The Banality Of The Humanities In Spain

Lucian of Samosata says in his treatise, How to Write History, that one can only be a good historian if one can tell the truth; that is, if one wanted to tell it; and if one did not wish to flatter the powerful. That is why many times the great historians have swum against the current; and when the data are systematized and the usual interpretations are dismantled, a history book can seem impertinent. Such was the case of the book by Darío Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain. It is a work based on overwhelming evidence, which puts facts before prejudice and goes against the political and academic clichés in force in Spain, which make the image of the past, which is often offered, an inversion of what the past actually was. An example of this is the book by Jorge Elices Ocón, Respeto o barbarie: el islam ante la Antigüedad. De al-Andalus a DAESH (Respect or barbarism: Islam in the face of Antiquity. From al-Andalus to DAESH), which is a faithful portrait, not of the past, but of the political and academic world of Spain today.

In present-day politics of Spain, ideas, controversies and political debate have almost disappeared. Ideas have been replaced by easy-to-use labels, which lack content and are nothing more than a series of words, which fabricate a world parallel to the real world; and the course of this fabricated world is then followed. This is the world of so-called political correctness. And the natural niche in which its slogans are generated in Spain is the academic world.

It is a world of armchair tolerant people, who pretend to redeem the world with their studies, almost always opportunistic and of low academic level, in which they make anachronistic arguments about tolerance in the past.

Such is the case of J. Elices Ocón, who is a perfect example of politically correct opportunism. His book is a doctoral thesis, which is not a guarantee of academic rigor, which was done under the auspices of a project financed with public money, and which shows that getting public money is not a guarantee of anything either. Elices Ocón establishes a continuity between al-Andalus, that is, the Muslim kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula (and his focus is solely on the 10th century), and Daesh, born in Syria ten centuries later, and not in Cordoba, where an important caliphate existed. If he wanted to talk about intolerance in Hispanic Islam, then he would have to examine how the Umayyads had already implanted religious rigorism and oppressed the Christians, and then deal with the Almoravid and Almohad invasions, which took religious rigorism to extreme limits at that time. But that is of no interest to him. In Islam, as in other religions, the demon of hatred, fanaticism and violence always nests in a corner of the soul, which the author seems to want to incarnate exclusively into Christianity.

To demonstrate respect for classical antiquity in Islam, the author limits himself to collecting scattered data on the reuse of capitals, ashlars, and even sarcophagi used as containers for liquids, without realizing that such reuse was common since antiquity, because it takes a lot of work to carve a pillar, let alone make a capital. To be surprised, as Elices Ocón is, that Muslims appreciated the value of the Hispanic Roman aqueducts and bridges, or that Ibn Khaldun, a Muslim historian who believed that history begins with Mohammed, said that the pyramids of Egypt were built by the men of the past and not by mythological beings, can only be explained by his intention to defend, in a wrong way, that there can also be tolerance in Islam, and to confuse tolerance with common sense. Curiously, he hides the fact that, as can be seen in the book by Darío Fernández-Morera, the Muslims destroyed buildings and churches in order to reuse their materials, for example, in the construction of the mosque of Córdoba.

To the quotations of isolated materials, he adds the knowledge of classical texts. The author hides the fact that in the Hispanic Muslim world no one knew Greek, and that Aristotle was translated from Greek into Syriac and from Syriac into Arabic – and by Christian scholars under Muslim rule.

Since Elices Ocón focuses only on the 10th century in Andalusia, he forgets that the Byzantine Empire ended in the 15th century and that it was there that monks preserved classical texts unknown in the West, such as Plato. To maintain that St. Isidore of Seville had less knowledge of the classical world than the supposed Hellenistic scholars of the Caliphate of Cordoba, because Isidore was a Christian, makes no sense. Dioscorides’ book De materia medica, which Elices Ocón cites as an example of interest in the past, was translated into Arabic by a monk sent to Abderraman III by the emperor of Byzantium in order to teach Greek to the slaves in charge of the translation. It was translated for use in medicine, just as Dr. Andrés Laguna would do in the 16th century, when he translated it into Spanish for use as a vademecum. If to this we add that Elices Ocón does not mention that in the Toledo School of translators, promoted by a Christian king, Alfonso X, the translators of Arabic were basically Jews, then we will see how political correctness censors the past and stifles everything.

It is because of political correctness, sold as history and financed by public funds, that it is said that the actions of Daesh can make sense in the context of the struggle against imperialism, citing the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan (Afghanistan). It is true that the remains of the past have been destroyed at all times, but it is also true that Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan punishes, for example, apostasy from Islam with 20 years in prison, the burning of the Koran with public execution, by stoning in the case of women, and any public criticism of the religion with 8 years in prison, if there is a trial, or with execution by the free will of whoever is considered the just executioner.

Spanish humanists today live in a glass bubble. They write their books to win merit, which has nothing to do with knowledge, but everything to do with the standards that their colleagues create to evaluate and finance themselves with public money. They ignore much of the established knowledge, such as that collected by Darío Fernández-Morera in his systematic study, because they only work to accumulate a capital of minor publications, often in journals that they control or create. That is why they believe that to quote an author is to do him a favor. That is why, as J. Elices Ocón does, when there is a Greek author, such as the geographer Strabo, who has been studied from different perspectives in Spain and in Europe by numerous authors in different books, instead of referring to this whole tradition of studies, he limits himself to citing a minor article in a medium level journal, authored by a researcher – probably a friend – who will thus increase his capital of citations, within the networks of reciprocity and distribution of quantifiable honors that the humanities have become in Spain.

Are these new humanities, which ignore the value of systematic work, of the study of texts in their original languages, and which ignore the moral responsibility of the historian, described by Lucian, of any use? Well, no. The humanities thus understood serve no purpose, and nothing would be lost if they were no longer financed with public funds, because they contribute practically no new knowledge, nor do they have any capacity to take root in the concerns of citizens.

So increasingly, what readers demand from the humanities is offered to them by novels and all sorts of works of fiction, not by humanists. The new purple-prose humanists know that they are incapable of arousing interest beyond their academic bubble. They ask to be financed by the state – but as they know that their works can only be accepted, not read, in the field of propaganda and political correctness, they proclaim themselves prophets of a new banal world, which they call the “digital humanities” and emphasize the value of history as a resource to promote tourism. But then Medina Azahara, on whose door, by the way, the severed heads of the enemies of the caliph were hung as a lesson and warning to one and all – was also destroyed by the Muslims themselves.


José Carlos Bermejo Barrera is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). He has published numerous books in the fields of mythology and religions of classical antiquity and the philosophy of history. Among these are The Limits of Knowledge and the Limits of Science, Historia y Melancolía, El Gran Virus. Ensayo para una pandemia, and most recently, La política como impostura y las tinieblas de la información. He has published numerous works in academic journals, such as History and Theory; Quaderni di Storia, Dialogues d’Histoire Ancienne, Madrider Mitteilungen. He is a regular contributor to the daily press.


The featured image shows, “Moors in conversation,” a mural on the ceiling of the Sala de Los Reyes, at the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, ca. 1375.

The Aztec In Their History

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.


The featured image shows Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec Feathered Serpent.

On Homer’s Iliad: Why Eris, Mimesis and Menis Matter More Than Ever

The excerpt that follows is from Confessions of Odysseus by the late Nalin Ranasinghe (1960-2020), who was professor of philosophy at Assumption College.

This book is a unique reading of Homer in that it seeks to examine modernity through the Iliad and the Odyssey. As Predrag Cicovacki in his indispensable preface to the book, elucidates: “In Ranasinghe’s view, Odysseus is both the first recognizable human being and a model of curious and concupiscent human rationality that constantly strives toward the virtues of self-knowledge and moderation. Homer leads us to believe that the cosmos leans toward virtue, although its fundamental truths may be inherently unspeakable. This is the line of thought that Ranasinghe believes was further developed by Socrates, Plato, and Jesus, while being obscured by Aristotle, Augustine, and their followers. Homer’s later epic and his central insights are, according to Ranasinghe, the most fertile soil on which a humane civilization can grow and flourish.”

The book is forthcoming from St. Augustine. Be sure to pick up your copy of this very interesting journey of ideas.


When I started this book, it was Obama’s hour. He hoped to end the Bush wars, fix the economy and bridge our divisions. Homer’s epic pointed towards a new Oresteia: a millennial trilogy going from oracular Oprah and orgulous Osama to obsequious Obama. But we fell from tragedy into a satyr play, an infernal Punch & Judy parody of Achilles’ divine rage/Menis at Troy. This internecine strife delights the ruling rich; taking sides like Olympians, they pit puppets against proles. Yes, they can plunder without risk (or even dismantle the state) if we’re distracted by rage.

Our masque of Menis began when a new Clytemnestra enraged the white proletariat; its honest but blind fury soon found a demagogic messiah. Thirsting for hot blood they declared war on the bi-coastal elite, “deep state,” Jews, blacks, aliens, science, and the world. While this rebirth of rage thrills the mob, our hidden gods use its innate nihilism to push a crass agenda. As his war against all rages endlessly, their puppet-messiah mocks morality, fakes news, fosters crony capitalism, and gets America high on hatred. My tale ends apocalyptically when his puppeteers emerge to claim power over a bankrupt state and its alienated citizenry. Corporate tyranny, race war, cyber addiction, and debt slavery await if we do not stop this fake Achilles and the real rage he arouses.

That is why we must return to our origins—reading the Iliad and studying the blinding power rage exerts over city and soul before seeking Homer’s cure for this disease. While the remedy is found in his tale of Odysseus’ late return from Troy to save Ithaca, we must first ask our oracle the right question by decoding the Iliad. Homer has done most of our work for us; Socrates and Plato only retrieved what was implicit in his texts. They used a way of Midrash finely begun by Attic tragedy. This playful exegetic art was replaced by Aristotle’s scholastic science, but it can yet be recovered.

Homer must be read as the wisest Greeks did, not for fantastic tales of the Olympians but because his myths reveal eternal constants of the human state: the soul’s ruling passions and the possibility of knowing and educating these false gods. Wrestled with thus the Iliad becomes a cautionary tale, not one urging literal reading or mindless mimesis. It may always be that for the few who grasp Homer, many more will obey his gods or imitate his antiheroes; but the Odyssey hints that while its poet sees this potential for misuse, he is willing to take a noble risk and hope that eros can listen to and educate thumos. This faith is implicit in his tale of Achilles and the Trojan War. It is vital today that we see how the West’s end resembles its angry origins, as depicted in the Iliad. This is why Homer is said to be as fresh as the morning newspaper. His wisdom may outlive our literacy.

Even as subservient propagandists try to justify the ways of kings to man as divine providence, genuine inspired poetry continues its subversive struggle to reveal how the true gods see the world in all its fragile beauty; to this extent bards are literally poet/makers or better, savior/refreshers of reality. Thus, the Iliad shows how a plague of Menis, divine or divinized rage, infected our ancestors. But if this tragic poem is not read rightly—but seen as a paean to the glory of Ares/Achilles—this plague will return to punish our perverse piety and violent ignorance. Eris’ apple that began the Trojan war thus resembles the forbidden fruit of Eden that brought us the Fall. These very forces, viral strife and toxic knowledge, have joined their baleful powers again today.

The Unlikely Aristeia Of Hephaestus

Achilles is the starting point of each generation. Politicians raising new armies to kill each other rekindle his wrath and deploy his ever-alluring archetype for power and profit. He is used today in a way that would make even Agamemnon’s gross shade blush. The formless souls of our young are stunted by easy access to infernal weapons; we become self-forgetting, superpowered and superfluous by technology. Hephaestus does not hobble anymore; by his artifice and Hobbes’ counsel, the war of all against all has been escalated exponentially. No more Aphrodite’s cuckolded spouse, this god now exceeds Ares and Athena in glory and might; he makes angry boys socially inept and economically useless, but able to take pagan vengeance on judgmental Christian culture.

In short, as Max Weber sagely saw, Hephaestus the deformed deity once thrown down from heaven, may now be seen to have restored the Olympians for a secular second sailing. Today it is a truth almost universally acknowledged that the Gods (worship them as Hera, Ares, Aphrodite and Dionysus or call them jealousy, violence, sex and alcohol as any good sociologist would) are more powerful than that Enlightenment paradigm, the educated post-Christian individual, could possibly imagine. The confidence in calculation that led men to abandon the Homeric, Platonic, or Christian soul and replace it with Aristotle’s nous or silicon chips is thus proven by experience to be misplaced and unfounded. Even artificial intelligence or the much-anticipated event of the “Singularity” cannot save us from ourselves. Thus, if they have not done so already, the Gods and/or centrifugal forces of postmodernity have chosen to tear soul, city, and cosmos apart. Today technology has created a world where everyone from 8 to 80 strives to be Achilles at 18. Even worse, since our culture has been infantilized by promises of eternal youth and mindless pleasure, we are all concupiscent consumers: selfish suitors as ripe for slaughter as Penelope’s wooers.

But the deeper question is if we, like Achilles, his comrades, and the stupid suitors, are trapped by Hephaestus in a Hobbesian Hell, a war of all against all from which there are only apparent armistices but never any true respite or relief. Even Jesus could not bring peace on earth. Then, after Christianity became the exclusive faith of a persecuting empire, St. Augustine rendered unto Caesar the perverse doctrine that due to original sin, life on earth is a dark state of continual deserved punishment; further, as peace is impossible, good Christians must meekly await the apocalypse. In this condition slavery is to be preferred over rule since there are fewer opportunities for sin. Augustine also denied self-knowledge; we only know ourselves as sinners. He asserts, and we must believe, that God/the Church knows us better than we know ourselves. He/it also predetermines whether or not we are good or evil, destined for heavenly bliss or hellish damnation.

Made to choose between undeserved slavery/sin and ostracized outlaw-hood, many men plea-bargained: they accepted the false charges against their soul and picked theocratic authoritarianism over raw anarchy. This craven wish for liberation from freedom trumps self-knowledge’s lonely innocence. As Paul told the Romans, if human righteousness is possible then Christ died in vain.

Modern technology offers a way out of this dilemma. It promises the Epicurean earthly pleasure of a suitor’s life to those who follow religion merely to enjoy the bliss of Christian heaven. As long as he renounces egalitarian ethics and spurns talk of human rights or justice, a bold man can enroll himself among the ranks of the elect and become a predator on a natural order that is destined to pass away. In time he may also come to enjoy the exquisite pleasure of chastising the natural slaves of creation. Augustinian Christianity, as both Luther and Calvin discovered, even gives a religious justification for this Darwinian distinction between the elect, the few mysteriously and undeservedly favored by God, and the losers left behind, unredeemed and doubly predestined. In short, we can enjoy a glorious life of a predator on earth and do so with a divine mandate. As the allied gods of terror and technology have brought us back to Homeric times, this book will claim that only Odysseus can redeem us from Achilles and set the cycle of civilization in motion again.

The Afterlife Of Achilles

But does blind Homer presume to criticize shining Achilles? Is the hero of the Iliad truly more like one of Penelope’s suitors than Odysseus? Is Achilles’ tale but an epic tragedy, and not the West’s founding epic of a betrayed hero? Can we hear his cry of rage and not hear Roland’s horn in an empty forest? I will argue that instead of trying to emulate him, as Alexander did, we must instead resist the siren song of his splendid vices and opt for the way of life led by Odysseus and Socrates. Achilles and Alexander spelled death to civic friendship, even as their bellicosity seemingly united Hellas. Achilles’ rage caused the Dark Ages as surely as Alexander ended Athenian freedom; Augustus then destroyed the Roman Republic and became universal landlord of a pacified empire. Later Augustine solidified this Thousand Year Reich by making a castrated Christianity its creed.

Perhaps only Odysseus and Socrates/Plato deliberately deviated from the brutal order wrought by Achilles’ potent afterlife. Achilles, Aristotle, Alexander, and Augustus are ultimately imperial and un-Athenian in that they address hoi polloi in the imperative. It is presumed that their divine mandate, tradition or force majeure trumps any right of plebs to think, speak, or act for themselves. Silencing dissent is necessary once the “best” lose reverence for the soul, their own included, and deign to rule directly over the huddled many they could have had killed. Statesmanship becomes a technique serving the Hobbesian imperative of keeping the people alive, orderly, and productive.

In short, the natural result of charismatic Caesarism is implicit slavery. And, if Caesarism is the telos of Achilles’ immortal desire for glory, his legacy or body is empire. From each of Caesar’s wounds grows a tradition, a Roman road or information superhighway, bringing civilization and trade smoothly down to every categorized part of a far-flung empire in time and space. There is no possibility of questioning precedent or going upstream by the liquid medium of dialectic; truth is reified as sacred tradition or even naturalized so that other possibilities cannot be imagined. Happiness is found when men pursue safe commodious pleasures under their landlord’s shadow.

Shakespeare saw that while the evil men do out-lives them, the good is interred with their bones.

Even a benign Imperator will use bad epic poetry to elevate his deeds, power, and divine mandate; he does so at the expense of nobles like Glaucus and Sarpedon who looked to tragedy to hallow their heroic rights. Poetry rather than sheer force of arms is the ultimate basis of lasting power over men; it gives their hegemony divine sanction. This is why Homer is greater than Achilles; what is a hero without a poet? While Augustus rather than Aeneas is the hero of Virgil’s artificial epic, Homer is dishonored when paid epigones turn his heroic tragedy into pseudo-epic founding poems.

This is why we must continually ponder if Homer sought to elevate Achilles to the unrivaled status he came to enjoy in pagan antiquity and every subsequent classical revival. In short, was Homer’s original intent descriptive and cautionary or prescriptive and valorizing? And if his true purpose is the former, could it be that the Iliad’s alluring surface serves to preserve its esoteric meaning over time, to survive a barbaric or imperial age when texts had to be memorized and recited? We shall make this argument later when we consider the end of Book 5 of the Odyssey where this very possibility seems to be analogically depicted. It is possible that Homer arrived after the Dark Ages and saw the potential for a tragic rendering of much older tales of Achilles and his mad wrath. Even though my reading of the Odyssey presupposes the ultimate insufficiency of the Iliad and its hero, a vexing matter that has consumed more gallons of ink than the quantity of heroic blood originally shed at Troy, and thus necessarily cannot be irrefutably proved here, I can show plausible grounds emerging from within the Iliad to support this outlaw interpretation.

It all began when Achilles lost faith in Zeus. After first rebelling against the selfish ways of Agamemnon, Zeus’ mortal counterpart, he then found himself to have been ultimately tricked by the god. But what is he apart from Zeus’ favor? Achilles once likened Patroclus to a little girl crying to her mother but is he any different? Further, the toxic deal Achilles has with Zeus leads to the disgrace of the hero as well the discrediting of the Iliad’s gods. Both Zeus and Achilles, not to mention Agamemnon, are ruled by necessity and care only for their own ascendency, glory, and power. While Zeus undergoes change in the shift from Iliad to Odyssey, Achilles only sees the emptiness of the deathless glory he cold-bloodedly sought. First, the sad wraith of Patroclus indicates the existence of soul, then Hector’s body proves immune to every humiliation Achilles can inflict, and finally Priam reveals that he too is braver than Achilles. Priam humbled himself, before the man who killed so many of his sons, out of love. This fond folly made him risk war for Paris; now it leads him to travel with Hermes, the leader of souls to Hades, to plead with Achilles’ Hellish rage. But Priam’s action shows us that he is a braver man and better lover than the “Best of the Achaeans.” Achilles’ guilty secret is that he loves his rage more than Patroclus. It makes him hate himself more than the man clad in his armor whom he slew: Hector. This could be why he protests too much in his humiliation of Hector’s body. He is already punishing himself in Hades.

*****

Voluntarism And Nihilism

War is easy to declare and almost impossible to conclude. For this reason, unjust relationships are so hard to end. Admission of prior wrongdoing leads to a demand for compensation and discredits illicit authority. This is why Agamemnon readily concedes Achilles’ martial superiority but then invokes a qualitative difference he must maintain by force of will; if not, he ceases to be king (or God in the case of Zeus). Even Zeus must maintain this irrational ratio with the other gods. Any true king or god thus must exceed logos! This absurd necessity compels masters but rules slaves.

Agamemnon grants that Achilles is a better warrior—but only because he displays a psychopathic indifference to life that his corrupt cynical commander can only feign sometimes. The Lion King creates rough order within but claims that he must always fight the original chaos outside. Yet if this logic is taken to an extreme, Agamemnon fears it will expose its ugly origin in his greedy will. The evil Achilles rages against is not ontological but artificial; it feeds on human selfishness. In short, growth and becoming must not be denied for the sake of being—defined as rigid order. Men need not be herded like unruly animals. Such an attitude denies the fluid quality of a human soul, affirms the cosmic primacy of violence, and denies the goodness and beauty of ultimate reality.

The seemingly craven Greek kings know quite well that if they query Agamemnon’s arbitrary will and undeserved hegemony, it is not only the justice and plans of Zeus that will come ultimately under fire, their own lordship will soon be scrutinized by men like Thersites; and so even meritocratic Odysseus cannot voice the resentment he feels towards aristocratic Achilles. The prospects of demagoguery and nihilistic anarchy loom once we have an exploited army united by unjust suffering; the demos must never see that sacred hierarchy ultimately rests on the human soul unknowingly denying itself. As they vainly defy Zeus’ will, Hera and Poseidon hint that their brother’s claims to total power are not as absolute as he says. This is also mimed in Odysseus’ duel with the Cyclopes when the hero claims to act in Zeus’ name. Wordy Polyphemus, the hero’s own ugly shadow, voices the resentment of the chthonic life forces exploited by Cronos’ crooked son. But this craft of cheating craftsman is not a tool to be readily turned against its users; if not used prudently, it can be a potent demagogic/fascist device once the many wrest power from their rulers. Freedmen must not emulate divine power; they should try instead to become fully human. Homeric humanism deftly steers between the Charybdis of greedy kings and the Scylla of the mob.

This is why the potential Achilles stands for must not be ruled by Ares or armed by Hephaestus. While he posthumously serves as an archetype by which angry youth are manipulated, Achilles himself is not courageous; true courage is erotic, it is not born of thumos, rage, or despair. Achilles is as solipsistic as Hamlet, but his rage is indulged by Thetis the ultimate helicopter parent. His guilt for Patroclus reveals all that is left of Achilles’ humanity. Patroclus was the last human Achilles had a loving relationship with. His lover’s affection was all that could contain Achilles’ titanic rage. After his death, many mediocre myths about his quasi-divine rage for glory began to possess/infect other men, even Penelope’s wooers. The myths made its victims as blind to results as to causes; they were happy to live in the immediate now, in the presence of the deluding power possessing them. Ares is not in the Odyssey; he is replaced by the giant shadow of Achilles. Ares only exists in the past via pre-Homeric bards, or in a caricatured form, in the present, as the suitors.

By reducing Ares to human proportions, both in his comic portrait of the god and by his tragic account of Achilles, Homer makes it possible for the contagious power of rage to be understood and addressed. But as we saw, Ares will be reincarnated as Mars the father of Romulus founder of Rome. Such a resurrection spells death to city and Eros; Roma is Amor spelled backwards. It represents a recipe by which a cold-blooded will to power can be made sacred and eternal; in effect, the so-called Eternal City is actually the death of the city state and the triumph of oligarchic family values. By contrast, Athena stands for the erotic ideal of a polity based on the potential for logos in all. The Odyssey may be read in this political way, not as the mother of all revenge tales.

Moving To The Odyssey

This political reading can be summed up simply. While Achilles saw too late that political theology’s gods are as unjust as its goals are empty, Odysseus is fated to atone for his sins and order his soul. Only then can he reconcile with Athena and receive a new account of divine justice, Troy’s true treasure, that may be brought back to Hellas. The two Homeric works are two halves of a whole: the first, a tragedy describing the perennial temptations inherited by every generation; and the second, an epic prescribing how these psychic diseases are cured. But while all youth seek to be Achilles, a truth as universal as that attributing mortality to Socrates, few gain the telos of life; Odysseus’ self-knowledge is as hard to hold as Socratic wisdom. The Iliad attracts the diseased many by its angry allure before a self-selected few are cured by continually re-reading the Odyssey.

While Homer is magnificently impartial in his refusal to take sides in the tragic conflict between Greeks and Trojans in the Iliad, it is evident in the Odyssey that there is a chasm between the two texts that has to be resolved. There is also a most urgent political problem to be addressed. This state of affairs may be seen to stem from the Iliad and the Trojan War but is found to derive more immediately from Achilles and Agamemnon. The mimetic attraction exerted by the former and the latter’s inability to assert legitimate authority have led to the state of affairs we see at the start of the Odyssey. It is not just the anarchy in Ithaca that is troubling. Many of the best heroes have perished and those who survive are but shadows of their great reputations. For all their fine war stories and professed love for his father, neither Nestor nor Menelaus can offer Telemachus even minimal military aid. They can no longer lay claim to Zeus-given authority over their war veterans or their angry orphans. This is why Odysseus is warned not to return home as Agamemnon did.

The losses and disillusionment caused by the war has made the alliance between Greeks forged by Agamemnon disintegrate. Anarchy reigns in many places and there is no longer any stomach for war or respect for rule. While Nestor, the ultimate survivor, is now more priest than king, Menelaus seems to rely on magic potions and money to rule Sparta. The Dark Ages are upon Hellas and they result from the Trojan War’s bitter aftereffects. Before it men thought they were divine puppets; too weak for self-rule, they preferred currying favor with gods and kings that licensed them to violate the even weaker. But the war exposed the weakness and folly of kings and even gods. Men who cannot trust their betters often lose the power to believe in their own virtue or that of others.

Hannah Arendt saw that politics, the basis of any human community that fosters true virtue, is the opposite of violence. The Iliad and Odyssey both reveal this crucial disjunction. In the Iliad Ajax and Priam are both braver than Achilles for neither embraced rage. Aristotle teaches that courage involves virtuous but risky acts chosen deliberately despite loving life and hating death. While Ajax is always there for his comrades, Achilles likes to slaughter the fleeing for his greater glory. His psychopathic indifference to other lives is punctured by his lover’s death; Patroclus’ display of civic courage shows the emptiness of Achilles’ entitled excellence; love, courage, humility, and friendship are all erotic and relational virtues. As such, they are alien to Achilles’ thumotic soul.

No longer secure in his thumotic identity as the chosen one, Achilles is driven back from his unreflective “heroic” existence between divine and human realms, down to the shallow depths of his soul. It now means little for him to be the spoiled darling of the gods. Even if fools imitate him and envy his great menis, Achilles’ spirit is already dead. In his lurid tale of the underworld Odysseus hints that like Heracles, the Iliad’s hero is in two places at once; despite the rage that made his glory immortal in Hellas, Achilles’ soul only knows self-hatred in Hades. It is clear that he does not want to be recalled or admired for acts that now torment him eternally. He wishes to be even less than a slave; even a slave is trustworthy within limits. We too realize that Achilles is limitless and untrustworthy. Role models like him make politics—and its basis, trust—impossible.

It follows that Achilles, being incapable of friendship, is inimical to cities and civilization; he must not be seen as the West’s founding hero but as the hater of every city and wall—not just Troy’s. Walls do not make a city, but a wall of fear is built around the Greek camp after Achilles changes the quality of the comradeship between this band of pirates. Even Troy becomes less of a city by the favor Zeus bestows on Hector at Achilles’ request. Though for a while Hector is the besieger of the Greek walls he is but Achilles’ factor, even before donning his fatal armor. Is the temporary rout of the Greeks due to Hector, Achilles, or Zeus? Once Zeus withdraws his favor, hubris-hungover Hector elects to fight outside the walls, dooming himself and his city. The loss of Hector cost the Trojans more than Achilles’ death weakened the Greeks. It could even be that Achilles had to die before Odysseus takes Troy; glory is exchanged for guile and human intellect seems to matter more than the short-lived gifts of immoral gods. It is as if Odysseus must bring Achilles down with Heracles’ bow for the war to end. Athena’s metis has to defeat Ares’ raging menis.

The reader of the Iliad has knowledge that neither Greeks nor Trojans were privy to. Intelligence of Thetis’s successful request that Zeus help her son by humbling Agamemnon’s forces helps us see through the brazen “armor of the lie” worn by Achilles; he is not one who hates more than the gates of Hades someone who says one thing and means another. While Nestor shrewdly suspects that Achilles has a secret deal with Zeus, a deal never disclosed even to Patroclus, but which serves as the basis for his confident expectation that Agamemnon will come begging to him, we see that Achilles is not just a spoilt glory-hound but a real traitor. This pledge explains Achilles’ belated promise to arm when his own ships were attacked. But, as with most divine bargains, he is fooled when Patroclus is killed. Then, as Phoenix warned, an ugly thumotic necessity, born of rage, shame, and self-hatred makes Achilles take up arms but at the cost of the immortal glory he madly desired.

Achilles stands for the disillusionment of the young with corrupt leaders and the rigged community norms sustaining them. Like him they return to their tents or Hobbesian suburbs and commodious booty. While Achilles’ earlier immediate and unreflective “all-in” state is like Heidegger’s fatalistic rejection of self-knowledge, for it lets us be at the disposal of Zeus or Hitler, his deep grief is proof of a soul’s existence. But this sorrow must be led from the tent/cave and clad decently—not left in the brazen armor of the lie. Achilles was first ruled by false value-markers that disordered his soul; those were norms of virtue set by corrupt Agamemnon. These honors he rejects with fitting disgust. But nihilism is not the answer. Neither is a long obscure life. We turn to the Odyssey. It is Odysseus who must “transition” from Ares/Achilles into himself: he must be more than a Hephaestus who captures the Achilles-miming suitors of Aphrodite/Helen’s cousin in his web of lies and trickery.

How A City Should Read The Iliad

Achilles’ tale is tragic, not epic. The Iliad is cautionary and not foundational. After losing his quasi-divine self-sufficiency, realizing that he too needs the political goods of love and comradeship, Achilles sees that his peers could no longer give him respect or friendship. Since he is favored by gods and not truly fighting beside them, he is merely a tool for victory: like Philoctetes’ bow. So even killing Hector is empty; it cannot remove the disgrace or negative kleos he sustained by allowing Patroclus to be killed in his place. Achilles reveals the extent of his knowledge when he rigs the games for Patroclus. Earlier he rejected the glory gained from a rigged war and the cheating Olympians. Next believing there is nothing more and, playing the role of Zeus as he presides over the funeral games, he offered a less violent glory for those like Antilochus who belong to the next generation. Then, as noted, he meets a braver man than himself: Priam. Priam’s futile love for his dead son penetrated Achilles’ arms and did what Hector could not. The Iliad teaches that there is no glory without courage; but this quality is born of love, not from mad despair or tragic thumos.

Tragedy exposes the deeper rules undergirding the beauty of the cosmos and the tragic hero is happy to see this sublime vision, even in death, although he gains no profit from this insight and lacks the ability to take it back to the cave. Achilles is not truly the best; what he has is the unfair favor of the gods, compounded further by the treacherous deal he makes with Zeus. This inequity is imaged in Patroclus’ funeral games. It is also so with Ajax; it is ultimately the favor of Athena who gives Odysseus Achilles’ arms. Yet this very apotheosis as Achilles/Ares destroys Odysseus; he cannot educate his own soul. As Heraclitus said, “it is difficult to fight thumos, it buys what it wishes at the cost of psyche” DK B85. Odysseus must learn to renounce this rough magic, become invulnerable in the heel and spike the landing or return to common humanity in a way that truly redeems the ache/rage of his laos/people. This is how he truly surpasses Achilles! The hero of the Iliad merely stands beside the people’s pain but does not mitigate or represent it. Homeric tragedy becomes true epic in the Odyssey. Here, instead of living off his thumos, Odysseus uses his psychic and erotic ability to see all souls and cities. He thus gives fine expression in both speech and deed to what Aristotle would describe much later as a soul’s power to be all things. The soul is also the basis for the axiomatic assertion of human equality, a lofty ideal first explored in the Odyssey.

The Greeks came to see that human souls were best cultivated in a polis. And, as Aristotle tells us in his Ethics, a polity finds its origin in the extension of friendship. The Iliad shows how even the gifts and favors of the gods were not sufficient to actualize Achilles’ soul. While interactions among the Greeks provide fine examples of comradeship, their union does not on final analysis exist to foster a good life for all; despite providing us many pregnant pre-political instances of ad hoc deliberation among pirate kings, their discussions pertain to tactics rather than the common good. It is only after the war’s bitter pyrrhic end that the true interests of the many become visible.

But Troy does not serve as an example of a polis either. Priam’s city is but the oikos or household of a wealthy family; the Trojans do not argue over strategy or discuss whether or not Helen should be returned to Menelaus. It is hard to imagine the besieged men of Troy putting Paris’ marital bliss before their bodily safety and fighting ten long years just for Helen. While men like Priam and Hector were pious, and duly offered fine sacrifices to the gods, there is something lacking in merely ritual virtue—although failing to honor the Olympians in this way will certainly incur their ill favor. Trojan piety is stagnant and there is no mutually beneficial interaction with the gods; Troy’s god-built walls are too thick. The towering city of Ilium is but a royal citadel held together by its great wealth. His gold lets Priam indulge Paris, buy allies, and withstand a long siege. It is vital to see that Odysseus’ household is like Troy. Here too, great wealth is feasted away and not replenished.

But the Iliad also gives many reminders that Olympus itself is like a rich household. The gods seem to lead an Epicurean existence that is only relieved by the excitement of the war. But even the gods are not truly self-sufficient since they crave honor and a self-knowledge they cannot give themselves; it seems that happiness or eudaimonia is closely related to divine activity beside heroic mortals; the deathless gods can only revel in their power when they use it meaningfully. This involves human tragedy and not divine comedy. Left to themselves the gods are like the idle playful Phaiakians, and Athena is no better than lovesick princess Nausicaa; it seems that even gods must go “slumming” like Paris to find beauty and meaning beyond their perfect essentiality. Even the gods are political animals; they can best be groomed, known, or seen by us in a just city.

The converse of this ironic situation is seen in the Odyssey’s second half; now we find that the heroes whom the gods need do not hold virtue apart from the gods or their fellow men. This is the essence of tragedy; the case of Achilles is paradigmatic and not exceptional. As much as we admire towering Ajax, he is not self-sufficiently clad in virtue. Sophocles will have jealous Athena break Ajax: first by seducing him with glory, then manipulating his rage, and finally leading him to see his comrades through divine eyes: as cattle. While Ajax never manifested this fury when he took on Hector and was most himself when he fought fearless foes threatening these comrades, he seems no better than an angry ox once Athena champions Odysseus, his rival for the arms of Achilles.

Upon final analysis the Iliad could be read as a duel between a god and man: Zeus and Achilles. Both seek to remain in unrivalled unchanged superiority and yet, by the tragedy’s end, both have lost. While Achilles’ fall is more overtly imminent, the seeming victor—following a pattern seen with Patroclus, Hector, and even Achilles himself—is warned of his own swift approaching death. Even as Zeus and Apollo will unite to bring about the end of Achilles, seemingly the greatest threat to the limits between gods and men, the doomed mortal’s disillusioned rage has exposed the “two-faced double-dealing” ways of Zeus and himself. While these most ignominious epithets were hurled at Ares, careful readers/hearers of the Iliad know that the god and man to whom they best apply are Zeus and Achilles. They are as badly exposed as Patroclus was before Hector slew him.

But how then do we deal with the problem of Achilles? His angry ghost appears before each new generation of disillusioned youth, and his siren song lures them towards short brief lives of rage and destruction. As noted before, the issue is most acute in our time; surely it is not by chance that a zombie-resurrection of the Greek gods occurs before us. Hobbes’ mad “war of all against all” has reached a crescendo today with a loss of faith in Christian logos and a recognition that our technocratic elites are as shamelessly corrupt as they are ignorant. We must find a better way of interaction between gods and men before Achilles’ rage gives us up to scavenging birds and dogs. In short, the corruption of Agamemnon/Hillary does not prove Thersites/Trump to be our savior.

I will conclude by saying that Homer’s solution to the problem of Achilles is to be found in his Odyssey. While the Iliad describes it with unmatched eloquence, the problem would have existed whether not Homer would have given it expression; but his tragic poem provides an account of Menis and its causes that makes it possible for us to discern the outlines of a response. We need to conceive of a relation between gods and men in terms that are less adversarial and fatalistic. Homer helps to us view Achilles skeptically, to not allow his blazing anger and mimetic attraction to blind our capacity for prudent action. Odysseus exemplifies this human power when he successfully prevents Achilles from leading the army against Troy before it was fed. Homer likewise provides intellectual nourishment that protects his careful readers from the heady intoxication of the Menis he describes so well; he makes it possible for us to not be stampeded into seeing Troy through Achilles’ bloodshot eyes; as noted, Agamemnon’s corruption does not make Achilles infallible or even right. The armor of glory given him by Hephaestus make Achilles’ soul hard to see. It is only by studying his afterlife, in Hades and Hellas, that the tragic truth of Achilles becomes visible. As we shall see, even Odysseus must overcome Achilles’ blinding charisma if he is to return home.

While Bruno Snell brilliantly describes Homeric divinities as puppeteers manipulating men through strings attached to their various emotions and vital organs, Vico is more faithful to the esoteric intent of Homer. He depicts heroes wrestling with their gods, much as Jacob did with the Angel of the Lord, gaining meaning and identity from this nightlong struggle. I suggest that a similar agon is undertaken in the Odyssey by its hero, himself a peerless wrestler as Book 23 of the Iliad recounts. But Odysseus must not only strive against the gods, he has to also contend with two other equally slippery opponents: his own soul and the Iliad itself. For this ultimate trial he must descend into the psychic underworld and reconstitute the collective consciousness of Hellas. His tale gives posterity a mythic account of a higher justice, a subtle erotic power that guides souls better than anointed king or jealous god could. The humanistic arc of civilization itself originates from Odysseus’ bow and Homer’s lyre. The following book seeks to describe this epic beginning.


The featured image shows Dante, Homer, Virgil on Mount Parnassus (detail), by Raphael, painted ca. 1510-1511.

Carl Schmitt: Democracy In Crisis

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.

Fascism: History And Chimeric Reality

Everything about fascism and its opposite has been said for almost a century. Innumerable are the authors of studies, articles, books and documentaries, more or less serious or fanciful, devoted to the history of the fascist phenomenon and its historical significance. Singularly fewer, on the other hand, are interested in the controversies over the meaning of the word, “fascism” and its opposite, “anti-fascism,” and over the proper use of it. The immense merit of American political scientist Paul Gottfried is that he is one of the very few, if not the only one, to deal with all of these aspects. In this lies the interest and the importance of the vast and fascinating synthesis which he has published in Fascisme, histoire d’un concept (2021), a French translation of Fascism, The Career of a Concept (2017) , a study which the author has recently brought to completion with Antifascism. The Course of a Crusade (2021)]. In his Introduction to the French version, American historian Stanley Payne, a great scholar on the subject, aptly writes: “No other book in the recent scholarly literature treats these problems so comprehensively.” To take the measure of this glowing review, a brief perspective is here useful.

To hear what many politicians, writers and journalists have been telling us for decades, fascism should be a perpetually present, lurking danger, a monster, a hydra which can constantly rise from its ashes, despite all efforts to remove it. In the politico-media vocabulary, the term “fascist” is used constantly to denounce, abuse, denigrate, stigmatize the adversary, whose ideas or person we are supposed to hate. “Fascist” is synonymous with violent, fanatic, intolerant, perverse, macho, homophobic, reactionary, colonialist and racist. Fascism is always assimilated or amalgamated with Nazism; it therefore embodies absolute evil, the figure of the devil, the demon of the Bible in a sort of modernist or updated version. The word fascist has become an “empty signifier,” a truncated, trivialized portmanteau word; but nevertheless, because of its pejorative connotation and negative charge, there is not a single disparaging adjective that can compete with it. No leading or secondary political figure can escape the charge of fascism. Over the years, the most diverse regimes, social categories, cultural and religious communities, political parties and trade unions have all or almost all been denounced as fascists. The most contradictory philosophies and ideas have all, or nearly all, been similarly pilloried.

Fascists are therefore, or would have been, according to modern master-censors, jealous guardians of political correctness: Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Caesar, Charlemagne, Dante, Isabella the Catholic, Philip II, Hegel, Nietzsche, Roosevelt, Churchill, Franco, Gandhi, Mao, Trotsky, Stalin, Tito, Solzhenitsyn, Erdogan, Netanyahu, Putin, Obama, Trump, Biden, Merkel, Orban, Kim-Jong-un, Xi Jinping. Or, to stick to France alone, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Pétain, de Gaulle, Mitterrand, Chirac, Sarkozy, Macron, Mélenchon, Le Pen, Zemmour, Onfray, Houellebecq and many others. Fascist would be, or would have been, Germany and Italy of course, but also Spain, Portugal, Cuba, the USSR, China, the United States, the former Yugoslavia, France, Chile, South Africa, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, etc. Fascists would also be businessmen, bourgeois, bobos, workers, Catholics, priests, Jews, anti-Semites, Zionists, Islamophobes, Islamophiles, Islamo-leftists, sovereignists, populists, nationalists, globalists, feminists, chauvinists, homosexuals, pederasts, puritans, “pornocrats,” police officers. And I’ll pass over the rest and the best. Ultimately, we should all be, to varying degrees, hopelessly fascists! Tutti fascisti! Fascists All! That was the caustic title of the short political essay published long ago by Italian film critic, Claudio Quarantotto. Fascism has never been so topical. The great vanquished of the political-military history of the twentieth century, fascism seems to have become the absolute and omnipotent winner of Western political-cultural life at the turn of the twenty-first century.

More seriously or more rigorously, since the “march on Rome” of the Mussolini fascists in 1922 (at least, if one accepts to put aside the recent ideological drifts of American and European universities), academic circles have never ceased to try to formulate explanatory theories of the phenomenon. To this day, and despite the incongruous assertions of Roger Griffin and his followers, the debate remains open because there is no consensus. On the contrary, a whole series of interpretations, for the most part initially advanced in the 1920s and 1930s, occupy the field. Some combine and overlap; others, for the most part, contradict and exclude each other.

According to the tastes and convictions of exegetes, fascism is sometimes perceived as the violent and dictatorial instrument of bourgeois capitalism, the “armed wing of capital,” as the Comintern affirmed, in the year 1923. Sometimes, fascism is seen as the effect of irrational, extremist and violent nihilism, a consequence of the moral crisis and the corruption of morals. Sometimes, fascism is regarded as the deleterious result of capitalism and sexual repression, the outgrowth of an authoritarian and repressive society, with its inevitable neurotic and pathological impulses, as the ideologists of the Frankfurt School claimed in the 1930s.

The list of analyses, interpretations and explanations of the phenomenon does not stop there. About twenty specialists, internationally recognized as such, whose tedious enumeration I will spare the reader, identify other factors or characteristics which they deem more essential. The fascist phenomenon is, according to them, the product of the advent of the masses on the political scene; or, the expression of the exclusive radicalism of the middle classes; or, the response to a situation of distress in the face of a movement of social destruction, producing aversion to chaos among the most homogeneous social actors; or, the contemporary form of Bonapartism, independent of a specific class domination; or, the outlet for homosexuality; or, the product of late and atypical development processes; or, resistance to modernization; or, the prototype of the “developmentalist” and modernizing revolution; or, a form of populist and revolutionary ultra-nationalism; or, again, a “political religion,” the typical manifestation of 20th century totalitarianism, a collectivist and police-system specific to modernity, embodying the triumph of violence and terror, with the archetypal models of the Soviet-Communist and Nazi tyrannies, which have more in common with each other than with any other authoritarian form of government.

Let me stress, for the sake of being more complete, but without being exhaustive, that specialists also oppose the right, left or “right and left” nature of the phenomenon – some see fascism as the product of a revisionism of the left, socialist, statist, secularist, anti-traditional and anti-Christian. Others see it as a right-wing revolution, neither reactionary nor opportunist, based on the myth of renewal and regeneration. Still others see it as a revolutionary movement “neither on the right nor on the left;” or simultaneously on the right and the left, born from the synthesis of “revisionist” socialism, revolutionary syndicalism and a new community nationalism, organic and social.

However, fascism as a sociopolitical model of a general and transnational character (or if one prefers the categorization of “generic fascism”) raises more questions than it answers. How can one define fascism without sinking into interpretation-schematization or the reductionist cliché? Historians respond that defining “fascism” is above all about writing history, with the national characteristics linked to political, economic, social and cultural events of countries under consideration. There is not, according to these historians, a model of “one-size-fits-all fascism,” nor a universally valid definition. But on the other hand, one can note the existence of a basic minimal conception, common to the political movements and regimes which appeared in Europe at the beginning of the last century, in the midst of a cultural, economic and social crisis. A point of view a priori convincing but one which raises many questions.

The imperfect similarities which these historians point out constitute indeed a veritable jumble of ideas, values and principles; and there is of course no agreement on their comparative importance, frequency and significance. According to the convictions of the authors, there should be, at the heart of loose fascism, a mystical conception of life and politics; an irrational and voluntarist or idealistic or even spiritualist way of thinking; a cyclical view of history or a palingenesic view of history; the rejection of Marxist materialism; contempt for individualism, parliamentary democracy and the bourgeoisie, in the name of the organic, structured and hierarchical community; racism, anti-Semitism and hatred of others; the cult of the providential and charismatic leader; the call for a new elite, based on the virtue of example; the aspiration to a more mobile society; the desire to create a new ruling class from the middle classes and the working class; the exaltation of youth; the mobilization and integration of the masses through propaganda and the one party; realistic politics (Realpolitik) opposed to utopian politics (Phantasiepolitik); political-cultural imperialism; the heroic justification for war; the desire to reconcile technical modernity and the triumph of traditional values; the fusion of ideals common to traditionalism, nationalism, elitist liberalism, revolutionary socialism and anarcho-syndicalism; the assertion of the primacy of political sovereignty at the expense of any form of economism; the defense of the private economy but nevertheless the extension of public initiative; finally, and in order not to lengthen this list excessively, the will to transform society and the individual in a direction that has never yet been experienced or realized. In the end, a real intellectual patchwork that leaves one speechless.

In the face of these disagreements, many writers have come to deny that one can define a “generic fascist” phenomenon. Others take a less radical position, but nonetheless express the greatest doubt about its usefulness (see in particular: Gregor, Bracher, Allardyce, Muñoz Alonso, Fernández de la Mora, Arendt and De Felice, to name a few).

In reality, specialists of fascism fail to overcome the obstacle represented by the profound differences that exist between supposedly “fascist” movements or regimes, not only between fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany, but also between these two models and the other “nationalist-socialisms” that appeared in the years 1920-1940. To stick to the “state totalitarianism” of Italian fascism, and the “racial totalitarianism” of German National Socialism (and not to mention the “class totalitarianism” of the anticlerical and anti-religious Soviet-Communists), there is an immeasurable difference in the horror (the thesis of Emilio Gentile on “the Italian way of totalitarianism” has moreover been severely criticized by the disciples of Renzo de Felice). Before coming to power, between 1919 and 1922, the Italian fascists inflicted between 600 and 700 casualties among left and far-left activists, but also suffered roughly the same number of deaths in their own ranks. From 1922 to 1940, the Mussolini regime executed nine people (the majority of them Slovenian terrorists), and seventeen others in 1943 (date of the start of the civil war which claimed 50,000 victims, according to Claudio Pavone).

The number of political prisoners in fascist Italy never exceeded 2000. Italian fascism never had the intention or the possibility of developing a genuinely totalitarian system, based on the control of all state institutions and society, nor a fortiori a concentration camp system like those of National Socialist Germany and the USSR. The number of crimes, murders and executions, committed in the name of the “salvation” of Aryan humanity by National Socialist Germany or of the “happiness” of the proletariat, even of all humanity by the USSR and the other communist countries remains a subject of debate among historians; but in any case it is without comparison with that of the victims of fascist Italy (According to the methods, the criteria and the sources, the estimates vary by twice as much: They are from 8 to 15 million for National Socialist Germany, from 20 to 40 million for the USSR and from 60 to 120 million for all the Communist countries). Thus, with Italian fascism there is a difference, not only of degree but of nature.

All of these questions about the similarities and dissimilarities of the Nazi-German and Fascist-Italian models and many more are asked, examined and judiciously discussed by the author of Fascisme, histoire d’une concept (Fascism, History of a Concept). Free and independent of spirit, Paul Gottfried takes seriously the academic tradition of rigor and probity. In this he honors his profession, when a good number of his peers now wallow in ideology and intolerance. Gottfried is not one of those who claim to have the exclusive right to rational or “scientific” arguments, nor to have a monopoly on legitimate speech. He respects his opponents; presents their theses honestly; discusses their content, and presents his conclusions, always avoiding admonishment. If he accepts the categorization of “generic fascism,” he emphasizes, as other authors have done before him (such as Nolte, Arendt, Sternhell, de Felice, Payne, Del Noce or Gregor, to name but a few) that there are fundamental differences between German National Socialism on the one hand and Italian fascism and other “fascisms” on the other.

More seriously or more rigorously, since the “march on Rome” of the Mussolini fascists in 1922 (at least, if one accepts to put aside the recent ideological drifts of American and European universities), academic circles have never ceased to try to formulate explanatory theories of the phenomenon. To this day, and despite the incongruous assertions of Roger Griffin and his followers, the debate remains open because there is no consensus. On the contrary, a whole series of interpretations, for the most part initially advanced in the 1920s and 1930s, occupy the field. Some combine and overlap; others, for the most part, contradict and exclude each other.

According to the tastes and convictions of exegetes, fascism is sometimes perceived as the violent and dictatorial instrument of bourgeois capitalism, the “armed wing of capital,” as the Comintern affirmed, in the year 1923. Sometimes, fascism is seen as the effect of irrational, extremist and violent nihilism, a consequence of the moral crisis and the corruption of morals. Sometimes, fascism is regarded as the deleterious result of capitalism and sexual repression, the outgrowth of an authoritarian and repressive society, with its inevitable neurotic and pathological impulses, as the ideologists of the Frankfurt School claimed in the 1930s. The array of analyses, interpretations and explanations of the phenomenon does not stop there, however. About twenty specialists, internationally recognized as such, whose tedious enumeration I will spare the reader, identify other factors or characteristics which they deem more essential. The fascist phenomenon is, according to them, the product of the advent of the masses on the political scene; or, the expression of the exclusive radicalism of the middle classes; or, the response to a situation of distress in the face of a movement of social destruction, producing aversion to chaos among the most homogeneous social actors; or, the contemporary form of Bonapartism, independent of a specific class domination; or, the outlet for homosexuality; or, the product of late and atypical development processes; or, resistance to modernization; or, the prototype of the “developmentalist” and modernizing revolution; or, a form of populist and revolutionary ultra-nationalism; or, again, a “political religion,” the typical manifestation of 20th century totalitarianism, a collectivist and police-system specific to modernity, embodying the triumph of violence and terror, with the archetypal models of the Soviet-Communist and Nazi tyrannies, which have more in common with each other than with any other authoritarian form of government.

Let me stress, for the sake of being more complete, but without being exhaustive, that specialists also oppose the right, left or “right and left” nature of the phenomenon – some see fascism as the product of a revisionism of the left, socialist, statist, secularist, anti-traditional and anti-Christian. Others see it as a right-wing revolution, neither reactionary nor opportunist, based on the myth of renewal and regeneration. Still others see it as a revolutionary movement “neither on the right nor on the left;” or simultaneously on the right and the left, born from the synthesis of “revisionist” socialism, revolutionary syndicalism and a new community nationalism, organic and social.

However, fascism as a sociopolitical model of a general and transnational character (or if one prefers the categorization of “generic fascism”) raises more questions than it answers. How can one define fascism without sinking into interpretation-schematization or the reductionist cliché? Historians respond that defining “fascism” is above all about writing history, with the national characteristics linked to political, economic, social and cultural events of countries under consideration. There is not, according to these historians, a model of “one-size-fits-all fascism,” nor a universally valid definition. But on the other hand, one can note the existence of a basic minimal conception, common to the political movements and regimes which appeared in Europe at the beginning of the last century, in the midst of a cultural, economic and social crisis. A point of view a priori convincing, but one which raises many questions.

The imperfect similarities which these historians point out constitute indeed a veritable jumble of ideas, values and principles; and there is of course no agreement on their comparative importance, frequency and significance. According to the convictions of the authors, there should be, at the heart of loose fascism, a mystical conception of life and politics; an irrational and voluntarist or idealistic or even spiritualist way of thinking; a cyclical view of history or a palingenesic view of history; the rejection of Marxist materialism; contempt for individualism, parliamentary democracy and the bourgeoisie, in the name of the organic, structured and hierarchical community; racism, anti-Semitism and hatred of others; the cult of the providential and charismatic leader; the call for a new elite, based on the virtue of example; the aspiration to a more mobile society; the desire to create a new ruling class from the middle classes and the working class; the exaltation of youth; the mobilization and integration of the masses through propaganda and the one party; realistic politics (Realpolitik) opposed to utopian politics (Phantasiepolitik); political-cultural imperialism; the heroic justification for war; the desire to reconcile technical modernity and the triumph of traditional values; the fusion of ideals common to traditionalism, nationalism, elitist liberalism, revolutionary socialism and anarcho-syndicalism; the assertion of the primacy of political sovereignty at the expense of any form of economism; the defense of the private economy but nevertheless the extension of public initiative; finally, and in order not to lengthen this list excessively, the will to transform society and the individual in a direction that has never yet been experienced or realized. In the end, a real intellectual patchwork that leaves one speechless.

In the face of these disagreements, many writers have come to deny that one can define a “generic fascist” phenomenon. Others take a less radical position, but nonetheless express the greatest doubt about its usefulness (see in particular: Gregor, Bracher, Allardyce, Muñoz Alonso, Fernández de la Mora, Arendt and De Felice, to name a few).

In reality, specialists of fascism fail to overcome the obstacle represented by the profound differences that exist between supposedly “fascist” movements or regimes, not only between fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany, but also between these two models and the other “nationalist-socialisms” that appeared in the years 1920-1940. To stick to the “state totalitarianism” of Italian fascism, and the “racial totalitarianism” of German National Socialism (and not to mention the “class totalitarianism” of the anticlerical and anti-religious Soviet-Communists), there is an immeasurable difference in the horror (the thesis of Emilio Gentile on “the Italian way of totalitarianism” has moreover been severely criticized by the disciples of Renzo de Felice). Before coming to power, between 1919 and 1922, the Italian fascists inflicted between 600 and 700 casualties among left and far-left activists, but also suffered roughly the same number of deaths in their own ranks. From 1922 to 1940, the Mussolini regime executed nine people (the majority of them Slovenian terrorists), and seventeen others in 1943 (date of the start of the civil war which claimed 50,000 victims, according to Claudio Pavone).

The number of political prisoners in fascist Italy never exceeded 2000. Italian fascism never had the intention or the possibility of developing a genuinely totalitarian system, based on the control of all state institutions and society, nor a fortiori a concentration camp system like those of National Socialist Germany and the USSR. The number of crimes, murders and executions, committed in the name of the “salvation” of Aryan humanity by National Socialist Germany or of the “happiness” of the proletariat, even of all humanity by the USSR and the other communist countries remains a subject of debate among historians; but in any case it is without comparison with that of the victims of fascist Italy (According to the methods, the criteria and the sources, the estimates vary by twice as much: They are from 8 to 15 million for National Socialist Germany, from 20 to 40 million for the USSR and from 60 to 120 million for all the Communist countries). Thus, with Italian fascism there is a difference, not only of degree but of nature.

All of these questions about the similarities and dissimilarities of the Nazi-German and Fascist-Italian models and many more are asked, examined and judiciously discussed by the author of Fascisme, histoire d’une concept (Fascism, History of a Concept). Free and independent of spirit, Paul Gottfried takes seriously the academic tradition of rigor and probity. In this he honors his profession, when a good number of his peers now wallow in ideology and intolerance. Gottfried is not one of those who claim to have the exclusive right to rational or “scientific” arguments, nor to have a monopoly on legitimate speech. He respects his opponents; presents their theses honestly; discusses their content, and presents his conclusions, always avoiding admonishment. If he accepts the categorization of “generic fascism,” he emphasizes, as other authors have done before him (such as Nolte, Arendt, Sternhell, de Felice, Payne, Del Noce or Gregor, to name but a few) that there are fundamental differences between German National Socialism on the one hand and Italian fascism and other “fascisms” on the other.

That said, Gottfried prefers to reserve the term “fascism” for movements other than Nazism (which was a “borderline case,” marked by the totalizing and exterminating character of its dictatorship, and significantly opposed to any form of organic democracy) – and in the framework of “generic fascism” he distinguishes between and “Latin fascism” of Catholic countries from “North European fascism” of Protestant countries. He also agrees that the fascist phenomenon is revolutionary in nature and historically linked to interwar Europe. Furthermore, he also agrees that the traditional, nationalist and conservative rights of the authoritarian governments of Franco, Salazar or Dollfuss cannot be amalgamated with the only true model of “generic fascism” that is Italian fascism. On the other hand, considering that the dividing line between right and left rests on the principles of egalitarianism and hierarchy and on the acceptance or rejection of the myth of progress, Gottfried resolutely classifies fascism on the right, and opposes thus frontally authors who, like in his Preface to the French translation, Stanley Payne, believe that fascism constitutes, on the contrary, the only type of revolutionism beyond the classic forms of the left and the right.

One can however doubt that the categorization of “Latin fascism,” used by Paul Gottfried, is really of a nature to shed more light on the rather muddled question of “generic fascism.” For my part, I believe I know the life and political thought of José Antonio Primo de Rivera quite well, as well as the entire bibliography of his movement, the Spanish Phalange. The majority of specialists see in José Antonio the model of “Spanish fascism.” Defined as fascist, José Antonio is therefore necessarily anti-democratic, putschist, ultranationalist, imperialist, a warmonger, totalitarian, apologist of violence and dictatorship. The problem is that these opinions, accusations and value judgments are all questionable and easily overturned by the facts, life and writings of José Antonio. Let us pass over the annoyance and the legitimate sarcasm that the severity and the injustice of these judgments do not fail to arouse in Hispanic countries, when such judgments come from foreign authors who make sure to be much more careful, balanced and measured when the time comes to assess the immeasurably greater violence committed in the name of so-called peaceful democracy inside or outside the borders of their own countries.

But let us underline two points, often overlooked by those who approach the study of so-called “Spanish fascism.” It should first be remembered that over the past two centuries, both the Right and the Left have for the most part embraced their own forms of anti-democracy, authoritarianism, nationalism, imperialism, violence, warmongering, elitism, hierarchy, identity politics or particularism. It should then be noted that the José-Antonian Phalangist movement (1933-1936) has only very distant links with the Traditionalist Phalange movement, born of the merger of all the right-wing parties under the aegis of Franco, in 1937, and all the more so with the Caudillo regime from 1937 to 1975.

For the comparison with “Latin fascism,” let us stick here only with the Phalange of José Antonio. In reality, beyond the “revolutionary” or very reformist character of the economic and social program of the Spanish Phalange of the JONS, the elements which differentiate the José-Antonian ideal from fascism(s) are numerous: the conception of the subordinate state to moral principles and to the transcendent end of man, the sense of human dignity, consideration for the individual and social life, respect for freedom, the affirmation of man’s eternal value, and the Catholic inspiration of political philosophy and the structure of society. And this is not nothing. Anti-capitalist and anti-socialist-Marxist, José Antonio undoubtedly was. But was he anti-democratic? It is debatable: “The aspiration for a free and peaceful democratic life will always be the goal of political science beyond all fashions,” he said. Violence was not a postulate of its ideal, nor a condition of its objective, but a pragmatic necessity to avoid being annihilated (the José-Antonian Phalange suffered about fifteen fatal attacks the day after its foundation; after eight months of waiting, it launched into reprisals, leaving some sixty victims among its adversaries, a figure roughly equal to the total of its own losses. But throughout the duration of the Second Spanish Republic and until the outbreak of the Civil War there were nearly 2,500 dead).

José Antonio wanted to be a patriot much more than a nationalist. “We are not nationalists,” he said, “because being a nationalist is nonsense; it is to base the deepest springs of the nation on a physical factor, on a simple physical circumstance. We are not nationalists because nationalism is the individualism of peoples.” We do not find the slightest territorial claim in his Complete Works either. According to him, the Spanish Empire in the 20th century could only be spiritual and cultural in nature. One would look in vain for anti-Semitic or racist overtones in his remarks. No doubt he clumsily used the term totalitarian or totalitarian state five times, but he did so clearly to signify his desire to create a “state for all,” “without divisions,” “integrating all Spaniards,” and “An instrument at the service of national unity.” Equally surprising is his point of view on fascism expressed in his 1936 declaration: “Fascism is fundamentally wrong: it is right in sensing that it is a religious phenomenon, but it wants to replace religion with idolatry;” and “it leads to the absorption of the individual into the collective.” As for his Catholic convictions, they cannot be questioned. We find the ultimate and clear manifestation of this in the will he wrote on November 18, 1936, the day after a parody of a trial, two days before his execution: “I forgive with all my heart all those, without exception, who may have harmed or offended me, and I ask all those to forgive me to whom I may owe the reparation of some wrong, be it great or small.”

One can of course think that there exists between the agnostic Mussolini, the secularist Giovanni Gentile (official philosopher of fascism), the neo-pagan Julius Evola, the Romanian orthodox, very anti-Semitic, Codreanu, and the Catholic, national-syndicalist, José Antonio, a kind of lowest common denominator. But the link that would constitute “Latin fascism” is at the very least tenuous and questionable. The comparison of the young leader of the Phalange with the non-conformists or French personalists of the 1930s, or with the founder of Fianna Fail, President of the Irish Republic, Éamon de Valera, however seems much more convincing. It is telling that, somewhat embarrassed by the José Antonio case, most historians resort to a series of euphemisms. Joséantonian fascism would be, they say, “intellectual,” “rational,” “moderate,” “civilized.” “idealist,” “naïve,” or “poetic”. Perhaps! But these attributes are not among the commonly accepted characteristics of fascism.

With this reservation on “Latin fascism” made, I cannot say enough how much Gottfried’s book deserves to be read. Having appreciated the English version in its time, I was fortunate to be associated with the French edition project. In his beautiful Introduction for the French-speaking public, Stanley Payne writes: “Paul Gottfried’s book is the best and most comprehensive interpretive study of fascism that has emerged in the last decade of this century.” Allow me to correct just a few words to say in a way that I believe is even more precise: “which has been in existence for a quarter of a century.”

Note: A word on the Franco-French polemics around the “French origins” of fascism. According to the thesis developed over more than forty years ago, by the Israeli historian, Zeev Sternhell (who was a Zionist-socialist in his youth and then a social-democratic activist influenced by Habermas), France was the laboratory of proto-fascism and of fascism at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. It then had a real “fascist impregnation” in the 1930s, which finally led to the Vichy regime, the perfect realization of fascism. Obsessed with a view of the history of binary ideas pitting the heirs of the Enlightenment against their opponents, Sternhell exaggeratedly magnified the influence of a few political-cultural movements and a handful of famous intellectual figures. Contrary to what he suggests, there is a considerable difference between nationalist and authoritarian movements, which advocate state reform in the sense of strengthening the executive, and a fascist organization which pursues its revolutionary overthrow, or which aspires to a profound upheaval of social structures. Raymond Aron, Michel Winock, Serge Berstein and many other historians and political scientists, have demonstrated the amalgamations and the Manichean character of Sternhell’s work, which, despite very stimulating early intuitions, is more of a form of anti-fascist activism than a rigorous history of ideas.


Arnaud Imatz is a French historian and political scientist, and a great connoisseur of Spain. His notable publications include José Antonio et la Phalange espagnole and La Guerre d’Espagne revisitée. His lates book is Droite/gauche, pour sortir de l’équivoque.

This article appears through the kind courtesy of La Nef. Translated from the French by N. Dass.

The featured image shows a poster for the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI), by Gino Boccasile, ca. 1944.

Whatever Happened To American Industry?

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.

The Great Reset! The Gospel According To Klaus Schwab

There is a book everyone should read, an exceptional book, which promises to be among the classics of contemporary literature. It is Covid 19: The Great Reset. Its author is the humanist and scholar Klaus Schwab, the founder and president of the World Economic Forum in Davos, a club of people of the world. This group of merry fellows meets for a while to breathe the fresh air, experience the vertigo of the peaks and yodel about on barrels. In the evening, in front of a campfire, they reread aloud a few pages from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. They make money, of course, but they are aesthetes above all. Schwab’s masterpiece has still not gained much traction, even among nationalists camp, which is a pure scandal, so exquisite is its style and its precious content.

Schwab writes little, but when he writes posterity trembles. His style makes Christine Angot pass for Marcel Proust and Marc Lévy for Julien Gracq. “In today’s complex and adaptive world, the principle of non-linearity means that suddenly a fragile state can turn into a failed state and that, conversely, a failed state can see its situation improve with equal celerity thanks to the intermediation of international organizations or even an infusion of foreign capital.” What insights! What turn of phrase! We are struck by a very colorful style. To accomplish this task, Schwab enlisted the help of Thierry Malleret, an economist who writes as he thinks. Before publication, the book received feedback from a few bosses in the circle of reason. This is to say how much those who know how to make money have both taste and culture.

Herr Schwab’s book should be read as a road map, an economic and social program designed to meet the great challenges of the West after the epidemic. Schwab, not pondering the origins of Covid 19, however sees the virus as a real opportunity. Covid is a great and formidable opportunity to change society. Opportunity, they say, makes the thief. In short, this pandemic crisis reveals the limits of a global, technocratic and neo-liberal system. Schwab recognizes that this world, his world, is wrong, but it is up to people to pay the consequences, with or without their consent. The self-proclaimed and co-opted elites agree to change the system for the people to follow, so to speak.

The book was written in 2020, during the first lockdown. Undoubtedly motivated by boredom, Schwab discovered the vast range of possibilities offered by this peaceful, creative, enjoyable moment of retirement. In his ivory tower, he announces the color: “The worldwide crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic has no parallel in modern history.” This very subtle sentence makes it clear that the crisis and the management of this pandemic are the causes of the turmoil and damage the world is experiencing, not the virus itself. It is only at the end of his epic poem that Klaus von Ravensburg recognizes that Covid 19 will hardly kill anyone and that it will not make history. He could have announced this from the start; then he would not have needed to lay down a political program to change the entire face of the world. What shame! In his Introduction, Schwab continues, “Many of us are pondering when things will return to normal. The short response is: never.” What a relief!

Now, thanks to the Boss, we are sure of one thing: history is being written ante-covidium and post-covidium. Schwab, at the beginning of his book, explains that the Black Death caused profound changes in medieval society (the disappearance of chivalry and feudalism) and copies the effects of all that on to Covid to justify the Great Reset. What then does the Sumo Poeta advocate? A confinement of one to two years, more or less strict, followed by generalized vaccination. Then will come the great changes necessary for humanity. When you have twisted, creeped out, oppressed a population to such an extent, it is not difficult to make them submit to any change. His Majesty, the Lord of the Flies is such a genius that Machiavelli himself could not have done better to manipulate his people. Because the Covid, he explains, is changing our society, it is imperative to change the program and reinvent ourselves, based on four major ideas: a new capitalism in the light of technology, the ecological emergency, universal healthcare, and inclusion of minorities. These notions complement each other and are linked to each other.

Containment and measures require working remotely and therefore being hyperconnected. Many people will have to adapt, others will lose their jobs. We must therefore rethink a more just, egalitarian and ethical capitalism. Because the virus is, according to him, linked to global warming, it is urgent to save the planet. He who says climate change, also says climate -regulation. Deregulation is therefore a malfunction: only technical measures are able to resolve it. This is without counting on the youth who believe in progress and who are able to save what we have as the most precious thing: the earth. Because the virus affects our lives, our relationships, and kills thousands of people around the world every day, it is necessary, to protect ourselves and others, to wear a mask, to adopt concrete measures, to respect new rules of distance, to be vaccinated. Death, on the model of the climate, is a disruption of life, a deviance, a problem. We must therefore find the means to resolve death. And all this on behalf of others. We find the thought of Master Attali and his concept of altruism already formulated for forty years in his opera omnia. Many people, ante-covidum, from among minorities were excluded. We must therefore rethink a more just, green world, based on inclusion, tolerance and progress.

Graf von Schwab speaks of benevolence in the last chapter of his book. It’s really cute! Nationalists, identitarians, ardent defenders of sovereignty, of tradition, are villains who are in retreat. Obscurantism, intolerance. It’s all terrible. It’s all about openness and sharing. It is only fair that His Holiness Klaus VI does not ask us to be charitable and make a donation for the little lepers. Wisely, he advocates “reinventing our mind map,” striving for ethical capitalism and “being creative.” The Right Reverend Abbot even becomes a Rousseauist, when he tells us that “nature is a formidable antidote,” and adds that “it will gradually become essential to pay more attention to our natural assets.”

It is all beautiful, very beautiful even, but it does not exist. At Strasbourg Cathedral, we find the statue of the Tempter. The young man, charming, seductive, offers a cut to whoever desires it, but on his back swarm toads, scorpions and snakes. Likewise, behind every beautiful and good idea that Jean Jacques Schwab and Klaus Rousseau articulate, hides the devil himself.

Remember that an idea is not generous, it is true or false. To quantify happiness, kindness, altruism in a society, is confusingly ridiculous, gross stupidity. In other words, well-nigh dotage. Likewise, “nauseating,” rancid “are not concepts, just as kindness is not a given that can enter political, economic or social thought. Schwab pretends to advise the world. He wants to appear to controls events, knows everything and foresees everything in advance. He is a man who has too much influence and too much power for his own good and ours. He thinks his ideas are necessarily the best because he and his friends have a lot of money. Parody is added to megalomania, ridicule to dotage, mediocrity, role-playing. This great pontiff from the University of Geneva has the historical and philosophical knowledge of a passable student in a management school. He looks like a Z-List Goldfinger who doesn’t understand he’s dead-end, out of touch, a nerd long past his sell-by date.

This book, a tonic cocktail of muscular Attali, ultimately offers nothing new of what has been known since Alain Minc’s Happy Globalization of 1997. Nothing learned, nothing understood. There is not an extra gram of imagination; it’s poor and repetitive like a pulp novel. The world elite has neither thought nor genius. It’s the little utopia of a banker who only knows the world by going back and forth between a Sofitel and two airports. These globalists claim to be at the forefront of modernity, advocate openness, but have a narrow and stunted view of the world. Schwab talks about money, people, the others, the land and the world; these are abstractions which do not refer to anything real. Has he been out on the streets over the last ten years? I doubt it.

The minstrel from across the Rhine brilliantly asserts ready-made truths, ideas thrown into the air; gives figures without a source; demonstrates nothing, but announces; makes shortcuts, bordering on sabotage; launches studies as if they were going out of style. When ideas are a little hard to find, Schwab turns into a commentator, exhibitor, and calls on experts who are always on his side, friends of his. Such is European governance. When the ideas are sympathetic, he becomes a decision-maker and prescriber, with the peremptory tone of a wise man among the wise who has inhaled a little too much Alain Minc, extra fine.

This book is the Oktoberfest of BS. Let’s have a laugh, then: ” a vacuum of global governance and the rise of various forms of nationalism make it more difficult to deal with the outbreak;” ” As the critique of economic growth moves to centre stage, consumerism’s financial and cultural dominance in public and private life will be overhauled;” “COVID-19 was a determining element: George Floyd’s death was the spark that lit the fire of social unrest.” Hats off to the artist!

The big reset is a Davos-style mafia stunt: we take Godfather; take out the spaghetti; put sauerkraut instead – and we have Schwab. It’s a tour de force, a huge hostage-taking. President of the global crime syndicate, he says nothing about the terrible consequences of this great reset. He recognizes that ” The global economy is so intricately intertwined that it is impossible to bring globalization to an end.”

Destroying millions of jobs as a result of the Covid, Schwab concedes, putting people into unemployment, replacing part of the workforce with robots, would be an evil, certainly, but a necessary evil: ” In all likelihood, the recession induced by the pandemic will trigger a sharp increase in labour-substitution, meaning that physical labour will be replaced by robots and ‘intelligent’ machines, which will in turn provoke lasting and structural changes in the labour market.”

For example, there is this very enigmatic sentence: “The small restaurants that survive the crisis will have to reinvent themselves entirely.” What? Will they have to succumb to Uberization, subcontracting, giving way to large restaurant chains that can make both pizzas and sushi? Just water off of Schwab’s back. Technological, hyperconnected capitalism therefore promises the collapse of part of the wage and entrepreneurial middle-class, and an increased and definitive polarization between the richest, blessed with globalized metropolises, and the poor in “not very interesting” jobs.

Schwab is not unhappy to see all the structures blow up for the benefit of the individual, atomized, who is then more apt to subscribe to globalism, to the law of victimized minorities, to youthism. Better stray sheep than a strong flock that lives on. Ecology with Schwab becomes globalism, since it gives the individual, wherever he comes from, consumer and employee, the responsibility of saving the planet, the climate, the seas. Only this ecology is just the flip side of the same coin which faces capitalism, financial domination. Doctor Klaus and Mister Schwab do not say everything: behind the idea that death would be a mistake, hides the desire to impose a generalized post-covidium surveillance company: ” the containment of the coronavirus pandemic will necessitate a global surveillance network capable of identifying new outbreaks as soon as they arise.”

After all, new viruses will emerge because of global warming. In the name of the good, that is, health, Frankenschwab wants a society of testing, tracing, a kind of global health dictatorship established by governments and maneuvered by the exploits of technology. It is reminiscent of the fact that a dictatorship is never imposed in the name of evil, of dominating in order to dominate, but always in the name of a higher and collective good. Tyrants are, above all, the little fathers of peoples. Small tasty detail – Schwaby goes so far as to recommend connected toilets to control our health, just in case the mess of the day before does not bode well. What a brilliant idea!

Schwab is committed body and soul to the “vanguard of social change.” Of course, societal progressivism, in the absence of a real social struggle, always makes it possible to rescue capitalism and accept its rule. Schwab is, as Audiard would say, a synthesis. Jean Claude Michéa speaks of a liberal-libertarian alliance. It’s Cohn-Bendit, just a bit less despicable; Thunberg in a necktie. In other words, we allow surrogacy and assisted reproduction in the name of individual freedoms. But we are also fully masked and are subject to curfew. Everything is allowed, but nothing is possible, as Michel Clouscard said.

Schwab will also have to explain to us how he intends to “to rethink governments’ role.” All this, of course, will happen through one world government: ” if both the nation state and globalization flourish, then democracy becomes untenable.” And to continue further: ” A hasty retreat from globalization would entail trade and currency wars, damaging every country’s economy, provoking social havoc and triggering ethno- or clan nationalism.

The establishment of a much more inclusive and equitable form of globalization that makes it sustainable, both socially and environmentally, is the only viable way to manage retreat. This requires policy solutions addressed in the concluding chapter and some form of effective global governance.” Living in a green and completely sanitary world will not lead to the best of all possible worlds. In the name of ecology, one could think of excessive taxation, repeated confinements, the one-child policy, the establishment of a tax on the air we breathe. Nothing like paradise.

Emperor Palpatine’s words are so contradictory, once one gets lost in his intentions. He struggles to bring out a good idea, floundering in his book as on the Bodensee during a vacation. The end of the book, which we finished with disgust, so much did the language of this Kojak of Davos sicken us, nevertheless did warn us. These changes will be painful, and not everyone will make it. Without being threatening, Schwab draws back, slithers about, dodges. Does this mean that we will have to get rid of part of the harmful and recalcitrant population and return to global Malthusianism in the name of ecology and health?

In 2009, at the Copenhagen summit, physicist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber said: “This is a triumph for science because at least we have managed to stabilize something; namely, the estimate of the carrying capacity of the planet, that is to say, one billion people. What a triumph! On the other hand, do we want to come to this? I think we can do a lot better!” In France, Laurent Alexandre and Jean Marc Jancovici, in a work of evangelism of the young elites of the country, decreed that there would be for tomorrow the men-gods, mastering technology; and the others, the slaves, the unproductive, minimum wage-earners who pollute because of their overly high standard of living. We will have to think about what we want.

Is this book a program? Some will readily see the trajectory of the reset taking shape. Schwab also enjoys, let’s be honest, the conspiratorial aura that revolves around his multinational organization. Because he has influence and an address book, he is credited with the means to do harm. Does he really have the means? There is something terribly burlesque, even parodic, in the way he plays rector mundi. This book is in many ways a dotard’s dream, the masturbatory delirium of a bourgeois globalist in front of his little comrades. Doubt is possible. Let’s hope that Schwab does not become a prophet.


Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy of Monsieur Christophe Geffroy of La Nef. Translation from the French by N. Dass.


The featured image shows, “A four-footed monster,” a print by Samuel De Wilde, printed in 1807.

For the Birds and the Rest of Us

Whether your only experience with birds is that of chasing away pigeons stubbornly trying to nest on your balcony, or whether you spent your last pre-Covid vacation trudging through tropical forest in search of the elusive Pinto’s Spinetail, Richard Pope’s Flight from Grace: A Cultural History of Humans and Birds (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021) is a must read. Passionately engaged, wide-ranging, eye-opening, witty, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, the book asks the readers to consider the relationship of humans and birds throughout the millennia, ultimately posing a sobering question: is humanity willing to do anything to stop the extinction of birds that is occurring at a shocking and ever-accelerating rate.

Pope, a distinguished scholar of Russian literature and culture, poet, writer, and a dedicated bird-watcher, brings a scholarly rigour but also a delightful sense of humour and a decidedly fresh perspective to an examination of how humanity thought of birds from the time that humans could think.
His account of the fraught human-bird relationship begins with prehistoric art, images of birds found in caves so deep in the earth that getting there is a terrifying and hazardous journey even today. It is in these caves, or as Pope memorably describes them, these “vast, hidden power sites deep underground in the forbidden realm of powerful spirits…ideal spots for vision quests, rituals, and magic…[like] geodes—plain and unprepossessing on the outside but repositories of stunning beauty inside” (13). that we find images of birds.

Most of these bird images—some painted and some scratched into the cave surface—yield little information to a non-birder. Pope, on the other hand, encountering a 30,000-year-old etching of what is, to the non-initiated, a vaguely-owlish looking bird on the wall of the French Chauvet Cave, teases out a wealth of insights: the etching is most likely that of the Eurasian eagle-owl, “a top predator of impressive size and fierceness, perhaps the largest owl in the world” that frequently inhabits caves; the parallel markings on the body are actually indicative of a back view, with wings folded and “its full face twisted at 180 degree angle to look straight at us over its back” (18). Owls, in case you didn’t know, are among the very few creatures to be able to rotate their faces fully—“something else that makes owls unique and magical…Owls see all” (18). It is inconceivable, Pope argues, that the Owl of Chauvet was drawn only for aesthetic satisfaction; instead, “The owl, in the most sacrosanct part of the cave, was a bird deity with power and capabilities” (19).

Beginning with the Paleolithic owl deity, Pope takes the reader on a dynamic six-chapter tour through time and space, with chapters dedicated to the sacred birds of Mesopotamia and Egypt; Peru; and those of Greece and the Judeo-Christian world. Altogether, it is an impressive demonstration of how an early worship of bird deities morphed into the bird goddesses of the Neolithic era, and then—as humans became more anthropocentric in their outlook—into anthropomorphic gods whose sacred status was reinforced by an addition of wings or who had bird avatars: from the owl deity to the owl of Athena. Here again, Pope’s avian lens allows him to re-examine and challenge well-established conventions. For example, in Homer’s epics, Athena is described as glaukoopis; for those of us who need to brush up on our Classical Greek, Pope helpfully explains that glaukos, when applied to eyes, usually means green or blue, which is how her eyes are rendered in most translations. But another meaning of glaukos (gleaming) is connected to glauks (owl), because that is how the owl’s huge eyes appear to the observer. In Athena’s case, Pope posits, the word really means “owl-eyed, in reference to her knowing glare and that of the bird she once was” (119).

Owls were not the only birds to be deified. Vultures (associated with the cult of the dead), ibises, eagles, doves, and a host of other birds were worshipped for one reason or another, and their images, statues, figurines, and objects associated with them were documented at countless archeological sites all over the world. But why this worship of birds? What is it that makes birds so special and exciting to humans? Pope points to two main factors: flight and song, and devotes two thoroughly documented and lavishly-illustrated chapters to each of these in the second part of his book.

Flight is almost solely associated with birds and, Pope contends, is one of the main reasons for seeing birds as sacred: “flight is miraculous and godlike…and wings are its agent and symbol,” which is why severed avian wings abound in Paleolithic sites (136). From winged ancient goddesses like Ishtar, to winged Greek gods and winged magical creatures, such as Pegasus, wings have always been perceived as the sign of divinity. Drawing on his expertise of working with medieval texts, Pope shows how wings were assigned to angels in Christian iconography from fourth-century onward as a way of visually identifying them as divine (halos were already taken for saints). Pope quotes John Chrystostom, a fourth-century Christian theologian, who explains that angels are shown flying “not because angels have wings…[but to show] the loftiness of their nature. The wings, then, reveal the lofty natures of the powers above” (142). Humans, as ancient myths suggest, and Renaissance-era sketches confirm, have always longed to replicate bird flight, a mark of divinity, and failed to achieve it until recent times, although as Pope points out, flight by plane “is a mere surrogate for real, unassisted flight, and is entirely lacking in magic” (136).

Besides envying the birds their flight, humans have been enthralled by their song. Because of the association of birds with the divine, it was assumed since ancient times that bird song carried arcane knowledge (hence, Roman augurs who specialized in interpreting the will of the gods through birdsong). It is birdsong, Pope contends, that “tightly links humans and birds to each other and both of them to the divine” (164). According to neurobiologists, he writes, humans are closer to songbirds than to their closest relative, the great apes, when it comes to speech acquisition; humans and birds also share a surprising number of neurological similarities. Over and above that, humans and birds share the sheer joy of making music (it turns out that avian brains flood with pleasurable dopamine when they sing), something that poets knew all along, Pope shows, by citing lines about birdsong from the poems of Shelley, Frost, Keats, and other poets.

Indeed, one the many delights of the book is Pope’s readiness to support and further his claims not only by mining various archeological, anthropological, zoological, neurobiological, ecological, and historical sources, but also by finding illustrations in sources as diverse as the Qur’an, Dante, Schopenhauer, Mozart, Lucretius, the Venerable Bede, Marx, J.K. Rowling, and—taking advantage of his superb knowledge of Russian literature and culture—Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov, Dostoevsky, Russian icons, Russian medieval tales, and so forth. There is also a plethora of photographs of various bird-related artifacts, some of them little known and stunningly beautiful, and of birds themselves, as well as paintings by El Greco, Chagall, and others. The book itself, in fact, is an object of beauty, with the jacket, by the award-winning jacket designer David Drummond, showing a detail from a Georgian-era portrait, where a bright yellow bird perches trustingly on a shoulder of a young woman, and with the light-blue front and sunny-yellow back flaps evoking bird plumage, but also the skies and the sunshine of the birds’ higher element. Pope would have undoubtedly pointed out here (as he does in the book) that we share our sense of aesthetics with the birds.

All this beauty makes the ugly picture that Pope unfolds for us in the ultimate section of the book, titled “Our Betrayal of Birds,” even more shocking. Pope’s central thesis is that as humans moved toward anthropocentrism from the Neolithic era onward, and developed modes of thinking which encouraged homo sapiens to see himself as separate from and towering above all the other species on the planet, our attitude toward all other creatures who share the planet with us became shamelessly predatory. Focussing on the Western Civilization, Pope argues that Judaism and Christianity, in particular, promoted a worldview in which man was created in an image of a non-animistic god, and completely separated from his fellow creatures, and that the rise of science during the Age of Reason drove “the last nail into the coffin of animistic thought” (219) with dire consequences for our fellow creatures.

Taking among his examples the lines from Genesis 9:2-3, about God telling Noah that all beasts, fowl, fishes, and other creatures are delivered into his hand, Pope makes the case that Judaism and Christianity convinced followers that all non-human life forms are to be used as humans see fit. One could, of course, counter this argument by pointing, for example, to the prohibition in Deuteronomy against plowing with a donkey and an ox tethered together, as God’s directive that mankind should take care of animals and their needs. Nonetheless, the evidence that Pope marshals of the appalling ways humans have actually been treating their fellow beings, namely birds, over the last two millennia is both disturbing and undeniable. That birds should be treated this way, creatures whom we have once worshipped and who still obsess us (Pope writes that almost 1 in 4 North Americans is a bird enthusiast), is particularly outrageous.

We have killed birds for their meat, their feathers (as part of our fashion industry and our cultural practices—ceremonial headdresses made out of eagle plumes, birds of paradise feathers, and the like), their habitats (forests cleared for farmland and golf courses), the damage they do to crops (forgetting that they also kill insects that wipe out our crops), for science (no matter how inane the experiment and how obscure its purpose), for exercise (hunting), for fun (that’s how the great auk became extinct), on purpose and inadvertently (the bird population of the island of Guan was wiped out after the unintentional introduction of the brown tree snake). Pope pulls no punches: we are all culpable, from industries and large corporations, to small-time farmers, to denizens of tall buildings (bright lights confuse and kill migrating birds), to backyard gardeners (depriving birds of food by dousing our plantings with herbicides and insecticides), to cat owners (free-roaming cats kill “between 1.3 billion and 4 billion” birds a year [202]). We, humans, homo sapiens, the species, are responsible for the decline of bird populations throughout the world and for the extinction of 190 species of birds in the last 500 years alone (currently, 1,200 species are under threat of extinction). No wonder Pope chose as an epigraph for his concluding chapter the words of the embittered prophet Jeremiah: “Destruction upon destruction is cried…all the birds of the heavens were fled.”

But Pope’s book is not a dirge—it is a call to action. Any student of Russian literature will recognize the title of his last chapter, “What is to be Done?” as the title of the 1863 radical novel written by Nikolai Chernyshevsky with a prescription of how to take Russia to a radiant future—a novel frequently called a revolutionary’s handbook. Pope is also advocating for a revolution—a revolution in how we think about birds and nature itself. We, humans, are not that different from birds, nor are we separate from nature, and the decisions that we make in our everyday life must take into consideration our larger home and all of our fellow residents, feathered and not. Ultimately, we must become “better stewards of the earth” (240).

Unlike the utopist Chernyshevsky, however, Pope cannot be accused of naivety: “Because of our propensity for violence, our greed, and our selfishness,” he writes, “it is unlikely that we humans will act collectively and soon to halt the degradation of our biosphere…Most people simply do not care and are quite unwilling to make any sacrifice for nature if it entails any degree of discomfort for themselves” (245). All the same, Pope points out, if we are too corrupt as a society to act collectively, we can still act individually—in fact, we must, even in the face of failure: “Make no mistake about it,” he writes, “the issue is one of morality.” To that end, Pope provides a 13-point practical list of what each one of us can do to “slow down and even prevent some of this degradation [of the biosphere], helping birds and other animals to survive and giving our own lives more meaning through ethical conduct and a closeness to our environment” (239).

Essentially, Pope proposes that each one of us becomes a dissident within our criminally indifferent society, no matter how hopeless it might seem. Citing Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s position on the “ontological existence of evil and its unstoppable nature,” Pope comes to the same conclusion: “We may not be able to stop [the desecration of nature], but we can refuse to abet it” (233). Is it a foolish act when seen in the context of the seemingly inexorable degeneration of our biosphere and our individual helplessness? Perhaps. But Pope leaves us with this thought: “True folly is to assume that we will not damage ourselves severely if we sit back and just watch as others recklessly damage the planet” (248). A world without birds is a horrible prospect. Let’s hope it never comes to pass.


Maria Bloshteyn, PhD, researches Russia and the West and is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky. She is also a literary translator and has published Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters, and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank.  Her various translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. Her most recent book is Russia Is Burning. Poems of the Great Patriotic War.


The featured image shows, “Young woman with parrot,” by Frédéric-Pierre Tschaggeny, painted in 1872.

We: A Dystopian Masterpiece By Yevgeny Zamyatin

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.


The featured image shows an illustration for We.

Cultural Evolution And Cliodynamics

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.