“Learning to Die in the Anthropocene” by Roy Scranton

Well I just read in one sitting Roy Scranton’s “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization” (Hint the book is not about individual, but imminent civilizational mortality and can be summed up in one of the book’s most cogent sentences: “We are fucked”)

He basically suggests (using among others’, insights of the great conflict strategist Thomas Schelling) we have not the slightest chance of achieving the global cooperation and economic/emissions downsizing necessary to stave off the catastrophic effects of climate change that will hit us massively and exponentially from 20-30 years time, if not sooner. If you loved “CO2 The Movie”, you are going to love the sequel “Permafrost Methane Release” even more….I am glad I went for a minimum of 100 feet above sea level in all property purchases since 1980….

Given all this, he thinks we should cultivate the philosophy and the humanities to endure with Socratic and Stoic fortitude the end of civilization and maybe have a few hardy Stoics survive.

Great book 1) To make Trump problems seem as trivial and light weight and short term as the man himself 2) For teachers of humanity students (Madeleine and Rebecca) to provide context for their study of Homer, the Greeks, Sumerian archaelogy (Piotr you could teach a great course round it) etc. and 3) To show how the humanities have a great, though only very medium term, future.

I commend its 117 pages written by an Iraq War veteran who sees the middle east Iraq and Syria as the first real climate effect wars…and his own preparing to die each time he left his base their during the Non Insurgency in 2004 as a model for a civilization to prepare in the same way.

Posted in Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict History, Economic Conflict, Environmental Conflict, Ways to handle conflict | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Restoration of Democracy Act 2018

The Democrats should have a team working on a Restoration of Democracy Act for proposing in 2018 that would:

1) Create non partisan boundary commissions to overturn all gerrymandering

2) Establish a Right to Vote Act to protect citizens right to vote and ensure affordable identification for all citizens

3) Require US Presidents to give up all vested commercial interests ahead of talking office

4) Require all Presidential Candidates to make public their previous 20 years tax records at the time of filing their Presidential candidacy

5) End the exemption of the President from Conflict of Interest legislation

6) Start the process of overturning Citizens United and restoring sensible campaign finance like the McCain-Feingold Act

7) Mandate investigation of all foreign government interventions in US elections

8) Restore the requirement for balance in news reporting that was abolished by Reagan administration.

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Pseudo-Revolutions from Above: Former Soviet Union and Trump’s America

Some history people don’t understand, at least as I see it. The fall of the former Soviet Union as described in “Revolution from Above: The Demise of the Soviet System” by David M. Kotz was not a bottom up revolution, as it is often lazily portrayed, but a top down one at least in Russia, engineered by the Soviet elite Nomenklatura as they were called.

They became envious in the mid 1980s of the American elite under Reagan, who were beginning to amass the fortunes of the Gilded Era. The Nomenklatura had lots of privilege but it was job dependent and not vast personal fortunes they could use to establish dynasties with or live outside Russia.

So they triggered the collapse of their own system and established a kleptocracy, stealing state assets as they were privatized. Meanwhile the people of Russia wanted to be like Sweden and instead they got Sicily. Out of the chaos and collapsing living standards and life expectancy, out of the anarchic kleptocracy an authoritarian regime of Putin eventually emerged using nationalism to divert attention from the rise of a plutocracy of the very rich.

Now the favor is being repeated in the reverse direction. The US mega rich counter envy the authoritarian power of Putin, and even more obscene wealth/power he has amassed and are seeking to emulate it in the US by electoral and media manipulation to create a similar kleptocracy here, with the same nationalist bigotry as the diversionary force to con the electoral turkeys to vote for Thanksgiving to come early over and over again. And Putin supports this as Russia remains an economic basket case and so all he can hope for is to benefit from international Trump caused chaos just as he benefitted from it within Russia. Unleash the dogs of chaos say Trump and Putin in chorus.

Gramsci Hegemony 101. So much easier to amass fortunes by the political-financial-kleptocratic-casino than actually making things people want or running a real democracy rather than a sham nationalist “populist” one.

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Trump is the New Hugo Chavez: Look to Venezuela for Insights: Judo not Boxing

I think this article in the Caracas Chronicles,  “How to Culture Jam a Populist in Four Easy Steps” by Andrés Miguel Rondón is insightful. Especially the idea we should judo Trump, not box him. Though I don’t think the steps are easy and even grasping the points is cognitively challenging.

“The whole world’s eyes are on Washington today, and not in a good way. As Venezuelans, we’re looking North with more trepidation than most today, even though — in fairness — the panic over Trump-as-northern-Chávez is premature. A politician is to be judged by what it does in office, not by what he says before he gets there. Beating Chávez historic economic demolition of the richest oil country in the world, during the biggest oil bonanza ever, leaving behind an inflation-ridden, bullet-stricken, hungry, ailing country — is quite an ask. But let’s see what happens.

Because in one way, Trump and Chávez are identical: they are masters of Populism. There’s something soothing in all that anger. Though full of hatred, it promises redemption.

The recipe is universal. Find a wound common to many, someone to blame for it and a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Cartoon them. As vermin, evil masterminds, flavourless hipsters, you name it. Then paint yourself as the saviour. Capture their imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a good story. One that starts in anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.

That’s how it becomes a movement. There’s something soothing in all that anger. Though full of hatred, it promises redemption. Populism can’t cure your suffering, but it can do something almost as good — better in some ways: it can build a satisfying narrative around it. A fictionalized account of your misery. A promise to make sense of your hurt. It is them. It’s been them all along.

For all those who listen, Populism is built on the irresistible allure of simplicity. The narcotic of the simple answer to an intractable question. The problem is now made simple. The problem is you.

How do I know? Because I grew up as the ‘you’ Trump is about to turn you into. I was cast in the role of the enemy in the political struggle that followed the arrival of Chávez, and watched in frustration year after year as the Opposition tried and failed to do anything about the catastrophe unfolding all around. Only later did I realize this failure was, in a significant way, self-inflicted.

And so, some advice:

1. Don’t forget who the enemy is.

Populism can only survive amid polarization. It works through caricature, through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Pro tip: you’re the enemy. Yes, you, with the Starbucks cup. Trump needs you to be the enemy just like all religions need a demon. As a scapegoat. “But facts!”, you’ll say, missing the point entirely.

What makes me the enemy, you may ask? In their mind it’s very simple: if you’re not among the victims, you’re among the culprits. In your case, you’re that modern bogeyman called the liberal urbanite hipster who thinks all cultures and religions are valid and equally worthy, who thinks of the working-class disparagingly. You are, in short, ‘a citizen of nowhere’ whose utopia is a massive, world-wide kumbaya with carrot chips, no church, and no soul either.

It’s silly, I know. Especially because you do care. As did I, a teenage CIA agent bent on feeding the serfs at my feudal estate with dog food. However, as long as you don´t recognize the problem is not the message, but the messenger, you will be wasting your time.

Your focus has to be on erase the cartoon you’ve been drawn into. Scrambling it. Undermining it.

2. Show no contempt.

Your organizing principle is simple: don’t feed polarization, disarm it.

This means leaving the theater of injured decency behind.

The Venezuelan Opposition struggled for years to get this. It wouldn’t stop pontificating about how stupid it all is. Not only to their international friends, but also to the Chavista electoral base itself.

“Really, this guy? Are you nuts? You must be nuts.” We’d say.

I heard variations on this so many times growing up that my political awakening was set off by the tectonic realization that Chávez, however evil, was not actually a stupid man.

The subtext was clear: Look, children — he will destroy the country. He’s blatantly siding with the bad guys: Fidel, Putin, the white supremacists or the guerrilla. Besides, he’s clearly not that smart. He’s threatening to destroy the economy, too. He clearly has no respect for democracy. For the intelligentsia. We, who work hard and know how to do business. We, who’ve researched this, thought about this, grasped this. In history, in economics, in diplomacy, in accounting. Now, learn this word. Repeat after me: fascism.

I heard variations on this so many times growing up that my political awakening was set off by the tectonic realization that Chávez, however evil, was not actually a stupid man.

“Don’t listen to them, folks”, says the populist. “Stop letting them think they can school and fool you. The only true fact is that the enemies are few and that they lie. Let’s show them they’re the ones who are wrong. They’re the ones who are stupid. They’re scared! Or, worse, fearing justice! They think only about themselves. Turn off the TV. Listen to me.”

You’ve just lost the first battle. Instead of fighting polarization, you’ve played into it.

In which case, try again, seriously, because by all means…

3. Don’t try to force him out.

Our Opposition tried every single trick in the book. Coup d’etat? Check. Ruinous oil strike? Check. Inviting international intervention? You guessed it. Want to know how they did that last one, by the way? By removing themselves from the ballot in a parliamentary election. Yes, they just handed Chavismo full congressional power as some sort of ‘diplomatic statement’. Honest to God. But we failed. Because we lost sight that a hissy-fit is not a strategy.

Look, they were desperate. If anything, history has proven they were right to be desperate. If any of those plans had gone well, bear with me for a second, Venezuela wouldn’t be in the shitshow it is in right now. Lives would have been saved. Many more improved.

But we failed. Because we lost sight that a hissy-fit is not a strategy. The people on the other side, and crucially Independents, will rebel against you if you look like you’re losing your mind. Worst of all, you will have proved yourself to be the very thing you’re claiming to be fighting against: an enemy of democracy. And all the while you’re just giving the Populist and his followers enough rhetorical fuel to rightly call you a saboteur, an unpatriotic schemer, for years to come.

To a big chunk of the population, the Venezuelan opposition is still that spoiled, unpatriotic, schemer. It’s taken many furious years for its politicians to wash away those stains. It sapped the opposition’s effectiveness for the years when we’d need it most.

All non-democratic channels are counter-productive: you lower your message, and give the Populist rhetorical fuel.

4. Find a counter-argument. (No, not the one you think.)

Don’t waste your time trying to prove that this ism is better than that ism. Ditch all the big words. Why? Because, again, the problem is not the message but the messenger. It’s not that Trump supporters are too stupid to see right from wrong, it’s that you’re much more valuable to them as an enemy than as a compatriot.

The problem is tribal. Your challenge is to prove that you belong in the same tribe as them: that you are American in exactly the same way they are. It’s way easier to get this wrong than to get this right, and the chances are the people getting it wrong will drown out those getting it right.

In Venezuela, we fell into the abstraction trap in a bad way. We wrote again and again about principles, about the separation of powers, about civil liberties, about the role of the military in politics, about corruption and economic policy. But it took our leaders ten years to figure out they needed to actually go to the slums and to the countryside. And not for a speech, or a rally, but for game of dominoes or to dance salsa – to show they were Venezuelans too, that they had tumbao and could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show they were real. And no, this is not populism by other means. It is the only way of establishing your standing. It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press pause on the siren song of polarization.

You will not find that pause button in the cities or the university’s campuses. You will find it precisely where you’re not expected.

Only then will your message land.

There’s no point sugar coating: the road ahead is tough and the pitfalls are many. It’s way easier to get this wrong than to get this right, and the chances are the people getting it wrong will drown out those getting it right.

But if you want to be part of the solution, the road ahead is clear: Recognize you’re the enemy they need; show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those that brought Trump to power; by all means be patient with democracy and struggle relentlessly to free yourself from the shackles of the caricature the populists have drawn of you.

It’s a tall order. But the alternative is worse. Believe me, I know: I’m from Venezuela.

Posted in Conflict Processes, Top Ten Conflict Tips from Great Thinkers, US Political Conflict, Ways to handle conflict | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Brexit as a Game of Chicken: Tim Harford

I thought this article very insightful, though I also had in mind the views of a friend of mine, a former/recovered economist, who calls Theresa May “Mugabe May” because he thinks May will damage the UK economy as much as Robert Mugabe has damaged the Zimbabwean economy. 🙂

Brexit as a game of Chicken
‘What if, as you hurl your own steering wheel out of the window, you notice your rival has done exactly the same?’
Undercover Economist

At times such as these, I wish I could hear what Thomas Schelling had to say. It might be too much to claim that Schelling was one of the most intriguing characters of the 20th century but he was certainly one of the most interesting economists. He began his career working on the Marshall Plan before advising the administrations of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon on nuclear strategy.

As well as studying deterrence, segregation and addiction, he was one of the first economists to ponder climate change. In 2005, he shared the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. Schelling died in December 2016 at the age of 95.

Schelling was one of the fathers of nuclear non-proliferation, and I think I know what he might have made of Donald Trump apparently welcoming the idea of a new nuclear arms race. But it’s Schelling’s insights on the Brexit negotiations that I’d really like to have. In his absence, I’m going to have to guess.

First: to be an effective negotiator often means accepting some risk of disaster. The simplest model of this is the game of “Chicken”, in which two leather-clad rebels get into their cars, and drive towards each other at a furious pace. The first one to veer off the road loses his dignity, unless neither of them swerve, in which case both of them will lose a lot more than that.

Chicken is an idiotic game, whose players have little to gain and much to lose. But Chicken teaches us that you can gain an advantage by limiting your own options. Imagine detaching your steering wheel and flamboyantly discarding it as you race headlong towards your opponent. Victory would be guaranteed. Nobody would drive straight at a car that cannot steer out of the way. But here’s a worrisome prospect: what if, as you hurl your own steering wheel out of the window, you notice that your rival has done exactly the same thing?

All this matters because both the UK and the EU are doing their best to give the impression that they’ve thrown their steering wheels away. Control of immigration is non-negotiable, says Theresa May. Fine, says the EU — in that case membership of the single market is out of the question. Fine, says May: we’re out. Don’t let the door hit you as you leave, says the EU.

It’s easy to see why both sides are behaving like this — it’s the logic of Chicken. But the eventual result may be something no sane person wants: a car crash.

In May’s recent speech, she set out her willingness to risk such a crash by saying she might walk away without a deal. That does make some sense: it’s how you act if you want to win a game of Chicken. But there are games of Chicken that nobody wins.

That leads to a second insight from Schelling: the difference between deterrence and what he called “compellence”. Deterrence dissuades action, but compellence means persuading or threatening someone so that they do act. In his 1984 book Choice and Consequence, Schelling pointed out that deterrence is easier. A deterred person does nothing, so need not admit that the deterrence worked, but a compelled person must visibly acquiesce.

Unfortunately, the process specified under Article 50 leaves the UK in the awkward position of trying to achieve compellence. The default option is the car crash, a disorderly fracture with the EU. Anything else requires all 28 countries involved to take prompt constructive action. May and her chancellor Philip Hammond have made some (faintly) threatening noises about how the EU should play along, but such threats can only work if they compel an energetic and active response. That’s far from certain — compellence is hard.

Of course, a broad, constructive agreement is in everyone’s interest. As May rightly said: “Trade is not a zero-sum game: more of it makes us all more prosperous.” It stands to reason, then, that the EU should embrace free trade in goods and services with the UK — as should the many other trading partners that foreign secretary Boris Johnson tells us are “queueing up” to sign deals with the UK. To which Schelling might respond: just because a mutually beneficial deal is achievable doesn’t mean it will be achieved. Mutual benefit isn’t enough. If it was, we wouldn’t need a free-trade deal at all. Every country would have unilaterally abandoned all barriers to trade long ago. Back in the real world, trade deals are stubbornly difficult and time-consuming to negotiate.

To add to the difficulty, May badly needs to sign a deal with someone — Trump, perhaps, or China’s president Xi Jinping. But neither Trump nor Xi badly need to sign a deal with her. This is not a great starting point.

It’s quite possible that a sensible deal will be reached. But not certain. Sometimes, in international relations, events take on their own unwelcome momentum. Consider the dark comedy Dr Strangelove (1964) in which — spoiler alert — civilisation is destroyed by a series of highly amusing miscalculations. One of the script advisers for the movie? An economist called Thomas Schelling.”

Twitter @TimHarford

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Zen Koan for the Real Populists not the Plutocracy’s Puppet Populists


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Waiting for the Barbarians

I lived for a bit, but did not suffer, under military dictatorship in Turkey, briefly the same in Greece, and visited Spain under Franco and I worked against the torture of prisoners in Portugal under Salazar and in the former Soviet Union from afar. My friend Otto lived under East German Communism and spent time in the Gulag in Vorkuta. And my late friend Andra treated the tortured victims of BOSS, the Bureau of State Security in South Africa.

It is all coming back to me: the sleazy incompetence, the lies, the ruling families’ corruption, the oppressive atmosphere, the nervousness and the press where nothing meant what it said…..but hey great novels get written under dicatorships, so we should be in for a gala season in the USA….the new Pamuk, Sinopoulus, Lorca, Saramago, Pasternak, Wolf, and Coetze….

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