Why modern science sucks

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

Hanlon’s Razor

Those looking for an explanation for the absurdly dysfunctional state of modern western society usually turn to one of two explanations. Either the problems are caused by individual leaders and their failings e.g. a senile Biden, a narcissistic Trudeau or a clownish Boris Johnson, or they are the deliberate attempt on the part of some group of masterminds to bring about a new world order; in other words, a conspiracy theory.

Part of the reason why these explanations are preferred is because they allow the possibility of redress. You can vote out an idiot leader and get a better one. And a conspiracy theory can be unearthed and held to justice.

The large-scale conspiracy theory is also quite flattering to the human ego. It implies a team of evil super geniuses who are so intelligent they that they are able to pull the strings of all nation states simultaneously turning the leaders of countries into puppets while hiding their nefarious intent from the general public. It’s pleasing to think that we are capable of that level of intelligence and competence. It’s also a comforting thought because the bad guys can be brought to justice. All we have to do is uncover their dastardly plot and bring them before the courts. The German lawyer, Reiner Füllmich, has been playing on this idea right from the start of corona with promises of convictions against those who pushed the “public health” measures. Unless I missed the news, none of his attempts have succeeded.

In this post we’ll sketch out an alternative explanation which is that the system itself is the problem. When the system is the problem it becomes really hard, maybe even impossible, for individuals to make a difference. I have seen such a dynamic with my own eyes in the form of dysfunctional organisations where new management was brought in to fix things. These were intelligent people who knew what was wrong and had a plan to make it right. But organisations are systems and systems have their own dynamic that is independent of any of the individuals involved. A system also has an external context that affects it. An organisation in a dying industry cannot be saved no matter how smart the people who are trying to save it. For these reasons and others, the system-based explanation is less gratifying and therefore less popular. But that doesn’t make it less truthful.

We’ll use the example of modern science to explore this concept because the question of whether science is corrupt or incompetent has become quite urgent in the last two years as we have watched the corona debacle unfold.

There are at least two underlying assumptions in our general culture when it comes to science. Firstly is the idea that anybody can do science as long as they have access to education. We can represent this graphically as follows:

That is, everybody has the same amount of innate ability to do science and the only thing preventing them from realising that ability is a proper education.

The second assumption is that all science problems are equally solvable which we can represent as follows:

Another way of saying this is that all science problems are equally complex. If you assign equal resources (time, money, people) you will get equal results.

Let’s look at a different model for both of these using the “Zipf curve” which has been shown to hold across numerous domains. Note that the Zipf curve matches the Marginal Benefit curve used in economics to capture the concept of diminishing returns.

What this graph aims to capture is the idea that the more people you train in “science” the less quality of scientist you get. This can be for reasons of nature or nurture (or a combination of both). The innate talents required to become a high quality scientist are not shared equally in the population and we would expect something like a Zipf curve to represent the distribution of those talents in the same way that not everybody has the collection of talents required to become a professional athlete.

When it comes to intellectual matters, you might argue that we could make up the difference in talent through education. But even if that were true, it would be more costly to educate the less talented people as they will need more time to develop their skills and knowledge. Once again you would run into a Zipf curve where the Marginal Benefit from education falls because the Marginal Cost rises. If we further assume that the talent pool of science educators is also a Zipf curve, then the quality of education would fall the more people get educated because there aren’t enough good teachers to teach them. Either way, you still end up with a curve of diminishing returns.

But what happens if the domain of “science problems” is also a Zipf curve? This would look as follows.

What this curve describes is the “low hanging fruit” dynamic. The problem domain of science is not equally distributed. There are a set of problems which are more simple and therefore more easily solved while the majority of problems are more complex.

If we combine these two concepts we get a story about the evolution of science. In a time of resource constraint such as in the 1800s, only the most talented people become scientists (assuming a relatively merit-based system of resource allocation). Those scientists will be working on the relatively simple problems in the field and therefore they produce the most valuable results. Everybody gets excited by the results and as wealth accumulates we throw more resources into the field expecting even more impressive results.

The extra resources would produce more results if the curves for ability and simplicity were flat. But they are not. They are Zipf curves. What happens, therefore, is that less capable scientists are put to work on more complex problems i.e. the intersection of the two diminishing Marginal Benefit curves. We spend more money to get fewer, less valuable results. But even though the Marginal Benefit falls, the overall cost-benefit equation might still be positive.

The problem of diminishing returns is exacerbated by a third consideration. More resources means more people are working on “science” and adding more people reduces the quality of communication. The following diagram is often used to summarise this problem.

Communication becomes more difficult as the number of people involved increases even if the quality of the information remains static. But if less talented people are working on more complex problems, we would expect the information quality to degrade leading to a situation where there is more communication of lower quality information. In short, the signal-to-noise ratio goes to hell.

You can see this dynamic even in small groups. Take a musical band, for example. If there are five people in the band, it only takes one person to be “out” for the whole band to be “out”. Similarly, on a small engineering team if one person doesn’t understand, this effects the overall communication flow because erroneous messaging is introduced and more time needs to be spent correcting the errors. If the person is a line level worker, it’s usually possible to work around them and try and exclude them from communication. But I have been on teams where the person who didn’t understand was the senior manager on the team. It’s a lot harder to move a senior manager out of the way so that things can get done.

A key thing to bear in mind is that a low signal-to-noise ratio won’t appear to be obviously “wrong”. This is true both for the people on the inside doing the work and also to external participants. Noisy communication is worse than the case where communication is “wrong”. Wrong communication is almost as useful as right communication. If you know somebody is always wrong, you just invert whatever they say and now you have truth. You can’t do that with noisy communication. Noisy communication is ambivalent, unclear and confusing. Again, the musical group example is a useful here. A somewhat incompetent band doesn’t sound “wrong” but rather “blah” or “meh”. You shrug your shoulders and say something like “it’s not bad but it’s not good either”. This is in contrast to a band like Nickelback who are technically proficient musicians that happen to make bad music.

When the signal-to-noise ratio is low, it becomes far more difficult to show that something is wrong because there are no clear and obvious errors. There is no smoking gun that will set the record straight and restore order. Rather, there is an accumulation of numerous small errors which are much harder and more time consuming to identify and correct. In a small group such as a band, it’s possible to find the weak link (usually the drummer) and get rid of them. In larger groups it becomes far more difficult and in really large organisations like corporations and government departments it’s as good as impossible.

It’s important to understand that this dynamic of noise accumulation occurs before politics, commercial money and the enormous egos of billionaires and celebrities gets involved to make things even more confusing. Corona provides a useful case study. There was never any reason to believe that the mRNA vaccines would work to end a pandemic. The science had not proven the matter one way or another. To put it in terms we have been using, the science had a low signal-to-noise ratio. This meant it was possible to believe that the vaccines “might” work. After all, anything “might” happen. Once upon a time, science was about “laws” and was founded upon hard-nosed cause and effect relationships that had been empirically proven. That’s the kind of science you see at the “simple” end of the Zipf curve. But as complexity increases, the clarity of understanding diminishes and you no longer have “laws” but “guidelines”.

Once the vaccine question became political, the political imperatives took over and politicians had to gloss over the inherent ambiguity in the science. Thus, we were assured the vaccines were “safe and effective”. Meanwhile, corporations which exist to maximise shareholder value were happy to sell a product when governments indemnified them against legal liability.

It’s not a coincidence that the corona event took place in the domain of viral disease as this is arguably one of the more complex scientific domains. I would place it somewhere about here on the graph. In other words, highly complex.

Note that viral disease as an object of study also has a built-in communication problem because it runs over three separate scientific disciplines: virology, epidemiology and medicine and that’s before you consider the mathematical epidemiologists, the immunologists and other sub-sub-disciplines. Viral disease is firmly in the category of study that the systems thinkers of the 20th century posited was not amenable to reductionist science which means it cannot be simplified to the point where calculation can be done. The best we can do is assemble cross-disciplinary teams to undertake research aimed at obtaining general principles of action. Those general principles were exactly what constituted the public health guidelines that were the accepted wisdom of how to deal with a pandemic prior to March 2020.

The post war period has seen huge amounts of resources pumped into science and yet we have ended up with the “reproducibility crisis”. The reproducibility crisis is just another word for the noise generated by the intersection of multiple diminishing returns. No amount of extra education and training and money will solve the problem. The result is not error but noise and when the noise gets raised to a high enough degree you have a situation where anybody can read into it whatever they like. At that point, science becomes a giant Rorschach Test.

The problem of a low signal-to-noise ratio is not limited to science. Most things in the modern world suffer from it. Everything is “blah” and “meh”. It’s the paradox of success. We have huge resources to apply to problems and we invest those resources into new ventures.  It works for a little while but the law of diminishing returns means that everything quickly turns to mud and the quality of everything falls sharply. This is true in the consumer economy, in the political sphere, in the media, in the arts and in science and technology. Rather than accept this as a fact of life, we pump more resources in until the returns turn negative and that leads to inflation and the debasement not just of the currency but of political, social and cultural capital. We’re pretty far into that dynamic right now and it’ll probably get worse before it gets better.

It’s partly for this reason that societies and cultures seem to peak when strict resource limits are in place. Without limits, the signal-to-noise ratio falls and everything becomes saturated and over-exposed. The noise floor steadily rises until and only those who can shout the loudest get heard. To quote the New Zealand Prime Minister during corona, “we (the government) will be your single source of truth.” The words that usher in the age Caesarism.

Your attention, please

Here’s a strange fact: I can remember every flu I’ve had in my adult life (where “flu” means I was in bed with a fever).

Partly, this is because I can count the number of flus I’ve had on one hand and partly it’s because I’ve always found fever dreams to be interesting. Who needs LSD when you can catch a flu and hallucinate for free? In one particularly memorable flu I had, I remember visualising geometrical shapes for hours and hours. It was like my own personal Pink Floyd lightshow. But it went on so long that it got annoying and I wished I could make it stop. Some years later, I learned how to make fever dreams stop. I’ll tell the story of that shortly.

Down here in Australia, we have been slowly catching up to the rest of the world in covid infections after our initial covid-zero “victory”. I’d say about half of my acquaintances have now had the virus. I know this because everybody who gets the virus loves to tell others about it. Last week an acquaintance of mine was relating their experience. They were explaining how unusual covid was because they had been hallucinating geometric shapes while in bed with a fever, something that had never happened to them before. Based on this fact, they concluded that the sars-cov-2 virus must really have been manufactured in a lab in Wuhan because it “felt unnatural”.

The story resonated with me because their experience of hallucinating geometric shapes sounded identical to the flu I’d had many years ago. Their conclusion about the origins of the virus was also invalid. Specifically, it is based on an error of reasoning sometimes called attentional bias where a person gives undue weight to something just because they are paying attention to it. Learning how to direct your attention is an important skill, especially in the modern world where literally all the institutions in society are fighting to get your attention. It was through directed attention that I was able to make my own fever dreams stop when I had a flu a few years ago.

At the time, I had been working through the exercises in the book “Concentration” by Mouni Sadhu. Sadhu, whose real name was Mieczyslaw Demetriusz Sudowski, was born in Poland, spent WW2 as a prisoner of war and afterwards travelled to India where he undertook Vedanta study in an ashram. He later migrated to Australia where he lived in my home town of Melbourne working a day job as an engineer while practising esoteric spirituality on the side; surely a lonely practice among the rampant bourgeois materialism of the post war years in Australia.

The book “Concentration” is about achieving mastery of your mind. It’s light on theory and heavy on practical work. The core exercise of the book is extremely simple. You take out a pin and hold it in front of your face at a comfortable distance. You must focus your sight on the head of the pin, seeing it as clearly as possible. That’s the easy part. The hard part is that you cannot allow a single other thought to enter your mind while you are staring at the pin. If ones does, you must restart the exercise. You go through this process trying to focus on the pin without interruption from other thoughts. First you aim for 15 seconds of uninterrupted concentration, then 30 seconds, then one minute and then two minutes.

Two minutes doesn’t sound like much but it takes months of daily practice to get there. In the process you learn about the contents of your mind and specifically that you have a whole stream of noise running through it. Some of the noise comes from external sources like television, radio, internet and some from internal sources. Maybe you were listening to a catchy pop song in the morning. The melody will suddenly pop into your head while you’re staring at the pin and you have to start the exercise again. Maybe you’ll start thinking about what you need to buy at the supermarket later or that thing you have planned on the weekend. You have to start again.  Getting to two minutes of uninterrupted concentration is a significant achievement.

I had just reached that goal and had moved on to the next exercise in the book when I came down with the flu. As I was lying in bed with a fever, the usual fever dreams began. I had the idea of trying to apply the concentration method I had learned to make the fever dream go away. I set out to deliberately change the focus of my concentration away from the fever dreams and onto an empty black space. Voila! It worked first time. I was able to turn my mind away from the fever dreams just like I had learned to turn my mind away from random thoughts and focus on the pin. As soon as my concentration slipped, the fever dreams returned.

The ability to do this is of philosophical relevance. The Epicurean philosopher, Lucretius, made the argument a couple of millennia ago that the fact that disease affected the mind was evidence that the mind would expire at death just like the body.

“Since the mind is thus invaded by the contagion of disease, you must acknowledge that it is destructible.”

Lucretius assumed that fever dreams are inevitable. There’s nothing to be done about them except wait until they pass much like the physical disease itself. But if you can control fever dreams and stop your mind being “invaded” by them, then his argument falls apart. This doesn’t prove that the mind exists after death, but it does show that there is a “substance” outside of the mind that can govern the focus of the mind and force it to concentrate on a pin or not concentrate on fever dreams. This substance is the Will.

In the 1800s, exercises that developed the will became very popular in Europe following the publication of Schopenhauer’s “World as Will and Representation”. Many of these exercises involved the deliberate use of the senses. For example, you might set out to notice everything that is coloured red in your neighbourhood. You might go for a walk and deliberately try to smell all the different smells that are present. You might sit down and try to hear every sound including things far off in the distance. These exercises are very similar to Mouni Sadhu’s pin concentration exercise and part of the reason why Europeans became interested in the Veda and other eastern philosophies is precisely because they realised that those philosophies had already discovered the will, something that was new to Europe (Schopenhauer was also influenced by the Eastern philosophies).

Note that the ability to concentrate is implied in the scientific method. This was given the name “will to knowledge” in the 1800s because you were using your will in order to learn something. Western science has been primarily concerned with learning something about the material world while Eastern science (like the Veda) was far more concerned with learning something about the spiritual. This all ties in with a longstanding bias against the material world which also exists in the western tradition (Plato especially). The reason philosophers and sages didn’t turn their attention to the material world wasn’t because they couldn’t but because the material world was considered the “lowest” sphere of existence and you wouldn’t waste your time on it.

The upshot of all these will and attention exercises is that you learn to be highly sceptical of things you have not paid active attention to. As you have not paid active attention to most things in the world, you learn to become sceptical of pretty much everything. This is the basis of true science and is captured in Feynman’s first rule of science: thou shalt not fool thyself. The easiest way to fool yourself is to unquestioningly believe something you have not paid active attention to.

This brings us back to my acquaintance and his covid fever dreams. Most people have never actively paid attention to colds and flus because colds and flu are an everyday part of life and we are taught from a young age not to worry about them i.e. not to pay attention to them. You go to bed for a few days and then get on with your life. In modern times, you might not even go to bed. You’ll pop some pills to keep you going and plow through the illness. Prior to 2020, nobody cared about your respiratory infection and if you tried to tell them about it they wouldn’t have wanted to know.

What happens when we create a new name for a respiratory infection and then overturn all the existing rules of society over it? One of the things that happens is that everybody starts paying attention. Those who have done will/attention exercises know what’s that like. You go out and decide to look for everything red in your neighbourhood. Suddenly, red things seem to be everywhere and you’re amazed by all the red things you never noticed before. It feels “new”. But the red things were always there. The only thing that changed was your mental state. So it is with covid.

Of course, the whole point of the giant propaganda machine we have created in the modern world is to direct your attention. When you set out to direct your own attention, such as by staring at a pin, you realise how many of the random thoughts running through your mind are somebody else’s thoughts and that it was somebody else’s will which put them there.

The self-improvement ethic (which later became known by the less useful name of self-help) of the 1800s did have this going for it: it was about learning to direct your own attention and use your own will. Most people at that time were trying to break through the propaganda of the Church but our modern propaganda machine is far more pervasive than the Church could ever have dreamed. Now more than ever, winning back control of your attention and your will is a valuable thing to do.

Confucius, Kautilya and Voltaire

Sometimes in this globalised world interesting connections occur. When I was in early high school, the ABC (Australian public broadcaster) ran a BBC-produced version of a Japanese TV series called “Monkey Magic”. The English overdubbed version was very popular in Australia, New Zealand and the UK at the time and the show was also popular in Japan where the lead actors became household names. For those who haven’t seen it, you can have a look at some episodes here – https://archive.org/details/monkeymagic1.

The soundtrack for Monkey Magic was done by Japanese rock band, Godiego, and the closing credits featured their song “Gandhara”. As I used to religiously watch the show, this is one of those songs that I still know by heart. As a 12 year old, I had no idea what Gandhara referred to. Nor did I know anything about the larger context for the story itself. And that’s the way it stayed until about fifteen years later when I landed a job that involved travel to China.

China is a big country, so it’s a coincidence that the city I happened to travel to for work was the old capital Xi’an. On one of my weekends off, I did the usual touristy things and high on the list of tourist attractions in Xi’an is the “Big Wild Goose Pagoda”. It was there that I found an exhibit telling the story of the Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, who left Xi’an in around 629 AD to travel to India to bring back scriptures. I immediately recognised that this was the same story as Monkey Magic and after some investigation I learned that the Japanese TV show was based on the classic book of Chinese literature, “Journey to the West”, which was a work of fiction written in the 16th century. Journey to the West in turn was based on the travels of the famous monk a millennia earlier. So, there I was standing literally in the place where the Journey to the West started. I saw that the destination for Xuanzang in India was Gandhara. Hence the name of the song from the TV show. Gandhara was a region bordering the Indus river which was famous for its sages and monasteries. The area once called Gandhara is in modern day north-west Pakistan and across the border into Afghanistan.

So that was cool. I finally learned what Gandhara was all about and remarked how strange it was that a boy from Australia who used to watch a Japanese TV show would end up travelling to the exact place that the Journey to the West depicted in the show started. But just to make things even stranger, I realised I had several months earlier travelled to the other end of Xuanzang’s journey. About six months before my trip to Xi’an, I was invited to a wedding in the north of India on the exact route that Xuanzang must have gone through. The wedding itself was held only a few hundred kilometres from the former Gandhara. That was the first connection to Gandhara. I recently realised there was another.

As my trip to India came to an end, I found myself in New Delhi airport with some left over rupees to spend and several hours to kill waiting for the flight. Fortunately, there was a fantastic bookstore at the airport with an extensive selection in English and, after perusing the shelves for a couple of hours, I decided to buy some Indian works which I knew nothing about but which I figured I would not be easily able to find elsewhere. One of those books was The Arthashastra.

The word artha means “wealth” in Sanskrit while shastra means, among other things, “treatise”. So, The Arthashastra is a work of political economy quite similar to The Wealth of Nations but written almost two thousand years earlier in the 2nd century BCE. The beauty of such books is they reveal the timelessness of certain questions. Taxation naturally figures heavily. So does the world’s oldest profession. As was usual for most of history, prostitution was not just regulated by the state but managed through the state. What’s more, prostitution was a skilled profession where the women were required to know how to play music, dance and make conversation with their clients. Meanwhile, the madams of the higher end establishments held positions of significant power (yep, the Ghislaine Maxwells and Jeffrey Epsteins of this world are nothing new).

Recently, I pulled The Arthashastra off the bookshelf to check something and decided to look up the author, Kautilya, who I realised I didn’t know anything about. While reading up on him, I learned that he was born – guess where? – Gandhara. It’s quite possible that the Chinese monk, Xuanzang, came across The Arthashastra on his pilgrimage to Gandhara some 8 centuries after Kautilya died. Maybe he even took a copy back to China with him.

Kautilya was a teacher in Gandhara when Alexander the Great invaded the area. Just like Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander, Kautilya was a tutor and advisor to the emperor, Chandragupta, in India at the time and The Arthashastra is a textbook of statecraft which presumably formed the basis of his teachings. Thus, Kautilya was a philosopher-sage in the same category as Aristotle and also Confucius, who advised the great rulers of China a few centuries earlier.

These days you can find out about all this with just a couple of clicks on a computer. But for most of western history, Europeans were completely ignorant of the history of China and India. It wasn’t until the late 18th and 19th centuries that intellectuals in the West first started hearing about the great works of Indian and Chinese culture mostly via translations done by missionaries. It must be said that a lot of the western intellectuals at the time seem to have been attracted to such texts by their inherent dissatisfaction with institutionalised Christianity and the feudal system in general. They were looking for ideas to change the status quo in Europe and one of the main things that caught their eye was the teachings of Confucius. In particular, the Confucian bureaucracy, which used entrance exams to decide who to hire and was therefore a meritocracy, appealed to thinkers such as Voltaire who despised the hereditary, nepotistic nobles of the European courts.

The desire to break the power and corruption of an established nobility is another of those perennial topics of politics. Confucius faced the same problem way back in 500 BCE. However, the idea of entrance exams for public servants was older than Confucius and was only made the norm in China several centuries after Confucius’ death. Furthermore, the entrance exam as we know it in modern society has a lot more to do with a school of thought which was opposed to Confucianism known as the “legalist” system.

Confucius believed that society should not be governed through law and rules but through virtue. He stated that if the king and the aristocracy behaved correctly and upheld the shared morals of society then the public would be governed by their conscience which was a deeper and more binding mechanism than just following the laws. The irony is that Confucius’ philosophy had a lot more in common with the feudalism that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire were trying to get rid of because feudalism is based more on virtue than on rules. Voltaire also believed in virtue. His main problem was with the corrupt court officials (including Church officials) of his time. He thought that virtue could be better attained through education and reason and that a meritocratic public service would ensure that the best and brightest were elevated into positions of power.

The early bureaucracies of the 1800s in western nations were similar to the Confucian model in emphasising not just academic learning but also character assessment. In practice, this fell out naturally because the higher education institutions of the day also taught non-academic traits such as etiquette and manners. Everybody who graduated university was expected to have an understanding of the classics and through them morality. In this way the public service should be populated by not just the academically gifted but the morally upstanding. This meritocratic notion of free access to education and by extension the public service contradicts the noble ethic of “high birth” which is another perennial of political history and which is present in The Arthashastra where it is stated that if you have two people of equivalent academic capability, the one of high birth is to be preferred as the public is more likely to follow them. The idea of high birth was also prominent in European culture prior to the wars and was a remnant from feudal times.

Interestingly, one of the arguments the legalists in ancient China used to justify their system was that a bureaucracy founded on rules would enhance the power of the king because turning bureaucrats into nothing more than pen pushers and paper shufflers would make them more easily manageable. Legalists noted that an established bureaucracy always becomes an impediment to the power of the King because, just like modern bureaucracies, it comes to serve its own interests ahead of the state or citizens. The problem is exacerbated to the extent that the bureaucrats commanded moral authority. Thus, an intelligent king should implement a rule-based order to reduce the power of the bureaucracy.

I have mentioned James C. Scott’s work “Seeing like a State” multiple times in this blog. His notion of “legibility” is the one pursued by the legalists in ancient China. A State that seeks centralised power prefers rules over virtue. Legalism (or legibility) increases the power of the state while virtue-based systems such as Confucius’ reduce it (at least in the short term). The Arthashastra provides an interesting counterpoint to this because the Indian society at that time was ordered according to the Vedic philosophy. Thus, even the king was expected to prostrate himself before the Brahmins, the highest caste and guardians of the Veda. State power was subordinated to virtue.

It’s notable that Mao Zedong explicitly tried to weed out the remaining Confucian ideals from Chinese culture and replace them with a legalist framework when he was in power. It’s also noteworthy that Maoist China has a special chapter in Scott’s book because millions of people died of starvation under that regime. These two things are not unrelated. A rule-based bureaucracy eventually loses all contact with reality.

We have seen this development in our own societies in the last two years and yet we are in a predicament in modern society which is at least different in terms of scale from anything the ancients dealt with. The element that was missing in the ancient world was modern technology. The machine-obsession of the West is a natural fit with the legalist framework and tilts society in that direction by default. Combined with modern capitalism where the average business manager is not expected to be a paragon of virtue but simply to maximise shareholder value and post-war education where any “moral” or “character-based” pretentions are explicitly rejected, we see a social system almost entirely predicated on rules to the exclusion of virtue. This is pretty much the opposite of what Confucius and Voltaire had in mind. As we watch the latest round of lockdowns in China, where it is reported that over 100 million people are imprisoned in the latest series of “public health measures”, we see the victory of the legalist philosophy taken to horrific heights when combined with modern technology.

Meanwhile, the bureaucracy in the modern west, what we might also call the deep state, has ended up becoming exactly the kind of weight around the neck of the executive branch that the legalists in ancient China were trying to avoid. This was especially obvious during the Trump presidency where the deep state was actively subverting the power of the president. The rules-based order was supposed to solve that by making bureaucrats replaceable so it’s noteworthy that the modern deep state enacts its power through virtue-signalling. But virtue-signalling is the exact opposite of the Confucian ideal. Confucius said that the leaders, including the public service, should not preach morality but uphold morality. If they did so, the public would notice and they would follow of their own accord. In other words, leading by example. The modern aristocracy preaches one thing and does the opposite. Virtue-signalling is nothing more than a power play. Thus, in the modern West we have combined the worst aspects of the rule-based system with the worst of the virtue-based system; an impressive achievement.

Over the last decade or so, whenever somebody in the West wanted to try and claim that “progress” was still happening they would point to China and say “look how many people have been lifted out of poverty in China”. I doubt anybody will point to China as a symbol of progress any more, but the larger question of poverty also comes up in the ancient texts such as The Arthashastra. In that time (and still today in parts of India and China) there were entire categories of people deliberately living in poverty, mostly different grades of religious ascetics. The religious ascetics were leading by example and practising what they preached. They were following Dharma, which can be translated as virtue. The Arthashastra notes that the king’s job is to create the conditions where his people follow Dharma. To do otherwise is to invite the destruction of the state.

Confucius had said much the same thing several centuries earlier. He noted that given a choice between defunding the military, failing to provide food or allowing the state to come into disrepute (not following Dharma), the ruler should choose the first two before the third because without the moral acceptance of the state by the public, the state is finished.

If this is true, it does not portend well for the modern West. We follow an extreme version of the legalist framework while practicing the opposite of virtue. Most of the leaders of our society have no claim at all to virtue. They do not lead by upholding Dharma but simply because they acquired positions of power. Meanwhile, we “trust the experts” not because they are virtuous but because they are supposed to know the rules (of the universe). But experts who know rules are just part of the legalist framework and do nothing more than gain legibility for more centralised control. All of this is just will to power i.e. the desire of the state to increase legibility in order to intervene in society to pursue its own ends. The lockdowns are the ultimate example of that and perhaps the ultimate example of what happens when a legalist framework takes over to the exclusion of virtue.

It would be interesting to know what Voltaire would have made of it. I suspect he would have been horrified. Nevertheless, the modern cheerleaders of “Enlightenment values” have been among the most enthusiastic supporters of what has happened in the last two years and also happy to praise modern China’s rise too. The assumption of Voltaire and others like him was that virtue could be derived from rational thinking and therefore if you improved the rationality of society you would get “more” virtue into the bargain. We can see the practical results for ourselves in the modern world. We got rid of religion (the traditional foundation of virtue/Dharma) and what happened was the state became all powerful. As the state only cares about power, all society gets tilted in that direction.

With corona, the state has breached the very thing that Confucius warned against: it has allowed itself to come into disrepute. Confucius believed people could be governed entirely by virtue. I doubt that’s true. But if the state is going to govern by law only then it must uphold the law at all costs. Once the state starts acting outside the law, it has brought even the law into disrepute and people will only follow the law to the extent that it suits them, exactly the thing Confucius warned about. Everything is then reduced to a power game meaning government will need to continue to exercise raw power outside the law to get anything done. It’s a slippery slope and I think most western governments in the last two years have started the long slide down the slope. In the years ahead, we can expect more and more laws to get broken as the state tries to hold things together.

Of course, all this ties in with Spengler and the theory of historical cycles. The ancient Indian culture already had a sophisticated theory of cycles within the Vedic tradition as did the Chinese with Taoism. The Arthashastra was written at a time when India was very similar to the feudal era of Europe. There were many small kingdoms and society was held together far more by informal relations than laws. In Spenglerian terms, it was a time of culture. But culture gives way to civilisation and rule by law rather than virtue. Eventually the rule of law breaks down when the government itself starts breaking the law and you return back to a virtue-based system. That looks to be exactly where we are in the cycle.

The Aquarians

For something a little different this week I thought I’d post a short story I wrote a while ago. With current world events, it’s no longer as improbable as it was when I wrote it. A romantic comedy set during the decline of industrial civilisation, the story is a little longer than the usual post. It’ll take about half an hour to read.


The Aquarians

Pete bought the engagement ring on his lunch break at a pawn shop next to the payday loan company a couple of streets over from the factory where he worked. He’d avoided the loan business successfully during the last six months, though there were times when its dirty neon lights tempted him inside with the promise of easy money. But he’d blocked out that siren song and managed to pay for the ring in cash that he’d saved up from some overtime he worked shortly after getting the job. There hadn’t been any overtime recently, though. There hadn’t been any work at all and at three o’clock he was called into the manager’s office and fired.

A range of emotions flooded through his body, primarily anger. It wasn’t just that they’d fired him, he’d been fired plenty of times. But they knew he was buying the engagement ring that day. Everybody at work knew. Keeping secrets was not Pete’s strong point, especially when it came to Suzy. He talked about her all the time. In the middle of a conversation about a completely different topic, he’d find a way to throw in a story about her or remark what Suzy thought about the issue. It was charming for a while and then became mildly annoying. But Pete was so earnest in his effervescence that you couldn’t help forgive him, especially after you’d seen a photograph of Suzy which he was all too willing to remove from his wallet and hold up for you to see. She was a year younger than Pete, twenty-one years old with chocolate brown hair that fell down in natural curls on either side of the flawless milky white skin of her face that seemed to set her green eyes sparkling and gave her red lips a vibrant hue. Most would joke that Pete was punching above his weight but he was a handsome young man too with a wiry, athletic physique and an outgoing personality that made it easy for him to make friends. He was an open book which made the job of letting him go that much harder for his boss, Mr Harmison, who in fairness didn’t know about the engagement ring and wouldn’t have remembered even if Pete had told him. He had bigger problems, like how to keep his business afloat. Although Pete was a good worker, he was the newest hire and therefore the one with the least experience. Harmison apologised, promised to give him a good reference and handed Pete his last pay packet.

“A good reference,” Pete muttered to himself as he walked back to the apartment where he and Suzy lived which was about fifteen minutes away by foot. Pete might have been naïve, but he wasn’t dumb. He’d seen the writing on the wall and had been checking the positions vacant in the preceding weeks. There weren’t any. And a good reference wasn’t much use if there were no jobs to apply for. He opened the envelope containing his last pay and looked at the half week’s wages inside. After the purchase of the engagement ring, the contents of the envelope constituted all the money he had in the world. For a brief moment he entertained the idea of walking back to the shop and pawning the ring. He imagined the sarcastic smile on the face of the cashier – “That was quick. She turn you down, mate?” He pictured having to haggle just to get half his money back. The thought made him sick and yet the electricity bill was sitting on the fridge at the apartment and the rent was due next week. He thought of having to tell Suzy that he’d lost another job; that it really wasn’t his fault; he’d worked hard and did all that was expected of him and more. That’s what he’d told her last time and the time before that. He knew the look he would see in her eyes. It wasn’t anger and it wasn’t disappointment. It was worse. It was pity. That was the one thing he couldn’t bear.

As he turned the corner into the street where they lived, Pete paused, reached his hand into his pocket and pulled out the case which held the ring. He flicked it open and held the ring up. The tiny diamond sparkled in the mid-afternoon sun. As often happened to Pete, an idea lodged itself in his head and wouldn’t budge. It was a bold, audacious and ridiculous idea. He knew it. And yet he felt in his stomach that it was the right idea. He would ask Suzy to marry him that evening. He already had it mapped out – the time, the place, the setting. But rather than it do it in two weeks like he planned, he would do it tonight. He flicked shut the case holding the ring and practically ran the remaining distance to the apartment to make the preparations.

When Suzy came home from work a couple of hours later she was greeted by the sight of Pete in a suit and tie, clean shaven and with his blonde-brown hair slicked back. She looked tired and, although the sight of Pete brought a flicker of happiness to her face, it was quickly snuffed out by a look of world-weariness.

“What’s all this?” she said putting her bag and keys down on the kitchen bench and nodding towards Pete’s suit.

“I’m taking you out for dinner,” said Pete walking up behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist.

He closed his eyes and let the scent of her hair envelop him. It contained the familiar hint of cigarette smoke from the café where Suzy worked whose customers were known for their conspicuous disregard for things like anti-smoking laws.

“On a Wednesday?” she asked turning around with a querulous look on her face.

“Best day of the week,” said Pete.

Pete was not a skilled liar and Suzy could tell that he was hiding something but she didn’t have the energy to find out what it was. She pushed off him and walked into the kitchen to get a glass of water.

“Let’s do it tomorrow. We need to talk.”

A talk? The very word sent a shiver down Pete’s spine. Whenever Suzy wanted to talk it was always about something Pete would rather not talk about. Last time it was about how the car registration hadn’t been paid and she’d been pulled over by the police and embarrassed in front of her mother as they were driving to lunch. A talk was the last thing Pete wanted right now. Nothing could be less romantic and less conducive to a marriage proposal than a talk. He had to avoid it at all costs.

“Let’s do the talk tomorrow,” he said following her into the kitchen. “I’ve made reservations at that French restaurant you like out in the mountains.”

Mon cheri?” said Suzy furrowing her brow.

“That’s the one.”

“How are we affording this?”

“I got some money today from work.”

“What? A bonus?”

“Something like that.”

Suzy had disbelief written all over her face but Pete gave her one of his mischievous smiles. He walked over and put his hands around her waist again.

“C’mon. Go and put something nice on and let’s have an evening away from all this,” he said gesturing to the apartment with its cracked painted concrete walls, stained carpet and lightbulbs flickering away beneath dingy lightshades. “After dinner, I’ve got something extra special planned.”

“What?”

“It’s a secret,” said Pete grinning.

Suzy looked like she was about to argue but Pete got in first.

“How long have we been going out now?” he asked.

“Two years, eight months and five days,” answered Suzy.

“The best two years, eight months and five days of my life,” said Pete.

This time Pete was neither lying nor hiding something. Suzy looked into his deep blue eyes and her heart melted just a little.

“Mine too,” she said quietly as Pete leaned in and kissed her.

“Good. Well, that settles it then,” he said stepping back and playfully pushing Suzy out of the kitchen and towards the bedroom. “You’ve got half an hour to get ready. The reservations are for seven.”

Suzy allowed Pete to push her into the bedroom and close the door behind her. She hadn’t bought any new clothes in over a year. As she flicked through the contents of her wardrobe to find something to wear, her fingertips fell on the soft fabric of a little black dress she’d only worn a couple of times. She draped it over her body, looked at herself in the cracked mirror that hung from the back of the wardrobe door and realised that she had a big smile on her face. She resolved to block out all the questions that had been crowding her mind and enjoy an evening out for once. Her troubles could wait until tomorrow.

***

The electricity went out in the middle of dessert. Pete was having the Pears Belle Helene while Suzy was indulging in a chocolate mousse. Although it was a Wednesday night, the Mon Cheri was almost full. The sudden darkness was quickly broken by small beams of weak white light emanating from mobile phones at each table. The waiter had retrieved a torch from behind the front counter and could be seen scanning about through the glass in the swinging doors that led to the kitchen area.

“Just a minute, ladies and gentleman,” he’d announced a moment earlier but Pete, Suzy and the other people in the restaurant knew the drill by now.

The blackouts had become more and more common in recent years and all households and businesses now kept a ready supply of backup lighting on hand. Fittingly for the ambience of the Mon Cheri, management had decided on candles as their alternative light source and in no short time the wait staff were placing black candelabras holding large white candles on each table.

“Well, this is romantic, isn’t it?” said Pete grinning at Suzy as the waiter placed the candelabra between them.

He held up his wine glass.

“Cheers.”

“Cheers,” smiled Suzy as she clinked her glass against his and took a sip of red wine.

The colour of the wine accentuated her already full red lips while the warm light from the candles flickered over her face. The green of her eyes seemed to shine brighter in the soft red light.

“You look even more beautiful than normal in candlelight. Maybe we should get some candles for home,” said Pete.

“So we can save on electricity?” answered Suzy.

“So you can look even more beautiful all the time.”

“I’m not beautiful enough?”

Pete smiled and finished the last of his dessert then washed it down with the rest of the white wine from his glass. The waiter noticed and made a beeline for the table.

“More wine, Monsieur?”

“No, thank you. I’m driving,” said Pete, although truth be told he was more concerned about the size of the bill than his blood alcohol reading.

Another drink might have helped calm his nerves. He checked his pocket for the umpteenth time to make sure the ring was still there. It was. Things had gone perfectly so far. He’d managed to steer the conversation clear of any real world problems that he and Suzy had and keep the conversation light and playful. The next step in his plan was to take the short drive up the mountain to the lookout where he and Suzy had first kissed almost three years ago. It was there that he would pull out the ring and ask for her hand in marriage.  

“Was this the surprise you had planned?” said Suzy licking some chocolate mousse off the back of her dessert spoon.

“What? Making the lights go out? No. I’m not that good. Besides, they don’t need me to help kill the power. They do a good job all by themselves.”

“I know. This is – what? – the fourth blackout this week. I think that’s a new record.”

“Maybe we should leave,” said Pete.

“What? The restaurant?”

“No. The city.”

Suzy took a moment to understand what Pete was saying and her initial look of confusion turned to mild astonishment.

“We could go somewhere new,” added Pete.

“Where?”

“I have a few ideas we can talk about.”

Suzy put her spoon down. The look on her face was not promising.

“So, this is the surprise you had planned? You’re trying to butter me up to get me to move?”

“No…” started Pete but Suzy talked over him angrily.

“Honestly, Pete. You didn’t need to bring me here for that. We don’t have the money to waste on this kind of thing.”

“No, no, no,” said Pete leaning forward and clasping both of Suzy’s hands. “That’s not the surprise and it’s not why I brought you here. It’s just an idea. Forget I mentioned it. Okay? Forget it.”

Pete looked imploringly into Suzy’s eyes and gave her hands a squeeze before sitting back in his chair. She looked unconvinced and Pete knew he had to act quickly to get things back on track.

“Alright, I’ll give you a clue about what the surprise is and you can try and guess. It’s something you and I did when we first started going out.”

Suzy gave Pete an I-don’t-wanna-play-your-silly-game kind of look and Pete responded with one of his extra cheesy smiles which he saved for exactly such occasions when he needed to get Suzy to lighten up.

“C’mon. Guess.”

Suzy shook her head half out of annoyance that Pete could so easily cut through her concern with a boyish grin. She leaned forward, picked up her dessert spoon and scooped a small amount of the chocolate mousse into her mouth, taking a second to savour the taste.

“Well, I’m guessing it’s not the barn of your parent’s farm. That would be a bit far away.”

“No, it’s not,” Pete smiled, partly happy that Suzy was playing along and partly from memories of the barn.

“And I guess it’s not watching the sunrise at Cape Cameron, unless you’re planning to keep me up all night.”

“No, it’s not. Although, I might find a way to keep you up all night.”

Suzy smiled and placed another morsel of mousse on her tongue.

“Well,” she said in a deliberately slow voice to indicate that she already knew the answer.  “If I was to go on proximity alone, I would have to deduce that it’s Brewster’s Lookout.”

“Well done. You could get a job as a detective.”

“Maybe I’ll start a new career when we move somewhere new,” said Suzy but this time in a playful fashion.

Pete decided to avoid that subject and make his move while things were looking good. He clapped his hands together as if bringing the dinner to a close.

“Now, mademoiselle, if you’ll finish that off, we can get to the surprise.”

“It’s not really a surprise anymore, is it?” said Suzy taking the last sip of wine.

“We’ll see,” said Pete giving her a wink as he got out of his chair.

They walked over to the front counter where Pete asked for the bill which the waiter dutifully placed on a small silver tray. Pete glanced at the amount which was thankfully a little less than he had anticipated. He pulled out the envelope containing his last pay which, in his nervousness and excitement earlier on, he had stuffed into his pocket rather than remove the money and put it in his wallet. He pulled the notes out and dropped the envelope on the counter as he counted out the amount for the bill.

Suzy casually picked up the envelope and turned it over. On the back there was pre-printed text in the usual format for a pay packet. It showed the days of the week and their corresponding date, hours worked and amount earned. Suzy could see that the Wednesday on the envelope had today’s date and that lines had been put through the remaining days of the week. At the bottom was a handwritten note which read “Good luck, Pete!”

It was at just that moment that the lights came back on in the restaurant. A sardonic cheer went up from the other patrons. The waiter handed Pete his change which he placed in his wallet then picked up the two after-dinner mints that the waiter had placed on the tray for him and Suzy.

“Excellent timing. This will make the view from the top of the mountain worthwhile,” he said turning to Suzy and holding out the mint for her to take.

He knew immediately from Suzy’s body language and facial expression that he was in trouble. Suzy held up the pay envelope with the reverse side showing.

“So, this was your bonus?” she said in a tone of voice that could have cut glass.

Pete snatched the envelope from her hand and tried to replace it with a mint which fell to the ground after Suzy refused to grasp it. He bent down and picked it up.

“Don’t worry about that now. We can talk about it later,” he said trying to stuff the mint into Suzy’s hand as she ignored it and looked firmly at him with her green eyes which had turned cold and demanding under the artificial light that newly illuminated the room.

Pete cast a nervous glance at the waiter who was trying to be discreet but couldn’t help overhear the conversation.

“C’mon,” said Pete putting his hand on Suzy’s lower back and ushering her towards the door.

“Thank you,” he said to the waiter in as upbeat a tone as he could muster as he led Suzy out the door and towards the car until she pushed him away and waited in silence for him to unlock the doors.

The fifteen minute drive from the restaurant to the lookout was conducted in a deathly quiet driven by a combination of Suzy’s simmering anger, Pete’s inability to think of anything to say that would appease her and his need to focus on the sharp bends in the road as the car wound its way up the mountain. The longer the silence went on for the worse the situation seemed to Pete and with each corner that climbed the mountain he felt as if his stomach was sinking. A flawless evening spoiled by a sloppy mistake. He cursed his carelessness at having brought the pay packet with him and then leaving it right there for Suzy to find. Finally, he realised there was nothing else for it. The only thing he could do was face the issue head on. As they hit the top of the mountain and the road straightened out for the last stretch leading to the lookout, he took a deep breath and readied himself.

“I got sacked today. That’s why they wrote good luck on my pay packet. I guess they thought I’d need it.”

He glanced over at Suzy to see her reaction which was initially the same stone cold façade she had been showing since the restaurant but, like the first few bubbles in a pot of boiling water, emotions started welling up til eventually she threw up her hands and swung around to face him.

“So, why in God’s name did you spend it on an expensive French restaurant?”

Suzy waited half a second for an answer but other questions came blurting out.

“And why are we going to a lookout on a freezing cold night? And how are we going to pay the bills this week? And why are you talking about leaving town? And what’s this stupid surprise all about? Haven’t we got more pressing problems?”

Pete didn’t reply immediately figuring it was better to let her get it all out. In any case, they’d arrived at the lookout. He pulled into the carpark which was darker than he remembered it. The several lights which normally lit the area were all extinguished except a single one which was right near the walking track that led from the carpark to the lookout proper. He brought the car to a halt right in front of it but, as if on cue, it went out just as he turned off the headlights of the car leaving them sitting in near total darkness. He would have assumed this was another blackout but over the tops of the trees and along the pathway directly in front of them he could see the glow of the city lights which seemed to turn the sky into a big white dome.

Pete looked at Suzy. He reached over and placed his hand in hers.

“I can’t remember the order of those questions. But the answers are, I took you to an expensive French restaurant to make you happy. As for the bills, we’ll figure something out like we always do. And as for the surprise, come with me to the lookout and I’ll show you.”

Pete undid his seatbelt and went to open the door when Suzy pulled her hand from his.

“I don’t want to go to the lookout, Pete. We need to talk. I told you before that we needed to talk and instead you brought us up here to waste the last of our money on fancy French food. I can’t do this anymore, Pete. Every time we start to get somewhere we end up back at zero like some sick game of snakes and ladders. And we’re not going to work something out this time. You just spent the last of your wages on a meal and I spent the last of my money on a doctor’s appointment today. So, how are we going to pay the bills this time?”

“Why did you go to the doctor?”

Pete looked at Suzy who turned away and pretended to look out the window.

“Do you have medical problem? Are you sick?” he asked putting his hand on her upper arm.

“No, I’m not sick,” said Suzy pushing his hand away. “Alright, I am sick. I’m sick of this. This way of living.”

“Then let’s leave,” said Pete imploringly. “I told you earlier I have a plan. A fresh start. Somewhere that I can find work. And you can find work. And we can get away from all this.”

Pete gestured towards the city.

“And when were you gonna tell me this great plan? Tonight? Is that why we’re sitting here?”

“No.”

“Then why are we sitting here, Pete? What are we doing at the top of a mountain?”

Pete allowed his hand to brush over the case holding the engagement ring in his pocket. He thought for a second about pulling it out and asking the question right there in the car but everything was wrong. He hadn’t even considered the possibility that Suzy might say no. Suddenly it seemed a real possibility and it set off a feeling of revulsion in his abdomen that was so strong that he had to turn away to hide it from her.

After what felt like minutes of silence, Suzy spoke quietly.

“I don’t think I can do this anymore, Pete. I don’t see any future for us.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means what I said.”

Pete felt like he was going to throw up. He opened the door and got out of the car. The cold mountain air seemed to slap him in the face. It was dead quiet with not even a breath of wind to rustle the nearby trees of the forest. And it was dark. To the rear of the car on the other side of the road was the mountain range that ran parallel to the city. With the carpark lights out of action, the only source of light was from the city and it threw a diffuse and weak illumination on the trees. On the other side of the mountains, a long way away, was the farm where he grew up. It was over those mountains that he’d come looking for something better.

He turned to face the city and saw the light over the treetops along the path. He used to find those lights intoxicating. They represented excitement, music, pubs, girls, theatre and nightlife; all the things he never had access to in the towns near his father’s farm. They also represented Suzy and that day in late summer when he had brought her here to watch the sunset. Their first kiss had been in front of those lights which seemed to hold so much promise but now seemed to Pete to be fake and gaudy just like the neon lights out the front of the payday loan shop. He looked at the lights now with a mild hatred. And then, just like that, they went out.

Pete blinked to make sure he wasn’t imagining it. The white glow, the dome that the lights threw against the sky above the city, disappeared. And as the city lights rose up and dissipated into space they were replaced by a different set of lights coming from the other direction. Starlight. It was as if a curtain had been pulled away from the sky and the stars stepped forward and began to shine. Pete hadn’t even noticed it before, but an almost full moon sat low on the horizon on the other side of the city just above the tree tops. It was now the main source of light and it seemed to light the pathway that led from the carpark to the lookout.

Suzy got out of the car.

“Another blackout?”

“Looks like it,” said Pete.

Pete brushed his hand one more time against the ring in his pocket, looked up at the moon and knew what he had to do. He walked around and took Suzy by the hand.

“Where are we going?”

“To the lookout.”

They walked down the track with the yellow moonlight beaming down through the break in the forest and reflecting off the pebbles and dirt beneath their feet. The stars above seemed to get brighter by the second as the light pollution from the city disappeared. Finally, they came to the small clearing where the lookout was. There was a steel railing that followed the line of the mountain marking out a semi-circular area that denoted a small cliff face. There were several wooden benches around and a couple of coin-operated telescopes for tourists to look through. Suzy looked up to the night sky.

“I’ve never seen so many stars before.”

Pete looked up too.

“When I was growing up, I used to lie on the grass with my brothers and watch them. My father used to teach us the constellations,” he said.

“Show me one.”

“Which one?”

“I don’t know. Any one.”

Pete thought about it for a second.

“You and I are both Aquarians, so let’s see if I can remember how to find Aquarius.”

Pete took his bearings and tried to remember back to his childhood when he had last looked to the sky. The knowledge came back quickly and Aquarius popped out at him. He put his arm around Suzy’s shoulder and leaned in so he could guide her eyes.

“Ok, first we find Capricorn,” he said and then proceeded to take her through the steps that his father had taught him as a boy.

“Do you see it?” he asked.

“Not really,” said Suzy.

“It takes practice. Aquarius is one of the hardest constellations to find.”

“Maybe we should come up here every blackout so I can get better.”

“So, there is still a we?” said Pete taking his gaze off the sky and back towards the woman by his side.

Suzy let out a sigh.

“Yes, there’s still a we. I didn’t mean it that way. I meant I don’t know what we’re going to do. We’re broke. You don’t have a job. And I…., well, I still need to tell you about my trip to the doctor.”

“You wanted to know what my plan was,” said Pete turning to face Suzy. “I called my uncle this afternoon. He says there’s work for me on the farm if I want it. We could move into a cottage on the property rent free. He thinks he might be able to get you a job with this woman he knows in town which is only ten minutes away. I’m not saying it’s the perfect plan and I don’t know if it’s gonna work. But it is a plan. What do you think?”

“I’ve never lived anywhere else except here,” said Suzy looking down towards the city where the dark shadows of the skyscrapers seemed to hang in the air like giants in suspended animation.

Pete took Suzy by the hand again and they walked up the small set of stairs that led onto the concrete platform that formed the central vantage point that overlooked the city.

“Do you want me to tell you what my surprise was?” he asked.

“Which one? There’s been a lot of surprises tonight.”

“The surprise I originally had planned for after dinner.”

“Sure.”

Pete turned to face Suzy.

“I was going to ask you to marry me.”

Suzy’s face scrunched up ever so slightly and tears welled up making her green eyes shine in moonlight.

“But now I know that it’s not the right time because marriage isn’t just about love but about paying the bills and having a roof over your head and all those other unromantic things.”

Suzy broke down crying. Pete put his arm around her shoulder and held her to him.

“It’s not that bad, is it?” he said finally as Suzy stood back and wiped the tears from her eyes.

She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.

“Do you want me to tell you my news,” she said quietly.

“About the doctor?”

Suzy nodded and looked up at Pete.

“I’m pregnant.”

A kaleidoscope of emotions swirled in Pete’s chest as he processed the news; surprise, confusion, fear, pride, excitement. He and Suzy had talked about children but never seriously. Parenthood seemed like a different world; a world for grown-ups.

“I think we need to sit down,” he said and they took a seat on the wooden bench nearby.

They sat for some time in silence. Suzy shivered in the cold and Pete put his arm around her and drew her close. Together they looked over the dark city below. The moon had risen further and now sat directly above the city like a celestial light bulb providing the luminescence that the city could no longer provide itself.

“This might be the longest blackout yet,” said Suzy. “I wonder if the power will even come back.”

Pete didn’t answer. He looked up at the moon and then retraced the outline of Aquarius in the sky. A strange feeling of assurance welled up from deep within. All his problems suddenly seemed petty and insignificant like he had left them behind down in the darkened streets below. Buried.

After a time, Suzy looked over at him.

“What do you think we should do?”

“I have a proposal,” said Pete.

“Not a marriage proposal?”

“No. Another proposal.”

“What?”

“If the power doesn’t come back on within the next ten minutes, we get in the car and drive over the mountains to my uncle’s farm and never look back. What do you think?”

“Alright. But I have one request.”

“What’s that?”

“We stop at the apartment first so I can get my clothes.”

“Deal,” smiled Pete as he pulled his mobile phone out of his pocket.

He set the timer to ten minutes and showed it to Suzy as if seeking her approval before pushing the start button. The clock which would decide their fate began counting down.

Pete wrapped his arm back around Suzy and she rested her head on his shoulder and looked up to the stars.

“While we’re waiting, why don’t you show me how to find Aquarius again.”

Archetypes and Geopolitics

I feel the need to start this post with a disclaimer: all models are wrong but some are useful.

What I’m going to do here is take my Devouring Mother model and apply it to the world of geopolitics. At first glance, this might seem like drawing a long bow; stretching the tenuous sinews of a psychological theory into the domain of realpolitik. It may be objected that we already have the disciplines of political theory, economics and military theory to explain geopolitics. What can psychology add to this mix? These may be valid criticisms and yet it seems that the archetypal theory does have something interesting to say about current world events. In any case, there’s no harm in sketching it out. So, with these caveats in mind, let’s take archetypes for a spin around the block and see how they fare accounting for the current state of geopolitics.

I hinted at this geopolitical archetypal analysis in one of my earlier posts on The Devouring Mother (click here for a description of the archetype). Here’s the executive summary: the US Empire is The Devouring Mother. The Devouring Mother has acquiescent children and these are the inner circle of the empire, known as The West (including Japan and South Korea). The Devouring Mother also has rebellious children and these would be the countries who most openly defy the empire including North Korea, Iraq, Iran and now Russia.

The key to the archetype is that The Devouring Mother and the acquiescent children are in a relationship that is not healthy for either party. The mother keeps the children in a perpetual state of dependence which prevents their growing up into full adulthood. Her outward portrayals of kindness or motherly love are facsimiles of real affection and serve to hide her deeper intention which is a will to power and a desire to dominate.

As it turns out, the US Empire fits the concept quite well. Of course, all empires are in the business of domination. What distinguishes the US Empire in the post war years is that it has been run almost entirely on what we can call soft power. We can compare this soft power to an example of hard power in the Roman Empire. The Romans expanded their empire by military conquest. They would subjugate entire areas by force and then convert whoever was still alive into Roman citizens. In archetypal terms, this form of empire building belongs to The Warrior. The Warrior was also dominant in Europe in the centuries leading up to the world wars (it’s not a coincidence that both Hitler and Mussolini idolised Rome). In comparison to Rome and the pillaging and plundering of the colonial era, the American Empire has seen relatively little overt warfare and where war has taken place such as in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it has mostly been a failure. It has been the soft power that has worked to keep the US Empire running.

Much like The Devouring Mother hides her true intentions behind a façade of niceness, soft power is a cloak for what is really going on: wealth transfer. This happens mostly through financial means such as the dominance of the US Dollar, but it’s also present in more subtle ways. Let’s take a trivial but representative example. Australia is in the inner circle of the US Empire and is therefore one of the acquiescent children. There are a small number of famous Australian actors in Hollywood and yet the Australian film industry is practically non-existent. These two facts are not unconnected. The reason the Australian film industry is non-existent is because American movies and other cultural products flood the Australian market and make movie-making unprofitable here. As a result, the only money available to make movies in Australia comes from the government and because government money always has a number of criteria attached to it that have been cooked up by committees of braindead bureaucrats, it’s practically impossible to make a good film using government money. That’s why most Australian movies are about as entertaining as a catatonic koala on half a pack of Valium. It’s also why anybody with an ounce of talent leaves the Australian film industry as soon as they can and heads to the US.

This is an example of soft power at work. The US benefits because the most talented people from Australia (and other countries) are drawn to it. Those people were raised and educated in Australia using Australian wealth, but they spend their most productive years making money for the US economy. For the US, this is an economic bonus; for Australia, an economic loss. The same thing happens in sectors other than the film industry. This leaves Australia in the position of the acquiescent child, unable to develop our own industries and dependent on the US Empire for products.

Australia gets certain benefits out of being in the inner circle of the US empire but the cost is not just our film and other industries but also the ability to pursue independent policy. Thus, Australian troops were sent to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and wherever else the US empire decides to fight. Similarly, Australia is stunted in relation to trade, economic and foreign policy where we are not free to pursue our own interests but must ensure that whatever we do gets the okay from Washington first.

One of the benefits Australia and other nations get from being in the inner circle of the empire is that we can enact the same kind of wealth transfer on countries further down the pecking order. But it is here we are starting to see one of the many indications that the soft power of the US Empire and therefore The Devouring Mother is coming to an end.

A few weeks’ ago I was at a party and got talking to a woman who had migrated to Australia from India. Australia has a large number of immigrants from India who are mostly skilled professionals working in IT and other industries. This woman mentioned to me that she was about to go on a holiday back to her home town in India and I asked whether there were any travel restrictions due to corona there. She immediately and vociferously replied “No, they’re free! Not like us” (where “us” meant Australians).

The bitterness of the reply took me a little by surprise although it shouldn’t have. One of the more shameful episodes in the last two years was when the Australian government made it illegal for anybody who had been to India in a two week period to return to the country. This was a blanket ban justified at the time because of the emergence of the so-called Delta strain. The ban even applied to Australian citizens. The policy stayed in place for about two weeks before being quietly dropped; proving that there was still some limit to the craziness. Although this was an affront to all Australian citizens, it’s not hard to imagine that the Indian community would have felt they were being directly discriminated against and I don’t doubt that the bitterness in this woman’s voice was partly due to that incident.

What I heard in the tone of this woman’s voice was the sound of the soft power of the West circling the drain. Western nations have been an attractive destination for immigrants because of the rule of law, democracy and freedom. Immigrants from India and other countries came to Australia precisely because of the freedom they expected to enjoy here. After the last two years, they can see that Australia now considers the rule of law, democracy and freedom to be conditional. Worse than that, they watch on as our politicians continue to lecture other countries about freedom while failing to ensure it at home. Hypocrisy is fatal to any pretentions of moral leadership and by extension soft power and the hypocrisy of the West is now palpable.

It could be predicted from this that immigrants would be less willing to migrate to western nations and that seems to be exactly what is happening. Like most other countries, Australia is suffering a shortage of workers at the moment and with borders re-opened the government been trying to attract workers from overseas particularly in the medical and teaching professions. This tactic has been Australia’s bread and butter for the best part of two or three decades. I like to the call it the Immigration-Education-Real Estate Axis of Evil. It involves attracting skilled workers, international students and property investors to the country. What it amounts to in practice is nothing more than inflation for Australia while also robbing poorer countries of their wealth in the form of cash and human talent. Trouble is, the government’s new immigration drive isn’t producing the results that were expected. This makes sense if you consider that all western nations are currently competing for available workers at the same time. But I suspect the attitude of the Indian woman I was talking to is also a factor. The behaviour of western nations over the last two years has not gone unnoticed and the outrageous hypocrisy of leaders like Justin Trudeau blabbering on about freedom and human rights in foreign countries while actively violating these principles at home has the effect of reducing any remaining moral superiority the west might have had and with it the soft power that has been the engine of the US empire.

This is just one area where the soft power of the US Empire is going up in smoke. Another kind of soft power is the ability to control the narrative but, as I pointed out in a previous post, westerns nations cannot even control their own internal narrative anymore. The combination of censorship on social media and search engines as well as blatant fabrication of news in the mainstream media increasingly looks like a desperate last stand to try and create a unified narrative where none exists. This leads us back to the rebellious children and specifically to Trump who single-handedly hijacked the narrative in order to propel himself to the presidency.

Trump represented the rejection of the hypocrisy that had come to predominate in the west in recent decades. He didn’t speak nice and he didn’t play nice. He translated the business of geopolitics into raw displays of power. This was a version of straight talk that, whatever else can be said about it, had no hypocrisy in it at all. Trump’s victory put the existing narrative of the west into terminal decline because he forced his opponents to engage in blatant falsehoods (Russiagate) and censorship. In other words, he forced them also to engage in raw displays of power. All pretence of fairness was abandoned as The Devouring Mother showed her hand. In addition, Trump’s tariffs against China signified the end of the free trade status quo. This was another area where the US was no longer going to play nice. In these and other ways, Trump’s victory seemed to signify the end of soft power and therefore the end of The Devouring Mother.

It was tempting to think that Trump’s subsequent defeat in 2020 was a victory for The Devouring Mother and that’s the way it looked at the time. But I think we’re far enough into the Biden administration now to see that this is not the case and it’s mainly in the geopolitical arena that we can see why. The soft power of the US Empire is not coming back. We see that in the fact that various middle eastern countries were not even answering the phone to the Biden administration when the oil price spiked. We see it in the fact that most countries outside the west have not joined in the sanctions against Russia. We see it in the fact that India did a deal to receive Russian oil while also remaining neutral on most of the symbolic measures against Russia. Recently there was even this comedy video from Saudi Arabia mocking Biden. You know things are bad when even the Saudis are making (quite decent) jokes at your expense.

The final domino to fall will be the most powerful element of soft power which is the status of the US dollar as reserve currency. That looks not too far off. We heard news just this week that no less an ally than Israel is increasing holdings of Yuan and Ruble while Russia is on notice as saying it wants to see an end to US dollar hegemony and has a plan to try and bring that about by backing the Ruble with a combination of gold and oil.

Meanwhile on the domestic front there are empty supermarket shelves, spiking petrol prices and unfilled job vacancies in almost all western nations. I saw a random headline the other day that said something like “The days of having lots of choice in the supermarket are over”. Really? Just like that consumerism is all over? Consumerism was one of the defining elements of the post war years and the one that the West used to brag about in relation to the empty shelves in the USSR. In fact, Ronald Reagan’s old joke about buying a car in the USSR sounds a lot more like the west these days.

“You’ll own nothing and you’ll be happy” is the line from The Great Reset. It’s a catchy phrase, but it’s pure fiction. The whole consumer economy is predicated on the dopamine hit that comes from buying things. Where is that dopamine hit going to come from if there’s nothing to buy? In archetypal terms, the consumer economy is one of the foundational elements of The Devouring Mother – Orphan dynamic. It’s the main way in which the “children” are persuaded to acquiesce. If it goes away, so does most of the support for the archetype.

This is also true at the geopolitical level. The dynamic holding together the US Empire together has been the consumer economy with the steady supply of hydrocarbons to power it. The primary justification to ship manufacturing to China was to lower the price of consumer goods but that’s not working out so well any more. Meanwhile, the Russia-Ukraine war signals a paradigm shift in energy supplies. Ironically, it was Trump who had warned the Europeans about their reliance on Russia for energy. This clip has been doing the rounds on the internet in the last few weeks. It shows the then President Trump telling a German delegation that their country had become reliant on Russian energy. The Germans respond by laughing and shaking their heads but with Russian energy supplies no longer guaranteed they’re not laughing anymore. Currently it is US oil released from the strategic reserve that is filling the hole in European markets but how much longer will that last? At some point the US is going to prioritise its own interests over the Europeans and that’s when the relationship is going to break down for real. The Germans in particular seem to realise the situation as their recent announcement of rearmament indicates. That rearmament announcement also signifies the end of the soft power period when the Europeans felt they could freeload off the US military for protection.

What all this adds up to is that the era of The Devouring Mother is fast coming to an end. The soft power of the west is evaporating in real time. The consumer economy is imploding. The final death knell will be the inevitable reset of the US dollar. That event once seemed to be decades away but all of a sudden it may be imminent. When it goes away, so will many illusions about the world we live in. The naivete, denial and obliviousness – all shadows traits of The Child archetype – that has characterised western public discourse of the last few decades will disappear in a puff of smoke. The West will have to bargain in real terms for what it wants rather than rely on soft power to get it.

What can we expect when The Devouring Mother – Orphan departs the scene? We can invoke the other archetypes to make some guesses.

Let’s say The Child archetype comes to the fore. This matches up with anarchist, libertarian and self-organising tendencies. Just as children effortlessly organise their own play into games featuring rules that are never explicitly communicated, we could see brand new forms of social organisation spontaneously appear on the ground. The arrival of The Child would look like an unleashing of energy in localised groups not under centralised control. The Canadian Truckers protest is an excellent example of what that could look like.

Alternatively, The Ruler archetype might come to the fore. The Ruler imposes order from above. This allows people to take responsibility for their actions while also having the freedom to make mistakes. The Ruler would weed out graft and corruption and reassert national sovereignty. The Ruler would re-establish the rule of law (remember that?) and remove power from unaccountable and unelected bureaucrats.

We may see a return to The Warrior archetype. This could very well be a necessity in Europe and the talk of rearmament there looks to be a strong signal in that direction. However, The Warrior does not need to manifest in military form. It may also come to the fore in a business and organisational context too. Any large scale program requiring significant organisational skill would be an example of The Warrior in action.

Finally, we might see The Sage archetype manifest in the form of new religions or the re-emergence of old religions. This is what Spengler predicted with his Second Religiosity. This would sweep away all the hypocrisy, propaganda and gaslighting and replace it with simple but profound truths that re-unite society behind common assumptions about reality.

Of course, these are the positive forms of the archetypes and there is no guarantee that we won’t see other shadow forms take the place of The Devouring Mother. It’s also true that we can expect different nations to start to go their own way including those on the inner circle. As the US empire retreats, Europe looks to be particularly exposed and a return of The Warrior looks very likely. For Australia and New Zealand, a lot will depend on whether the US will be able to project power into the Pacific and how assertive China becomes. On current form, it seems quite possible we will continue to manifest The Child in shadow form whether under US or Chinese dominance. The US itself seems best placed to pursue the positive traits of The Child in the sense that there will be significant internal differences between the various states. Of course, those differences may become so great that they result in the dissolution of the country.

Finally, it’s worth noting that whichever archetype takes over from The Devouring Mother, it will still be the same old battle between the positive and shadow forms. As Solzhenitsyn noted, the divide between good and evil runs through every human heart and that’s not going to change any time soon.