The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: May 2022 Page 1 of 4

Collins Five Principles Of The Expansion And Collapse of Nations

As long time readers know, Randall Collins is a sociologist I admire.

One of his books is Macrohistory: Essays In Sociology of the Long Run. The second chapter is a theory of the rise and fall of empires. It’s this theory which Collins used to predict the collapse of the USSR in advance.

Principle 1: Size and resource advantage favors expansion. Expansion and resource advantage includes satrapies and alliances. So Canada’s resources are America’s and so are Europe’s and Japan’s and Australia’s and so on. Athen’s “allies” resources were Athens’, etc…

Principle 2: Geopolitical or “marchland” advantage favors expansion. This means you want to be on the edge, in the corner of the map. Think Rome, on the edge of the Greek world. Russia on the edge of Europe and, indeed, America on the edge, and having no real enemies nearby.

All seven unifiers were from marchland, the central states always lost.

The history of Europe in the 20th century was war between central powers (and the old marchland, Britain), leading to exhaustion and then conquest by the two European marchland states, dividing Europe between Russia and the US. Americans had massive garrisons and overthrew governments who tried to resist them in Europe; they were occupiers just as were the Soviets.

The advantage here is the classical one of corner positions: you don’t have enemies on every side. Russia became a great power largely by having gunpowder weapons and expanding against people who didn’t, while having to defend only one border against European nations.  America, likewise, but with very little real risk from advanced nations once the revolution was gone (Canada was too sparsely populated, and Mexico/Spain were in radical decline.)

Principle 3: Interior states tend to fragment when not conquered by marchland states. Collins gives examples, “this happened in China during several interdynastic periods, in Kievan Russia, in the Balkans after the decline of the Ottoman and Austrian Empires, and when the medieval Holy Roman Empire fragmented in the kleinstaaterei of Germany and Italy. Fragmentation occurs because interior states become militarily weakened states incapable of controlling secessions.

Basically, you’ve got potential allies and enemies on every side, and  you tend towards balance of power politics and defensive postures. Even though central states tend to be on rich land, needing to defend against so many possible enemies leads to exhaustion, and they can’t handle revolts. Alternatively, though Collins doesn’t mention it, you can have self-disarmament in a successful balance of power regime, such as happened in the EU and if someone decides to take advantage of it, it may be too late to rearm.

Principle 4: Cumulative processes bring periodic long-term simplificiations, with massive arms races and showdown wars between a few contenders.

The first three rules lead to a couple large states becoming powerful (or putting them into alliances that amount to the same thing, as with Athens and the USA), then those two powers have a showdown. Sometimes it’s two marchlands who have conquered central areas (as with the USSR and America), sometimes it’s a peripheral state versus a central state which has conquered other central states (Britain v. Germany or Britain v. France), and sometimes to it’s a marchland just conquering the center as with the Mongols and China (though the Mongols conquered the Arab/Muslim center as well.)

These periods generally have huge arms races and buildups, which may or may not go to a showdown war. The US and USSR did not have their showdown war, but Athens and Sparta did. The competition, even if it doesn’t go to war can lead to both parties essentially losing, as with Germany and Britain in the two world wars. Britain’s “victory” was the loss of their empire and almost all their power and slow long term decline from that point as a manufacturing power, winding up a financialized satrapy of the real winner, the US.

The collapse of Britain, France and Germany allowed the US and the USSR to expand into what amounted to a vacuum.

Principle 5: Overextension brings resource strain and state disintegration.

Collins writes “the further military power is projected from the home base, the higher the costs.”

It’s this that made Paul Kennedy in his “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” think that the US was due to collapse. He was right, but what he didn’t see was that the USSR was under even more resource pressure, and had a smaller resource base. Remember that Nixon going to China turned Russia’s eastern border into a real worry, and they had to move large numbers of troops there and keep them ready for a potential war. Combined with the Warsaw pact and allies having less resources and people than the US, NATO and other allies and Russia was under more resource strain than the US with its widespread bases.

The odd thing here, as Kennedy showed, that empires expand and get more resources, but the cost of getting the resources expands faster than the resources gained.

Though Collins doesn’t discuss it here I’d say there are other processes. Empires tend to ship their production to the provinces. They financialize. They have inflated real-estate and other prices which drives out real production (Spain and the treasure fleets is the extreme example, but it can clearly be seen in 20th century America and 19th century England, and I bet it was visible in Periclean Athens.)

Concluding Remarks

These are the five principles of Collins basic geopolitical model. They were used to predict the collapse of the USSR, in advance, and they backfit quite nicely onto a large number of civilizations’ history.

One might wish to extend this to the current situation, evaluating China and its junior partner Russia in their conflict against the West. Who has the size and resource advantage (resources in the modern world include manufacturing capacity and tech). Which has more of a marchland advantage? (Remember, if the US feels it has to defend something, the mainland advantage only partially applies, and then there’s the question of hypersonic missiles and so on.)

I don’t see an interior state fragmentation process going on that matters, but maybe I’m missing it?

Is there an arms race going on? Will it lead to a direct war? Who will use less of their resources to maintain that arms race while remaining militarily viable?

Who is more in overextension? The US and allies or China and Russia?

I may write an article on this, but I think most readers can work thru it themselves and will find it more valuable to do so than to read me doing it.


What will it take to stop asking why are there school shootings? By Marcus Gardner

By Marcus Gardner (not by Ian)

There was a time in my life when I believed with certainty that I was going to raise my child in a small village of other parents, single people, elders, and children. The toddlers would look up to the older boys and girls, and they to the teenagers, and they to the young singles, and so on and so forth. The kids would mostly watch each other, learning in the daily ebb and flow of successes and failures, play and conflict, that is – from my observation and experience – a far richer learning environment than any human-created institution. And, because these kids would be at home in their community nearly 24/7, they’d see what their parents did – woodwork, gardening, harvesting, fishing, and hunting wild foods, fixing technology, auto repair, counseling one another, and raising their children – these kids would naturally gravitate to what their role is, and not just in the sense of what they wanted to “be” when they grew up, but who they “are.”

Today, my wife and I are raising a toddler as nuclear parents and are trying, with no little effort, to put off sending her to school. We’re looking for the right community, or at the very least, the right kind of free school/forest kindergarten that won’t break our little girl’s spirit. While we, ourselves, try not to break her spirit, which is pretty fucking hard if you’ve ever spent much of your day with a toddler, day after day. My moral compass with regard to children is rock solid, but I can still understand how tempting it must seem – especially when you haven’t had the right training and experience – to result to shaming, to indoctrination, and, ultimately, to institutionalizing your kid, all under the guise of “it’s for their own good.” When it’s really just your own cope.

I saw a quote in Reddit the other day saying something to the effect that children are the largest oppressed class. Their concerns are not taken seriously. They’re given no meaningful way to contribute. And they get shuffled between institutions, kept occupied with busy work. I couldn’t agree more.

What I learned from all my time with kids is that you’ve got to trust them. They can’t really help but tell the truth (even if they’re lying.) Children, especially young children, don’t have the artifice that we adults have. They’re not satisfied to simply rationalize their hurt and pain – they actually want to stop it, quell it. So I listen to them, and extend myself not just beyond my own assumptions and personal convenience, but beyond our culture’s. Because this culture was not designed for the needs of children (nor for the real needs of adults, of course.) And to hear a child – to really hear them – I’ve got to question this whole crazy superstructure that we’re trying to cram our lives into.

So when my two year old daughter is giving us hell, or just being a pain in the butt and I can’t get x, y, or z done, I ask myself: why is this happening? Because, despite the “wisdom” of my baby-boomer parents (“let her cry it out,” “put her in a crib in the other room,” “teach her manners,” “stop nursing already”) I actually trust this little girl more than anyone else. She’s telling me something’s wrong.

Is it because we’re too isolated right now? Does she need more older kids to show her how to do things? People she wants to follow around and copy, instead of her parents correcting her, yet again? Does she need my wife and I to be have more integrated lives, rather than juggling work schedules and “blowing off steam” and/or working on our own projects, (projects we hide from our daughter so she doesn’t mess them up?) Does she need something more real than another day in the house with her books and toys, or another playdate at a playground designed to keep her busy?

And it’s hard. Because of course she needs all of those things, and we fall short in so many ways, even though we do, at least, take her seriously. But our abilities to trust and include her as much as possible is limited, because we’re largely nuclear, isolated individuals. Our lack of a real social support net leaves a lot out.

When I think of sending my daughter to school, either so my wife and I can have more “adult time” to get work and get stuff done, or so our daughter can get more time around other kids, or simply to get away from needing to deal with her, I’m terrified at how fast the change might happen.

Right now, with the acceptance and love she receives from my wife and I, she’s maybe half full. Maybe a bit less, as she went through chemotherapy and was given a potentially lifelong disability as a result of spinal surgery at 1.5 years old.

But take her away from mom and dad’s acceptance, put her in a room (or even outside,) watched over by another adult as that adult tries to corral another ten kids. I know what it’s like; I was a Montessori pre-school teacher for a while. With so many same aged peers, the power struggles will quickly ensued, and, despite however well-intentioned the teachers are, a pecking order will be established. Even if (and that’s a big if) the teacher doesn’t resort to shame, the children, in their desperate situations, will. And many if not most of them will have become adept at shame even at the tender age of pre-school.

Tell her it’s going to be like this for fifteen years.

How long would it take to empty the bottle of my daughter’s soul in this way? Six months? A year? And how long until it’s filled with the fuming poison of shame, competition, needing to be “good” to be loved – by teacher, by friends, by Instagram?

How long – and I’m not just finger-pointing at school here, but at our whole cultural package – until she’s a Molotov cocktail? Because without an engendering community to grow up in, to get to know herself in, to get to know healthy relationship within, how could she ever become anything else? Long before she throws her graduation hat in the air, she’ll have learned – with the help of her school, her peers, experts, and the media – that to be a good participant in our zero sum society she not only has to win, but she has to learn to manage the pain. Being “good” only means that you’re good at procuring something to sooth the poison inside you. That’s the goal: functional addiction. Inner Pepto Bismol. And all the better if you can multitask and make noise about how you’re the one with the answers to other people’s and/or the world’s problems, while ignoring and medicating your own.

And despite our hand wringing about gun control, mental health, or how we’re giving our kids the “right” values, some of these Molotov cocktails run low on their Pepto Bismol. When they look around, they see everyone clamoring for the limelight, to make a statement, to be known and seen and given a place, and they think: “Better to be an anti-hero than a nobody.” But their poison and emptiness is the same as yours and mine.

Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – May 29, 2022

by Tony Wikrent


Strategic Political Economy

Science or the academy?

[Twitter, via Naked Capitalism Water Cooler 5-24-2022]




They’re Worried About The Spread Of Information, Not Disinformation 

Caitlin Johnstone, via Naked Capitalism 5-24-2022]


[Twitter, via Naked Capitalism 5-25-2022]


Liberalism, conservatism and the lack of discussion of civic republicanism

Open Thread

Use the comments to discuss topics unrelated to recent posts.

How Gunpowder Ended the Middle Ages

Some time back I read a book called The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559. One thread I picked out as particularly clear was their explanation of the effects of gunpowder.

The first bit is what as known as pike and shot. Early gunpowder weapons were slow and inaccurate. But late medieval pike units had already changed warfare: not only could they withstand charges from knights, but they figured out how to charge themselves. Still, they weren’t as fast as knights, and there were ways to deal with them.

Pike and shot was the innovation that broke knights completely: early firearms would blow right through armor, and pikemen could protect the arquebusiers. Pike and shot units slaughtered knights.

The second issue is that gunpowder, or rather artillery, made medieval castles obsolete. Artillery enabled the conquest of both Normandy and Constantinople.

Thirdly, gunpowder at the beginning was very expensive. It “royalized” warfare, nobles couldn’t afford it, kings could, and they used it to destroy the independence of the feudal nobility: knights weren’t the dominant arm any more, castles couldn’t withstand sieges, and nobles couldn’t afford to upgrade their men to the new armaments in enough numbers.

The irony here is that gunpowder also “proletariatized” warfare: peasants could use guns just fine, without much training and pike work, while skilled, didn’t require the training of a knight. It was said that to truly train as a knight you had to start as a child, but a gunner or pikeman could be trained in a few months.

The result of all of this was larger armies, the breaking of the independent feudal nobility as independent military forces, and thus centralization. The full on absolutism monarchs like Louis the XIV “l’estat c’est moi” came later, but it’s this early process of gunpowder breaking the feudal nobility which allowed them to centralize power and turn the nobility into court aristocrats.

The loss of the nobles true source of power and their reduction into aristocrats (whose influence relies far more on their relation to the monarch than their own power) allowed for the rise of the early bourgeoisie. Feudal nobles had power because they had military force, and power trumped money, but as they lost that and as armies became much more expensive, money became a source of power all its own. Kings needed a lot of it to field the new armies, and the bourgeoisie had it. As a result a lot of bourgeoisie became nobles themselves, since owning land still had much more prestige than being a merchant, but over time it led to power moving away from the nobles, now an aristocratic courtier class, and to those with the money and that led rather directly to events like the English civil war and, later, the French revolution.

For those kings in-between, gunpowder must have seemed like a godsend: allowing them to break the troublesome nobles and centralize power, but it was a devil’s deal for them. The old feudal system was reasonably stable because knights were the decisive military arm, and knights and nobility were wrapped up together.

Once it was the king alone, surrounded by courtiers who had no real power themselves, but were parasites on the court, the days of Kings, too, were numbered.



Spring of a Down, by Stirling Newberry, Chapters 1-3

я знаю місце1

(Read the Prolog)

She looked out over the land coming spring. Rather than domes and spires of Kyiv, here there were roofs to keep the hearth warm. But was forward to the eye was the fuzziness of the trees because the buds were forming across a flat plain. Life bloomed, over and above the plains north of the capital the river flow in.2

She turns to sweep out the broken glass from the boards of the floor. Too much mess but one had to start someplace. “Maria you must keep to your duties, not look outside.”3 Maria was very practical. Unlike her sister.

The sister and her two young daughters were 2 kilometers away, still above the ground facing the heavans. The dead eyes see the days like acid rain.4 A wider look at the world beyond the cross.

Work to reach the corners and cracks. Stay focused. Down, she must turn down. There were so many dead. She remembered how the war began. It was a gloomy winter day when the world turned upside down.5 Then in the hazy snow-soaked sky, she heard bombs come blimping blinding down. She hid underneath her bed, death and life alternated between her children, and the two were mixed with feelings of pity and sorrow. It was a vision of Hell brought to the waking world.6 She looked over her bed to a burned-out candle.

She tried not to think of it again but the harder she fought the more vivid the movie it was.7

“Maria?” A call from the door. “Maria Petrenko? It is me, Pavlo Pavlenko.”8

Yes, she remembers who he was. At other times she would think little of him because he was a skinflint. But that was then this was now. She stood up and brush her light blue dress off of soot and coal. “It will take me a moment.” There was a door, but it was clear not locked, or even closed.

From below she heard: “Everything is moving more slowly.”

Down the curved steps, she went with a new curve to her back. At the last steps she saw the back way and the white-bearded face was brought into view.

“You have come some way to get here.”

“It is true.”

“What brought you here?”

“The hammer banged reveille on the rails, and I had to get up.9 I had to get up a set my life in order on this fine day.”

He stood there wavering.

“That is quite stark – whatever do you mean?”

“I am dying. I was before the war, but I did not know it.”

“What happened?”

“You know the office in the center of town?”

“Which one?”

“A doctor has come a set up a waypoint for people to flee.”

“I know the place.10 But are you fleeing?”

He hesitated. “Could I come in and sit down?” A smile played with the edges of his mouth.

“You will have to sit on the stairs because the is no chair.”

He shuffled to the stairs, remembering a time when they had been carpeted. “I was thinking on it.”

“Why did you stop thinking on it??”

“I was told by the physician that I was dying, and quickly, so.”

There was a rich pause because in the old days she might have wished for this, were she was honest with herself. Which she often was, when alone.

Then the heard a flowering like popcorn, only from the trees.11 Pop – pop – pop. The room tilted by some fraction of 90 degrees as if the rhyme was helter-skelter with a drone of bass climb underneath. The sky was above in blue synergy holography from light to dark, tripping the light fantastic.12

Then they were falling and, flailing, grabbed at each other, winding up in what amounted to a hug.. All went dark for an instant.

She tilted her head, seeing, finding something almost fetching in his visage though not his face.

And then an instant later hey both looked up. The roof was ripped from below as a bomb had exploded mere meters awat. The plane moved on with thrust.13

Quietly she spoke: “That was close.”

“It matters little to me, a reprieve from the death which is soon to come.”

She skipped a beat. “I am sorry”

“Now you are.”

“Forgive me for the transgressions I may have committed.” She looked into his face but no glimpse of what lay beyond was forthcoming.

“It is not important – at least not to me. Instead, I will see the dead.”

“Who is to bury you?”

“That is why I came. I want you to make sure I am lain to rest.”

“Why me?”

“Because I am sure that you will do this as you did with your sister.”

“How do you know what happened to her?”

“That is the secret I wish to confess to you.”

Her heart clenched.

He continued: “I was having an affair with her. Anastasiya was going to me.”

“What about her daughters?”

“She was dropping them with her friend, the Doctor.”

None of this she knew. “So, you wish me to bury you for the sake of my sister?”

“Most people do not care for the testament which binds us.”14 And he continued, “Everything in the world is coming to an end.”

“I will do this even to the apocalypse.”


It was daylight and the birds did nestle among the cold stone fascia of the many buildings that lined the Rynok Square, to the English tourists Merchant’s Square. one of many in the town once called Lviv. He wondered why someone would name a town after Leo when it was so peaceful. His eyes moved the many statues of real, legendary, and mythical figures which dotted the observation tower which overlooked the host of old, even aged, splay of buildings in this now wartime city. It was of course not supposed to be this way and at the same time, it was the way it had been since 2014.16 As it would be, so it seemed, for some time to come.

We Are Going To Go Thru Hell, So What Now?

I was born in 1968, the year Wallerstein calls one of “world revolution”. It was a revolution that both failed and succeeded: women and minorities got more rights, often a lot more, but the end result was an oligarchy, where most people were equal in their lack of power, and where every year saw ordinary people becoming poorer, no matter what the official statistics claimed.

The 70s were the heyday of environmental possibility: everyone understood the stakes, and it seemed for a time that we would act.

President Carter famously put solar panels on the White House, and President Reagan famously had them removed.

And really, that was that. A lot of people fought, and fought hard, to stop environmental collapse and climate change, but really it was all over when Reagan and Thatcher took power and neoliberalism came to the fore. The ideology simply did not, could not and would not care about something so far in the future when there were rich people to make richer.

The larger point is that climate change is baked in. It’s going to happen, it’s going to be very bad. Numbers are hard, but I expect billions of climate refugees over the next 60 years, at least a billion dead, and probably more, and the collapse of multiple countries into anarchy and warlordism while most of the rest become poorer.

There are those who call this “doomerism”, but it’s simply a matter of facing the facts as they are. We are increasing drilling for oil and gas, not decreasing it. Animals and plants are still dying off; the Amazon is almost certainly past the tipping point for viability and is now producing more CO2 than it stores, while everyone know the Great Barrier Reef is doomed. In India we have ground temperatures in the 50s and 60s in May and the government has made it illegal to export grain.

There’s no stopping this. We will only act decisively when it is far too late. The glaciers will be doomed, etc, etc.

So, the question is what to do?

The answer is to stop pretending it isn’t going to happen and to prepare for it. We know there will be less water. We know there will be more heat. We know that weather will be more extreme, with more and more powerful storms and more rain in many places. We know that there will be marine inundations in low lying coastal cities. We know that we will lose our commercial fisheries. We know that far fewer areas will be suitable for agriculture and that most of those will be less fertile than they are today.

And so on.

We need to prepare for this. Start building the seawalls and the desalinization plants and so on.

Those who are concerned with the political future should understand that what will matter is who survives and how well. If a group you approve of survives disproportionately well, in both numbers and quality, they will have power in the world to come.

It’s no longer about some version of “save everyone”, it’s about “who will be saved, and how well will they be saved.”

You are going to have to make decisions: you are going to have to choose who you want to help live and maybe even prosper, and who you’re washing your hands of; who you’re going to let die, or maybe even give a shove. (I’m in favor of giving our elites a shove when the time comes, we don’t need the psychopath faction around.)

For a long time we’ve lived in a world where if we gave a damn we could have easily fed and housed everyone and given them healthcare. We didn’t, since psychopaths run our societies, but we could have and it would have cost nothing noticeable except to people who want others scared.

Soon this will no longer be true globally, and then it will be true in almost all countries, even ones considered rich today.

We talk a lot about what individuals can do, and what groups can do, but we rarely talk about groups. It is at the group level that most individuals can have the most influence: perhaps by creating communes or agrarian societies, perhaps thru churches, perhaps through other organizations like monasteries. Individuals, really, are always weak, but groups can be strong.

Look for those groups to join, or consider joining with others to create them. This is where your greatest point of leverage can be found and it’s where you can contribute most to changing the shape of the future to a better one.

We’re going to go thru hell, that’s now a given. But how will we treat each other while in Hell? And what societies will come into being at the other end?


Refreshing Honesty About Bank Loans & Environmental Destruction

I actually appreciate this, from the HSBC AM Global Head of Responsible Investing, Stuart Kirk:

“At a big bank like ours, what do people think the average loan length is?” he asked. “It is six years. What happens to the planet in year seven is actually irrelevant to our loan book. For coal, what happens in year seven is actually irrelevant.”

That’s honesty. People in the financial industry are trained to follow the incentives. Their bonuses (most of their income for seniors) are based on financial results and internal power in the company. The more they make, the more they can give themselves.

To expect people whose entire careers are based on following financial incentives to not follow financial incentives is insane. While I’m generally down on incentives for control of behaviour, these are folks who are hyper-optimized for them. They don’t know any other way to operate, and if individuals were to try they would be replaced by people who do follow them.

This is why I’m a radical: I believe we need change from the roots. You can’t get a man or woman trained like Kirk to act any other way than he is acting.

Oh sure, you can try and change the incentives, and you should, but better is to create a system; a society, where financial return isn’t the most important thing. If it isn’t environmentally appropriate there should be a hard stop, an absolute ban. It should be unthinkable and anyone who does it should never be allowed to have any power ever again.

A capitalist system can’t do this. It simply cannot. It cannot “think” far enough ahead, because people are mortal, and they figure they can avoid the damage. In the run up to 2008 there was a saying on wall street, IBG, YBG—”I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.” In other words “we’ll both get the rewards and we won’t be here when the shit hits the fan.” (And if we are, well, we’ll still keep most of the money we made with this shitty fraudulent deal.)

Kirk’s a product of very close to a pure Skinner-box environment, trained to obey his conditioning till there’s little left but that conditioning. Oh, he has rationalizations, you can and should read them, but at the end of the day, he’s following the rewards.

People tend to do the right thing if they are mostly disinterested better than if you’re manipulating them with rewards and punishments. We don’t believe that, because we’re all warped. The warping started in school with grades, or perhaps with our parents and it continues till many of us know no other way of living.

But if we continue like this, we’ll burn the planet down. Oh, humanity will probably survive, but at the end, we’ll have genocided half the species on earth and reduced Earth’s carrying capacity massively. There’ll be less good agricultural land, few rivers with less water, most aquifers will be drained and poisoned, and large parts of the world where humans live now will be effectively uninhabitable for months every year.

That’s insanity, but it happens after six years and hey, if you’ve made enough money, you figure you and your kids will be able to live in one of the remaining good places.


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