Detroit and retreat east, which the Indians saw as a betrayal, with many promptly abandoning the fight.
Tecumseh traveled east with the British, bitterly demanding the British stand and fight – and when they did, Tecumseh died, shot through the heart at the Battle of the Thames, in today’s Chatham, Ontario, October 5, 1813. Tecumseh’s alliance, the last attempt by the woodlands Indians to act collectively, died with him.
The remaining Algonquins moved to Canada, where their descendants still reside. The Prophet lived on in obscurity and poverty for another twenty years; by the time he died, he was nothing but a curiosity. Tecumseh was posthumously admired for his virtues by the young United States; his death is shown in many artworks, not least in the Rotunda of the Capitol. They don’t say much about him in schools today, preferring to focus on helpless victims and supposed emancipations, rather than heroic deeds and lives.
A great many fascinating details about Indian culture are brought out by this book, making it more interesting than a mere work of dry history. (Cozzens never uses or even adverts to the stupid term “Native American,” though it appears on the dustjacket.) No surprise, the Shawnee were fiercely racist – they thought they were superior to the whites, because they were first born of creation, and for that matter, they were superior to other Indians, though both Indians and whites had a pecking order. The Long Knives, according to Tenskwatawa, were not human at all, merely demons who crossed the Stinking Lake as scum on the waves.
This racism is not a knock against the Shawnee; some degree of racial empathy among similar people is inevitable – the challenge is managing it to make it not excessively pernicious (something at which the America of today is failing, as the deliberate whipping up of racial hatred in 2020 shows). Yet at the same time, the Shawnee, like all the woodlands Indians, adopted whites, and mixed-race individuals, Métis, were often prominent in Indian leadership, helped by having a foot in each camp.
In fact, several of the closest companions of Tecumseh’s youth were kidnapped white boys, most of whom ultimately returned to the whites, but some of whom died with him. As Sebastian Junger says in Tribe, this disinclination of forcibly adopted whites to return to civilization, and the not infrequent leaving of civilization by adult whites to join the Indians, says something about European civilization, not complimentary.
Cozzens also touches on harsher topics. He says rape was forbidden by traditional Shawnee beliefs, and the Shawnee were very disciplined in all sexual matters. But later he refers to Ojibwa allies raping Shawnee women (and the Shawnee then getting payback by shooting their “allies” in the back in a subsequent battle), so it must have occurred sometimes among the woodlands Indians.
In his earlier book, Cozzens notes that rape was common among the Western Indians, so any differences among Indian tribes were cultural (and the occasionally heard claim that rape is a purely European phenomenon just propaganda). Torture and cannibalism of captives by Indians were routine, as well – a captive never knew whether he or she would be adopted or tortured to death, though adoption was more common, unless the Indians were seeking revenge for some recent affront or defeat.
The most interesting topic, perhaps, is alcohol and the Indians. Alcohol, even more than disease, destroyed both Indian populations and their will to resist the Europeans. Governments constantly issued dictates forbidding trading alcohol to Indians, but to no effect, since it was far easier to get the Indians drunk and steal their goods, or trade for them at rock-bottom prices to Indians desperate to get alcohol, than to trade honestly, and the government, British or American, was always unwilling or unable to enforce this and other dictates with respect to the Indians.
The catastrophic effects of alcohol on the Indians tend to be deemphasized today because their extreme affinity for it is felt to reflect poorly on the Indians. Many or most Indians became raging alcoholics when given alcohol (not Tecumseh, though he did drink upon occasion), and those who did not were happy to get roaring drunk whenever they could. It was common for Indians to literally drink themselves to death, and they frequently did extremely harmful things under the influence of alcohol, such as slaughtering their own livestock, or murdering each other over trivial matters.
Australian Aborigines have a similar reaction to alcohol, so I imagine it is related to some genetic quirk in populations never exposed before to alcohol. But, of course, we are not allowed to talk about genetic differences today.
A quick glance around the internet shows a wild desperation to reject the historical truth about the Indian lust for alcohol, including Google curating its results to avoid any support for it – though they don’t deny other genetic traits tied to alcohol, such as the “Asian flush.” And Wikipedia, showing why it is a highly dubious historical aid to memory, unhelpfully lies to us in racist fashion, blaming the white man: “Native Americans typically experience higher rates of alcohol use compared to other ethnicities as a result of acculturative stress directly and indirectly associated with historical trauma.” Nope. Indians just loved (and love) to get drunk, never mind the damage they knew would result.
However, let’s not end on a sour note. Yes, Tecumseh lost. He was foredoomed to lose. But his actions, his blazing course across the sky of the Ohio Valley, speak to us still today. One should be careful not to believe the myth of the noble savage, but also careful not to fall into the opposite error, that peoples more primitive than us cannot provide exemplars to us.
Tecumseh, man of grandeur mixed with tragedy, was a Man of Destiny. He tried to preserve his culture – and he did not back down, he did not count the cost, but did the very best he could with what he had. It was not enough, but that says nothing bad about his character, and tells us nothing about what success other men, yet to appear, who embody his virtues but apply them to new challenges in a new time, will have.
Tecumseh proves that such men arise across cultures. Whether they arise in desiccated cultures such as ours, I am not so sure. The Shawnee, as all the woodland Indians, chose their leaders, most of all their war leaders, by leadership ability and success, so the best men came to the fore. We’ve abandoned that, so how can a Man of Destiny gain traction in America today?
The hyper-feminized reaction to the Wuhan Plague suggests that, perhaps, like good seed cast on hard ground, our own Man of Destiny may not find a receptive audience. Yet almost certainly, if the truth were allowed to be ferreted out, more people voted for Donald Trump than for Joe Biden, which suggests the ground only appears hard, because we are fed propaganda that it is hard, to demoralize those who are based in reality.
Similarly, most likely the cowardly reaction to the Plague we see all around us appears as the norm because of the societal pressure put on everyone to outwardly comply, combined with massive censorship of those who are willing to state the truth. No, I think the Man of Destiny will be welcomed when he comes – not by all, but by enough.
Nonetheless, the Man of Destiny will not arise until the day is far gone, when the feet of clay that support our society crumble. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. I think, reading this book, that after all, we are just waiting for a new, and not that very different, Tecumseh.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The image shows, “Portrait of Tecumtha;” water color attributed to Owen Staples, ca. 1915, after w wood engraving by John Benson Lossing, ca. 1858, after a drawing taken from life by Pierre Le Dru ca. 1808.