“Interesting times” for the Science of History


Richard Moore

       "May you live in interesting times."
        - a traditional Chinese curse

There are several kinds of scientists. The experimental scientist
designs experiments, combines things together in new ways, and is able
to create new phenomena and discover new knowledge. The theoretical
scientist explores inwardly, and seeks to identify useful relationships
that are inherent in what is already known. The observational scientist
culls available materials, and explores the universe - in a search for
patterns that can inform our understanding.  But all of these scientists
have one thing in common - they each use hypotheses as a central tool in
their investigations.

An hypothesis is not the same as an assumption or a belief. Whereas an
assumption might remain unexpressed, and a belief might be inflexible,
an hypothesis is always both overt and subject to refinement. Every
experiment, every inward examination, every observation session - all
are inspired by a desire to explore a current hypothesis.... to learn
its consequences, to look for verifying or contrary evidence - and to
evolve the hypothesis further. Science is as much about developing
hypotheses as it is about observing the universe. The empirical and the
theoretical are the yin and yang of science. There is the stuff we study
and there is our understanding of that stuff and modern physics tells us
the two are in some sense inseparable.

If you don't have an hypothesis, then your mind is swamped by a sea of
meaningless observational data. Your hypotheses give meaning to what you
experience, provide a language through which it can be turned into
narrative. Interpreted in the language of your hypotheses, the data
tells a story. And stories are something the human brain knows how to
process. You can remember lots of stories, and you can compare them in
your mind for consistency and common themes. You can abstract scenarios
that capture the essence of typical stories. Hypotheses enable you to
harness the subtle and creative powers of your brain in your search for
patterns and understanding. Your database of stories and your collection
of hypotheses are the embodiment of your evolving understanding.

I follow the path of science, but my motivation comes from elsewhere. It
comes from a faith in humanity, and a belief that another world is
possible. People are generally honest, decent folks, who care about
their friends and families and lend a hand when needed. I find myself
asking questions like: Why is society not like that generally? Why is
society the way it is? How else could it be? What would we want it to be
like? How can change be brought about?

These are the questions that drive my scientific investigations. They
lead me to look at the long term history of humanity, in order to see
where our society lies within the spectrum of possible societies. They
lead me to track current events, where I can observe the real-time
dynamic unfolding of history, along with its accompanying narratives.
They lead me to observe the progress of social movements and to try to
understand their dynamics. And they lead me many other places.

In my dialogs with people on the net I've learned a lot about how people
think. Many seem to be swamped in that sea of meaningless data,  unable
to interpret it, and hoping someone else will explain what's going on.
But there are many explanations on offer from many sources, and these
people find another sea of confusion but at a higher level. If they want
to develop their own understanding, these people need to learn to trust
their own intuition, begin to articulate their own explanations, and to
test out those ideas by continued exploration. In that way their
experience can be processed by their brain in a useful way, and
understanding can develop.

Other people are not swamped, because they've adopted a set of beliefs
that interpret the world to them in a way that is comfortable.  These
beliefs are usually supported by some rationalizing narrative, but
probing typically reveals that the beliefs are rooted down at the level
of ego-identification and well protected from critical examination.
These people are trapped in a world view that reinforces itself and
filters out contrary data. The Sufis call such people "unteachable".

In any case, I find very few kindred souls who are prepared to dialog
scientifically about the questions that I find myself drawn to.
Admittedly, the questions are not easy ones, they are in fact daunting.
It seems that people either avoid looking at such questions, or they
settle for some set of rationalizations, or perhaps they restrict their
attention to some smaller domain - and their learning is arrested at that
point as regards the deeper questions.

I once had the privilege of seeing Bukminster Fuller in person giving a
talk about his life, perhaps one of his last public appearances. He said
that he wasn't smarter than other people, but that his remarkable
discoveries came because he asked the big questions that no one else was
asking. By asking the questions, and daring to formulate hypotheses, he
created the tools of perception necessary to pursue his quest for
finding answers to his big questions. No matter if his original
hypotheses survived. They served their purpose equally if they revealed
a cul de sac. He was a true scientist.

I can't help identifying a bit with Bucky. I too have discovered that
daring to engage big questions empowers you to make useful progress
toward addressing those questions. If you keep in mind the big
questions, you can avoid getting distracted by partial solutions.  You
examine those, and then you move on and keep searching. By not getting
stuck in the foothills, you are able to find your way to a point of
broader perspective, where more is visible to you.

As an observer of history I can say that we are living in the
proverbial "interesting times". Changes are happening in decades that
once took centuries. Observing the world today is like being a geologist
caught in an earthquake, or an astronomer who happens to be looking
through a telescope and witnesses a super nova burst forth. What I see
is the convergence of many historical forces, all peaking at the same
time - our own version of the horses of the apocalypse. The overlapping
waves of change create a confusing churning, but the individual
historical forces are actually replays of known patterns. If you are
familiar with the forces, and their patterns of behavior, then the
churning can be brought into a meaningful focus.

Let's consider some of these forces. There is of course the global
depletion and degradation of natural resources, both renewable and
non-renewable. This global depletion is colliding with capitalism's
relentless pursuit of economic growth and accelerated resource
exploitation. This collision creates a crisis which for the world
overall is a danger, but which US elites have seized upon as an
opportunity - for the aggrandizement of their own power and wealth. They
intend to use the Pentagon's military dominance to obtain a stranglehold
on the bulk of remaining resources,  and then to run to the world by
controlling access to those resources and by setting their prices. We
know that this is their response to the crisis from their own words and
from their consistent actions.

In order to carry out such a grand imperialist project, a mass
mobilization will be required of the US population and the establishment
of a war economy with its accompanying civilian sacrifices. This creates
an imperative for elites to achieve popular compliance with the necessary
programs. Although Bush tries to inspire a spirit of patriotism and
support for the Iraq project, his mixed success does not bode well for
expanded campaigns. With the Patriot Acts, and the continual terror
alerts, we can see that US elites have chosen fear, propaganda, and
suppression as the means of obtaining popular compliance.

This transition in US political dynamics - from popular consensus to
regimentation of the populace - can be usefully compared to the
transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. Both transitions
are caused by the need for imperial mobilization, both are accompanied
by a diversion of economic resource to the military, and both require
the installation of a more autocratic and centralized form of
governance. We should take note that the Roman precedent suggests that
this kind of transition tends to be irreversible. And we can hope that
the bread and circuses will be of high quality.

Politically, we are in our time seeing the simultaneous conclusion of
several cycles with widely varying timeframes. We are seeing the end of
the Enlightenment era, which had a life cycle of about 200 years, as the
dream of liberal democracy is being sacrificed to the requirements of
empire.  We are in some sense seeing the re-emergence of Rome - a single
power dominating the known world - an important 2000-year cycle from the
perspective of us Westerners. Geopolitically, we are seeing the end game
of the national-competition era, a 600-year era which has been
characterized by regular cycles of warfare motivated by the perceived
economic need to adjust imperial boundaries and bring them into
alignment with the current balance of military and industrial power.

In this end game, the final cycle of the imperial-competition era, the
US is taking on not just a rival or two, but the entire world. In
military terms, the confrontation will be primarily a matter of the US
vs. China & Russia. For some time the US has been systematically
encircling these major protagonists with forward military bases and
enhanced naval presence. Furthermore, the Bush administration has put
the mobilization of space on the fast track and is already deploying
weapons systems - some still untested prototypes - of the star wars
genre. Such systems are designed to support large-theater operations, to
increase the effectiveness of the Pentagon's terrestrial weapon
systems, and to facilitate a successful first-strike capability. China &
Russia are the obvious targets of the star wars program. No other
potential adversary offers a sufficient military challenge to justify
such an expensive and elaborate attack system.

We are also witnessing the convergence of several economic cycles, again
with varying timeframes. There is of course the 30-year cycle that
characterizes US capitalism and motivates major US military initiatives.
Each such cycle has been accompanied by an attempt at imperial expansion
and now that expansion reaches its final boundaries. On a longer timeframe
we are seeing the final cycle of capitalist growth. Within any given
scale of operations, capitalism always goes though the phases of
expansion into new markets, entrepreneurial-driven economic growth and
development, the concentration of ownership into the hands a few large
operators, and finally the need for new expansion realms and an
up-scaled repetition of the addictive cycle. In the US Robber Baron era
(second half of 1900s) we saw the concentration of ownership phase
(market consolidation) at the level of the national US economy. With
globalization, and with the in-progress US seizure of global resources,
we are seeing the final consolidation of ownership at the ultimate
global level.

Do you see what I mean about "interesting times"? Not only are many
cycles converging, but in each case the current cycle is likely to be
the last of its series. All the churning waves are hitting the shore at
the same time and then the sea will be calm.  Not the sea of life, but
the sea of geopolitical dynamics. In that sense there is some meaning to
the notion of "the end of history".

As long as there were new realms to conquer, capitalism provided a
convenient economic dynamic that harmonized with national expansionism
and enriched ruling elites at the same time. With few remaining realms -
and with consumption having caught up with resource depletion - the
dynamics of capitalism turn inward, become cannibalistic. The few at the
top can keep their growth dynamics going only by robbing more and more
from a shrinking pie. As national infrastructures are being privatized
and run into the ground for short-term profit, we see the fat cats
burning their own furniture in order to keep the capitalist boilers
burning. In a desperate search for new expansion realms, Africa is being
subjected to genocidal interventionist programs, and we can expect a
final colonization episode (Europeans fleeing their immanent ice age?)
as the African natives are cleared out, like the aboriginal inhabitants
of North America and Australia before them.

But the dynamics of scarcity-economics are fundamentally different than
the dynamics of growth-capitalism, and eventually a new equilibrium must
be reached.  With their seize-and-meter-the-resources strategy, US
elites show that they are adjusting to this reality. They are
preemptively taking control of those assets which will be of greatest
value and provide the greatest leverage in the post-capitalist world.

When the final flickers of capitalist dynamics die out, snuffed by the
entropy of non-growth, we can expect new social equilibriums to develop
along with new economic equilibriums. Perhaps something closer to a
feudal model. Depending on the outcome, we will be seeing the end of yet
another major cycle, in this case in the realm of social systems.

That's about as far ahead as my current predictive lenses can see, and
the images furthest in the future are rather blurred and uncertain. The
unprecedented mix of forces and conditions can be expected to lead to
unforeseen dynamics, as the ever-evolving creative universe
expresses itself in yet another way.

Given the active forces that we can see operating in the world today,
and given what we know about how those forces operate, I am confident
that most of what I've been describing will come to pass, although the
timeframe is unclear and there will surely be surprise twists as events
unfold.  The only thing that could significantly shift this future
scenario is for a new force to arise from a new quarter, a force that
could push effectively toward some different kind of equilibrium.

I spoke above about a "calm sea" as so many historical cycles burn
themselves out in a final convergent conflagration.  These calm seas
amount to a vacuum in historical dynamics, and it seems that nature
abhors a vacuum.  A time of vacuum is a time of opportunity for new
forces to emerge, to express themselves before a new order stabilizes.
Kafka has given us the metaphor of the man waiting to get into heaven.
The gates will open only once for him, and he unfortunately nods off at
just that moment and misses his chance. Our historical moment has that
same character of absolute uniqueness, a door opening only once, our one
opportunity to change history. Will we nod off or will we go through the

For there is only one conceivable new force that can arise as a player
in our unfolding historical drama. That force is we the people. If that
force arises, it will be after a very long sleep indeed, as long as
civilization itself. That would be the closing of a very long cycle.
When we talk about animals we use the word "domestication". The word
with the same meaning for humans is "civilization".  To be civilized is
to be tamed and domesticated by the state. Our salvation depends upon us
reclaiming our freedom, rising up as an unstoppable force, and claiming
the future for ourselves and our children.




    "...the Patriot Act followed 9-11 as smoothly as the
      suspension of the Weimar constitution followed the
      Reichstag fire."  
      - Srdja Trifkovic

    There is not a problem with the system.
    The system is the problem.

    Faith in ourselves, not gods, ideologies, or programs.

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