Ironically, it used to be the crazy fringe on the Right that were the breeding grounds for conspiracy theories (“birthers”, “Clinton death list”). Now mass hysteria and conspirology are sweeping the crazy … Liberal mainstream?
Earlier this month Glenn Greenwald wrote a very important article, Leading Putin Critic Warns of Xenophobic Conspiracy Theories Drowning U.S. Discourse and Helping Trump. Greenwald’s starting point is an article by Masha Gessen, which is also well worth reading. He writes:
The crux of her article is the point that has been driving everything I’ve been writing and saying about this topic for months: that this obsession with Russia conspiracy tales is poisoning all aspects of U.S. political discourse and weakening any chance for resisting Trump’s actual abuses and excesses. Those who wake up every day to hype the latest episode of this Russia/Trump spy drama tell themselves that they’re bravely undermining and subverting Trump, but they’re doing exactly the opposite.
Greenwald pulls no punches. The Progressive Fake News sites that have been hyping up the Russia/Trump conspiracy are
no better – no different – than what Macedonian teenagers or Clinton Body Count sites are churning out. But it’s being mainstreamed by prominent, establishment Democrats who have completely taken leave of their senses in the wake of Trump’s victory and show no signs of returning to anything resembling sober, grounded reasoning any time soon.
Why are they doing it? Clearly, the Democrats are still in massive denial about why they really lost the presidential elections of 2016. They are looking everywhere except at themselves. But by buying into the Russia conspiracy theory they are setting themselves up for much worse. When this conspiracy collapses (I personally give less than 10% chance that there is any substance behind it), it would be a colossal reputational hit, from which they might not recover before the next round of presidential elections.
The Democrats should stop obsessing about the mythical “Siberian Candidate” conspiracy. Instead, they should read the remarkable book by Tom Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
Listen, Liberal is a devastating critique of the mainstream Democracy, the Clintons-Obama Democrats, from “a person of vivid pink sentiments” as Frank describes himself. The true left in the United States are so microscopic that it’s worth reminding my readers that the Democratic Party of 2016, when placed on the Right-Left spectrum of the last century or so, would occupy the right of the center position. In fact, although Frank’s book is primarily addressed at the Democrats, it’s worth noting that much of his critique aimed at “Liberals” applies to both mainstream Democrats and mainstream Republicans (but certainly not to Trump’s supporters or, for that matter, Sanders’ supporters).
What unifies mainstream American politicians of both parties is neo-Liberalism, as it is defined, for example, by George Monbiot:
Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.
According to Frank, one can boil down the difference between Liberals and Socialists (the true left) to two words: competition versus solidarity. By the way, the tension between competition and cooperation is a big topic that I explore at length in my book Ultrasociety).
Part II will be published in a few days.
A senior colleague from my ecology days wrote to me with a request for a PDF reprint of an article I published in 1991. The article came out in Ecology, the flagship journal of the Ecological Society of America (ESA). When I published it, Ecology was an independent journal produced by the ESA. But when my colleague wanted to obtain an electronic reprint he ended up on the website of Wiley and Sons, a for-profit publisher of more than 1500 scientific journals, and was asked to purchase the reprint.
I searched for the title of my paper and also ended up on Wiley’s site, and also found that I would have to pay $36 for a PDF of my article. To say that I was speechless is to say nothing. Not only I am the author of the article, my university subscribes to Ecology and I personally paid Ecology subscription for many years, including 1991 (that was before I switched to cliodynamics and cultural evolution). I still have those 1991 issues gathering dust on a shelf in my lab. So naturally I refused to pay, and asked my office assistant to make a scan from a reprint that I found on another dusty shelf. The quality of the PDF, of course, is not as good as when it is directly printed from the source file.
Later on, however, I figured out how to get a good quality PDF. My university also subscribes to JSTOR, and you can get old issues of Ecology through this great resource, and so I did.
This is the beginning of the article in question. I was doing pretty abstruse things at the time.
But why did the ESA sell out to a for-profit publisher? It seems to go so much against the spirit of the Society that I remember when I was still a member. Googling, I discovered that it’s a very recent change, which happened only in 2015.
I have no idea why the ESA leadership did it, and I think it’s a very poor decision.
The landscape of scientific publishing has been changing very dramatically in the last few years, and more changes are coming. I’ve blogged about it before, so I won’t repeat it here:
Naturally, it will take yet some years for the greedy for-profit scientific publishers to go the way of the dinosaurs. The problem is the scientists themselves, or rather the majority who are still all too willing to work for free to enrich wily publishers (pun intended).
But the writing is on the wall. Thirty years ago scientific publishers could rely to sell 5,000 subscriptions to university libraries. They could afford to keep the subscription costs reasonable, since they made money in bulk.
Then two things happened. The publishers started increasing the cost of institutional subscriptions. Meanwhile library budgets started declining, so libraries started dropping subscriptions. Publishers increased the costs even more, to make up for reduced volume, and libraries responded by dropping more subscriptions. We are nearing the point when this whole business model is going to collapse. Which is why I have invested my effort into open-source publishing, and started Cliodynamics in 2010.
It seems crazy to me that an academic society would want to sell their journals to a for-profit publisher, especially such highly respected and successful journal as Ecology. Perhaps one of my ecological colleagues will get in touch and explain.
As is well known, all major forecasters confidently predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the presidential elections of 2016. On the morning of the election day (November 8th 2016) at 10:41 am, when a number of American voters had already cast their votes, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver still predicted that Hillary Clinton had a 71% chance to win. Others had predicted Clinton to win with even higher probability, between 85% to 99%.
A new article, just published by Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution, brings up a little known fact that should have caused the statisticians take a second look at their predictive models.
There are many reasons why people lie to pollsters. In fact, people regularly lie to themselves. What we need is a more reliable predictor of likes and dislikes, than directly asking people. We need a good “proxy.”
In the article Trends in first names foreshadowed Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat Stefano Ghirlanda argues that one such proxy is provided by the naming patterns. He writes, “naming decisions are not entirely rational, and can be influenced by seemingly extraneous factors of which parents are not aware.” He then proceeds to show “that trends in first names foreshadowed, in the USA, the defeat of Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.”
The idea is quite simple. Parents tend to name their children after people they admire. They certainly avoid names associated with those they dislike. When was the last time you met anybody born after 1945 whose first name was “Adolf”?
Ghirlanda analyzed the data on first names of babies issued a Social Security number (which is, essentially, all the babies born in the US). Here’s the pattern that he saw when he looked at the dynamics of the name “Hillary”:
“Hillary” (and its variant “Hilary”) has been trending up in popularity for several decades, but after 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president and Hillary Clinton was thrust into the limelight, the popularity of this name collapsed. There was a slight recovery to 2009, but then Hillary Clinton became the Secretary of State (from 2009 to 2013), and the popularity of her name started trending down again.
Such naming dynamics “suggest an exceptional negative reaction to Hillary Clinton’s public image.” Returning to the post-1992 collapse, Ghirlanda writes:
I show that such a sudden reversal is unique among naming trends, and is also unique to the 1992 election. In other elections between 1884 and 2012, a First Lady’s name had little impact on naming trends. These considerations, and others detailed below, suggest an exceptional negative reaction to Hillary Clinton’s public image, which may have ultimately affected the 2016 election. These results show that identifiable, if subtle cultural trends can foreshadow major social events.
Readers of my blog will, no doubt, point out that explaining past patterns is much easier than predicting future dynamics. As Yogi Berra once said, prediction is very hard, especially if it’s about the future.
Fair enough. So let’s test Ghirlanda’s insight. The next election will be held in 2020. Let’s then take a reading in 2019 on how the name “Donald” is faring, and predict whether our current President is going to stay on for the second term.
In a recent blog post P. D. Mangan discusses the implications of the metabolic theory of cancer and the ideas of Dr. Laurent Schwartz, French physician and oncologist, who has been using this theory to treat cancer patients. Whether this theory is correct, or not, time (and the scientific method) will tell. But there is one non-controversial observation that has huge implications for treatment–and prevention–of cancer.
As I explained in a previous post Food for Thought, our cells can utilize two main sources of energy: glucose, which is derived from the carbohydrates, and ketones, which are derived from fats. In many types of cancer, cancerous cells lose the ability to metabolize ketones, and are forced to rely solely on glucose. Thus, a simple lifestyle-based strategy to inhibit tumor growth is to switch to a ketogenic diet. In other words, drastically reducing carbohydrates and substituting them with saturated fats will not affect the function of muscle and brain cells, but will starve cancerous cells. In fact, a fat-based diet may also prevent cancer, because most of us have many tiny incipient tumors that are being constantly clobbered down by our immune systems. It’s only when they escape this constant policing action that they become a problem. Starving them of energy gives the immune system additional time to find and destroy them.
And this reminds me of the entry I submitted in response to the Edge question of 2016 a year ago:
The responses to this question, including mine, were recently published in a book form, and I think it’s worthwhile to revisit it again, in light of the new information on cancer treatment. It appears that the anti-fat craze not only made us fatter and more stupid, as I point out in this essay, but also more susceptible to dying from cancer.
Amid all the confusing fluctuations in dietary fashion to which Americans have been exposed since the 1960s, one recommendation has remained unchallenged. Beginning in the 1960s and until 2015 the Americans have been getting consistent dietary advice: fat, especially saturated fat, is bad for your health. By the 1980s, the belief equating a low-fat diet with better health had become enshrined in the national dietary advice from the US Department of Agriculture and was endorsed by the surgeon general. Meanwhile, as Americans ate less fat, they steadily became more obese.
Of course, the obesity epidemic probably has many causes, not all well understood. But it is becoming clear that the misguided dietary advice with which we have been bombarded over the past five decades, is an important contributing factor.
In fact, there has never been any scientific evidence that cutting down total fat consumption has any positive effect on health; specifically, reduced risks of heart disease and diabetes. For years those who pointed this out were marginalized, but recently evidence debunking the supposed benefits of low-fat diets has reached a critical mass, so that a mainstream magazine such as Time could write in 2014: “Scientists labeled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong.” And now the official Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee admits that much.
There are several reasons why eating a low-fat diet is actually bad for your health. One is that if you lower the proportion of fat in your diet, you must replace it with something else. Eating more carbohydrates (whether refined or “complex”) increases your chances of becoming diabetic. Eating more proteins increases your chances of getting gout.
But perhaps a more important reason is that many Americans stopped eating food, and switched to highly-processed food substitutes: margarine, processed meats (such as the original Spam—not to be confused with email spam), low-fat cookies, and so on. In each case, we now have abundant evidence that these are “anti-health foods”, because they contain artificial trans fats, preservatives, or highly-processed carbohydrates.
While controlled diet studies are important and necessary for making informed decisions about our diets, an exciting recent scientific breakthrough has resulted from the infusion of evolutionary science into nutrition science. After all, you need first to figure out what hypotheses you want to test with controlled trials, and evolution turned out to be a fertile generator of theoretical ideas for such tests.
One of the sources of ideas to test clinically is the growing knowledge of the characteristic diets of early human beings. Consider this simple idea (although it clearly was too much for traditional nutritionists): we will be better adapted to something eaten by our ancestors over millions of years than to, say, margarine, which we first encountered only 100 years ago. Or take a food like wheat, to which some populations (those in the Fertile Crescent) have been exposed for 10,000 years, and others (Pacific Islanders) for only 200 years. Is it surprising that Pacific Islanders have the greatest prevalence of obesity in the world (higher even than in the United States)? And should we really tell them to switch to a Mediterranean diet, heavy on grains, pulses, and dairy, to which they’ve had no evolutionary exposure whatsoever?
Our knowledge of ancestral diets, of course, is itself evolving very rapidly. But it seems clear that we are adapted to eating a variety of fatty foods, including grass-fed ruminants (beef and lamb) and seafood (oily fish), both good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids. Of particular importance could be bone marrow—it is quite likely that first members of the genus Homo (e.g., habilis) were not hunters, but scavengers who competed with hyenas for large marrow bones. It’s very probable that nutrients from bone marrow (and brains!) of scavenged savannah ungulates were the key resource for the evolution of our own oversized brains.
In light of the new knowledge it is clear why Americans are getting fatter by eating low-fat diets. When you eliminate fatty foods that your body and—especially—brain need, your body will start sending you persistent signals that you are malnourished. So you will overeat on foods other than fatty ones. The extra, unnecessary calories that you consume (probably from carbohydrates) will be stored as fat. As a result, you will be unhappy, unhealthy, and overweight. You can avoid those extra pounds, of course, if you have a steely will (which few people have)—then you will not be overweight, merely unhappy and unhealthy.
So to lose fat you need to eat—not fat—but fatty foods. Paradoxically, eating enough fatty food of the right sorts will help to make you lean, as well as happy and—Edge readers, take note—smart!
Many of you will remember the post I published in November on why there is no e-book version of the Ages of Discord (AoD). In that post I wrote
I’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about whether there is an e-book version of Ages of Discord (AoD); and if not, when there will be one. I am sorry to report that currently I have no plans to publish AoD on Kindle or another e-book platform. The reason is that AoD, unlike Ultrasociety, is not a popular book. There are tons of equations, data tables, and charts.
I lacked time to invest in doing a quality conversion from the PDF to Kindle, and I didn’t want to publish a half-baked product. So I decided to stick with paper version only. In any case, AoD is not a popular book, and doesn’t pretend to be one.
In fact, I was somewhat surprised by how well AoD has been selling—despite all the wonkish equations and data tables. I suppose I should thank Mr. Trump for it.
I was also surprised to get an e-mail several weeks ago from CreateSpace, the print-on-demand arm of Amazon.com, which offered a free Kindle conversion of AoD. I replied that
I am interested. However, you should be aware that my book has a lot of graphics, tables, and mathematical equations. I have fairly exacting standards for typesetting, and so I am unwilling to publish the book on Kindle if these elements don’t display well enough. If you think you can produce a quality Kindle version, then I will be happy to publish it.
They said they were up to it, and in due course sent me the file with the conversion. There were a few problems that I pointed out, but they fixed them to my satisfaction.
So in a few days, a Kindle version of Ages of Discord should become available on Amazon. In my opinion, the paper version is still superior, but I understand that there are reasons why some readers will prefer an e-book. In fact, for books that I use recurrently, my preference is to have both a paper and e-book versions. The e-book comes very handy when I am away from office. It’s good for keyword searching. AoD, of course, has an index, but nothing really substitutes for being able to specify your own keyword when trying to remember just where was that sentence you are trying to locate months (or years) after reading the book.
I realize that CreateSpace didn’t do this free conversion out of goodness of their hearts; they are a business out to make money. I nevertheless thank them, because without them reaching out to me, there would be no AoD e-book.
A final note for those who use e-readers other than Kindle: there will be no DRM (digital rights management) protection (I oppose DRM). You can buy the Kindle version and convert it to epub, or whatever, using a program such as Calibre (and consider supporting Calibre if you do).
Prompted by the great discussion that followed my post, Does America Have a Long-Term Strategic Plan?, a reader sent me the link to a very interesting article by Michael Kofman, A Comparative Guide to Russia’s Use of Force: Measure Twice, Invade Once. Kofman presents a very interesting analysis of Russia’s strategy for dealing with Ukraine, Syria, United States, and the European Union during the last three years.
One characteristic feature of this strategy, according to Kofman, is “fail fast and fail cheap.” As an example, an earlier article, The Moscow School of Hard Knocks: Key Pillars of Russian Strategy, describes how Russia rapidly tried four different approaches dealing with the crisis in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, quickly abandoning those that didn’t work. Mark Twain once said, “good judgment is the result of experience, and experience the result of bad judgment.” The essence of an adaptive strategy is to try different things, and then use what works. It’s natural selection in action.
Another element of the Russian strategy is using a minimum of force, just enough to get the job done, but no more. Russian involvement in conflicts of both eastern Ukraine and Syria followed this logic:
In Ukraine, Moscow sent in regular units to beat the Ukrainian army in decisive battles, then withdrew many of those units. Rapid escalation, with an influx of battalion tactical groups, was followed by rapid de-escalation. Russia’s presence in Syria is similarly adjusted on a weekly basis and kept to a minimum, with surges as needed.
… in Syria, the Russian contingent regularly resizes its air wing and military footprint, introducing specialized units such as sappers or military police and promptly withdrawing those no longer needed. In order to manage public perception, Russia declared a withdrawal back in March 2016 and just recently again in January. Each is meant to “close” a chapter of the campaign, show political gains, and normalize the military presence among domestic audiences.
The third element is refusal to conquer and hold territory. Crimea is an exception to this policy. Check out the previous posts I wrote to explain it:
and also why I predicted that Russia would not annex eastern Ukraine:
In fact, in 2014 the Ukrainian armed forces were in such disarray, that a single Russian division could punch all the way to Kiev and install a government friendly to Kremlin. But Moscow avoided this course. In Syria, similarly, Kremlin relies on local troops (Syrian Army, Hezbollah, and the Iranians) to fight on the ground and hold territory.
There is no question that this strategy has worked very well for Moscow in the last three years. In fact, astoundingly well, given the general weakness of Russia. Compared to the United States, Russia is a military and economic dwarf. Its economy is in bad shape. During my visit to Moscow a month ago, all with whom I spoke said that life has become harder as a result of galloping inflation and stagnating wages. Clearly, the Kremlin doesn’t have a good strategy for restarting economic growth as long as the price of oil stays low. Instead of trying new approaches, and learning from failures, over the 17 years that he has been in power, Putin and his economic ministers have been recycling the same old and tired neo-classical recipes that are pushed by the likes of the IMF.
Also, it’s important not to forget that many of the tactical moves in the foreign policy arena in the last three years have been poorly conceived and executed. But as Kofman notes, “Moscow is comfortable with failure, preferring for it come fast and cheap so it can improvise the next evolution rather than investing in a failing plan. As I described in an earlier article, the overall Russian strategy is emergent, preferring a lean approach to deliberate planning. The Kremlin regularly attempts to set up no-lose scenarios for itself, such that complete defeat in the conflict is politically manageable at home. Much of Russia’s effort to establish plausible deniability is intended to create the political space to make mistakes, paving the road for cycles of retreat and escalation as necessary.”
In other words, an evolutionary, adaptive strategy can make up for a lot of tactical mistakes.
During my brief stop-over in Moscow earlier this month, I was asked to give a lecture at the Institute for Economic Strategies about the recent political turmoil in the US as viewed through the lens of Cliodynamics. I’ve given lectures there before—last time was actually in 2009, when I explained my forecast for American political violence peaking in 2020s. Since this forecast is, unfortunately, right on track, my talk was well attended. There was a lot of discussion—in fact, more than two hours of back and forth, which followed the lecture.
There were many good questions because, generally speaking, Russian political scientists are reasonably well informed. However, it was also clear that they were still struggling to understand how the political landscape in Washington changed following the Trump victory in the 2016 presidential election. Just as an example, only two people in the audience knew who Steve Bannon is.
But the most interesting part of discussion, which really highlighted the differences between the Russian and American mentalities, was triggered when someone in the audience asked me about America’s long-term strategic plan.
It turns out that several people in the audience have been contributing to the development of the Russian national strategy. During my visits to Russia in the early 2000s I remember discussions about the need for such planning, and it was interesting to see that they led to some fairly concrete results. In 2014 the Duma (Russian Parliament) passed a Law on the Strategic Planning for the Russian Federation. This law established the framework for making strategic forecasts and plans on the national security and foreign policy, on scientific and technological progress, and on economic development at the national and regional levels. The time horizon of these forecasts and strategic plans is 12 years done every six years (apparently timed to coincide with presidential terms). But I was told that there is another federal law in the making that would extend this time horizon to 2050 or even beyond.
This is very interesting because, as far as I know, the United States has nothing like this. The American policy-planning network, made up of foundations, think tanks, and policy-discussion groups, is concerned with fairly tactical and, usually, nakedly partisan issues. The foreign policy establishment is interested in predicting what other players on the international arena would do, but it doesn’t seem to be plotting the long-term strategy for the US. I am familiar with research funding programs at agencies like DoD (Department of Defense) and CIA. But again, their concern is with other countries, not domestic issues.
There is a fairly voluminous literature on “Grand Strategy”, following influential work by Edward Luttwak. But my reading of it is that it’s mostly about how to preserve the hegemonic position that the US had attained following the Soviet Union collapse. It’s not strategy, but tactics: how to keep resurgent Russia down, prevent China from extending its naval reach beyond its coastline, and the such.
Talking about China, it’s very clear that the Chinese leadership has a long-term strategy looking many decades ahead (this is clear from how successive administrations behave; I haven’t looked into whether such a strategic plan is publicly discussed in China).
But the United States, apparently, doesn’t. If I am missing something, I hope readers of this blog will set me straight!
The closest thing to a long-term strategy in the United States, I can think of, is exemplified by the decades-long work of two cabals of intellectuals that have “gifted” us with neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. In my work, I have been particularly interested in tracing how a small group of heterodox (for the 1940s and 1950s when they got started) economists and businessmen around Hayek and von Mises, known as the Mont Pelerin Society, utterly transformed the ideological landscape in America. After they triumphed in the 1980s, neo-liberalism became the dominant ideology of the American ruling elites, including both the Democrats and Republicans.
But that’s not quite the same as a National Strategy for America.
A Guest Post by David Hines
At the start of 2017, America looks to be in for a stretch of serious political turmoil. Accordingly, it makes sense to look at previous such period to see what lessons can be learned. One invaluable resource is Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage, which provides a masterful overview of political violence in the 1970s.
We tend to think about the process of radicalization in terms of production of Shock Troops—unshameable actors, like the Weatherman bombers, or the Puerto Rican separatist group FALN, or the cop-killing Black Liberation Army. But as Burrough’s history shows, Shock Troops in isolation faced real operational challenges, and tended to be imprisoned or killed. The most effective Shock Troops had support from Institutions: organizations controlled by the Left that operate for the benefit of its people (providing recruits, training, material support, and the like), both during the operation and afterward. For example, it’s impossible to imagine the leader of an abortion clinic bombing ring getting probation and getting an academic job, but Weatherman’s Bernadine Dohrn went on to a career as a law professor lasting over twenty years. The Puerto Rican separatist group FALN foiled several initial attempts at prosecution because they had effectively co-opted an Episcopal Church charity to the point that the Church advocated on their behalf. When finally convicted, years later, FALN faced decades in prison—but for all that time, backers pushed for their clemency, and eventually got it. Black radicals, who largely lacked such support, tended to wind up dead (a noteworthy exception being the radical professor Angela Davis, who was ensconced comfortably in academia as part of its credentialed class).
You can get a sense of what political violence in 2017 America might look like if you look at the current landscape. If it happens, political violence isn’t going to start from nowhere. The Left and the Right are going to start with the resources, capabilities, and techniques they currently have. It’s not fun and it’s not pretty—and, despite what partisans on both sides think, it wouldn’t be a short, glorious fight. People fantasize about political violence, much in the same way that they tend to fantasize about war. The fantasy is that it’s quick, it’s easy, it’s glorious, and it’s fun. In reality, political violence, like war, is neither of those things. Political violence is a long, horrible, brutal grind, and it poisons the societies where it operates.
If political violence ramps up, we should expect the normalization of extremists. Extremists don’t get mainstreamed when the mainstream invites them in; they get mainstreamed when they have organization, logistics, and manpower that the mainstream finds useful. Lefties don’t go to protests organized by real live communists because they’ve been sold on communism; they go because the communists are great at getting the word out and organizing port-a-potties. If events like the riots at Berkeley continue, expect Righties who don’t want to be attacked to get serious about organizing countermeasures, and expect the people who benefit from those countermeasures to warm to those Righties who provide them.
Black bloc participants running at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Source
The importance of Institutions and Shock Troops means that, in 2017, the political violence deck is heavily stacked to favor the Left. A lot of people on the Right viscerally object to this idea. The Right, after all, has a lot of guns. But guns mean nothing if they’re not pointed in the right direction, and the Left’s unending stream of protests, marches, and direct actions mean that they’re much more practiced than Righties are at herding their cats. Anarchist black blocs who pull off a riot can number in the scores or hundreds. By contrast, you may have noticed that most successful perpetrators of right-wing political violence are loners. This is because if two hard Righties get together, one of them is almost inevitably an informant for the FBI.
As a result, if political violence begins in earnest in the United States the Left and Right will have very different capabilities. A lone perpetrator can pull off a bombing, for example, or property damage, but not a riot. Accordingly, the Left has many more options and a much greater amount of tactical flexibility than does the Right. The Left also excels at allowing its people, especially its radicals, to rise, which creates a much deeper activist and leadership bench. Putting it bluntly: assassinating prominent Righties would adversely impact their movement. Assassinating prominent Lefties would not.
Could things really get that far? It’s not inconceivable. Even now, we’re already seeing the formation of public enemies lists: Chuck Johnson of Gotnews.com has published the names of everyone arrested in the inauguration riots, and for months a twitter bot scraping campaign contribution records has been posting names, hometowns, and workplaces of Trump supporters, effectively open-sourcing an enemies list for anyone who wants one.
The good news, if there is any: early on, it’s in even the most radical parties’ interests to keep violence low-level. There’s more political hay to be had in blaming your opponent for anything that goes wrong, especially if you can provoke them into serious violence.
The bad news: if that changes, it’ll change very quickly.
I’ve finished reading Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage, following a tip from David Hines. It’s an excellent detailed history of the American radical underground during “the long 1970s”. The details that Burrough provide will be interesting to anybody who does research on the mechanisms and dynamics of political violence.
It also tells us a lot about where we are in 2017 and what to expect in the coming months.
The wave of political violence in America of the 1970s followed a fairly typical course, familiar to me from reading the histories of disintegrative periods in past societies. In my research I have used models of epidemics and forest fires to understand these dynamics (for readers with a mathematical bend, the details are in Chapter 2 of Ages of Discord, but I also talk about this in War and Peace and War using non-technical language).
Here’s how an epidemic of political violence typically develops—and then dies out. I will use the Weather Underground, the best known and most influential American terrorist group of the 1970s, to illustrate the key transitions. But it’s worth emphasizing that the overall dynamic is quite general. It thus provides us with a kind of a road map as to what to expect in the next few years.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Phase 1. The days of rage. There is little serious violence (the kind that leads to deaths), but this is the phase when verbal violence escalates. People belonging to various groups demonize their enemies and increasingly call for their destruction. This is when the boundaries are established and fault lines deepen. During the Sixties the main faultline was between the Radical Left and the Establishment (really, the state and the governing elites). The issues motivating the radicals were the opposition to Vietnam War, draft resistance, oppression of African-Americans, poverty, and corporate greed. The most important dynamic during this phase is the crystallization and radicalization of the cohesive, “fused” (to use the term favored by my colleague Harvey Whitehouse) groups that will later spearhead actual violence. The escalation of verbal violence leads to the breakdown of social norms that guard against physical violence. In simpler words, it’s when the rage boils over and it becomes acceptable to kill other people, if they are on the other side of the barricades.
Phase 2. The triggers. These are specific, highly symbolic events that are needed to translate the rage into action. The most frequent triggers are “sacrifical victims”. This could be a self-sacrifice (such as the self-immolation of that fruit vendor in Tunisia), but more frequently the sacrifical victim is killed almost by accident.
The triggering event that transformed the Weathermen into a terrorist organization was the murder of Fred Hampton. By all accounts, it was an extrajudicial execution of a highly charismatic and popular activist and Black Panther leader by the Chicago police/FBI. Hampton became a martyr for the anti-racism movement, and his murder persuaded the Weathermen to go underground.
Phase 3. The spiral of violence. The first victims must be avenged, which creates more martyrs and triggers a chain of revenge and counter-revenge. It’s surprising how personal were the motives that drove the majority of “actions” by the Weather Underground (and also by Black Liberation Army). This dynamic of revenge and counter-revenge is very similar to how tribal warfare in small-scale societies develops.
Phase 4. Burn-out. Eventually most people get tired or even sick of incessant and unproductive violence. The most violent individuals are killed off, or imprisoned, or lose support. Having experienced violence at first hand most people are repelled by it; the population becomes “immunized” to the spread of ideologies that glorify violence. Phase 4, thus, is the opposite of Phase 1; it’s when the Rage subsides. As the Rage goes away, violence declines, and so does the need to avenge it. The spiral of violence unwinds in the opposite direction. But the critical change is in the social mood of the majority of the population, who turn against violence. At the same time the radicals themselves become tired of it too, or are simply decimated. The BLA was decimated, they simply lost the war against the state apparauts. The Weather Underground was partly decimated, but most of its leaders, like Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, were not killed or imprisoned; they simply gave up after seeing the futility of further violence.
According to a Mao’s dictum,
Many people think it impossible for guerrillas to exist for long in the enemy’s rear. Such a belief reveals lack of comprehension of the relationship that should exist between the people and the troops. The former may be likened to water the latter to the fish who inhabit it. How may it be said that these two cannot exist together?
But Weather Underground (and other terrorist organizations of the 1970s, especially BLA) were like fish flopping on the shore. The overwhelming majority of Americans were against them. The radicals’ supporters numbered only in thousands, and by the end of the decade in hundreds. Ordinary Americans readily reported any suspicious activities to the authorities. When a policeman was down, passing motorists stopped to give them aid and called for help on the police radios. The BLA, a much more violent organization than the WU (they robbed banks and killed cops), was ground up in a matter of months by the FBI with the help of broad popular support.
All this history is very relevant to us today. Currently we are going through Phase I, “the Days of Rage.” There are also significant differences between the coming violence spike of 2020, and the 1970 one, but that’s a subject for another post.
Follow Peter Turchin on an epic journey through time. From stone-age assassins to the orbiting cathedrals of the space age, from bloodthirsty god-kings to India’s first vegetarian emperor, discover the secret history of our species—and the evolutionary logic that governed it all.
200 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the exceptional ability of Americans to cooperate in solving problems that required concerted collective action. This capacity for cooperation apparently lasted into the post-World War II era, but numerous indicators suggest that during the last 3-4 decades it has been unraveling.
Pants are the standard item of clothing for people, especially men belonging to the Western civilization. Why not a kilt, a robe, a tunic, a sarong, or a toga?