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

Category: Power Page 1 of 13

What Xi Jingping Has Done Right to Preserve CCP Power and Effectiveness

I was a doubter about Xi. His early anti-corruption drive seemed most likely to be a way to purge the Party of his enemies, and I assumed he was driven primarily by ambition for personal power.

I was wrong.

If you want to join the CCP, you have to be accepted. It isn’t automatic. Once accepted you undergo training and if you want real power you have to rise: you have to be in charge and deliver.

In this the CCP is similar to the old Roman Republic: high political rank required you to rise up thru the cursus honorum. Doing so required you to gain experience with government: roads, sewage, trade, law and so on. In practice, few people were elected to the highest offices without military experience, and the result was that high elected officials had some actual experience with how both military and civic affairs ran.

The CCP has much the same virtues, minus the de-facto military experience. You can’t get to the top without having risen from the bottom.

There were serious threats to this in the early years of the second decade of the twenty-first century. The first was corruption: the job of officials shouldn’t be to make themselves and their families rich. People shouldn’t rise to the top because they’ve spread wealth to their supporters.

So an actual crackdown on corruption was required to retain the CCP’s policy effectiveness.

The second threat was the “princelings”. Children or grandchildren of high Communist officials, often companions of Mao. They expected office and power without having truly earned it. Xi has sidelined the majority of them. Very few have any real power in the CCP.

The third was the oligarchs. By one calculation the wealth of billionaires declined by 47% between 2021 and 2024. During the same period in America it increased over 70%. More than that, the CCP has prosecuted and imprisoned multiple billionaires, something the West never does.

Wealth=power. Huge concentrations of power outside the CCP were a huge threat to it, especially in combination with internal corruption, since corrupt and rich party members were cooperating with the oligarchs.

This has allowed China to do things like move massively to social housing and crash the housing market, something oligarchs would never allow the government to deliberately do in America. Young people being unable to afford housing was (and still is) a huge threat to the CCP’s legitimacy, but it’s being dealt with.

Weakening oligarchs hasn’t come at the expense of industry and commerce, either: the Chinese economy continues to grow, science and engineering progress is rapid, and they have recently taken control of the majority of the global EV market.

Internal corruption, cliques and external power centers controlling government are the biggest threats to any government and especially to any one party state. Xi has dealt with these problems effectively and relatively quickly and is moving on other policy concerns.

This doesn’t mean the CCP is perfect or doesn’t make mistakes. Zero Covid was done very badly (avoiding Covid was the right policy, but they screwed it up.) It does mean that they retain the ability to implement policy, often effectively.

And that’s a big win for China and the CCP.

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Why Voting For The Lesser Evil Is Strategic Imbecility

If a party can get your vote by being slightly less evil than the other party (and this applies to both the Republicans and Democrats to many voters), then they have no incentive to be good.

If you live in a society where parties are tending more and more evil, voting for less evil simply ensures that the trend will continue. Since “evil” in this case means “bad for ordinary people but great for me and people who bribe me”, there’s no reason for politicians enmeshed in the system, who rose under the system to do anything for the majority unless it benefits the rich and powerful more.

However politicians do sometimes change their votes or actions when in power based on needing to be elected.

The key thing here is that you should always vote. Someone who votes is taken more seriously by politicians than non-voters, because it’s easier to get a vote to switch than to convince someone to start voting. Go in, and vote for a third party, or a few down ballot candidates or even spoil your ballot.

Of course, as a single voter, your power is limited. So we’ll talk about political leverage next time. The basic principle under all government types is this: you may sometimes luck into good times, but most of the time you only get what you have the power to enforce, and you never keep anything without power and a willingness to use it.

 

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The Failure of Balance Of Power In the New Deal

By Bruce Wilder

Sometimes a comment is better than the post which inspired. This is one of those cases . — Ian

The New Deal created a balanced system of countervailing power on variations of the theory that the political power of citizens working together could oppose and balance the power of the wealthy and business corporations. Labor unions. Public utility regulation. Savings & Loans and credit unions and local banks to oppose the money center giants. Farmers’ cooperatives. A complex system of agricultural supports to limit the power of food processors. Antitrust. Securities and financial markets regulation.

Yes, the rich kept fighting their corner.

When ordinary people had it good by the 1960s, they stopped caring. Or maybe their children never started caring, having never experienced the worst oppressions the wealthy could dole out. Friedman’s message was a simple, deceptive one: the economy ran itself. Government was irrelevant, the problem not a solution. Consumers had sovereignty over business in “the market”. The New Deal as political project ran out of steam as politicians stopped thinking that “fighting for” the common man, the general welfare, the public interest was a genuine vocation or a vote-getter. The rhetoric continued to be used by Democrats to the turn of the century, but the meaning had drained away with emergence of left neoliberalism in Carter’s Administration.

Friedman had an apparently persuasive theory of the case that he made align with people’s desires and illusions.

The institutional base of the liberal classes eroded away. The intellectual basis faded rapidly. FDR’s agricultural policy was one the most successful industrial policies ever enacted. I have never encountered a reputable economist, even a supposed specialist in agriculture, who could even outline its main features. Most take the Chicago line that it was all smoke and mirrors, an illusionist’s trick — that the tremendous shift in resources and growth in productivity was “a natural” emergence that would happen anyway despite gov’t policy. Nixon subverted the whole scheme, helping to make the whole population sick and fat. Nothing to see here. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

The disastrous deregulation of banking and finance was a far more public spectacle than the dismantling of agriculture, but it has never provoked any sustained political movement in favor of even the simplest reforms, let alone a theory of financial reform. Watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Thanksgiving is as close as most come to the intellectual outlook of the New Deal.

I have heard it as the theory of 500. Societies of more than 500 or so require institutions of collective government to prevent the worst sort dominating everyone else and the worst usually manage to subvert government to their own ends any way, making the state an agent of oppression. FDR managed to pull together a wildly disparate coalition to create a government that succeeded for a time in constraining the worst impulses of the wealthiest and the business corporations.

It has failed in large part because the many could not remain even minimally organized or informed, free to even a small degree from cheap manipulation of impulse and prejudice.

And From Purple Library Guy:

And this is the fundamental problem with social democracy in general. While they’re in power they can make a nice system, but since it’s predicated on allowing people who want to trash that system to still control most of the wealth, it will inevitably die fairly soon.

I’m just finishing up reading Ed Broadbent’s book “Seeking Social Democracy”, and I found myself impressed by his decency, his erudition, some of his takes on practical politics . . . he was a good man, a very good man. But, he didn’t really grapple with this fundamental issue which in my opinion dooms his project.

The Simplest Rule of System Stability & How Breaking It Destroyed Post-War Liberalism

There’s a few rules if you want your system, whether it’s a club, corporation, religion, country or civilization to be stable.

The most important however is that you must not give power to those who want to change your system.

Simple enough.

Now, New Deal/Post-war Liberalism did a few things right. One of them was high marginal tax rates and another was high estate taxes (though not high enough.)

But the new Deal made a devil’s deal: it allowed large corporations to exist. This wasn’t, actually, FDR’s first choice, but he was having trouble fixing the Great Depression, and this is where the solution set wound up.

You may have a 93% marginal tax rate, but the people who control corporations use the corporation as their waldo: it does for them what they want. So the corporations had vast amounts of money and power, and they were the ones who spent vigorously, for example, on endowing chairs in business schools and economic faculties and creating conservative think tanks and buying politicians and so forth. This stuff mattered: Milton Friedman, the economist, is the godfather of neoliberalism.

It’s control of money which matters for power. If I’ve sworn a vow of perpetual poverty, but I run a religion or corporation which controls billions obviously I’ve got the power of money, even if I live in a cell, which I may not, given that the corporation or religion may be paying my living expenses.

The rich and powerful who controlled most of America’s corporations hated FDR and the New Deal. They called him “that man” and they worked endlessly against him. In personal combat they were generally defeated. He did cut a deal with them, but overall he won most of his battles and they could only drag their heels: his personal power and popularity was immense.

But once he was gone, they could work to undermine everything he had built, and they did. It didn’t even take them that long: under the first Congress after FDR, for example, supervisors and foremen lost the right to join unions, which was a hammer blow. (Truman interposed his veto, it was over-ridden.)

Bretton Woods ended in 71, Reagan was elected and the rest is history. Elon Musk is talking about getting rid of the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) by attacking its constitutionality, and with so many Republicans on the Supreme Court, who knows, it might happen.

If you want your system to last, you can’t let those who hate it have power.

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Problems of Capitalism: Power Accumulation

Capitalism has a lot of problems, a lot of ways it can go wrong. But power accumulation is baked in. Capitalism is the centralization of capital in a few private hands. This is justified in the ideological literature (mostly economics), because it allows for scale, and thus economies of scale, and allows for development. If capital doesn’t accumulate in a few hands it is hard to build factories, huge mines, and so on. (This is the theory, there are obviously other ways to do large scale tasks.)

Now, power accumulation is a problem in all systems. You need some to get things done, but doing too much always leads to dysfunction.

In capitalism, money controls capital (labor, land, resources, etc.). That’s what makes it different from communism, feudalism, despotism, or centralized monarchy. This is so true that the pre-conditions for capitalism include being able to buy labor and land and resources with money. This is because in, say, feudalism, you can’t — in feudalism, people mostly aren’t for hire, land is controlled by nobility and clergy, and free farmers who don’t (and in many cases can’t) sell much.

Money, in a capitalist system, is power. Power is the ability to decide what other people do. At the lowest level, this is known as demand. If you buy a chicken, it sends a signal to someone to keep producing chickens. If more chickens are bought, it says “breed more chickens.” If you’re an ordinary individual, you have this power only in aggregate.

The more money you have, the more demand you control, but you also gain the ability to not just signal; you can rent people to work for you, and they’ll do what you say.

At a certain point, you gain political power because you can hire people to influence politicians, or give them things they want, or help them get elected, and pretty soon they tend to do what you want.

The problem is that capitalism is a money accumulation system. Unless the tendency is carefully checked, money flows to the top, and so does power. Whatever secondary system is in control, be it representational democracy or the CCP, they stop making decisions based on democratic or party principles and start making them based on money.

But capitalism, to the extent it works, works because of good price signaling and semi-competitive markets. For markets to deliver, no one must have market power except a government which is acting out of motives other than profit motives.

Competitive markets are dynamic: it’s hard to keep your money over the long term, let alone for you children and grandchildren, who did nothing to deserve it, to keep it.

So capitalists on winning want to change the rules so that markets aren’t competitive.

They also want to expand capitalism into areas it should not control: roughly anything that is a natural monopoly (all of which should be run by government) or a fundamental welfare service (health, education, etc…) or which runs better when vastly dispersed.

So capitalism becomes a cancer: not only does it grow further than it should, it destroys the proper functioning of markets and of anything else it takes over which should never be part of capitalism.

The further effect is a fairly simple mechanical one: the more money is concentrated, the weaker is demand for non-luxury, non-investment goods. Back in the 2010s people were crowing about how low inflation was, but it wasn’t: the price of arts, collectibles, yachts, real-estate and so on soared: all the things rich people want. This causes general demand collapses which lead to recessions and eventually depressions.

They also distort price signals so that what the majority of the population wants and needs is under-produced and what the elites want are over-produced.

So the general rule for capitalism is that the rich have to be kept poor, which is a specific instance of the general rule across all society types that the powerful must be kept weak if the people are to prosper.

JFK was the first post-war break: he dropped high marginal tax rates significantly. Estate, income and capital gains taxes all need to be quite high on those with the most.

As for oganizations, the corporate socialists are more or less correct. We organized control in the wrong ways: large businesses must be controlled either by their employees or by their customers, or perhaps both, with the community  also having some control and a veto over destructive actions. Small business are fine in the control of a single person, large ones are not. We’ve proved that over and over again.

Every good thing about capitalism is based on keeping markets relatively competitive and keeping capitalism out of the parts of the economy it shouldn’t control (about 60% of it.) And doing that means keeping the rich poor and weak.


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The Duty Of The Good Is To Be Powerful

There is no more important line in all of the humanities and the social sciences than this one from the Melian dialogue:

the strong do as they wish, while the weak suffer as they must

We have a system which requires those who wish to be powerful to perform evil acts. It is difficult to become powerful without having been vetted, without having “made ones bones.” To be sure, if you want power in a corporation or as a politician or in an organization like the World Bank or IMF, your killing and your torture of people is sanitized and done at arm’s length, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

You must prove you can make the “tough” decisions, which apparently means hurting other people while paying yourself very very well.

So tough.

Some few may make it thru to the bottom rungs of power, they, like AOC, are socialized into the requirements of power. First a politician who has noted that Israel is an apartheid state, for example, is made to bow before Israel, then step by step they are lead to vote for or at least abstain on votes they know are evil.

A manager is made to lay people off or fire them even as executive salaries increase, or to steal wages, or to force overtime. They are made to enforce policies they know are wrong.

In either case, after a time they become evil because we become what we do.

The good tend to be repulsed by power, because they see how it is abused, and they believe that power corrupts. There is some truth to this, of course, when you’re powerful you don’t have to care what other people think, or who you hurt, because they can’t retaliate. The weak are very well aware that if they hurt someone, that person may hurt them back.

Thus you never truly know if someone who is weak is truly good, it is power that reveals a person’s soul because true goodness is not a result of fear or bargaining.

But Thucydides was right: the powerful do as they will and the weak suffer what they must. The only way to create a good world is for the good to be powerful, and to create a system which filters out the evil and does not allow them to become powerful. When they do make it thru, and some will, just as very occasionally a good person gains power in our world, they must be forced out.

But if we want a good world, the good cannot run from power. They cannot disdain it. They must seek it, while understanding that it appears evil now because it is controlled by those who are evil.

If the good do not seek power, and if the good do not fight for it and if the good do not fight to keep the evil away from power, then we will always live in Hell.


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Violent Determinants Of Social Hierarchy

There are four primary determinants of social hierarchy. They are productive ability, social ties, ideology and violent ability. All are affected by geography.

None of these operate in isolation. Productive ability directly affects violent ability.  Ideology determines what people will and won’t do but over time tends to move towards what a Marxist would call material determinants, though that time can be a LONG time: it took about two thousand years for the early kings to rise after the introduction of agriculture, so the power of ideology, though not the only factor slowing adoption, shouldn’t be understated. Two thousand years shows a lot of resistance.

To the extent hunter-gatherers tended towards egalitarianism, and there are certainly exceptions, generally based on high surplus, it was based on the fact that one guy with simple wood and stone weapons isn’t much better at violence than any other guy, especially in a society where all men who aren’t shamans are hunters. Oh, the best might be able to take two men at once, maybe even three in exceptional cases, but if a group of other males attacks he’s done. Likewise, though ambushes can change the formula, conflicts between men and groups of men are extremely risky unless one side outnumbers the other.

This changes a lot with early bronze weapons and armor, and it changes even more with organized bodies of men trained to fight together. Professional warrior or soldier classes whip peasants. So when agriculture makes every man not a hunter, but allows for division of labor, the “every man is about as good as another” changes, especially in organized groups.

He who is able to transfer the loyalties of a group of warrior or soldiers to himself can rule. Alternately men good at violence can transfer their loyalty to each other, creating a ruling warrior caste.

Let’s take the case of ancient Greece. The Homeric age emphasizes individual combat, but nobles can train much more for it and have better gear. They rule, but the society is still remarkably flat overall. In the classical period, the primary military arms are the phalanx and the galley. The Phalanx is simple and doesn’t require a lot of training, but it does require fit men with gear acting in groups with high solidarity. If everyone doesn’t push together, in unity, they lose.

Athens citizenship was almost exactly “men who fought in the Phalanx” and “men who rowed the galleys.” The galleys were for poorer men, and the state provided the galleys, but galley rowers had to be highly trained and work in precise unity. Slave rowers could not compete with free men, and highly trained crews of citizens could and did, as with the Athenian navy against the Persians, dominate.

So, while those who rowed were usually of the lowest class of Athenian citizens, they were citizens.

What was also important is that for the phalanx, men provided their own weapons and armor and the state, which was the citizens, provided the ships.

Rome started off similar: legions were full of citizens who served for relatively short periods, and who provided their own arms and armor. As with most of the Greek cities, they returned to their farms or other lives after the wars. They were not professionals: they did not make their living as soldiers, but they were able to beat professionals. Sparta may have been the best for a long period, but they didn’t win every battle, their dominance on land was real, but not determinative. Rome in the early and middle Republican period defeated armies made up of professionals regularly.

The fall of the Republic comes when the army is professionalized: this is now how people make their living, they are provided their weapons and armor, and they are loyal primarily to their generals, because their chance of real wealth is from looting and that depends on the general, including whether and how much he lets them loot.

Crassus, near the end of the Republic, simply raises his own legions without the help of the state.

Rome comes to depend on professionals, not citizens, and those professionals are not loyal to the citizenry, and as such the Roman Republic comes to an end when one of the great generals, Augustus,  defeats all his opponents. The Republic never returns, because the conditions for Republican rule are gone.

As we can see, then, if amateurs can’t defeat professionals and if armies are not raised from the citizenry by the citizenry, Republican or Democratic rule cannot continue.

The great Democracy of the last six centuries or so was Switzerland. Similar to the Greek city states, they relied on pikemen, raised from the general population by the general population and able to defeat professional militaries, including knights who had trained since childhood. Even when operating as mercenaries (as city state citizens sometimes did) they retained their loyalty to Switzerland.

But the heart of it is that they could defeat troops raised in non-free states.

But notice in all these cases: men had the franchise, because they were the ones who could and did fight. Women in Athens were treated particularly badly, indeed they were treated worse than most slaves who didn’t work in mines. Switzerland was one of the last western nations to enfranchise their women.

Let’s talk about that enfranchisement. The main feature of 20th century warfare from the WWI thru Korea was that it was mass conscription warfare. The armies were huge. This meant that women, during war, had to take over jobs done by men who were fighting.

Women thus, while mostly not fighting (WWII Russian women are a rare exception), were absolutely integral to military success. They made much of the weapons and kept society running.

When did women get the vote in the US? 1919.

The US draft ended after Vietnam, and the army was professionalized. Not coincidentally, egalitarian distribution of goods has since then spent over 40 years collapsing. This was due, in part, to the constraints on war in a nuclear armed world. Before nuclear weapons, great powers could win wars against each other and the benefits of doing so were huge as were the costs of losing. (Austria stopped existing, Germany lost a huge amount of its land and became a US Satrapy, as did Japan.)

Going all out, enlisting as many men as possible and increasing war production thru the roof all made sense.

But in Vietnam, the US never went all out, because North Vietnam was a Russian ally. They wanted to win without really winning: without conquering North Vietnam.

You don’t need a mass conscript army for a war where you’re not seriously trying to win and where, indeed, seriously trying to win may provoke a nuclear war. (This also applies to the Ukraine war to some extent.)

It is notable that democracy rises with cheap gunpowder weapons. Mass egalitarian societies, in economic terms, result from WWII, and the policies supporting them come to an end about the time that mass drafts are done away with and armies are “professionalized”, aka, become internal mercenaries.

Worse for the future may be the rise of robotic armies. If you don’t need men for soldiers, if you don’t need mass numbers of women to step in and make the robots, well, perhaps the time of egalitarian societies is done.

Or, perhaps not. Because as important as who fights is who makes the weapons. The great disaster of the war of 1812 is that decentalized American armaments production could not compete with centralized armaments factories. It was the end of the yeoman farmer ideal: the idea that decentralized armies raised from the yeomanry could defeat professional militaries.

But if drones and robots which are effective combatants and effective assassins or area denial weapons can be created by ordinary people easily, and the powers that be are unable to deny people the means of doing so, then robotics may prove to be positive in spreading power among the population.

This is one of the hopes of the future, and you should understand clearly that those who want to restrict your access to the determinants of power do not have your best interests at heart.

We’ll talk about that at a later date: it gets to the heart of much of the culture war around guns, a contentious topic and with good reason, given just how many children are being served up on its altar.

But that is for later, for now: who is good at violence matters and it determines who gets the good life and who doesn’t; who rules and who serves.


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I’m Just Embarrassed For Humanity At This Point

I was thinking today about China giving up on Zero Covid. They were responding to significant public protests. The CCP isn’t democratic by our standards, but they actually care a great deal about public opinion, especially “expressed” public opinion.

What’s embarrassing, however, is the failure to spend the two years Zero-Covid bought fixing infrastructure. We know, at this point, that ventilation, HEPA filtering and UV radiation work. (This is what the rich gave themselves at Davos, so don’t waste anyone’s time arguing.)

There was a time, basically in the Victorian era, where we rebuilt all of the water infrastructure because we had finally got it thru our thick skulls that disease spread thru water. We did it, and it made a huge difference.

I think particularly of China because no other major country even really tried. China had the time, and they have the industrial resources to do what is necessary (also, refit buildings with water traps, those little u-bends you see  under your sink or by your toilet.) They’re the largest manufacturing nation in the world, and they had spare housing workers hanging around.

Clean the air flow in buildings. Even just putting a HEPA filter in a classroom, without any other changes, drops Covid massively.

Now, this is a symptom of a larger problem. We have known about climate change for decades. The science was clear and known to the educated public by the late 70s, before there was a huge push for climate denialism backed by big money. There were some obvious easy solutions that amounted to “change infrastructure to use less energy.” Every building in developed country could have been made to use vastly less energy, and since we had an unemployment crisis combined with an energy crisis, it would have been the obvious right thing to do. Instead we did demand restriction through wage suppression, which had the side-benefit of making the rich a lot richer.

It has remained the right thing to do for decades. AOC’s New Green Deal is just a version of what everyone with sense has known needed to be done. I put out a similar plan first in the early 2000s at BOPNews, but I was nowhere near the first.

This is just embarrassing. We know what’s wrong, we know how to do some of the major steps required to fix it and we don’t do anything. Zero Covid was, on top of that run incompetently (but China gets points for at least trying till they gave up.)

Embarrassing. I’m just embarrassed for our leadership, who are psychopathic morons, even the ones who sometimes try to do the right thing, and I’m embarrassed or humanity, given how human social dynamics lead to such terrible leadership, over and over. Periods with competent leadership are rare, those where the leadership is both competent and non-psychopathic rarer still (in the US, this period in the 20th century arguably only exists for the period where FDR was in charge, and was marred even then by the sad fact that he was racist, particularly against Japanese (ironically because he liked the Chinese.) Truman, despite his good reputation, was a disaster.)

But this is a human problem which has gone on for about eight thousand years, and maybe longer.

The entire shit-show is just embarrassing and pathetic.


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