Last year I happened to catch the interview which Tucker Carlson did on Twitter with Hunter Biden’s “business partner”, Devon Archer. The interview didn’t reveal any great surprises from my point of view. I think Archer mentioned the word “strategic” about a thousand times. Much like the joke about how any scholarly discipline that has the word “science” in the title isn’t a real science, we could make a similar joke about how job titles with “strategy” in them have nothing to do with the subject. A “strategic adviser” is a person who facilitates deals in the murky domain at the intersection between government, capital and the private sector. That’s why Archer was “in business” with Hunter Biden.
What I did find surprising about the interview was Tucker Carlson’s attitude to Devon Archer. After insinuating and even outright stating that the business with Hunter Biden was corrupt since it was predicated on insider dealings with a government official, Carlson nevertheless praised Archer. I think at one point he even said something like “well done, that’s good business”. In Tucker Carlson’s world, Devon Archer is a “good businessman” and Joe Biden a “corrupt politician”. It’s a bit like congratulating the drug dealer while throwing the drug user in jail.
How could Tucker Carlson on the one hand claim to be super concerned about government corruption while on the other hand have a nice friendly interview with a man whose job it was to facilitate that corruption? And how could Devon Archer willingly confess to doing that job and sit there with a big smile on his face as though he’d done nothing wrong?
The reason relates back to the point I made in last week’s about the three metaphysical pillars of the modern West: democracy, capitalism and science. The case of Devon Archer and the Biden family is the perfect illustration of how capitalism corrupts democracy. But capitalism can’t be called into question since it’s an article of faith. That’s why Carlson can praise Archer as a businessman while criticising Joe Biden as a public official.
The truth, of course, is that capitalism is subverting democracy and not just in the case of the Biden family. Capitalism is also subverting science as we saw during the corona debacle. That’s what happens when you encourage people like Devon Archer to chase money to the exclusion of anything else. What the USA and the rest of the West desperately needs to reclaim both democracy and science from the clutches of money but the right side of politics has framed the issue such that any criticism of capitalism makes you a “communist”.
We should remember that both capitalism and communism are products of the Western mind and they have a lot in common. In order to see these commonalities, we need a point of comparison and, as usual, the Roman Empire provides the ideal example since in this, as in most things, it is opposite of the modern West.
Some historians have trawled through Roman history trying to find evidence that the Romans must have had something resembling our capitalism, as if all civilisation must somehow be based on the exact same values as the modern West. The truth is there is no evidence for capitalism in ancient Rome and quite lot of evidence against it. But we can go a step further and get closer to the core of the issue by making the broader point which is the one that the historian Spengler also made: the Romans had almost nothing that we would give the general label of organisation.
This doesn’t mean the Romans were disorganised. Clearly, they had a disciplined military, a legal code, a governance structure, a justice system and other things required for a peaceful and orderly society. What they didn’t have were bureaucracies, corporations, armies of lawyers or enormous public services. And they sure as hell didn’t have “strategic advisers”, “diversity officers” and human resource managers.
It’s incredible to think that, in the golden age of the Roman Empire, the Caesars ruled with almost no bureaucracy at all. The basis for Rome’s power was the army. But this was more than just an accidental occurrence. The army represented the basic ethic of Rome which we can sum up in the phrase might is right. Roman aristocrats earned their honour and status through public service and the highest form of public service was military service. They would have considered it deeply dishonourable to get involved in business dealings.
Of course, business dealings did happen in ancient Rome and many of the aristocracy became incredibly rich as a result. But they were not actively involved in business. They just accrued the money which they often spent on public works. This is another reason that Rome had a tiny government. The tax take for most of Roman history was a paltry 1% and when the government is only taking 1% in tax, it can’t afford to hire bureaucrats or public servants.
That was one reason why the government and bureaucracy was so small. Another was the simple and informal nature of Roman law. Rome never had general public education. As a result, most Romans were illiterate. Accordingly, there was no possibility of reading or signing complicated contracts. The law reflected this by allowing most arrangements to be made verbally. A classic example is marriage. A Roman man and woman could enter into marriage simply by announcing their intention to do so and then moving in together. They could break up the marriage just as easily. No lawyers were required. No government bureaucrats needed to be notified.
Related to the relative simplicity of their legal system is the fact that the Romans had no police force. What force did exist was very similar to the form taken in early modern Europe where there was a “watch” made up of ordinary citizens. In general, Roman citizens were expected to enforce the law themselves. This was literally true in the early days of the republic. If somebody committed a crime against you, you had to arrest them and drag them before the courts yourself. If the judge found in your favour and sentenced the other party to some kind of corporal punishment, you were the one who carried out the punishment.
Of course, why would you bother to go through the courts when you could just mete out the punishment directly and that’s what often happened. By our standards, Rome was a relatively lawless society. But, again, the ethic was might is right. That was true at an everyday level and it was true at the highest levels of government. The Roman system required and rewarded strongmen. That’s just how they operated, as did most societies of that era.
In summary, outside of the army, the Romans had essentially no large organisations at all. They had no corporations, bureaucracies, banks, police forces, unions, chambers of commerce, NGOs, law firms, legal societies, football clubs, political parties, United Nations, World Banks, World Health Organisations or International Monetary Funds.
Romans looked down their noses at trade, banking and commerce. The reason the Romans did not pursue organisation in these spheres was not because they didn’t have the intelligence or capability but because they did not value such things. Accordingly, the institutions which existed were rudimentary. When emergencies happened, the Romans solved the problem not through organisation but through force.
Incidentally, this was also true in the early days of modern Europe. Kings needed bankers to fund wars. Once the war was over, the kings would often refuse to pay their debts and the banker was left to foot the bill. If he had a problem with it, he could take it up with the king’s army. That was also how Rome worked. Might was right.
We can see, therefore, that one of the main differences between our society and the Romans is the scale of our organisations. How did we get so good at organisation?
There is, of course, no single answer to that question but we can state for sure that trade and commerce played a very important role and this where capitalism comes into the picture.
The British East India Company is arguably the proto-corporation of the modern world. For many years it was the largest corporation in the world and may even have been the largest in history (it’s probable that the Chinese or Indians had something larger through sheer population size). In any case, the British East India Company was orders of magnitude larger than any Roman organisation.
How did the British East India Company come about? Well, Francis Drake is sometimes called an “explorer” or a “privateer”. We could more accurately call him a pirate since the original purpose of the voyage which made him famous was to sail to South America and steal gold from the Spanish. He achieved that aim and then, while sailing back to England, landed in what is now Indonesia. He traded some of the gold he had stolen from the Spanish for spices, apparently not realising their enormous value in Europe at that time. When he got back to England, he was a hero. More importantly, those who had invested in his voyage became fabulously wealthy. Thereafter, other “privateers” decided to try their luck on the open seas and the rest, as they say, is history.
There’s much that could be said about this story but notice one crucial aspect: all of this activity was not instigated by the crown or the state but by private citizens. The East India Company had what we would now call a CEO, it had a board of directors, it went through all the legal hoops required for its creation. Already by the year 1600, most of the organisational and legal pre-requisites that we recognise as “trade and commerce” were already in effect in Britain. The reason we are all so familiar with them is because it was that “trade and commerce” which would become the basis for the British Empire. It took over the world quite literally.
By the time of the creation of the United State of America, trade and commerce had become more than a way to get rich by stealing Spanish gold. It had become an article of faith. In Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, arguably the founding document of the USA, we find the idea of trade and commerce as a way to gain freedom from the “tyranny” of kings such of King George III.
It’s worth noting again that all this is the inversion of the Roman paradigm. The Romans would never have dreamed of elevating trade and commerce above the Caesar, but the British and the Americans did. This is why capitalism really is an article of faith for Americans and has been from the beginning of that nation.
There’s another way in which the paradigm of the British and American empires is different from Rome. The Romans led with military might. Trade was a secondary benefit. The British and Americans have led with trade with military power reserved for situations that threatened trade (of course, military power has also been used for other reasons too).
Some people on the right of politics in the US have criticised the recent bombings of Houthi targets in Yemen. This reveals a surprising naivete about how the world works. The US and British are bombing the Houthis because the Houthis had managed to shut down shipping in the Red Sea thereby causing major disruption to transportation networks. That is not a new policy. It’s quite literally as old as America itself.
The conflict with the Houthis is an almost exact replica of the Barbary Wars fought at the beginning of the 19th century under the presidency of none other than Thomas Jefferson. What was at stake then, as now, is the freedom of navigation required to enable trade. America and Britain have always been prepared to go to war when trade and commerce were threatened. All of the shenanigans in the Middle East in the 20th century have been predicated on maintaining the most important trade of all; petrolem.
The rise of trade and commerce has, from the beginning, been accompanied by the enormous growth in the law, especially commercial law. In modern America, being involved in public life at all let alone in business requires a team of lawyers working round the clock to manage your affairs. Law is what enables our enormous organisations to be created. Thus, we can say that law is also a cornerstone of the modern Western paradigm.
As international trade became a huge boon for Britain, it incorporated mercantile law into its common law. As Lord Mansfield put it at the time – “Mercantile law is not the law of a particular country but the law of all nations”. It’s fair to say that Lord Mansfield did not ask other nations whether they agreed with this statement. It’s also fair to say that many nations, from the Barbary states of the 19th century through to the Houthis today, did not and do not agree with this statement. Nevertheless, the success of Britain and America has meant that other nations have had to abide by mercantile law whether they wanted to or not and so mercantile law has ended up becoming international.
It is these mercantile laws that form the basis for the incredible complexity of the modern global economy. When we enter into a contract, we know that it will be enforced and we can rely on the outcome being delivered. How many different contracts must exist in order for an iPhone to be created? Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of independently organised contracts have to be signed that coordinate the producers of minerals, plastics and electronic components with transportation companies, intermediaries and retailers from around the globe. It’s a stunningly complex system that runs on laws.
Laws are the great strength of the system. But, increasingly, the costs of the system are outweighing the benefits and that is, I believe, what is behind the religious crisis that is affecting us today. We are the victims of our own success.
Consider this. The word “contract” comes from the Latin contractus which originally had the meaning of “to draw in, to shrink”. A business contract is a metaphorical extension of the original meaning. This makes some sense when you consider that to enter a contract is to limit yourself by binding yourself into an agreement with somebody else. The more contracts you enter into, the more you are binding yourself and reducing your ability to do other things. The Roman and Greek aristocrats’ distaste for trade and commerce was precisely because they saw it as a form of slavery; of being bound.
In the modern West, we have come to think that it’s the other way around since the contacts we enter into as consumers result in some benefit to us. But everything in life has diminishing returns. There probably was a time where the benefits of signing a contract outweighed the cost. That is clearly no longer true. The average person now enters into a huge number of contracts but, increasingly, they must go into debt in order to so. For the average person over the last 30 or so years, contracts have become little more than a chain around their neck; a form of debt bondage. That’s one huge problem that we face right now.
There’s a second and related problem. The enormous complexity of our society is facilitated through laws, rules and contracts. Increasingly, it is corporations and bureaucracies who control and operate those rules in a way that is not visible to the general public.
Consider the corona debacle. At the beginning of corona, I received pamphlet in my mailbox. The pamphlet was printed on the letterhead of my local council (local government organisation in Australia). It contained information about a supposedly new disease called “covid” whose symptoms were indistinguishable from the common cold/flu. In the fine print at the bottom of the page was stated that the information had been provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
What chain of command had to exist in order for that pamphlet to get delivered to my house? There is the Australian postal service which delivers the mail. There is an administration assistant, a graphic designer, and whoever else is employed by my local council to produce pamphlets. There is a printing facility to print them. The council gets its instructions from the state public health bureaucracy who gets its instructions from the national health bureaucracy who get their instructions from the bureaucrats at the WHO.
All of this chain of command exists because the Australian government is a signatory to a contract with the WHO. That contract requires the Australian government to do things when the WHO tells them to. In order to do those things, the Australian government funds the bureaucracies which operate according to strict rules.
The general public thinks that those bureaucracies are “intelligent”, that the people who work for them are highly educated and that their job it is to know things. In fact, the people who work in bureaucracies are only required to know that which enables them to follow the rules. That is what bureaucracies are good at. It might be the only thing bureaucracies are good at.
What has happened in the post war years with the massive expansion of bureaucracy both in the public service and in the private sector is to create a machine-like system that runs on rules and contracts, not on thinking. The corona debacle represented the complete absence of thinking. It’s exactly what you would expect if you put bureaucrats in charge of the world.
The corona debacle was made possible by a system where people mindlessly follow the rules. Why were so many people tested at hospitals early on, even people who had no symptoms of respiratory illness? Because that’s what the rules said had to happen. Hospitals were contractually required to carry out testing. Of course, hospitals were also incentivised by the fact that they received thousands of dollars per “covid patient”.
In one sense, the corona debacle was stunningly well-organised. Think of all the contracts, invoices, bookkeeping, information systems, laboratory reports etc that were needed to make it possible. But what corona proves is that we are no longer driving the machine. The machine is driving us.
Remember the double meaning of the word contract. It’s now the case that, with every new contract, we contract. Every new contract now contracts individual liberty and humanity in general. There can be no starker example of that than the corona lockdowns. Of course, the average person had no idea they had entered into the corona contract. Their governments did it on their behalf. An entire bureaucratic machine was built that nobody knew about.
Quite a number of people have recently had idea that modern society is possessed by Satan or some other force outside ourselves. That force is the machine. We created the machine and now the machine controls us. The great strength of the modern West has been organisation. But we now have too much organisation.
That’s how every great tragedy plays out. The hero’s greatest strengths become the flaws that lead to doom. Macbeth and the Othello were the great warriors who kept fighting when they should have sheathed their swords. King Lear was the ruler who could not retire. Romeo and Juliet were the passionate youths who could not control their emotions. Western civilisation has been the great organiser. But our solution to every problem is now one more rule, one more law, one more contract, one more bureaucracy, one more vaccine, one more technology. Every time we add one more of these, we bind ourselves tighter to the machine.