Monday, March 28, 2022

Solutions that Worsen the Problem: Economic Sanctions


Economic Sanctions seem to be becoming more and more popular. There is no doubt that they can do a lot of damage to the targeted countries and, in some case, they are true weapons of mass destruction. But are they effective for the purposes they are supposed to have? (image from "Democracy Digest")

Economic sanctions are relatively new: and I can't find anything like that in ancient history. The oldest version known is probably the European blockade enacted by Napoleon against Britain from 1806 to 1814. It damaged more the blocking nations (Europe) than the blocked one (Britain). 

The next important blockade was enacted during World War I against the Central Empires. This one was successful, at least in terms of damaging the blocked nations. The victims of starvation caused by the sanctions are probably to be measured in millions. But whether something is a "success" depends on how you define it. You may argue that the sanctions made the survivors angry enough that they sought revenge 20 years later, with World War II. 

Another important case of economic sanctions was enacted against Italy in 1935 as a punishment for having invaded Ethiopia. In terms of economic damage, it may have been successful: the Italian economy was badly hit. But we could argue that the wrecking of the Italian Economy was more a result of the war expenses than of the sanction. In any case, it made Italians angry enough that they thought it was a good idea to declare war on Britain in 1940. It wasn't, as they soon discovered. 

These examples suggest that sanctions are an effective weapon against weak countries. Actually, they can be a true weapon of mass destruction directed against civilians. Whether they can accomplish anything useful, is another matter. If history tells us something, it is that sanctions tend to achieve results that are exactly the opposite of the intended ones, at least officially. 

And not just that. Sanctions often hurt the sanctioners as much as the sanctioned ones. So, it is hard to understand why they are so popular, especially in a world where we tend to glorify "free trade." But, right now, they are like the Colt .45 at the belt of a gunman in a Western Movie: the first thing that appears as soon as a crisis develops. There may be some logic in the idea, though. After all, sanctions are an inexpensive way to give the impression that the government is "doing something." That is what politicians are looking for. Their worst fear is being labeled as "weak," and the sanctions offer them a chance to avoid that.        

Will the current sanctions against Russia obtain anything useful? We have to see that but, so far, it seems that the rule that sanctions are a solution that worsens the problem is being confirmed. Not only the Russian public remains in favor of the "special operation" in Ukraine, but the sanctions seem to be hurting Western Europe more than Russia. But we are just at the beginning of the story, and we'll have to see what happens in the long run. 

For a historical perspective, below I discuss the case of the sanctions against Italy enacted in 1935.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Effect of the Sanctions: Is Italy Cracking Down Under the Strain?

Posted on "Cassadra's Legacy" in December 2019, republished with a different title and some modifications 

We can learn a lot about the effects of economic sanctions from the story of how Italy reacted to the international economic sanctions imposed on the country in 1935 by a coalition of World Powers. Above, a photo from 1935. It shows a stone slab with the engraved words, "On 18 November 1935, the world besieged Italy. Perennial infamy on those who favored and consumed this absurd crime." Most of these slabs were destroyed after the defeat of Italy in WW2, but some can still be found.

In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia, at that time the only remaining free African country. Why exactly that happened is a long story. Let me just say that, in part, it was a revenge for a defeat suffered long before, when an early attempt at invading Ethiopia had failed. In part, it also had to do with reacting to the financial crash of 1929: governments often tend to seek for external enemies to distract people from internal troubles. Then, in part, it was seen as a way to displease the hated British, seen as guilty of not providing for Italy the coal that the Italian economy needed. And, finally, it had to do with some nebulous dreams about rebuilding the Roman Empire. It may sound silly, today, but if you read what people wrote at that time in Italy, the idea of creating a new Roman Empire was taken seriously.

Whatever the reasons, in 1935 the Ethiopian army was overwhelmed by the modern weaponry deployed by Italy: modern guns, planes, tanks, and the like, with the added help of poison gas bombing, a military innovation for that time. The final result was that the King of Italy gained the dubious honor of taking for himself the title of "Emperor of Ethiopia" and that Italy gained "a place in the sun" in Africa, as the propaganda described the results of the campaign.

A victory, yes, but a hollow one. From the beginning, Ethiopia was only a burden to the Italian economy, and the costs of the military occupation were just too much for the already strained Italian finances. The final result was perhaps the shortest-lived empire in history: it lasted just five years, collapsing in 1941 when the Italian forces in Ethiopia were quickly defeated by a coalition of Ethiopian and allied forces.

An interesting side effect of the invasion of Ethiopia was the story of the imposition of economic sanctions on Italy by the League of the Nations. It was a half-hearted effect to stop the invasion, but the war lasted just 8 months and the sanctions were dropped just two months afterward. Their effect was nearly zero in economic and military terms but, in political terms, it was a completely different story, and the consequences reverberated for years. Here are some of these consequences:

1. The Italians were not only appalled at the sanctions, they were positively enraged, appalled, livid. According to the international laws of the time, for a state to attack another was not in itself a crime (unlike the use of chemical weapons, but that came to be known only later). So, most Italians felt that they were punished for having done something -- annexing an African country -- that the other Western Powers had done many times before without anyone complaining. The result was a burst of national pride and a strong wave of popular support for the war. That generated also a wave of personal popularity for the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, seen as the one who was making Italy great again (some things never change in politics).

2. The sanctions soon were presented by the government's propaganda as an epic and grandiose struggle undertaken by the glorious "proletarian nation" that Italy was against a coalition of the great plutocracies of the world, Britain in particular. And, by defeating this coalition, Italy showed that it was a great power, too, on a par with the others. This idea had terrible consequences when it led the Duce, Benito Mussolini, to think that Italy could match the military capabilities of the major world powers in WW2.

3. The government propaganda in Italy also used the sanctions to magnify the importance of the Ethiopian campaign. If the Northern Plutocrats had reacted so violently against Italy, it was because they feared Italy very much. As a result, Ethiopia became a national priority, to be kept at all costs. At the start of WW2, Italy had more than 100,000 fully equipped troops there. Without the possibility of being resupplied from Italy, these troops had no chance against the British, and they were rapidly wiped out. What might have happened if they had been available in other war theaters? It is unlikely that the final outcome of WW2 would have changed, but, who knows? The battle for Egypt in 1942 could have had a different outcome if Italy had been able to field 100,000 more troops there and, maybe, take the Suez Canal.

This catalog of disasters is so impressive that we might wonder if the sanctions were not just the result of incompetence and idiocy, but of an evil machination. Could it be that the British wanted Italy to engage in an adventure that was sure to lead the country to ruin, a few years later? Of course, it is unlikely that the British had been planning exactly for what happened, but it is not impossible that they understood that the Italian military apparatus would be weakened by the task of keeping Ethiopia and that would make Italy a less dangerous adversary in case of an all-out military conflict. If the British had planned that, they truly deserved the reputation they had at the time (and that they still have) described with the name of the "Perfidious Albion."

Thursday, March 24, 2022

The Tortuous Way to Nuclear Fusion

Giuseppe Cima discusses the real perspectives of fusion energy

By Giuseppe Cima

Newspapers make you think that nuclear fusion for electricity production is within reach and that, unlike fission, it is cheaper, cleaner, and safer. Okay, it's not online yet, it is argued, but it's up to us how fast it will supply useful energy. Things appear more complicated than that as soon as we take a look at the extraordinary variety of methods adopted by all the initiatives proposed.

Some use fuel from nuclear warheads, such as Commonwealth Fusion Systems, of which ENI is a shareholder. Others use the boron-proton reaction, such as the TAE, financed by ENEL, Tokamak Energy promotes magnetic confinement, and First Light Fusion of Oxford has been inspired by the "claw" of Alpheus heterochaelis, the gun shrimp claw. There are about thirty companies in this market and just as many, very different, methods. For the most part, these methods have been already studied, and discarded, by the academic community, and yet the industry has not decided which path to follow. This confusion indicates how distant the goal is. Let's revisit the story of fusion and the origin of this explosion of promises.

The inspiration for nuclear fusion came from looking at the sky, it originated with the mystery of the energy that powers the stars. At first they thought of gravity, a non-trivial idea for a body as large as the Sun. Jupiter, for example, a gaseous planet, has a surface temperature twice that of the Earth, powered by gravity while the planet shrinks of a few millimeters per year. Gravity was also Lord Kelvin's hypothesis for the Sun's power during a famous meeting of the Royal Society on January 21, 1887. The surface temperature of the Sun made him deduce that our star had been shining for about twelve million years, much longer than the Bible states.

William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin

Paleontologists were upset, gravitational energy doesn't fit the data, fossils on Earth are evidence of a Sun that has been shining for at least several hundred million years. The discussion remained on hold for a while until Arthur Eddington in the 1920s hypothesized that the heat originates from the fusion of hydrogen into helium. It was already known that helium weighs significantly less than four hydrogen atoms and we now know that this difference accounts for the solar radiation. But something was still wrong, the internal temperature seemed too low to support the relevant nuclear reactions. A few years later, new hypotheses emerged on the decay of hydrogen into helium and in Cambridge, in the 1930s the first accelerators experimentally proved the existence of fusion reactions. In the 1940s some illustrious veterans of Los Alamos - the physicists who worked on the atomic bomb - studied the problem, correctly identifying the main reactions and stellar nucleosynthesis was satisfactorily understood. Recent observations of solar neutrinos confirm the hypotheses of the 1940s: fusion of ordinary hydrogen, the same of H2O, provides all the energy radiated by the Sun.

What does this story have to do with the nuclear fusion that is now being talked about so much in the newspapers? Almost nothing. It's surprising but the stars, thanks to their enormous size and mind-blowing pressure, shine at 5,000 degrees while burning exasperatingly slowly, with the power intensity (ratio of power to mass) of a compost pile. If not, they would rapidly explode and disappear. We, on Earth, with our energy range of ten kilowatts per capita, would not know what to do with stellar fusion which has the power of our basal metabolic rate. What could be used on Earth comes from another branch of science: weapons.

After the development of fission nuclear devices in World War 2, we also developed the fusion of light atoms and in the 1950s, in order to overcome the power limits of fission, the first fusion bombs were developed in secrecy. This time hydrogen, the main component of the Sun and of the water molecule, is not the fuel but two of its rare isotopes are. From these isotopes, deuterium and tritium, come the most powerful weapons, such as the mother of all bombs, the Soviet 40 megaton Tsar Bomb (hopefully none is left in stock) that uses a conventional fission bomb to trigger the hydrogen fusion. Cheaper fission weapons, the so called boosted bombs, use the same principle. Now we know what's the ideal fuel for applications of fusion, the one that burns most easily, a mixture of deuterium and tritium, (DT). Almost immediately people started to think of using fusion for electricity production and started research programs, unclassified, from the 1960s.

Magnetic Confinement Fusion, MCF, turned out to be the method that attracted the favor of those looking for continuous combustion of deuterium-tritium and until now, it has remained the preferred way. The most popular MCF device is called TOKAMAK, a Russian acronym attributed to its inventors, Igor Tamm and Andrei Sakharov, (the latter is the same person who developed the H-bomb and civil rights fame- the world of physicists 50 years ago was smaller.)

Fusion is closely linked to thermonuclear weapons: they have in common the raw material, sophisticated and rare components - deuterium and tritium - certainly not just seawater, as we often hear. Deuterium, about .02 % of hydrogen, is readily available and costs only $ 4 per gram. Tritium, on the other hand, is not present in nature, has an average life of ten years, and is produced only by CANDU nuclear reactors. Stocks of tritium in the world consist of about 50 kg accumulated over the years, barely enough for future experiments and it is a thousand times more expensive than gold.

The weapons solved the tritium scarcity by creating it from an isotope of lithium bombarded by their own neutrons. It is the same lithium that is used for modern cell phone batteries and electric cars, but fusion would burn it in such modest quantities as not to increase its scarcity. Nevertheless, for civilian applications of fusion, the possibility of extracting enough tritium from lithium is far from obvious, the theoretical predictions are not good, experiments have never been made, and it is one of the most relevant results we expect from ITER, a gigantic magnetic confinement experiment whose construction in southern France will produce results hopefully in a couple of decades.

It must also be borne in mind that, if fusion ever proved possible, these 1 GW reactors would have to line up by the thousands to supply themselves with the tritium they need to contribute to the 16 TW global energy hunger.

It is already clear that three common statements about fusion, namely that it is near, cheap, and safe, are premature at best. The fuel is not seawater but it is hard to find and is the same stuff as most nuclear devices use, those same weapons which would be so dangerous in the wrong hands.

For now, there are still no fusion weapons, currently, they need a fission trigger, but explosions of pure deuterium-tritium would be very attractive because, at equal destructive power, they are "cleaner", with less radioactive leftover than the plutonium ones. It's no coincidence that the second-largest fusion project in the world, nearly $ 10 billion in funding, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's NIF in California, has been arranged by the Department of Defense and not by the Department of Energy. NIF has shown it can detonate millimeter-diameter deuterium-tritium capsules triggered by the world's largest laser, the size of three football fields. For now they are not explosions of a kiloton, a thousand tons of TNT, but of a milliton, a thousandth of a ton, a stick of TNT. However, we know that, as in all detonations, the difficult operation is to trigger them. NIF is also promoted as a method suitable for a continuous energy production reactor. I leave it to you to imagine how realistic it would be to string hundreds of explosions per minute with sub-millimeter precision for decades, explosions that individually already stress to the limit a steel vacuum vessel the size of a gymnasium.

Inertial Confinement Fusion, ICF, of which the NIF is the best-known example, is not the only alternative to ITER's magnetic confinement, MCF. Between the very high fuel densities of the ICF, hundreds of times the solid, and the very low densities of the MCF, tens of thousands less dense than our atmosphere, intermediate densities could be employed by fusion by exploiting the magnetic field of MCF and the fast compression of ICF. There have been a few attempts in this direction in the history of fusion but at Colleferro, Italy, in the CNEN laboratories, in the 1960s, experiments were carried out with promising results. High-intensity sources of fusion neutrons were produced by imploding magnetized plasmas with the aid of conventional chemical explosives. The reason for the limited popularity of this method as a potential energy source is found again in how difficult it would be to produce high-frequency explosions, for years and years, as would be required in a reactor. Low-powered, low fallout, tactical bombs immediately come to mind as a possibility for the intermediate-density method. From the 1960s onwards there has been little mention of medium density fusion, until a few years ago when a small private initiative was born in Canada: General Fusion (GF).

GF offers something similar to those earlier Colleferro experiments, but with mechanical pistons instead of explosives. According to General Fusion, the new technique would allow the combustion of deuterium-tritium to be repeated cyclically at a potentially attractive rate and cost. In Colleferro, using explosives, they had not even reached ignition and no one would have noted General Fusion, one of the dozens of private fusion initiatives, were it not that Jeff Bezos, of Amazon fame, decided to invest up to two billion dollars in this venture. Regarding the General Fusion proposal, it is a real shame we can't seek the opinion of the CNEN, now ENEA, researchers who carried out the Colleferro experiments. Unfortunately, the signatories of the publications of those times are no longer with us. This observation reminds us of the very long development times of fusion experiments, a crucial problem in this field. Almost equally interesting it would be to ask Jeff Bezos if he ever noticed that the devices whose development he finances could also help to invent new nuclear armaments.

Military applications of civil fusion should certainly be a major drawback, but the inevitable radioactive activation of fusion reactor structures is even more so. Unlike the solid core of a fission reactor, the thin fuel of a magnetic confinement fusion reactor is transparent to the neutrons it produces and they are stopped only by the first solid wall they encounter. Even ITER, just an experiment, will generate tens of thousands of tons of radioactive material whose disposal would certainly contribute to the cost of the kilowatt-hour of a conceptually similar reactor.

The price of energy will ultimately decide the development of nuclear fusion. The comparison, for now, is with natural gas, which produces electricity in the US at the unbeatable cost of 2 ¢ per kilowatt-hour and with the new renewables, wind and solar, now only three or four times more expensive than gas and, in some cases, even less expensive. Nuclear plants are too large to enjoy the economies of scale of mass-produced gas turbines, solar panels and wind turbines. This feature penalizes fusion enormously and there are solid physical and safety reasons to make us think that this situation will not change. Fusion is now too far behind in its industrial development to be able to participate in decarbonization in this century, which is why it must be pursued with a very long-term perspective and kept away from financial speculation.

Giuseppe Cima, I researched nuclear fusion in labs and universities in Europe and the US : Culham labs in UK, ENEA in Frascati, CNR in Milan, University of Texas in Austin and published more than 70 peer reviewed papers in this field. After loosing faith that a deconstructionist approach to fusion could yield better reactor performances than already indicated by present day experiments I started an industrial automation company in Texas. I have now retired in Venezia, Italy, where I pursue my lifetime interests: environmental protection, energy conservation, teaching technology and science, the physics of mechanical horology.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Ukraine: a Glimpse of the New Eurasian Empire


      Empires are alive, they move, they grow, they feel, they die. They have a soul that sometimes can be glimpsed, as in this unbelievable scene from "Dragon Blade" (2015). A silly movie but, at some points, it has a force, a presence, -- yes, a soul -- that grips you. The encounter of two great Empires, the Roman and the Chinese, is told as if it were the meeting of two persons, who are diffident at first, then they discover that they like and respect each other. Empires are part of the human adventure, part of the human ways, of what humans are. And nowadays, perhaps, we are beginning to see the birth of something that never existed before: the first true Eurasian Empire. 

Eurasia is a gigantic landmass, the largest continent, the most populated one. So huge it is, that over thousands of years of history, it was never completely conquered and turned into a single empire. The two greatest empires of antiquity that arose on the opposite side of Eurasia, the Roman Empire and the Chinese Empire, never came directly in contact with each other.

Then, at some moment during the 2nd century BC, or maybe even earlier, the many local commercial roads that crisscrossed Eurasia became connected, forming a network that crossed the whole continent. It was the Silk Road, an offspring of the domestication of the camel, a new transportation technology that replaced the more expensive wheeled vehicles. 

Vaster than empires and more slow, the Silk Road was to bring enormous changes. The Romans and the Chinese started trading with each other. Silk moved from East to West and, gold moved from West to East. In the long run, the Romans were ruined by their passion for luxury items coming from Asia. Their gold went to China and the empire collapsed with the depletion of their gold mines in Spain. 

In time, the Europeans learned how to make silk in their lands, but the Silk Road continued to exist. During the 13th century, the Venetian merchant Marco Polo traveled all the way to China by camel, following overland routes. At about the same time, the Mongol armies swept over Eurasia from their base in the very center of the continent. Their empire was the largest ever seen in history. But they could not expand it all the way to the limits of the Eurasian continent. In the East, they were stopped by the divine wind (the Kamikaze) in Japan. In the South-West, they were stopped by the Mamluk warriors in the Middle East. In Western in Europe, the shores of the Atlantic Ocean were too far even for the nimble Mongol horsemen. 

Empires come and go. After that the Mongols were gone, it was the turn of the empire of the man of iron, Timur, also known as Tamerlane. He couldn't conquer the whole Eurasia, either. Timur was the last of the great nomadic conquerors, made obsolete by the development of gunpowder and firearms.

During the 19th century, the coal-based West European states tried more than once to expand into Eurasia. Their armies never managed to do more than march into the East-European plains, to be destroyed there. It was the destiny of Napoleon's Grande Armée in 1812, then of the Germans in two successive, ill-fated attempts. At the same time, the "Great Game" ("bolshoya igra") was being played: The land-based Russian Empire and the seafaring British Empire battled each other for the control of Eurasia, later with Britain replaced by the US. These two Empires never fought each other directly, except for a brief episode during the Crimean War (1853-1856). Neither could occupy Eurasia, and they jockeyed at the edges of the respective borders. Afghanistan was a watershed where one or the other empire tried to establish a foothold. Neither succeeded. The latest attempt by the US empire ignominiously crumbled in 2020.

While all this was happening, China remained the largest Eurasian state, sometimes conquered, sometimes conquering. At the time of admiral Zheng He, in the early 1400s, China tried for the first time to expand beyond its borders. Zheng He's fleet sailed all over the Indian Ocean, reaching Africa and establishing a Chinese influence in the area. Eventually, China abandoned its seafaring power: it remained a land-based power. 

The late 19th and the early 20th centuries were a disastrous period for China, besieged and attacked from all directions. But, with the end of World War 2, China started to rebuild its economy. By the 21st century, China was poised to become the world's #1 economic power, and that had strategic implications. At present, the Chinese seem to have decided that they don't want to challenge the U.S. maritime power directly. Instead, for the first time after the reign of Genghis Khan, the prospect of a land-based Eurasian Empire is becoming a real possibility. 

What would make the new continental empire possible is the "Belt and Road Initiative", proposed by the Chinese government. It is a "Silk Road 2.0," that would link the Eastern shores of Eurasia with Western Europe and Africa by means of high-speed trains. It includes a maritime network of lanes that follows and expands on where the old Zheng He fleet had sailed. A gigantic project on a timescale of decades, perhaps centuries. The Chinese do think long-term. 

But a transport infrastructure is not enough to create an empire: energy is needed to make it function. Up to now, the booming Chinese economy has been functioning mainly on coal, but the Chinese seem to understand that they can't continue for long with that. They are diversifying, expanding their nuclear and renewables industry, at present the largest in the world. Nevertheless, becoming independent of fossil fuels will still take decades. That is pushing China to collaborate with Russia, which can provide oil and gas for the transition phase, as well as mineral resources, food, and timber. 

What we are seeing in the world right now is a transient phase of the slow development of an integrated Eurasian Economy. The war in Ukraine is having the effect of decoupling the Central Eurasian economy from the Western economy. It may be seen as part of a strategic design to control the Eurasian resources. No matter who started the war, nor how it will end, the Russian resources that once went to Europe will soon go south, to China. Western Europe will be demoted to a coastal appendage of the Western Maritime Empire, expendable as needed. 

It is curious how Western Europe not only accepted to be cut off from the Russian resources they desperately need, but enthusiastically acted for that purpose. The Chinese may have put to work a precept from Sun Tzu that goes as, "the opportunity to beat your enemy is provided by the enemy himself." One of the (many) problems Westerners have is that they can't control their own propaganda, and, in this case, they have directed it against themselves. We cannot say whether the Chinese gave a push in that direction, or just exploited a trend. In any case, it happened.  Western Europe has locked itself out of Central Eurasia while thinking they were locking the Eurasians in. 

At present, the Chinese are working on new financial instruments to decouple the Eurasian financial system from the dominance of the US dollar, and to access the Middle Eastern and African resources directly. India has good reasons to join this effort, just as Iran and many other Asian and African countries do. With this tool, the Chinese can build a Central Asian block of enormous economic power, while Western Europe has been pushed into irrelevance. At least, that gives Europeans a chance to put into practice their idea of the "EnergieWende" -- the transition to renewable energy. So far, it was mostly smoke and mirrors, but now they'll have to work on it for real. They will find that it won't be as easy as it was proposed, especially if they have to do it while their economies are collapsing. But, after all, problems are always opportunities, at least if you can solve them. 

The war in Ukraine may die out in the coming weeks, or it may expand, but that matters little. It is just a brief flare in a story that unfolds on a timescale of decades and centuries. The Russian philosopher Alexandr Dugin has been promoting for some time the concept of "Eurasianism" as a new unifying approach to governing Eurasia. In the West, Dugin's ideas are not popular in the mainstream debate. But, if they exist, it means that there exists a current of thought that examines this subject on the basis of the concept that one day Eurasia will exist as a coordinated political entity. 

Will the Eurasian Empire be a good thing or a bad thing? We cannot say: empires are not bad and are not good. They are. And they will be. 

Saturday, March 19, 2022

The Top Gangs of the Planet


Gangsters are a feature of human society and, being Italian, I know a few things of the way they organize themselves in Italy: Mafia, Cosa Nostra, Camorra, 'Ndrangheta, the Corleonesi, and a few more. To say nothing about the international versions of the same idea: the Yakuza, the Zetas, the Нохчийн, the Triad, and many more. My impression is that the mafia is a universal kind of organization, diffused everywhere, in different forms, with different names, but always more or less the same. So, I have no doubts that governments can and do behave like mafias. There have been several clear examples, recently. Here is a reflection received from "Bill" on the "Seneca Effect" blog, published with his permission. Obviously, it as a piece of fiction, but I think it does have something to do with reality.

About representing state's actions as played on a stage, see this post.


The World is a Mafia 
by "Bill"

I’ve been reading and thinking about this Ukraine thing a lot, and I think it makes no sense to get emotional and pick a side to root for.

The way I look at it, there are three top governments/gangs on planet earth. Let’s call them The Eagles, The Bears and The Dragons. The Eagles are still top dog, but their boss is senile, and his cadre is unable to deal with reality. The Eagles know that the Bears and Dragons are moving in and want to stop them. One plan was to use the gang that used to be part of the Bears, The Weasels, to cause problems for the Bears“Look, don’t worry we got your back. If push comes to shove, we’ll take on the Bears.”

So, for a long time, The Weasels made trouble for the Bears.

And the Bears let it slide because they weren’t ready to take on the Eagles. But, that day did come, and presently the Bears are stomping the shit out of The Weasels. And, the Dementia Don of the Eagles said, “I’ll pray for you.”

Now, The Eagles are trying to kill off The Bears by creating an incredible firestorm of emotional support for The Weasels and hatred of The Bears. And, stopping The Bears' access to credit, dollars, McDonald's, and Netflix.

The Bears are going to sell their gas and oil etc. to The Dragons instead of to the Eagles-aligned little gangs. And, keep stomping The Weasels until they come to their senses and pledge allegiance to the Bears.

The Dragons are just sitting quietly, thinking how to make a buck out of the whole mess, and waiting for their chance to be the world’s top gang.

As for me and the rest of the little people on planet earth, none of the gangs gives a rat’s ass about what happens to us. If a new gang becomes the top gang, it will be as bad as or worse than the present top gang.

Monday, March 14, 2022

All the World is a Stage: How the Global Drama is Being Played Out


The "Commedia dell'Arte" was a form of popular theatre, often played without a script. The masked actors would improvise according to the characteristics of their "persona", their mask.

There are many ways of predicting the future, and my remote ancestors, the Etruscan Haruspices, would do it by examining the liver of a freshly killed goat. I may have inherited from them my interest in the future, although I don't usually go around killing goats. 

A gentler way of studying the future consists in considering the world as a stage. You know what the characters are, what they want, the way they usually behave. Then, when you put them on stage, they may act and create a drama even without following a script. It was the way the ancient Commedia dell'Arte worked. No script, actors would just play their part, according to their "persona." a term that in Latin means "mask" and that in our times came to be related to "personality,"

It may also work for states. They have a certain persona, a way to behave that may be predictable. About two months ago, I proposed an interpretation of the current drama patterned on an older drama: the European tragedy of World War 2. The actors, the states, were different, but their masks were very similar, and I sketched out what their behavior could have been. 

You see how things are going: the world powers are acting on stage as their masks impose them to do. In particular, the EU is playing the role that was of Italy in 1940. The lack of natural resources forces the EU to depend on foreign sources, in particular on importing natural gas from Russia -- which plays the role that was of Britain in the 1930s: that of fossil fuel exporter. In the old drama, in 1940, Italy attacked its main coal supplier, Britain, in a desperately ineffective campaign. In my earlier post, I wrote that the current situation "could easily develop into a similar outcome as in 1941, with the EU doing something completely idiotic: attacking Russia." It is happening, although only indirectly, so far. And, as things stand, the EU campaign doesn't seem to be much more effective than the old Italian campaign against Britain, although not (yet?) turning into a similar humiliating disaster. 

The new drama is just in its early stages. If it continues along the same lines as the old one, we'll see the involvement of the bigger players and the growing confrontation will lead to some kind of final catharsis. Let's just hope that, afterward, there will be someone left to ponder on what has happened.

(h/t "Art Deco") 

Monday, January 10, 2022

How to keep gasoline prices low: bomb your gas station


An Italian fighter plane (note the "fasci" symbols on the wings) shot down in England in November 1940, during WW2 (source). Sending obsolete biplanes with open cockpits against the modern British Spitfires is one of the most glaring examples of military incompetence in history. Among other things, this old tragedy may give us hints about the current situation in the world and, in particular, why the consumers of fossil fuels tend to bomb their suppliers. 

Not everyone in Europe has understood exactly what is happening with gas prices, yet, but the consequences could be heavy. For a brief moment, prices rose of a factor ten over what was considered as "normal." Then, prices subsided a little but still remain way higher than before. Electricity prices are directly affected by the trend and that is not only traumatic for consumers, but also for the European industry. 

So, what's happening? As usual, interpretations are flying free in the memesphere: those evil Russians, the conspiracy of the Americans, it is all a fault of those ugly Greens who don't want nuclear energy, the financial lobby conspiring against the people, etcetera.

Let me try an approach a little different. Let me compare the current situation with that of the 1930s in Europe. Back then, fossil fuels were already fundamental for the functioning of the economy, but coal was the truly critical resource: not for nothing it was called "King Coal."

The coal revolution had started to appear in Europe in the 19th century. The countries that had large coal reserves, England, Germany, and France, could start their industrial revolutions. Others were cut off from the bonanza: the lack of coal was the main cause of the decline of the Southern Mediterranean countries. The Turkish empire, the "sick man of Europe," was not really sick, it was starved of coal. 

But it was not strictly necessary to have coal mines to industrialize: it could be done by importing coal from the producing countries. Sailing ships could carry coal at low cost just about everywhere in the world, the problem was to transport it inland. Coal is bulky and heavy, the only way to do that is to have a good network of waterways. And having that depends on climate: the Southern Mediterranean countries are too dry to have it. But Northern Mediterranean countries had the network and could industrialize: it was the case of Italy. 

Italy went through its industrial revolution much later than the Northern European countries but succeeded using British coal. That, of course, meant that Italy became dependent on British coal imports. Not a problem as long as the two countries were friendly to each other. Unfortunately, as it often happens in life, money may well take the priority over friendship. 

In the early 1920s, coal production in England reached a peak and couldn't be increased any more. That, of course, led to higher prices and cuts in exports. At that time, nobody could understand how depletion affects production (not even nowadays people do). So most Italians took the reduced coal supply from Britain as a geopolitical attack. It was an evil strategy of the decadent plutocracy called the Perfidious Albion, specifically designed to harm the young and growing southern countries.  

The Italian conquest of Ethiopia was the turning point of the struggle. Britain reacted by stopping the exports of coal to Italy. That, and other international economic sanctions, pushed the Italian economy, already crippled by the cost of the war, to the brink of collapse. Given the situation, events played out as if following a prophecy written down long before. Italy had to rely more and more on German coal and that had obvious political consequences. 

The tragedy became a farce when old Italian biplanes tried to bomb Britain into submission in 1940. The campaign lasted just two months, enough for the Italian contingent to take heavy losses before it was withdrawn (*). It was not just a tactical blunder, but a strategic disaster since it gave the British and their allies an excuse to bomb Italy at will. Which they did, enthusiastically and very successfully. 

The curious thing about this disastrous campaign is how it inaugurated a tradition: bombing one's supplier of fossil fuels. Italy's bombing of Britain was just the first of a long series: in August 1941, the British attacked and bombed Iran to secure the Iranian oil wells. They were much more successful than the Italians and Iran surrendered in less than a week. In the same year, in November, the Japanese attempted the same trick by bombing the United States, their main supplier of oil. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a tactical success, but a major strategic disaster, as we all know. 

After WWII, the "Carter Doctrine" implied the strategic value of oil producers in the Middle East. One of the outcomes was the protracted bombing of Iraq from 1991, still intermittently ongoing. Other oil suppliers bombed by Western states were Libya and Syria. 

In short, the tradition of bombing one's suppliers of fuels remains alive and well. Whether it can accomplish anything better than the disastrous attempt of Italy in 1941 is debatable, to say the least. After all, it is equivalent to blasting away your neighborhood gas station in order to get the gas you need, but this is the way the human mind seems to work. 

So, on the basis of this historical tradition, let's try to build a narrative about what's going on, right now, with the gas supply to Europe. We just need to translate the roles that some countries had in the 1930s with those of today. 

Coal --> Natural Gas
Italy --> Western Europe (EU)
Britain --> Russia
Germany --> USA

The correspondence is very good: we have a consumer of fossil energy (now Western Europe, then Italy) which is militarily weak, but threatens the supplier (Now Russia, then Britain) with military action despite the obvious superiority of the latter. The weak consumer (Europe/Italy) feels that it can get away with this suicidal strategy because it has the backup of a powerful ally (Now the USA, then Germany). 

Just like Britain did in 1936 to Italy, Russia appears to have reduced the supply of gas to Europe. In both cases, the result was/is a crisis in the economy of the consumers. Just as it happened in the late 1930s, the stronger ally is coming to the rescue: in 1936, Germany started supplying coal to Italy by rail, now the US is sending cryogenic gas to Europe -- both are expensive methods of transportation but allow the supplier to access a market that would have been barren, were it not for political reason. But becoming the customers of a militarily powerful country has political costs. 

The correspondence is so good that the current situation could easily develop into a similar outcome as in 1941, with the EU doing something completely idiotic: attacking Russia, hoping for the support of the powerful US ally. (also, traditionally, attacking Russia is done in Winter: what could go wrong?). 

One conclusion of this story is that humans always tend to worsen whatever major problem they happen to face. Apart from this, perhaps there is an alternative scenario that could lead Europe away from the perspective of nuclear annihilation: maybe we can learn something from the Italian experience. 

In 1936, during the coal embargo imposed by Britain, Italy carried out an attempt to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels that went under the name of "autarchy" (Autarchia). It was based on the renewable technologies available at that time, and it involved some crazy ideas, such as making shoe soles out of cardboard and dresses out of fiberglass. But, on the whole, the idea of relying as much as possible on national and local products made plenty of sense. It didn't work, mainly because the government squandered the Italian resources in useless wars, but, who knows? Today it might work better if we don't make the same mistake. 

(*) The Italian pilots had to fight with obsolete canvas biplanes: much slower than the British Spitfires. The Italian planes were also poorly armed, without an armored cockpit (the pilots used sandbags as makeshift armor), without sufficient heating, without the right training. And, of course, poor reliability of almost every mechanical system in a cold climate. Most of the Italian losses were due to mechanical failures, while no British planes are reported to have been lost to the Italians. If the definition of "epic" involves fighting against an overwhelmingly superior enemy, then the experience of the Italian force in the Battle of Britain can surely be defined in this way: an epic disaster. But whoever had this absurd idea deserved to be hanged, and at least one of them was.    

Friday, March 11, 2022

Strategy Without Tactics is the Slowest Road to Victory -- Lessons from the Italian Attack on Greece in 1940


I do not claim to be an expert in military matters or international politics, but I think we can learn a lot from history. There follows a post that I published a few years ago a few years ago on "Cassandra's Legacy," that I think is worth re-publishing in view of the current situation. 

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) led the Italian government from 1922 to 1943. During the final years of his career, he made a series of truly colossal mistakes that led to disaster for Italy and for him, personally. Was Mussolini mad? An idiot? Or brain damaged? We cannot say for sure, but the problem with the way the minds of leaders function seems to be more and more important in our times.

An evident trend that we observe in history is that, in times of crisis, strong leaders tend to take over and assume all powers. It has happened with the Romans, whose government system moved from democracy to a military dictatorship. It seems to be happening to us, too, with more and more power being concentrated in the hands of the man (rarely the woman) at the top of the government's hierarchy.

There are reasons for this trend. Human society, as it is nowadays, doesn't seem to show any sign of collective intelligence. It is not a "brain," it can't plan for the future, it just stumbles onward. So, in a certain way, it makes sense to put a real brain in charge. The human brain is the most complex thing we know in the whole universe and it is not unreasonable to hope that it could manage society better than a mob.

The problem is that, sometimes, the brain at the top is not so good, actually it may be horribly bad. Like in the movie "Young Frankenstein," even with the best of goodwill, we may put abnormal brains inside society's head. Dictators, emperors, warlords, big men, generalissimos, strongmen, tycoons, and the like often indulge in killing, torturing, and oppressing their subjects, as well as in engaging in unprovoked and ruinous wars. On top of all that, they are also often sexual perverts. The final result is that they look like the prototypical evil madman character of comics or movies, complete with bloody eyes, wicked smile, and Satanic laughing.

But simply defining leaders as "mad" or "evil" doesn't tell us what makes their minds tick. Could some of them be truly insane? Maybe brain-damaged? Or is it just a kind of personality that propels them to the position they occupy? These are very difficult questions because it is impossible to diagnose mental illness from one person's public behavior and public statements. Doing that is, correctly, even considered unethical for professionals (even though it is done all the time in the political debate).

Here, I am not claiming to be saying anything definitive on this subject, but I think we can learn a lot if we examine the well-known case of Benito Mussolini, the Italian "Duce" from 1922 to 1943, as an example of a behavior that can be seen as insane and, also, rather typical for dictators and absolute rulers.

The mistakes that Benito Mussolini made during the last stages of his career as the prime minister of Italy were truly colossal, including declaring war on the United States in 1941. Let me give you a less well-known but highly significant example. In October 1940, the Italian army attacked Greece from Albania, a story that I discussed in a previous post. That implied having to cross the Epirus mountains in winter and how in the world could anyone think that it was a good idea? Why not wait for spring, instead? Unsurprisingly, the result was a military disaster with the Italian troops suffering heavy losses while stuck in the mud and the snow of the Epirus mountains during the 1940-41 winter, until the Germans came to the rescue - sensibly- in the following Spring. In a certain sense, the campaign was successful for the Axis because, eventually, Greece had to surrender. But it was also a tremendous waste of military resources that could have been used by Italy for the war effort against the British in North Africa. The blunder in Greece may have been a major factor in the Italian defeat in WWII.

The interesting point about this campaign is that we have the minutes of the government reunions that led to the ill-fated decision of attacking Greece. These documents don't seem to be available online, but they are reported by Mario Cervi in his 1969 book "Storia della Guerra di Grecia" (translated into English as "The Hollow Legions"). It is clear from the minutes that it was Mussolini, and Mussolini alone, who pushed for starting the attack at the beginning of Winter. During a reunion held on Oct 15, 1940, the Duce is reported to have said the date for the attack on Greece had been set by him and that "it cannot be postponed, not even of one hour." No reason was given for having chosen this specific date and none of the generals and high-level officers present at the reunion dared to object and to say that it would have been better to wait for spring to come. The impression is that Italy was led by a bumbling idiot surrounded by yes-men, and the results were consistent with this impression.

What made Mussolini behave in this way? There is the possibility that his brain was not functioning well. We know that Mussolini suffered from syphilis and that it is an illness that can lead to brain damage. But a biopsy was performed on a fragment of his brain after his death, in 1945, and the results were reasonably clear: no trace of brain damage. It was the functional brain of a 62-year-old man, as Mussolini was at the time of his death.

Mussolini is one of the very few cases of high-level political leaders for whom we have hard evidence of the presence or absence of brain damage. The quintessential evil dictator, Adolf Hitler, is said to have been suffering from Parkinson's or other neurological problems, but that cannot be proven since his body was burned to ashes after his suicide, in 1945. After the surrender of Germany, several Nazi leaders were examined in search of neurological problems. For one of them, Robert Ley, a post-mortem examination revealed a certain degree of physical damage to the frontal lobes. Whether that was the cause of his cruel behavior, however, is debatable.

That's more or less what we have. It doesn't prove that evil leaders never suffer from brain damage but the case of Mussolini tells us that dictators are not necessarily insane. Rather, they are best described as persons who suffer from a "narcissistic personality disorder" (NPD). It is a syndrome that describes their vindictive, paranoid, and cruel behavior, but also their ability to find followers and become popular. So, it may be that the NPD is not really a "disorder" but, rather, something functional for becoming a leader. 

There lies the problem: even in a democracy, a politician's first priority is being elected and that's a very different skill than that needed for leading a country. An NPD-affected ruler may not be necessarily evil, but he (very rarely she) will be almost certainly incompetent. It happens not just in politics, but also in business. I could also cite the names of scientists who seem to be affected by NPD. They are often incompetents in their fields, but they may achieve a certain degree of success by means of their social skills that allow them to accumulate research grants and attract smart collaborators. (Fortunately, they can't jail and torture their opponents! Not normally, at least.)

The problem with this situation is that, everywhere in the world, NPD-affected individuals aim at obtaining high-level government positions and often they succeed. Then, ruling a whole country gives them plenty of chances to be not just incompetents, but the kind of person that we describe as "criminally incompetent." The kind of disaster that can result may be illustrated, again, by Mussolini's case. During the Greek campaign, the Duce ordered the Italian Air Force to "destroy all Greek cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants" as reported by Cervi and by Davide Conti in his "L'occupazione italiana dei Balcani" (2008). Fortunately, the Italian air force of the time was not able to carry out this order. But what would happen if a similar order were given today by a leader who can control atomic weapons?

Sunday, March 6, 2022

The World as a Chess Game. Is it Being Played by Masters or by Idiots?


An old movie showed the story of someone trying to impersonate a chess Grand Master. He succeeded to the point that he was invited to play a simultaneous series of games at a local chess association. He barely knew the rules of the game, but his haphazard moves surprised his opponents so much that several of them decided to declare defeat. Unfortunately for him, some of the opponents just played to win and easily defeated the pretended Grand Master. What we are seeing in the world nowadays looks like a giant chess game. Is it being played by masters or by idiots?

Let me start, by saying that I have no intention to join the ranks of the armchair strategists who are telling us exactly what's happening in Ukraine, and why. Evidently, they have a direct phone connection with the Kremlin, because they can say that "Putin thinks.... " and "Putin wants.....". Just allow me to note that, up to the day of the invasion, most pro-Russian sites were poking fun at those dumb Westerners who thought that Russia would invade Ukraine. Come on, they said, that would be just silly. What would Russia do with "Banderastan" after having conquered it? Then, after that the invasion started, suddenly these same sites were praising Putin's strategic savvy, explaining that the invasion of Ukraine was necessary, just, and unavoidable and that Putin had acted, as usual, as the chess master we all know he is. Maybe. 

It is not just a problem with the pro-Russian media. It is the same everywhere. Once a government takes a decision, it is not only enforced by law, but it goes through the state propaganda machine which seems to be able to hypnotize the majority of citizens into complete obeisance. They will believe what they are told and happily repeat it to each other. 

Especially during the past two years, governments have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with their citizens, forcing on them the most quixotic norms one could imagine: to lock themselves inside their homes all the time, to wear masks even in the open, to be injected with concoctions of uncertain safety, and much more. The government could have ordered people to balance a ball on their nose and they would have complied -- happily. In Canada, the government confiscated citizens' property simply because they had expressed their disagreement with the government's policies. To say nothing about confiscating the property of Russian citizens just because they are Russian. And they could do all that with complete impunity. It was typical, once, of Roman Emperors or other absolute rulers of the past.

There is some logic in this behavior. According to the historian Peter Turchin, modern societies compete with each other mainly in military terms. So, there is an evolutionary pressure that leads to the development of social structures where dissent can be eliminated when it is time to focus all resources on fighting. That can be probably best obtained by means of a pyramidal structure where the top levels can take all the decisions. And, of course, there is nothing wrong with having citizens willing to defend their country, even at the cost of their lives. But who decides that dying for one's country is necessary?  On which basis, and according to what principles?    

The problem is that the decisional mechanisms of most governments are nearly completely opaque to citizens. It doesn't seem to matter whether governments are democratically elected or not. Once a certain group of people is in power, they can take major decisions, such as starting a war, with just a veneer of authorization from parliaments, or even without that. In Italy, for instance, the government has been acting for two years on the basis of an emergency status that the government itself declared, and that it has the power to extend at will (recently, it was extended up to December 2022). 

Emergency powers are a recursive feature of governments: once a government has declared an emergency, the fact of being in an emergency allows the government to extend it. There are no mechanisms other than the government itself that can to revoke it. As an example, in 1926, Mussolini enacted "special laws" that were supposed to last for five years, but that were extended up to 1943. In practice, for 17 years, Mussolini could do whatever he wanted and make war on any country without having to ask permission to anyone -- until he was arrested and then hanged. And note that Mussolini was elected in elections that historians tend to judge as having been fair. 

It seems strange that in the age of the Internet, with information being so widely spread and available, the government decisional process remains the same as it was at the time of the Mayan Sun Kings. Yet, it is the way governance works almost everywhere in the world. So, we can only make hypotheses on what leads governments to do what they are doing. We could say that:

1.  The government is genuinely worried about a serious threat to society and is acting to counter it on the basis of the available knowledge.

2. The government is led by one or more psychopaths and/or narcissists who operate to aggrandize their personal power. They surround themselves with yes-men and the resulting "groupthink" leads to all sorts of disasters. 

3. The key members of the government have been corrupted by economic interest groups who push for wasteful and dangerous actions in order to obtain large profits. 

4. As in the previous case, the key members of the government have been corrupted, but in this case by an external power that uses them to ruin the country in military or economic terms, or both. 

5. The souls and the brains of the top-level people in the government have been eaten by Chthonic deities or other demonic entities. These entities use the human members of the government as avatars with the objective of destroying the country and killing as many innocent people as possible. 

Combinations of the above are always possible. The point is that, right now, it is impossible to say which condition has led to the current disaster in Ukraine (and I wouldn't discount the possibility #5, demonic entities). Whatever the case, we can only watch the drama as it unfolds. We'll know if our leaders are chess masters or impostors after the war is over, if that will ever occur. 

But we do know something about past cases, and we can say at least something about why some monumental mistakes were made, in some cases costing millions of lives. Just as one example, the 2003 war on Iraq was believed by the public to be a case of hypothesis  #1, (genuine worry). We now know that it was mostly a combination of cases #2 and #3 (and, again, I would not discount the role of demonic entities). You could also argue that in Italy we are seeing case #4 in action (with some help from Chthonic deities). You may have some fun reviewing past history in view of these lines: the record of most governments doesn't come out as brilliant. 

You may also be interested to review a case where major strategic blunders were created by the deadly combination of groupthink and a psychotic leader: Benito Mussolini. Below, I am reproducing a post previously published on "Cassandra's Legacy" about the decision mechanism of Mussolini's government. 

Basically, Mussolini was not mad, he had just lost track of reality. It may have been the result of having been in power for too long and of having won all the wars he had engaged Italy in, up to 1940. A good illustration of how successes don't teach you anything. Does this story apply to the current situation? Time will tell. 

Sunday, November 1, 2020- from "Cassandra's Legacy" (slightly revised)

The Mind of the Evil Ruler: What Goes on inside the Heads of the People who Govern the World?

The damage that bad rulers can do to people and things is gigantic, especially considering that they command military apparatuses of immense power. But what goes on inside their minds, exactly? Are some of them truly evil? Or just criminally incompetent? We'll probably never know for sure, but we have some hints for at least some of them. Here, I am exploring the case of Benito Mussolini, using the diary written by his son-in-law as a source of information.

There is a sentence attributed to Terry Pratchett that goes as, "the IQ of a mob is the IQ of its most stupid member divided by the number of mobsters." Actually, I think Robert Heinlein said something similar first. In any case, the idea that collective intelligence goes down with the number of members of a group seems to have some logic in it, although it cannot be said to be scientifically proven.

If that's true, then we have a huge problem. How to manage states formed of tens or hundreds of millions, even billions, of people? A possible solution is to reduce the denominator of the formula to a single ruler who takes all the decisions. Indeed, it seems that human crowds, dumb as they may be, believe that all problems can be solved by someone who can "get things done." 

Unfortunately, history tells us that the idea of giving all the power to a single man doesn't work so well. Another quote by Robert Heinlein says "A well-run tyranny is almost as scarce as an efficient democracy." You may have read that Trump is a narcissist, Biden is affected by Alzheimer's, Putin by the Asperger syndrome, and that Assad is evil just because he is. And more.

The list of mad or evil rulers is long, but what do we know about these people? Very little because they live shielded by a barrier of lies in the form of propaganda and press releases. Even the people who know them well, relatives and close friends, may well be fooled by people who arrived at the top exactly by their capability of fooling everyone, even themselves.

Maybe, if we could have a diary written by one of these madmen, say, Adolf Hitler, we could know more. But the manuscript claimed to be Hitler's diary in 1983 was a hoax, and no dictator of note ever left us a personal diary. The closest thing to a personal diary of a dictator is the one kept by Galeazzo Ciano, foreign minister of the Mussolini government in Italy from 1937 to 1943. He was not only a close collaborator of the Duce but also a close relative: his son-in-law. You can find the complete diary in Italian at this link.
Note that Ciano was not an intellectual, nor had any professional expertise. He is best described as a high-rank playboy who had used the money and the prestige of his father, a war hero, to gain access to Mussolini's family and eventually to marry Mussolini's daughter. That, of course, opened a bright career for him at the top government levels. He was widely considered the most likely candidate to succeed the Duce as Italy's leader. During the period in which he was active as foreign minister, he often acted as the second-in-command in the government. 

Ciano wrote detailed notes of his everyday activities as foreign minister for the whole period of his appointment. Of course, we don't have to take these notes as completely truthful. Especially in the final pages, we clearly detect an attempt by Ciano to distance himself from his illustrious father-in-law and his egregious blunders. Later on, he was shot for treason on orders of Mussolini himself. But, overall, it is probable that many details of the daily written document do reflect real events.
One thing that's clear from Ciano's notes is how haphazardly Italy was run. A country of 45 million inhabitants was steered by people who seemed to carry on, day by day, without a specific direction. Mostly, the story sounds like a TV soap: the atmosphere in the high echelons of the government was a poisonous mix of gossip, treachery, incompetence, and abject deference to the great boss. The name of the game was a simple sentence: "Mussolini is always right." Anyone could be demoted to a powerless position if he happened to displease the commander in chief. In 1939, that happened also to Achille Starace, a longtime associate of Mussolini and secretary of the Fascist party. 

Even Mussolini himself didn't seem to have a clear idea of what he was doing. He seemed to be thinking that Italy needed to expand in new territories because it was a young nation that needed space for its growing population. That could be obtained at the expense of the evil and decadent plutocracies that were England and France. And that would result in the creation of an Italian Empire, recreating the power and the glory of the ancient Roman Empire.

If that was the plan, it wasn't a good plan. Mussolini, just like most politicians, couldn't reason quantitatively and had neither interest nor trust in data. He acted mainly on the basis of his intuition and he never understood how badly unprepared were the Italian armed forces, nor how weak the Italian economy was. Unfortunately for him, he was lucky enough that his initial military adventures were successful. Victories don't teach you anything.

Not that Mussolini was a fool. As a young man, he had been a smart politician and a brilliant journalist. We have his diary during the time when he was in the trenches during WWI and there we find nothing of the warlike rhetoric of his later years. He always kept his head low: no question for him to jump out of the trench and lead a bayonet assault. In 1917, he was lightly wounded by the accidental explosion of an Italian cannon and that was the end of the war for him. It was also a stroke of luck: not only he could gain a reputation as a war hero, but he avoided being caught in the rout of the Italian army after the disaster of the battle of Caporetto, a few months later. 

20 years later, we read in Ciano's diary how the smart politician had turned into a bumbling fool. Let me translate a few excerpts for you. 
Dec 19, 1937. The Duce said: "On my grave I want this epigraph: Here lies one of the most intelligent animals ever appeared on the face of the earth". The Duce is proud of his instinct which he considers, and has actually proved to be, infallible.
Sep 29-30 1938 (Criticizing Great Britain) "When animals are adored in a country to the point of making cemeteries, hospitals, homes for them; when bequests are made to parrots it is a sign that decadence is underway. Moreover, in addition to the many reasons, this also depends on the composition of the English people. 4 million more women. Four million sexually dissatisfied creatures, artificially creating a multitude of problems to arouse or artificially creating a multitude of problems to excite or appease their senses. Not being able to embrace a single man, they embrace humanity ".

June 3, 1939 "I," said the Duce, "am like a cat, cautious and prudent, but when I take a leap I am sure to land where I want.

Dec 24, 1940 – It's snowing. The Duce looks out of the window and is happy that it snows: "This snow and this cold are fine" he says "so the pipsqueaks die: and this mediocre Italian breed is improved. One of the main reasons why I wanted the reforestation of the Apennines it was to make Italy colder and snowier ".
You see what I mean, and there is much more in the same tune in Ciano's diary. We are reading of an old man who has lost track of reality. Yet, as I wrote in a previous post, a post-mortem examination showed that Mussolini's brain was still functional during the last years of his rule. By all means, it was the normal brain of a normal person. What Mussolini's brain had lost was not neurons, but the capability of empathy: understanding and caring for your fellow human beings. 

Empathy requires a certain effort, it is a tool that needs to be sharpened every day. But just as you get fat if you don't exercise your body, you get dumb if you don't exercise your mind. What happened with Mussolini and the Italian government was a self-reinforcing loop. The people around Mussolini soon found that they could keep their position if they never disagreed with the boss. Mussolini, in turn, found that he could easily get rid of those who disagreed with him. And the result was that he was even more surrounded by yes-men who always agreed with him. Eventually, he found he didn't need empathy: he could just order people to do what he wanted. 

It was not just Mussolini's mind that had degraded for lack of exercise. It was the whole chain of command of the Italian government that had degraded in a way that reminds the sentence by Terry Pratchett about the collective intelligence of a group. By the 1930s, the process had led to a situation that you could describe as "government by the whims of the boss."

It all became painfully clear when, in 1940, Mussolini ordered the invasion of Greece in winter, across the Epirus mountains, with woefully insufficient and poorly equipped troops. We have the minutes of the government reunions that preceded the attack on Greece: it is clear it was the Duce alone who decided to attack and the date of the attack. Nobody dared to oppose his decision. On the contrary, generals competed with each other to state that it could be done easily. A classic effect of groupthink. Disaster ensued, as it should have been expected. And Mussolini's lack of empathy was tragically clear when, on 16 January 1941, Ciano reports these words by Mussolini: ""Greece was a political masterpiece; we managed to isolate this country and make it fight it alone, against us. The one which has not performed well is the army." Not a word of regret for having sent the troops to fight without adequate winter equipment, without heavy weapons, without sufficient air support. Truly, when idiocy matches cruelty, these are the results. 

I think that the key to the whole story is the excerpt from Ciano's diary where he describes how Mussolini rejoiced at the thought of Italians freezing to death. This is not just incompetency or stupidity, it is one of the few moments in Ciano's diary where we see true evil appearing. You might want to picture in your head Mussolini standing near the window of his office, maybe close to a warm radiator, while he rubs his hands together and smiles in a Satanic smile like the character of a comic book. (you may add also the classic Satanic laughter that goes as Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!)

My impression is that, while losing empathy, Mussolini was also gradually losing the moral bonds that keep normal people from being truly evil. He had discovered that not only he could order to kill foreigners as he pleased, but that the more foreigners he caused to be killed, the more he became popular in Italy. So, he proceeded to expand this strategy until, unfortunately for him (and for many others), the idea backfired. Badly. After that a half million Italians had died because of Mussolini's mistakes, you know how he ended, hanged upside-down. Nobody should rejoice at the death of anyone, but it seems that the universe has ways to punish one's worst mistakes.

Mussolini's case is just one that's close enough to our times that we have abundant documentation about it. It is also sufficiently remote that we can discuss it from a reasonably objective viewpoint. The question is: why is it so easy for governments to be hijacked by evil/incompetent/dumb leaders? Unfortunately, that may occur much more often than we would like to think. Are some of our leaders rejoicing when large numbers of mere commoners die because of their actions, just as Mussolini did? I can think of at least one example of one of our prominent politicians rejoicing at the violent death of the leader of a foreign country, and you probably understand whom I mean. 

And what could be the effect on a president's mind of the capability of killing anyone, anywhere, by a drone strike without the need to provide a justification or fearing retaliation? Can you imagine that drone strikes are decided by people who rub their hands together while producing Satanic smiles? We won't know how evil these people really are until much after they are gone, if ever.