This is Part II of the series World War Me. Part I can be found above.
ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant
(They make a desert, and call it peace.)
II. The Three Centuries’ Years War
At some level, it always seemed arbitrary to me that we distinguished between what historians call the First and Second World Wars. It was clear that the Second was a mere continuation of the First, with a frighteningly brief interlude for regrouping. Perhaps more properly understood, this conflict really began with the French & American Revolutions and there was an uninterrupted state of warfare alternating between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ war from the moment the ancien regime faltered under the weight of modernist philosophy.
The clan-scale tribal order first began to decay in the West shortly before the time of Plato, with the formation of cities like Athens and Rome. The Peloponnesian War was a critical turning point that solidified this development in the Western world, and would more or less characterize its development up until the late 18th Century.
Likewise, the French & American Revolutions signified the next turning point: the breakdown of the nation-scale tribal order. Everything that has happened since then has been part of the same sociological conflict. The inescapable logic of capitalism has put pressure on all restrictions to the free flow of capital from states of the lowest entropy to those with the highest entropy (this is what finance calls “arbitrage”).
The best way to understand this premise is to see that a profit-driven enterprise will seek to reduce costs and increase efficiency of production, while seeking the highest possible price for what it sells. The accumulated profit then, in order to accumulate more profit, is invested in additional productive capability. That, at least, is the way we are accustomed to talking about profit. But there is another way as well: seeing everything in terms of systems that are more or less organized, or rather more ordered, or more chaotic.
Raw forest land is a chaotic system, as are all Natural systems, by human standards. By their own standards they are perfectly ordered, or rather, as evolutionary systems, perfectly order-ing. That is to say, they are always adapting to ever-changing conditions to produce a multitude of outcomes simultaneously. However, by the standards of human economics, these systems are chaotic and disordered, as they are not ‘optimized’ to meet explicitly (and exclusively) human needs.
Human economic systems, operating by different paradigms, seek to bring ‘order’ to this ‘chaos’ by organizing the resources in a way to meet these explicitly human needs. The more ordered a system, the more a profit it will produce (and, at the same time, the stronger the force pulling against the order will become). Capital profits, retained from relatively more ordered systems will tend to flow to relatively less ordered systems, where greater potential profits can be unlocked.
Whether these systems are enterprises themselves, or social systems, the logic operates more or less similarly. Margins from highly ordered systems shrink, and there are diminishing returns on capital for further investment in them. Startups, which are highly chaotic systems, tend to be funded by people who have retained profits from what have become highly ordered systems.
So-called emerging markets are relatively higher-chaos social systems to which capital flows from higher-ordered social systems we call ‘developed’ countries. With this in mind, we can better understand the broader geopolitical conflicts that have gripped the world during these past three centuries.
The removal of barriers to arbitrage have led to the predation of high entropy systems by low entropy systems, until the inclusion of too much new complexity brings about a new, high entropy equilibrium for the predator.
The Napoleonic Wars saw the newly-rationalized, low entropy French absorb, organize, and instrumentalize the best human resources and material capital of Western Europe on a march eastward, both militarily and culturally. The fresh organizing energy catalyzed by the felling of the old, brittle order of Bourbon France was able, under the leadership of Bonaparte, to out-maneuver and out-innovate nearly all of Europe except the British and the Russians, and came rather close, at different moments, to defeating even those.
The unification of Germany, similarly, marked the triumph of the lower-entropy Protestant Prussian culture over the higher-entropy Catholic German states in the South. The subsequent defeat of the French in the Franco-Prussian War illustrates how quickly organized systems can destroy even those who had, one moment before, destroyed their own predecessors. The Prussian-led unified Germany did well not to absorb the low-energy French Republic after defeating it. For such an absorption would have led to the net reduction of its own potency.
Energy is by definition a dynamic force.
By the time we get to the beginning of the First World War, we find the fresh energy of a newly-expansionist America, having defeated the old imperialist force of Spain in the Spanish-American War, waiting ready to join with the old imperialist forces of the British and Russians against a newly-industrialized integrated Germany.
The struggle, in the end, bankrupted all parties, but it bankrupted the Americans least. By the conclusion of this hot phase of the war, the Russian Empire had been brought to ruins and replaced by the Bolshevik Revolutionaries, the Tsar and his family summarily executed and the Romanov line definitively extinguished.
The British Empire was bankrupted and would soon see its colonial territories liquidated one by one — a process that continues until today, and will be completed at some point in the less near future when Ireland reunifies and the Scots finally achieve independence — and Little England stands alone with Littler Wales on a divided island, as it had been for eons before the Acts of Union — which, let us not forget, only occurred quite recently in the 18th Century.
Though temporarily bankrupted financially, the Germans after the Treaty of Versailles retained their industrial capability and its relative advantage over all but the Americans and the newly-industrialized Japanese Empire, the former of which became its chief rival, and the latter its chief ally as all sides began to recover from the first round and prepare themselves for the second.
By the time the Second World War rolled around, the energy released by the Bolshevik Revolution and the ideological fervor of Leninism and Stalinism had replaced the decrepit Russian reality with new dynamism, and the revitalization of German industrial and economic vitality under Hitler quickly generated a threatening circumstance for all parties.
The British were struggling to retain their holdings across the seven seas while the Americans were emboldened by their knock-out victory on a foreign continent. By the time armed hostilities resumed, the Soviet Union had already reabsorbed much of the Russian Empire’s old reaches, and its novel ideological flames were engulfing far away lands without military incursion. The Japanese, too, were ready to flex their new modernist muscles, and of course all this culminated in the bloodiest conflict the world has ever seen.
Countless books have been written about these matters, and my goal here is not to present a comprehensive understanding of the details of these conflicts, but to paint with broad strokes the elements necessary for understanding how we got to where we are today, and the roots of the current world conflict that were seeded over the course of the past century.
When American and Soviet forces arrived simultaneously in Germany, having dismembered Hitler’s forces from both sides, and at extraordinary loss of both capital and human life, there was hardly any will or material capability to continue fighting. The Americans shocked the world by annihilating two Japanese cities with nuclear weapons, and the Soviets had not yet achieved technological parity in this respect.
The long war, and the deep economic costs of that war (contrary to the vapid notion that the Second World War somehow helped the American economy out of the Great Depression) left the Americans ready to move on. Having not experienced such losses of life, except during its own Civil War, they wanted to get back to what they had always been good at: making money. The Soviets needed some semblance of peacetime to implement the full extent of social and economic reforms dictated by their revolutionary ideology, and in order to be able to further absorb lands far and wide via ideology.
Yet the argument between the two systems remained unsettled. The erstwhile allies were always uncomfortable allies. A common enemy and the existential threat it presented had only briefly made them odd bedfellows, and the extermination of that enemy brought into sharp relief the irreconcilability of their differing systems.
The Cold War gave the Russians sufficient time to rebuild their productive and innovative capabilities, though it was of a radically different kind than that of the Americans. Nevertheless, the equalizing nature of nuclear weaponry and the shared mortal fear of its use provided enough reason to pause overt hostilities and pressured both sides into covert forms of warfare: espionage, alliance-building (often euphemistically called ‘international law’), economic/resource warfare, and of course, the supremely-important psychological warfare whose targets were/are the other side’s general population.
The Russians weaponized American academia. The Americans utilized mass media and cultural production to influence the other’s public, as well as their own. Truth and politics have always had an uncomfortable relationship since time immemorial, but their divorce became final during this 70+ year cold phase of The Global War.
The economic and social reforms of the Soviet Union known as “glasnost” and “perestroika” under its latter-day leadership accelerated the conditions for the fall of the regime. Collective farming and other forms of central planning had proved to be unsustainable in the medium-term. That they could be sustained for less time than the capitalist system was mistakenly taken as proof of capitalism’s superiority and long-term sustainability, an orthodoxy only lightly questioned in the roaring 90s aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but now whose time for cross-examination has clearly come.
Just as the defeat of Germany in the First World War and the catastrophe of the interlude of the Weimar Republic were not proof of the long-term triumph of Anglo-American hegemony, but rather a period of German regrouping, so the collapse of the Soviet Union and its replacement by a recidivist Russian Empire under the mafiacracy led by Vladimir Putin ought also to be taken as merely a short period of regrouping.
The American mishandling of every conflict in which it was involved since the end of hostilities in Europe and the partition of Germany left an indelible mark on global opinion.
Korea, Vietnam, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the two Iraq Wars, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, the meddling in Latin American politics — an exhaustive list would perhaps take too many pages to warrant writing — all of these have shown not only the abject evil of American power, but also the ineptitude of it.
Were its technological advantage to be eroded, and its capacity to achieve victory by overwhelming brute force alone compromised, the Americans have little soft power left to uphold it in the world of public opinion.
The Europeans, more effete and ineffectual after nearly a century of ideological pacifism, now find themselves with no reliable allies in an extremely dangerous and hostile world. Were their alliance with the United States not the only thing standing between the status quo and total overwhelm, they too would be publicly nauseated with the American abuse of power. They simply cannot afford to be — except, perhaps, Emmanuel Macron, who seems constitutionally committed to overplaying all of his hands.
Everybody else is abandoning the West one by one, as they see this brute force advantage has been eroded by the technological catch-up of Russia and China alike, not to mention the rapid expansion of the nuclear club in the last 30 years including India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel (unofficially), and soon, Iran. This does not even begin to count the resource deficiency in rare earth minerals and other raw materials that the US must beg from the rest of the world, and with the impending loss of dollar supremacy, will be begging for at exponentially higher prices soon enough.
Technology transfer, motivated by the logic of capitalism (remember: energy always has an incentive to flow from low entropy systems to high entropy systems whenever it can because of incentives for arbitrage), has caused the whole rest of the world to continue its march toward economic parity with the US, and the shifting state of resource requirements of our evolving technology stack have likewise eroded American (and therefore Western) hegemony in what is now fully and truly a multi-polar world.
Moreover, the cultural fragmentation that exists across most developed countries today, has created additional poles inside as well as out. We cannot think only of the US vs China, but the varying ideological forces within the US as against each other, and in varying ways, allied with or at odds with the ideological forces within China. Elements of Russian society are pro-Europe, and elements of Europe are pro-Russia. The American Right is questioning the logic of supporting the Ukrainians with funding and weapons, while the Germans are at odds with other countries in Europe about zero emission cars and the use of nuclear energy.
We see not only a world at war, we see worlds at war with themselves.
Despite round-the-clock news coverage of the ground war in Ukraine, far too little attention is paid to the economic war that has accompanied it. The conventional wisdom is that the Russians did not expect sanctions when they began the incursion. My view is the contrary: not only did they expect the sanctions, the entire purpose of the invasion was to provoke them, intentionally.
My reading of Vladimir Putin’s personal history is that the ex-KGB officer was decidedly opposed to the westernization of Russia and the catastrophic choices of the late Soviet leadership that eventually led to its implosion and constitutional replacement. So long as the Russian economy depended on Western customers for its raw materials (not just petroleum products, but a vast array of agricultural goods & inputs, and other mining resources), it would be impossible to regain cultural independence and true political sovereignty.
From a political standpoint, however, the Russian government could not just unilaterally force a stop to all trade with the West. The backlash would have been immediate and extreme if it had seemed like it was being done voluntarily. However, when framed as the consequence of Western over-reaction (initially), and then reframed, as now, as a necessary part of Russia’s existential survival, sufficient cover could be made to intentionally cut Russia off from the West without overwhelming domestic political repercussions.
Even better if the West were to think they were hurting Russia — it means they would keep playing into Putin’s hand day after day, while thinking they were doing the opposite. If my reading of the situation is correct, this is precisely what has happened. The protracted ground war, the appearance of battlefield losses, the “meat grinder” situation in several frontier cities all add to the false Western narrative that Russia is on the verge of defeat. Instead, I would argue, these are features, not bugs. They represent a Fourth Generation Warfare feint: make it look like you’re attacking over there, when you’re really attacking over here.
Because of the truth of the media maxim “if it bleeds, it leads,” it has been easy for the Western media to jump on inflated Russian casualty counts by Ukranian propagandists without necessarily verifying them, though it is quite plausible that Western media are complicit in the exaggerations as well. After all, as long as the Western public believes Ukraine is winning, they will be happy to keep sending financial and material support. It is unlikely such support would continue the moment the believe became widespread that the whole affair were a lost cause.
Again, it is in the Kremlin’s interests for the ground war to drag on as long as possible. On the military front itself, a larger, richer country always maintains a relative advantage in a war of attrition. Though this essay is not the place for such an analysis, there is a strong case to be made that the ripest historical parallel to the Russia-Ukraine conflict is the US Civil War — the ratios of population, land, and economies between North & South, and Russia & Ukraine, are remarkably near-identical, and the relative strategic advantages between analogical combatants are there too (Ukraine and the South benefitting from greater patriotic enthusiasm, superior military generalship, exterior allies — until eventually those allies abandoned the South, and, I expect, the same fate will befall Ukraine at some point).
But beyond the ground war advantages, the incentive for a drawn out conflict has enormous geostrategic benefits: it provides cover for the ongoing economic war, which is not only Russia’s to wage, but China’s too.
Day after day we read of developments in this war that most Americans and Europeans will not immediately recognize as being downstream of the Ukraine conflict.
At the time of the writing of this piece, for example, Brazil and China have just announced that they will begin settling their $150 billion of annual bilateral trade in Yuan and Reais, bypassing the dollar, and this is just the beginning of the flood. Numerous other such bilateral trade announcements involving Russia and China have come down in the past year, and one ought to expect them to accelerate at an accelerating rate as time goes on. If the Western public can be constantly fooled into believing Putin is sick, or about to be assassinated, or the Russian military routed by courageous Ukrainian defenders, they will not question their governments’ policies.
This not only endangers the survival of Ukraine as an independent country in the medium to long-run, it also dramatically risks the escalation of the war to an all-out shooting match between NATO and Russia.
Furthermore, a key possibility that remains in my view is that at a certain point in the near-ish future, we will witness Chinese military forces being taken by rail across Siberia to reinforce Russian positions in Ukraine and help deliver the final blow to Kyiv and make a Hiroshima-scale statement (in terms of political impact, not the actual use of nuclear weapons) to the West about the new reality in which the world now finds itself. Most people think this unthinkable, that China does not want to risk confrontation with the West for economic reasons, and that its interest is in Taiwan.
What seems not to be considered, however, is that at the current moment, the Taiwan situation is almost exclusively a naval affair, and China’s navy alone could maintain a blockade that would be at least as effective as an invasion, if not more so. The Ukraine conflict is the inverse. In spite of the coastline of the Black Sea offering some naval exposure, Ukraine is mostly a ground war.
Should China want to invade Taiwan, they would at least possibly face heavy casualties in a direct fight with the Americans, and whatever the size of the Chinese army, it lacks one key quality that is ignored by the vast majority of armchair military strategists and journalists: actual fighting experience.
Indeed, other than the Americans, Israelis, and now the Russians & Ukrainians, few militaries in the world have actual, real fighting experience and the unacknowledged secret in most countries is that their militaries really only exist as a latent threat against their own people to prevent internal revolutions.
China could not possibly want its first direct military conflict to be a face-off with the Americans under such conditions. Tires have to be kicked, logistics practiced, and guns fired at real targets. Mere war-gaming will never be an adequate substitute for the exigencies of armed conflict with skin-in-the-game consequences.
Since it does not have a good reason to pick a fight with somebody else, the Ukraine conflict offers its best opportunity to get combat experience and frighten the world with its first example of imperial power projection (something else Western commentators repeat as unquestioned gospel that China has no interest in doing and has shown no desire to do).
We must not forget what else Sun Tzu says: war is the art of deception. Whatever is the truth, make people think the contrary.
Because of the (only very) slightly higher level of public accountability in Western democracy, we have been lulled into expecting various degrees of transparency and truth from our leaders (not that we ever get it, or have ever gotten it, but we still maintain a strange pretense that they should give it to us). The Chinese and Russians have no such constraints. China can talk about peace plans all day while preparing to send a million soldiers to war the next if it wanted.
From a purely Machiavellian standpoint, that is what they ought to do. Expecting anything else is a hazard Western leaders seem too easily willing to risk. Of course our leaders may expect many of the things I am arguing, and they simply do not want to admit any of it to the public. It is unclear if this is an encouraging or discouraging prospect, but anyway, it is worth noting that we are living under the fog of war and cannot expect that anybody is telling the truth, ever.
To connect this history to our next relevant topic of analysis, it is important to observe that assuming my observations about Russian strategy are accurate, over and against the conventional wisdom, it means that Putin is running a gambit, based on the bet that at the end of the day, atoms triumph over bits. It is, in a sense, the lesson he learned from the Soviet Union. Ideology is a sort of bit-over-atom phenomenon. He saw the limitations of bits, the limitations of information alone. He saw that at the end, what mattered was the triumph of material reality, and he saw that the West had built a better material reality.
The Western system is, today, predicated on the inverse assumption. For the past 50 years, that inverted assumption has been building in the West. Our materialism has been supplanted by a prioritization of information.
Computation/digitalization, marketization, financialization, were able to bring order to many disordered systems at neck-breaking speed with material advantages resulting. The global resource economy was brought to heel by this process, and virtually every sector was eventually forced to submit to its mandates.
But the forces moving back against it have already begun to rear their heads, and the pandemic led to a variety of threats to digital hegemony, not least the distrust that was sown in large swathes of the Western public, as well as the extreme concentration of economic and political power that accelerated rapidly during it.
The rise of various post-materialist, neo-leftist ideologies, the vacuous vice-signalling of the Trumpist counter-party (the “anti-woke”, “post-truth” agendas), and the empty, substance-free technocratic rhetoric of the European Union all represent, in their own ways, the Sovietization of Western culture. We are now playing from their old playbook, and they from ours.
Beyond the surface-level changes effected by digitalization, there have been darker, more opaque consequences as well — what I call the inversion of the concrete and abstract worlds. Whether Putin’s gambit pays off, and whether atoms will ultimately triumph again over bits remains to be seen.
But we must, nevertheless understand what has happened in order to position ourselves as individuals at the margin of society to live and thrive in the world in which we live, create small-scale systems that provide security to our loved ones, and secure tiny corners of territory through which the future of free peoples can be maintained through the dark age that has descended upon us.