Sī vīs pācem, parā bellum.
If you want peace, be prepared for war.
War arrived to all of our lives last year, to the shock of many, and most people remain in denial about the reality of this war, the likelihood of it being protracted in time, and expanded in scope, and most of all, of the brute fact that each of us is already a combattant in this war, whether we want to be or not.
In actual reality, the war arrived to us long before the beginning of Russia’s incursions in Ukraine. By my own reading of history, this war is not a new war, but the continuation of the Second World War’s hostilities which were never able to be settled with finality — with a twist. The twist is that that war has been combined with the silicon revolution that inverted human existence, plunging us into the bizarre universe where the abstract and unreal elements of existence drive the concrete elements, rather than merely representing them in one or another perceptive lenses.
Both of these claims require extensive further explanation, especially if you are unfamiliar with the details of the Second World War’s conclusion, the Cold War, the emergence of what is called in military and strategic language “4th Generation Warfare”, and the full extent of the epistemological implications of digitalization.
By the end of this piece, I hope to have illustrated not only that we are in a new Hobbesian state of nature, which is to say, ‘a war of all against all’, but also how we got here, and what we, as individuals at the margin of society, can do to protect ourselves and live lives of joy and abundance with our loved ones in spite of this frightening new state of affairs.
There can be no pretending, and no level of denial can deliver us from the harsh reality we face. But by intentional preparation, we can bring peace around us, even in the context of war.
To begin, you must understand several basic assumptions that underlie my analysis of the situation.
Our planet and its ecosystems are infinitely complex, and the evolution of life is an ongoing component of that complexity taking place within the context of an infinitely complex broader universe that we know even less about.
Consider that Stephen Hawking spent the latter part of his life effectively recanting and attempting to redescribe everything he thought about the universe earlier in his life. I presume that were he to have been given a full additional lifetime, he might need to go through that process several more times.
Anyone who has attempted to provide explanations for complex phenomena will either spend their days coming up with increasingly tortured defenses of old ideas, or else abandon the old ideas each time the defenses can no longer be rationally maintained in good faith. The philosophy Ludwig Wittgenstein experienced a similar radical change in thinking between his seminal Tractatus and his finally unfinished Philosophical Investigations.
As Emerson observes in The Over Soul, “why do men feel that the natural history of man has never been written, but he is always leaving behind what you have said of him, and it becomes old, and books of metaphysics worthless? The philosophy of six thousand years has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul. In its experiments, there has always remained, a residuum it could not resolve. Man is a stream whose source is hidden.
Our being is descending into us from we know not whence. The most exact calculator has no prescience that somewhat incalculable may not balk the very next moment.” My own explanations cannot evade the constraint of complexity any more than those of Hawking, Wittgenstein, or Emerson. Yet in acknowledging complexity as our primary constraint, we may at least dispense with all those who offer simplistic alternative readings of history and dismiss the claims of the conventional wisdom of school textbooks and treatments by The New Yorker or The Atlantic.
Perhaps the worst doctrine of the false religion of rationality in our modern context is the commitment to linearity and the absoluteness of time. Because of complexity, many things are changing all at the same time. We cannot track all of these changes. When we track just one kind of change, we find only a scatter plot, and our statistics demand we draw a line of best fit — which does not require it to be a good one. We then reduce the complexity of this already reduced-complexity data and substitute the artificial line for the messy complex.
Thus we are fooled over and over, expecting the line to continue, as if the past is always a reliable predictor of the future. What we know of biological evolution alone is adequate to refute this nonsense. Everything is always changing. Anything that could once be relied upon for some time may suddenly become unreliable tomorrow — or, as often is the case, has already become unreliable and we have yet to catch on.
This is already the dire state of our epistemology in isolating and tracking one set of data. It worsens by unimaginable degree when recognizing there are an infinite number of data sets we should also be simultaneously be tracking and intercorrelating if we were to be able to accurately predict the future. Given that modern society is built on the assumption that we can predict the future to some degree, and thus prepare ourselves for its specifics, we should not be surprised when, time after time, our policy-makers get everything wrong, from the curve of coronavirus infections to inflation-targeted interest rate management. The pretense of knowledge is wide — and extremely thin.
The hopes of nations when they vote in “change” in general elections are always thwarted (find me a comprehensive counter-example!), and we wonder why no matter how dire some phenomenon appears to be, we cannot quite make the changes we need, even when it is clear that our survival depends on it.
But if you have ever struggled to adopt a new diet or exercise regimen, you should not be surprised that corporate and political leaders cannot adopt protective and restorative ecological policies, reverse the march to war, or reform inhumane judicial & penal practices. Thus we are confronted with the uncomfortable paradox that while everything out of our control is constantly changing in complex ways that we cannot understand, everything within our control remains difficult to change.
This is the pain and difficulty of inertia that binds our wills: that even as our bodies decay and atrophy and our environment changes all around us, it is hard for us, from one day to the next, to do anything other than what we have already done. It is clear that our own psychological and social inertia is part of what blinds us to the change of everything else.
We project our psychological reality onto physical reality — and although the two co-exist, and are part of interdependent systems, they operated by different sets of parameters, and we cannot quite square the circle in our heads.
All organized systems are a temporary triumph over complexity, non-linearity, and inertia, and the joint tendencies of those three phenomena are at odds with each other, pulling in opposite directions. Thus, whatever we think we have figured out is always-already unraveling, tearing at its seams.
Order, and ordered systems, are like holding sand in your hand. You may be able to pick it up and hold it for a moment, but you will not be able to keep it together in the same configuration for very long, and in just a bit more time, it will all slip through your fingers.
The Ancient Egyptian civilization, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Icelandic Parliament are among history’s longest-surviving institutions, but the Ancient Egyptians have now been gone for longer than there has been a Catholic Church, and we witness the Church’s brushes with death over the centuries that all but felled it only to finally death spiral in front of our eyes in recent years.
South American tribes that existed for centuries were eradicated by unexpected disease and invasion by European colonists, just as all life could be suddenly wiped out by the collision of our planet with some unforeseen cosmic object. Our systems can only prepare for what we expect, and even then, their continued integrity is tenuous and requires the coordinated expense of extraordinary energy by many participants.
Thus, we must begin any analysis by assuming that whatever good we have from organized systems may at any time be on the verge of disappearance. The assumption that the food safety standards of the European Union will still be protecting us in 20 years cannot be taken for granted any more than we could take for granted the stability of national borders or the safety of American railroads or brand-new Boeings.