Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Age Of Exterminations (II) -- How to Exterminate the Young

In 2018, I published a book titled The Shadow Line of Memory." It was the biography of an Italian intellectual, Armando Vacca, who did his best to fight for peace at the beginning of the Great War. He was eventually defeated and punished by being sent to the most dangerous frontline of that time, where he survived for no more than a couple of weeks. That book led me to study the story of how propaganda managed to win the hearts and minds of the Italians in 1914-15, resulting in Italy joining the war. The ensuing disaster is not usually listed as an "extermination," but the Italian losses amounted to close to one-third of the young men of military age at that time. If this was not an extermination, what was it? And I think there were deep reasons for it to occur. I thought I could propose this story to you now. You may find something in it that may help you understand a few apparently unrelated things that are happening nowadays. 


The power of propaganda is immense. It is so strong especially because people don't realize that they are embedded in it and the things that propaganda makes them do look like the most natural and obvious ones.  It was Baudelaire who said, "the devil's best trick is to convince people that he does not exist."

So, here is a story of a triumph of propaganda: how it convinced most Italians in 1914-15 that it was a good idea to go to war against their neighbors, the Austrians in one of the greatest follies of history, what our ancestors called, rightly, "The Great War."  

It all started when, in July 1914, a Serbian madman shot an Austrian Archduke. That caused the Great Powers of the time to attack each other in a sort of large-scale domino game. Austria attacked Serbia, Germany attacked France, Russia attacked Austria, and more. 

And Italy? It is a story poorly known outside Italy, but interesting for many reasons. Italy at that time was a nation of peasants, its economy was weak, and its military power limited. Sometimes, it was called the "proletarian nation," in contrast with the Northern "plutocracies", Britain and others. Italy was poor, but secure inside its borders: protected by the sea and by the Alps. No need to go to war against anyone. 

True, Italy had a grudge with Austria that had to do with some lands at the border that Italians believed were part of Italy. But Austria was already fighting on two fronts, Russia and Serbia: its government surely would concede something to Italy rather than risk opening a third front! There is evidence that, indeed, Austria offered Italy to return part of these lands in exchange for Italy remaining neutral. 

Yet, less than one year after the start of the Great War, Italy had joined the allied powers and was at war with Austria. It was one of the most impressive examples in history of how propaganda can affect an entire nation. An avalanche of hate that engulfed everyone and everything. 

When in 1914 some people started claiming that Italy should have attacked Austria, their statements looked unreal, silly. What mad idea was that? Italy was not a great power: it had no interests to defend, no empire to create, no threat to fear. It had everything to gain by remaining neutral. The government was against the war. The Socialists were appalled at the idea that the Italian workers would fight their comrades of other countries. The Catholics couldn't accept the idea of a Catholic country, Italy, attacking another Catholic country, Austria. It just made no sense. 

But the war party refused to listen. Slowly, the voices for war increased in volume and in diffusion. It was an asymmetric struggle: on one side there was reason, on the other emotion. And, as usual, emotion beats reason. Italy, it was said, cannot afford to lose this occasion to show the bravery of its citizens. The idea of negotiations with Austria was rejected with an incredible vehemency. Italians, it was said, do not ask for what is theirs, they take it! Blood, yes, there was to be blood. It is a good thing: blood is sacred, it must be spilled for the good of the country!

When I was writing my book on this story, I spent much time reading the Italian newspapers of 1914-1915. It was fascinating and horrifying at the same time: I got the distinct impression of an evil force rising. It seemed to me that I was reading of the return of ancient rituals, rites involving bloody human sacrifices. Especially impressive was the story of a young Catholic intellectual, Giosué Borsi, who became so intoxicated with propaganda that he came to believe that it was God's will that he should kill Austrians. He volunteered, and survived for just a few days in the trenches. Truly, it was as if a malevolent entity was masterminding the whole thing. Maybe evil Chthonic deities do exist? 

Incredibly, this wave of evil grew to engulf the whole Italian media of the time. The Socialists ceased to oppose the war and some of their leaders, such as Benito Mussolini, switched to promote it. The Catholics, too, gradually joined the voices that argued for war, apparently believing that contributing to the war effort would give them more political power. During the "Radiant May" of 1915, young Italians marched in the streets to request the government to be sent to die. And the government complied, declaring war on Austria on May 24th. 

And the opponents? Those evil pacifists who had tried to argue against war? They were insulted, denigrated, and finally silenced. The war party succeeded in convincing everybody that Italy had not just one enemy, but two. An external enemy, Austria, and an internal enemy, the pacifists. They were the Austria-lovers, the spies, the traitors, the monsters who menaced the Italian people with their dark machinations. They were also smelling bad, they were dirty, and they ate disgusting food. When the war started, it was the time of reckoning for them. No more excuses: if they were of military age, they had to enlist in the army. 

We have no direct proof that there was a specific policy to send pacifists to die in the most dangerous areas of the front, but we know that it was what happened to some of them, including Armando Vacca, the person whose biography I wrote in my book. Instead, those on the other side of the debate were privileged. Mussolini, for instance, was sent to a quiet area of the frontline. From there, he emerged slightly wounded by the malfunctioning of an Italian gun and with the fame of a war hero.

We know what was the result of this folly: summing up direct casualties, the dispersed, and the wounded, Italy suffered more than two million lossesabout a third of the males of military age at that time (as a bonus, add some 600,000 losses among civilians). Austria suffered similar losses.  You don't want to call it an extermination? If not, what was it?

The power of propaganda is well known, but there are many ways for it to appear. In the case of the United States, we know that in 1917 the government decided to intervene in the Great War to protect its investments in Europe. That implied creating and financing a propaganda campaign to convince the American public. The campaign involved creating the "Committee for Public Information," possibly the first Government propaganda agency of the 20th century. The techniques the committee developed were imitated many times in later history, especially by the German Nazis. 

How about in Italy? We have evidence that Mussolini's campaign for war was financed by some Italian financial lobbies. But, on the whole, there was nothing similar to the Committee for Public Information. So, how could the pro-war propaganda be so successful?

I came to think that there was a reason for the extermination of so many young men. It was because the Italian society wanted to exterminate them.

Of course, it was not planned, it was never mentioned and, most likely, it was not even a thought that was entertained by those who pushed so enthusiastically for war. But the human mind functions in subtle ways and very little of what it does is because of some rational chain of concepts. 

Why do people kill? Most often, they kill what they are afraid of. So, could Italians be afraid of their own young? It could be. I came to think that it was, actually, likely. 

Go see the population curve of Italy before WWI. It is a nearly perfect pyramid. At that time, Italy had about 6 million males of military age, about 15% of the Italian population. What were these young men doing? What were they thinking? What did they want? Those who were in power at that time had good reasons to think that they would want their share of the national wealth.

Indeed, those were times of social and economic tensions, with Socialism and Communism claiming that a popular revolution would bring all the power to the people. And who would revolt against the current order if not those young men? Then, it made sense to get rid of as many of them as possible by sending them to die in great numbers on those remote mountains. 

As a strategy, it could have backfired. It did in Russia, where the result of WWI was that Communism took power. In Italy, the years after the war saw a Communist revolution nearly starting, but it was quelled by the ascent of Fascism. As always, history is not made with "ifs." What had to happen, happened. 

Whatever the cause, the great wheel of history started moving in 1914, and it didn't care who was going to be squashed into a pulp under it. Maybe the ancient Chthonic Gods of war were driving that wheel. Maybe they still exist, even though nowadays they seem to have taken different forms. Propaganda, for sure, can still do its job with the same methods: denigrate, demonize, insult, and scare people. It works. You can see it at work right now. 


____________________________________________________________

A reflection on the long term trends of propaganda

Propaganda in its modern form didn't exist up to a few centuries ago. In a not too remote future, it might cease to exist as well. Even right now, things are changing in the belly of the great beast that we call the memesphere.

Propaganda was so effective during the 20th century because the memesphere was vertically organized. At the time of WWI, for the more than 50% of the Italians who could read and write, there was no other significant source of information other than newspapers, and their number was limited. Then, as now, just a few newspapers had national diffusion and if they all took the same position, they would control the memesphere. 

The information people obtain in a vertical network is like rain falling: you can try to avoid getting wet using an umbrella, but you can't choose the moment when it rains or not. So, the Italian memesphere of a century ago acted like an organism, a giant societal brain that had to choose between war and peace. It could not stand in between: it had to decide on one thing or the other. And it was so tightly integrated that it acted as a whole -- there was no possibility of parts of it opting out. Those who tried to do that, the pacifists, were neutralized or exterminated.

The memesphere of today is not so different. People still rely for their information mostly on the equivalent of the newspapers of one century ago: what we call the "Media" -- entities that mediate between reality and the people. But it is also true that things have been changing and that communication is now much more horizontal than it used to be.

Reality is not what you read in the media. Reality is what you see and what the people you trust tell you they saw. You can use Heinlein's terminology: reality is what you grok yourself, or you are told by an impartial witness. This kind of horizontal communication is a different organization of the memesphere. It is today the galaxy of entities we call "social media" -- a misnomer because they are NOT media. Social media involve direct, horizontal communication among people, it is not "mediated." The "bubbles" that people who think alike create in social media are often criticized and reviled as dens of conspirationists, but they are exactly what the game is about. These bubbles are virtual holobionts embedded in the larger organism of the memesphere. If you create an internet bubble, a network of people who think in the same way, then this group is impermeable to propaganda. It is not a bug, it is a feature of the new memesphere.

You see how things are changing from how desperately the powers that be are trying to take control of the Web using censorship: the devil is not able anymore to convince people that he doesn't exist. Will the pacifists (or their modern equivalent) be exterminated again? Maybe. But maybe not. The great wheel of history keeps moving. It is not following a plan, it is not driven by evil deities: there is nobody driving it and it is creating its path as it follows it. And, as always, it doesn't care about those who are squashed into a pulp under it as it rolls onward. Change is the only thing that never changes. 



Monday, September 20, 2021

Why did the Taliban Win? Lessons From Ancient History

 


How did the Taliban manage to defeat the most powerful army in the world? One word: corruption. It is not new, it has already happened in many other cases in history. Here, I propose a comparison of the recent Taliban campaign with the case of the Numidian wars at the time of the Roman Republic.  (above: these fighters are probably Tajiki, not Taliban, but that does not affect the substance of my interpretation) 


During the 2nd century BC, the Roman Republic attempted to defeat the Numidians, a tribal population inhabiting a desertic area of North-Western Africa. Surely, the Numidian fighters were no match for the mighty Roman armies, yet the Numidian kings held on their own for decades. It was only in 105 BC that their last king, Jugurtha, was definitively defeated by the Romans.

The ups and downs of the Numidian wars left the Romans perplexed. How could it be that those unrefined Barbarians could keep at bay the Romans for so long? The opinion of the historian Sallustius was that the Numidians had used corruption to buy the Roman commanders. Sallustius reports that Jugurtha himself said about Rome, "Venal city! You would sell yourself if a buyer were to appear!".

Sallustius' interpretation is believable, even though it is not substantiated by historical data. Corruption is an unavoidable side effect of money and Rome was the most monetarized society of antiquity. The Romans had built their prosperity on the precious metal mines of Northern Spain and used their wealth to pay the large armies that they used to dominate the Mediterranean Region. But money is a double-edged weapon: it can be used to pay soldiers to fight, but also not to fight, or to fight someone they were not supposed to fight. 

Once corruption has infiltrated society, money becomes everything, and the rule of the game, at all levels, becomes enriching oneself. But what role did corruption play in the war, exactly? Sallustius diplomatically faults King Jugurtha, but the Numidian economy was small, the Numidians were mostly poor shepherds. Where would Jugurtha find the money needed to buy the rich Roman leaders? 

More likely, the Roman Army bought itself off. Setting up a military expedition implies a lot of money being spent at various levels for supplies, weapons, salaries, transportation, etc. And, at all levels, there are chances for bribery. Once the mechanism started, nobody in Rome really wanted Jugurtha defeated. As long as he was alive and fighting, there was money to be made. That's the likely reason why the war dragged for so long. 

On their side, the Numidians were not so badly affected by corruption simply because they were a tribal society. In this kind of society, interpersonal relations are governed by honor, revenge, fealty, and the like -- NOT by money. Trying to corrupt a tribal warlord is not easy: for one thing, where could he spend the money? Besides, a corrupt leader is always at risk of revenge from his own followers. The end result was that the Numidian fighters were fewer in number not as efficient as the Roman legionnaires, but more trustworthy and surely cheaper. 

The Roman surely realized what the problem was. But fighting corruption is always a difficult task, if nothing else because those who are supposed to fight it can be corrupted as well. So, how to solve the problem? There was an interesting trick that could be played. Powerful warlords were among the most corrupt of the corrupted, but with a twist. Whereas petty leaders profited from an ongoing war, rather than from a victory, the top commanders needed victories to gain prestige and money. So, they were efficient war leaders. The solution, then, was to give all the power to a warlord. 

That was already happening at the time of Gaius Marius, with the Roman Republic in a "pre-imperial" condition. In about one century, Rome would be turned into a full-fledged imperial state, ruled by a single, all-powerful emperor. Of course, the emperor could not be corrupted: he already had everything. 

Emperors could keep the empire together, at least as long as there were the resources for doing so. Then, with the exhaustion of the precious metal mines, the Roman state ceased to be a monetarized society. No more money, no more corruption. No corruption, no need for an emperor. And not even for a state. That's how history moves. 

Fast forward to our times, and we can compare the US campaign in Afghanistan with the Roman campaign in Numidia. With all their might, the Romans and the Americans were hampered by the enormous costs of their military apparatuses, in both cases amplified by corruption at all levels. In comparison, the Numidians and the Taliban fighters were much less expensive. 

It is true that the Romans did better than the Americans and eventually succeeded at subduing the Numidians. But think of just one thing: nowadays the descendants of the Berbers who fought the Romans in Numidia are still there, and still call themselves "Berbers." (more exactly ⵉⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖⵏ, ⵎⵣⵗⵏImaziɣen) And where has the Roman Empire gone? Alas...

Note also that to estimate the degree of corruption of the Roman society we need to rely on qualitative reports. But for the degree of corruption of our society, we have more data, even though uncertain: look at this image (source).


That correlates the perceived corruption with the Gini index, a measure of wealth inequality (note that a high corruption index means LOW corruption and vice versa). The US is not in this diagram, but it is more or less in the middle. 

Note the correlation between corruption and inequality: the higher the inequality, the higher the degree of corruption. The least corrupt states (e.g. Denmark) are also the most egalitarian. The opposite holds for corrupt states, say, the Dominican Republic. 

It makes a lot of sense that inequality and corruption are correlated, even though we can't say that one of the two causes the other. More likely, they go in parallel. Of course, in order to corrupt someone, you need to have much more money than they have. Could you corrupt Bill Gates? Of course not, but Bill Gates can corrupt anyone if he wants to. Conversely, in an egalitarian society, it is hard to corrupt a person, especially if you are linked to him or her by bonds involving honor and respect. 

I don't claim to be an expert in Pashtunwali, the code of honor of the Pashtun Afghans, but it looks close enough to societies that I know, such as that of the Italian peasants. It is a section of the Italian society that has mostly disappeared, but it still existed not long ago, so that we can still figure out how that world worked. If you understand that, then it is not difficult to understand how a tribal society can sometimes defeat an empire. It is a question of persistence. It has happened, it will happen again. 

Finally note that, if corruption is linked to inequality, the fact that most Western societies have become more unequal during the past decades means that also corruption has been on the increase -- and that seems to correspond to the general perception. It means that the West is less and less able to win wars, although it may well keep fighting them for the sake of those who profit from them. 

Again, this observation seems to correspond to the events of the past 2-3 decades. Despite its immense military power, the West hasn't been able to gain a definitive victory even against much weaker opponents. Does that mean we need an incorruptible Emperor? 

Ave, Gates Caesar!




Monday, September 13, 2021

The IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille. Something Went Badly Wrong with the Environmental Movement

 

Performers from Hawai'i at the 2021 IUCN Congress in Marseille. I am not sure of what sense did it make to come by plane all the way from Hawai'i to Europe to discuss how to reduce carbon emissions. But I am sure these people were well-intentioned and doing their best. The overall result of the Congress, though, was disappointing. (Photo by Ugo Bardi).


In the year 2 CE (Covid Era), I had enough of seeing vitreous-eyed colleagues and students staring at me from stamp-sized images on a screen. So. I decided to make an attempt to reconnect in person with the world of sustainability and environmental science. The IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille looked promising and it was close enough to where I live that I didn't need to take a plane to get there. And I did. The result was, well, the best I can say is that it was disappointing, And that is perhaps an understatement. 

Please understand that I have no intention to disparage the effort of the people who attended the Congress. Most of them clearly did their best and the results were often interesting and sometimes even inspiring. Even the organizers did a good job with the management of such a large congress. My criticism is more general. 

Let me start with an impression. Every morning, the Congress Center in Marseille was ringed by an impressive screen of policemen in riot gear. I counted 12 police vans parked nearby, and there may have been more. Then, there were policemen in ordinary uniforms, at least one platoon of the French army in full battle gear, and an unknown number of mean-looking people in plain clothes. After you crossed the police ring, you still had to show your green pass, then you would be identified and tagged. Then you would go through a magnetic gate while your bags were x-rayed. After passing another control post, just for added safety, finally you could access the holy grail of the main hall of the Congress Center. At least, there was no crocodile-infested moat to defend it.

Was all that security needed to protect the good citizens of Marseille from those dangerous environmentalists? Or was it to protect the environmentalists from the dangerous citizens of Marseille? Of course, you could say that it was to protect the high-ranking politicians who attended the meeting. Maybe, but when President Macron came, the first day of the meeting, he didn't deem as appropriate to show his royal presence to the plebeians in the main hall. Instead, he manifested himself in a virtual form on a screen. He could have done that from Paris and saved some fuel for the presidential jet plane. What did he say? I don't know, I made a point not to listen to his speech. 

Anyhow, once you were inside, you had the distinct impression of being in a zoo -- or maybe swimming in a glass bowl. The environmentalists looked like those colored fishes that live happily in aquariums but would die almost immediately if released into the polluted Mediterranean sea. Whatever you did, you had the impression of being watched by the government, just as if you were a fish in a tank. 

Apart from the heavy sensation of irrelevance, what was being said at the Congress? What was being proposed? What ideas were being developed? Of course, I couldn't possibly have followed all the talks in the many parallel sessions, although I did my best to visit all the stands. But my impression was that we were not only in a glass bowl but that we all had gone through a dimensional gate and transported back to 20 or 30 years ago. More or less everything that was being said or proposed had already been said or proposed at least 10 years ago. Investments in environmental education, exhortations to consume less, buy local, save energy, keep the thermostat low, separate your waste, taxes on carbon, international treaties, all that. 

Just as an example, I talked with a French researcher about his project on reducing the light pollution of the night sky. A very nice idea, and he had some interesting tricks to show. But I had heard about it already 20 years ago, at least. And when I asked him how the project was going, he told me that they were doing their best efforts, and maybe some progress was taking place. But also that most people and most city administrators did not understand the idea and that they are all convinced that the more light there is, the better, and who cares about the night sky? 

So, it seems that we are stuck with doing again and again things that were proposed and tried during the past 20-30 years but didn't change the trajectory of the world's system. Apparently, environmentalists are convinced that something will change if we keep discussing the same things for the next 20-30 years. 

To be sure, the IUCN Congress had started with an ambitious goal: the idea that 30% of the Earth should be turned into protected wilderness areas. It was clearly inspired by Edward Wilson's "Half-Earth" proposal and it had been floating around before the Congress for long enough that many people became worried that something like that could actually be recommended. So, a "counter-conference on conservation" was held in Marseille the day before the IUCN one started. The idea was to denounce the 30% idea as the “world’s biggest land grab,” and to state that indigenous populations are the best protectors of the natural environment.

I think the counter-conference organizers were unduly worried. In the talks I heard at the IUCN Congress, I never heard anything about the need for 30% wilderness areas worldwide. I may have missed the relevant sessions, but for sure the subject was not prominent in the program. The idea appeared just as a minor blip in the "Marseille Manifesto" the final document that summarizes the congress conclusions. Most of it is pure verbiage, but they also say:
The Congress implores governments to set ambitious protected area and other effective area-based conservation measure (OECM) targets by calling for at least 30% of the planet to be protected by 2030

The choice of the verb "implores" says a lot about the actual power of the IUCN at the international level. When you go to the actual commitments to action in the document, you also find plenty of verbiage, but you read that "France" (it is not said which government body) is committed to "achieve 30% of protected areas nationally by 2022." Remarkably, no other government of the many that were present at the meeting took the same commitment. 

And here we stand. We have been doing our best for years, but nothing changes. All the ecosystem parameters are getting worse by the year, and we are running out of years. We may be doing the thing right, but we are not doing the right thing. But what is the right thing? Does such a thing even exist? Any suggestions?






  

Saturday, September 11, 2021

9/11, the Coup that Failed. The Role of the Memesphere

Octavianus Augustus Caesar (63 BC – 14 AD). Perhaps the most successful leader in history, he didn't just become the absolute ruler of the Roman State but took over the role of the highest religious authority (the "Pontifex Maximum") and transformed himself into a living deity. He was able to turn a democracy into a dictatorship using techniques that were repeated many times in history. But the task was not always successful. It was the case of the 9/11 attacks that did not lead to an absolute dictatorship in the United States. Here, I argue that it was because of the different structure of the memesphere in the 21st century.



In 30 BC, Octavianus, later to be known as "Augustus Caesar," defeated his remaining competitors for the control of the Roman state and took the title of "Augustus," the absolute ruler of the Empire. The most fascinating element of this story is that Octavianus established the pattern of how a successful leader can take over the government and concentrate all power on himself. The recipe goes as follows:
  1. Obtain sufficient funds for the task 
  2. Enlist your supporters in a para-military or military organization. 
  3. Obtain a high-level government position using a mixture of intimidation and legal means.
  4. Exploit a dramatic event to scare everyone and obtain special emergency powers.
  5. Never relinquish your emergency powers, but always increase them. 
This is what Augustus did: his money came initially from the inheritance he obtained from his grand-uncle, Julius Caesar, but surely also from the support of high-level people who wanted tight control of the Roman State. He used the money to acquire a military force that he used to intimidate the Senate and defeat his competitors. Then, he was nominated commander ("imperator"), a title that was initially supposed to be temporary. From his power position, he exploited the disaster of the defeat of Teutoburg, in 9 AD, to scare the Romans with the "Barbarian menace" to obtain even more power. In 12 AD, he took the role of "pontifex maximum" the highest religious authority of the time. Later on, he was worshipped as a living deity. 

The pattern of turning a democracy into an absolute dictatorship was repeated many times in history. In Italy, in the 1920s Benito Mussolini built his power base with money from the Italian industrialists and landlords who were afraid of a Communist takeover. He used the money to create the Fascist party and a paramilitary organization, the blackshirts, that he used to intimidate his adversaries. After the "March on Rome" of 1922, Mussolini and his party gained a landslide electoral victory in 1924. Then, in 1926, Mussolini exploited a failed assassination attempt against him to obtain special powers from the parliament. From then on, Mussolini never relinquished his position of absolute dictator until he was dismissed in 1943, and then assassinated in 1945. 

In Germany, the military-industrial complex supported Adolf Hitler out of fear of the Communists, too. Hitler created the National socialist party and the paramilitary organization of the Brownshirts (the Sturmabteilung). In 1933, the Nazi party won a majority in parliament and Hitler was nominated as Chancellor. Just a few months later, the Nazis exploited the Reichstag Fire in 1933 to stir up a wave of anti-communism. The German parliament passed the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave wide powers to the government. That was the first step toward absolute power for Hitler and he never relinquished it until he committed suicide in 1945. 

There are many similar cases and you see that there is a thread that starts from Augustus' coup of more than 2,000 years ago and leads to the events of 20 years ago: the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center in New York. 

Seen in the light of the historical record, the 9/11 attacks look like a textbook case of a leader who exploits a dramatic event to gain special emergency powers for himself (*). A joint resolution passed by Congress a week after the terror attacks gave the executive branch of government "unchecked power" to deploy the military at will. 

Yet, the 2001 attacks didn't lead to an absolute dictatorship. President Bush used his newly obtained power to incarcerate a large number of people and to wage war worldwide, but at the end of his mandate he stepped down from his post as he was expected to do. Today, after 20 years, there is talk of not renewing the "Patriot Act" of 2001. What happened that prevented (so far) the US from falling into an absolute dictatorship, as it had happened many times to other nations?

The simplest explanation is that the American people are so deeply in love with democracy that they would never accept being ruled by a dictator. Or, it may be that George W. Bush was not the right kind of leader. He didn't have the prestige of Augustus, the eloquence of Hitler, or the cunning skill of Mussolini. And he didn't have a personal militia to support him. Donald Trump was much more like the average populist would-be dictator but, in order to take over the government, he would have needed much more than horned shamans as his personal militia.

Maybe, but I think there are deeper reasons that made it impossible to create in the 21st century the kind of dictatorship that had been common earlier on in the West. Basically, it has to do with the way communication acts in society -- the structure of the "memesphere". 

In the Western societies of the 20th century, communication was dominated by the mass media, first in the form of newspapers, then radio and TV. These communication channels could be controlled in a completely pyramidal structure. Even though there might have been hundreds of newspapers in a country, the main ones were just a few and they could be tightly controlled by the Government or by the dark powers behind. The same was true for the radio and TV channels. 

In other words, the memesphere was purely pyramidal. Communication was vertical: the government decided what memes to propagate and imposed them on people by means of obsessive repetition. It was the definition of "propaganda," a technique already known in ancient Roman times, but that was especially common in the 1920s. 

But, in 2001, the Internet had already become an important communication force, shaping the memesphere in a completely different way. Direct connections among nodes in the memesphere allowed a certain degree of horizontal communication. The Internet-based memesphere was becoming a virtual holobiont able to process information in ways that a purely vertical organization did not allow. 

These two different mechanisms of communication were examined and quantified in a paper that I and my coworkers Perissi and Falsini published on Kybernetes in 2018. We noted how two different kinds of communication can be observed to compete: the "viral" (horizontal) mode and the "fallout" (vertical) mode. 

The possibility of horizontal meme spreading caused the development of a large number of "conspiracy theories" about the 9/11 attacks spreading over the Web mainly by person-to-person communication. These memes could be demonized, ridiculed, dismissed, and contrasted in many ways, but could never be completely eliminated. 

The result was that the polls consistently showed that a significant minority of the US population believed that the attacks were a false flag (*), while a majority kept thinking that the government knew about the attack plans but chose not to stop the attackers. So the government could not obtain the kind of blanketing communication that was possible with the traditional media. It may be argued that the impossibility of obtaining a 100% consensus is the main reason that prevented the taking over of the government by a populist leader. 

Now, 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, the media are still tightly controlled by the government, but the memetic conflict has become harsher. The media are engaged in an all-out attack against the Internet communication sphere. The dissent is now branded as "fake news" and actively suppressed on social media. But the Internet is vast and there are many channels of communication that the government seems to be unable to close.

The virtual battle is raging. It could lead to a return to a pyramidal communication network if the government manages to take control of the memesphere. Or that may turn out to be impossible and the fluid nature of the memesphere may remain alive, leading to a fragmentation of the social sphere. We are already seeing that. As always, we live in interesting times (in the sense of the ancient Chinese malediction). 


(*) These considerations do not depend on whether the official government version of what happened with the 9/11 attacks is true or not. After all, the Roman legionnaires at Teutoburg were exterminated by real Germanic warriors! 

Monday, September 6, 2021

The Age of Exterminations (I): Who are the Typical Victims?

 


The extermination of the witches is a dark spot in the history of Europe, one that we tend to dismiss as the result of an outburst of superstition. But, as always, things are more complex than they seem to be at first sight. Witch hunting had a dark secret: the fact that killing witches was good business for many people because the assets of the victims could be confiscated. You can see this facet of the story in this illustration from the book, "England's grievance discovered..." by Ralph Gardiner, 1655. Note, on the right, the scene described in the text as, "Witchfinder takes his money for his work."


If you think of the story of the witch hunts of the 16th-17th century in Europe, you may be under the impression that the typical witch was an old hag living in a hut at the margins of the village, alone with a black cat.

But no, that wasn't the case. Maybe this kind of marginal people were occasionally killed for being witches, but they were not the usual victims. In reality, witch hunting had a strong monetary component and it was often carried out with a view on making a profit on the confiscation of the assets of the victims. They were not poor and destitute women but, rather, members of the growing mercantile class in Europe. 

The profit-making facet of witch hunting has been often ignored by historians, but it is being reappraised and highlighted in recent times, for instance by Johannes Dillinger (2021) and by Shmakov and Petrov (2018). Both articles are highly suggested and provide a remarkable wealth of data about the financial mechanism that led to witch hunts: in short, there was no (or very little) witch hunting where the government didn't allow the assets of the victims to be confiscated. Killing witches, then, was just one of the many forms of legalized robbery in history,  

It is a fascinating story that has to do with the birth of capitalism in Europe. During the 16th and 15th centuries, Europe was moving from a nearly pure agricultural economy to a commercial and industrial one that involved the formation of a mercantile class that would engage in activities such as money lending, manufacturing, and other services. It was among the members of this newly formed class that the "witches" were found. The landed aristocracy of Europe found it convenient to use the propaganda techniques of the time to rouse the rabble against this new middle class and incorporate their assets. It was a class struggle that died out when the middle class grew to such a level of wealth and power that it could refuse to be victimized. A couple of centuries later, with the French revolution,it was the turn of the landed aristocracy to be exterminated and their assets incorporated by the state.

Witch hunting, then, was just one of the many cases in which wealth transfer was not obtained by trade but by extermination. You can find many examples in history where a population in expansion invaded the land of another population, exterminated them (at least the males), and took the land (and often the females) for themselves. 

A special case is when the extermination is carried out against people who belong to the same society as the exterminators, at least theoretically. Witch hunting was one example, but the mother of all the domestic exterminations was that of the Jews in Germany during the Nazi regime. The ideological reasons for the persecution of the Jews were prominent in the media and in later historiography, but the factor that pushed the extermination onward was that the Jews were relatively wealthy and that their properties could be confiscated for the benefit of the exterminators. Otherwise, you would not find a logic in the German government encouraging the extermination of a category of people that would have been useful for the war effort (the German Jews had fought for Germany during WWI). But, clearly, the extermination benefited the exterminators and that was the element that pushed it onward.

There are more examples of this kind, including the extermination of the European Cathars (a Christian sect) in Europe (1209-1229 CE), that of the Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century, the Rwandans, the Cambodians, and several more. The latest case is the accusation against the Chinese government to be exterminating the Uyghurs, a population living in Xinjiang, a North-Western province of China. Without going into the details, we can say that all these exterminations have several points in common.

1. A relatively wealthy subgroup of society that can be identified by physical, linguistic, or cultural traits, sufficiently large to give a good revenue if defeated and spoiled of its assets.

2. A strained economic, social, or military situation that leads the dominant groups to look for new resources.

3. The lack of effective military defense capabilities on the part of the subgroup.

If these conditions hold, the temptation is strong for a government or for a powerful political group to exploit the situation by convincing people that the subgroup is composed of evil people: they eat children, cast evil spells on you, eat disgusting things, whatever. Then, physical elimination can take place and the assets of the victims can be confiscated.

It has happened so many times that it is unthinkable that it won't happen again. There is no doubt that we are in a difficult moment, both economically and militarily. So, the temptation is strong for the elites to identify one or more subgroups to exterminate and rob of their assets. Who could be the next victims?

I think I can identify some potential extermination candidates for the near future. But I would leave this question to be answered by commenters. Who would you think would be the most likely target for the next round of ethnic/political cleansing?


Thursday, September 2, 2021

Ritual Mutilation as Proof of Group Membership in Stressed Societies

 

 The hands of an elderly member of the Japanese mafia (the "Yakuza"). In addition to the tattoos, note the amputation of the little finger. It is one of the many forms of ritual mutilation practiced in human society.  The idea is that the suffering involved proves the will of the sufferer to belong to a specific group.

Translated from Italian and slightly modified from "Effetto Seneca"

 

Until recently, there existed a criminal organization in Japan whose members went by the name of Yakuza. It was similar to the Italian mafia, so much that it is often called the "Japanese mafia." The Yakuza practiced various forms of ritual mutilation, one was the amputation of the last phalanx of the little finger. Fosco Maraini describes it in his "Meeting with Japan" (1958), telling us that he himself cut his little finger as a protest against the Japanese government during WW2.

Cutting off a phalanx of the little finger is a good example of a ritual mutilation. As an impairment, it is minor, but it is visible, painful, and a test of courage for those who do it. Thus, it is a testimony of belonging to a certain group - in this case the Yakuza. Today, they have almost disappeared in Japan and with them the hands with the amputated little finger. But ritual mutilation in other forms is common in other regions of the world. 

In the western part of Eurasia, there are two types of widespread ritual mutilations: male circumcision and infibulation in its various forms of female genital mutilation. For both, there is talk of possible health benefits, but there is no definite evidence for that. They are, rather, evidence of belonging to a social or religious group. As we know, circumcision is mandatory for Jews, it is common, but not mandatory, among Muslims although, it is less common but not rare among Christians. In Europe, about 20% of the males are circumcised, a percentage that rises to about 80% in the United States. 

All in all, circumcision does not have great effects on the body of the circumcised, but as far as infibulation is concerned, we are talking about a real mutilation that heavily affects the sexuality of the woman who undergoes the practice. It is condemned by the Christian religion, it is not part of the Jewish tradition, and has been the subject of Islamic Fatwas that prohibit it. In many states, it is explicitly prohibited by law.

Yet, infibulation in its various forms tenaciously resists in certain areas of the world where it is an ancient tradition, especially in Africa. It is difficult for us Westerners to realize why women in these regions do not see it as an imposition, but as a source of pride, a proof of maturity, and of belonging to the society in which they live. In these societies, the non-infibulated woman is considered an outcast, an enemy to be isolated and demonized. It is a perverse mechanism that persists despite many attempts to eradicate the practice. 

There are, and were in the past, many other ritual mutilation practices that affect both men and women. It is said that in ancient times the Amazons amputated one of their breasts to shoot better with the bow. It is almost certainly a legend. Even if it were true, it's unlikely it would have improved their ability to skewer enemies with arrows. If the Amazons (assuming they ever existed) did that, it was for the same reason that led the Yakuza to sever a phalanx of their little finger: publicly showing that they belonged to the group.

In China, the binding of girls' feet was practiced until recently. It was a form of mutilation: a real daily torture with consequences that lasted for a lifetime. As adults, these women were unable to walk alone. Fortunately, today it is no longer practiced, but some elderly Chinese women who underwent this practice in their youth are still alive. 

In the West, the prevalence of the Christian vision starting from Paul of Tarsus tended to reject any irreversible intervention on the human body. Nonetheless, minor forms of mutilation remained common, such as piercing the earlobes for earrings. 

More often than not, in recent times, mutilations were performed with the support of "Science." One example was the removal of children's tonsils, as it was fashionable to do in the 1970s. An operation that probably did not cause much harm, but whose usefulness is at least questionable. It is still performed nowadays.

Much worse is the case of radical mastectomy for the treatment of breast cancer. As Siddhartha Mukherjee describes in his book. "The Emperor of All Maladies" (2010), it was an invasive therapy that in some cases involved "the complete excision of all breast tissue, axillary contents, removal of the latissimus dorsi, major pectoral muscles and minor and internal mammary lymph node dissection". And all this without a real medical reason to justify it. The result was a radical and irreversible mutilation that turned the woman into an invalid for the rest of her life.

In our society, theoretically rational, we might think that we have freed ourselves from these customs that we consider superstitions or at least errors of evaluation of a still imperfect science. But the "suffering-based proof of belonging" mechanism is deeply ingrained in our thinking and tends to pop up in one way or another, with or without medical justifications. 

Let's just think about the use of tattoos, considered primitive and barbaric in the West until a few decades ago, today widespread among young people. Getting a tattoo is painful and therefore a test of courage for those who do it. It is also irreversible so that it is proof of definitive belonging to a certain social group. So it is not surprising that it has spread so quickly in a society that gives to the young little or nothing, apart from beatings, real or virtual. 

It is impossible to deny that, under a smattering of rationality, our mentality is still that of much older times. And when we are under social stress, obsessive and punitive tendencies come out easily and are impossible to stop. Thankfully, women today don't have to cut their breasts for better accuracy with the bow (for now), and men don't have to slice off their little fingers to show their courage (for now).  

But society changes in unpredictable ways and today it would be possible to use new ways to prove that someone willingly underwent some kind of painful ritual in order to belong to a certain group. No need to show actual scars, a digital certificate will be enough. Whether this will actually take place is left to the reader to ponder.