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Chapter 9: The Dawn of the Theocratic Age

The First World War was a really big deal.  Much like the French Revolution, it’s one of those historical events whose importance is almost impossible to overstate, as it rocked the foundations of the legitimacy of the existing system to the core.  Understanding why that is requires some delving into the values and motivations of the merchant caste.

Merchants are not necessarily averse to violence to achieve ends.  But they much prefer their wars limited, with some hope of return at the end of the venture.  To a merchant, a colonial skirmish to determine the ruler of vast swaths of mineral-rich Africa is a good potential investment.  As is some gunboat diplomacy to compel payment of a loan to a Central American country.  But a giant, industrial-scale war in continental Europe is not.  Killing customers isn’t good business.

So, partially in order to prevent that, the plutocratic forces in all of the western countries had sought to deepen trade ties as much as possible.  Free trade and peace had long been classical liberal, merchant values.  The idea was that if all the various countries were profiting massively from peace, no one would dare go to war.

But, largely in order to try to blunt the socialist appeal, the various countries had needed to lean hard on nationalism as a stabilizing force.  Merchants, by their nature, tend toward cosmopolitanism.  Nationalism is inherently more of a warrior sort of thing.  But the new-model industrialists were often more friendly toward nationalism for a couple of reasons.  First, tariffs on industrial goods helped their position just as tariffs on agricultural goods had supported landowners, and the natural lines for tariff boundaries were political ones.  Second, national identity was a perfectly good preexisting basis for plutocratic leadership.  In each country, the merchants could argue that their leadership would be better for the prosperity of their countrymen, and that their influence would be required in order for the nation to keep up with its rivals.

Nationalism really took it on the chin during the First World War, though.  Especially nationalism as seen through the lens of merchant values.  From the plutocratic perspective, all the complicated nationalist maneuverings and balance of power concerns just led to a massive mutual annihilation.  It’s often better to lose a war quickly and relatively painlessly than to win a pyrrhic victory, if your concern is the bottom line.  Plus, all of the talk of trade as the way to peaceful world integration was seemingly decisively refuted.

Worse, from the perspective of the perpetuation of the plutocratic world order, was the kind of war the First World War turned out to be.  In the previous round of wars that had cemented plutocratic values atop the various European civilizations, the decisive edge had come from financial and economic strength.  The better supplied, better equipped plutocracies were able to keep fighting after their opponents’ strength was exhausted.

But the fighting, especially on the most politically relevant Western Front, wasn’t anything like that.  Both sides were perfectly capable of funding their war effort for the length of the struggle.  The Germans didn’t really start feeling the British blockade until the end of the war (as opposed to the American South, which felt the impact immediately), and had they not suffered a critical reversal at the end of the war probably could have kept on fighting for quite some time with the resources they conquered from the Russians after their 1917 collapse.  And although several new technologies were developed during the war to deal with the massive system of trench fortifications (like armored vehicles, poison gas, and special infiltration tactics), none of them proved anywhere near decisive.

In a weird way, industrial war, as exemplified by the First World War, was an almost pure test of civilizational will.  The side that would win the war would be the one that was willing to collectively fight the hardest and the longest for it in the face of appalling casualties and no apparent progress.  Or, alternatively put, it’s the extreme extension of the quality vs. quantity trend mentioned before.  In 20th Century industrial war, the winner is the one who is able to marshal the most quantity of arms, equipment, and fervent soldiers to the battlefield, almost regardless of their quality.  And, if you think about it, this is exactly the sort of war that’s best suited to a theocratic system.

Just as all the aristocracies of Europe didn’t immediately collapse after the Napoleonic Wars, the plutocratic system didn’t immediately collapse after the First World War.  To be fair, it suffered significant reversals: short-lived Communist governments sprang up all over Eastern Europe; openly socialist parties started winning elections for the first time in Britain, France, and Germany; and, of course, the Russians established a revolutionary Communist regime under Lenin.  But the situation stabilized somewhat over the course of the 1920s.

And then the Great Depression happened.  This was more than just an economic downturn; it was the final, fatal blow to the plutocrats’ legitimacy.  A plutocracy that can’t run a functioning economy loses its right to rule in very much the same way that an aristocracy that gets overrun by the rabble loses its own claim.  This is why academic and popular explanations of the causes of and solutions to the Great Depression are so politically charged, even to this day, since it was the killing blow to the merchants’ occupation of the apex of the social hierarchy virtually everywhere.

OK, are you with me so far?  This has been a lot of relatively dry survey history up until now.  But it’s about to pay off in a big way.  If I’m right about all of the foregoing, then it means that the Second World War is best understood as a religious war among three new theocratic, socialist systems: Democratic Socialism (New Deal America); National Socialism (Nazi Germany); and International Socialism (Soviet Russia).

To my knowledge, this is a novel formulation of the 20th Century.  And I find this concept to have a surprising degree of explanatory power.  Stuff that never quite added up in the histories I read as a kid all make sense from this perspective.

  1. It explains the emphasis all three sides put on propaganda and mass media during the war, including largely fruitless attempts to convert and demoralize the enemy population.  They’re all theocracies, so of course they’re going to put a heavy emphasis on what people think.  That’s what priests do.
  2. It explains why the theory of strategic bombing was quickly adopted, even though it was expensive and had limited practical effect on the enemy industrial base.  The main objective when bombing cities was not to damage their physical capacity to resist.  It was to damage their will and, more importantly, to bolster the will of the attackers.  It was mostly propaganda writ large.  And, on this level, it worked all right.  There’s excellent evidence that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki broke the Japanese leadership (if not the populace).  And smaller events like the US Doolittle Raid[1] or the German V-2 attacks on London made the attackers feel like they were able to fight back in some way, even when they were on the strategic defensive at the time.
  3. It explains why the major belligerents all adopted a policy of large-scale forcible population transfers of civilians.  The Nazis had their famous concentration camps, the Soviets had the Gulag, and the USA interned hundreds of thousands of citizens of Japanese descent during the hostilities.  And none of these policies make a whole lot of sense without the theocratic insistence on national religious unity.  The common factor that got a person sent to the camps was membership in a group that was deemed ideologically unreliable by the national leadership.
  4. It explains why all three systems saw themselves as reactions to the previous plutocratic order.  Hitler’s condemnations of Jews and Anglo-American financiers sound a lot like Soviet attacks on the bourgeoisie and the kulaks, which sound suspiciously similar to Roosevelt’s broadsides against “economic royalists”[2].  They all see themselves as the brave fighters against the Monopoly guy, fighting to establish the new world order.
  5. It explains why the Allies consistently demanded unconditional surrender during the war.  Merchants and warriors generally stop fighting when they’ve achieved their objectives or have sustained too much damage.  Limits to war make sense to them.  But theocracies fighting crusades are perfectly willing to fight to the complete submission of the opponent, when possible, because the goal is the conversion of their enemies.
  6. It explains why the Allies imposed the kind of peace that they did.  When merchants win wars they demand cash reparations, like in the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War.  When priests win wars, they primarily demand obeisance and conversion.  Hence the war crimes trials, the purging of hierarchies everywhere of people that had too close of ties to the previous regime everywhere they conquered, and the suppression of fascist organizations in the conquered lands that persists even to this day.  Wherever the Western Allies ruled, social democratic governments were installed and supported; similarly, wherever the Soviets ruled, Communist governments were installed.  But it was the same pattern everywhere.
  7. It explains why all of the major participants had such a hard time managing their officer corps during a war with such high stakes.  The best officers are almost invariably aristocrats, but aristocrats are inherently politically unreliable in a theocracy.  Since all three systems were so new during the Second World War, they hadn’t been able to establish good priestly controls over the army yet.  For instance, the Soviets famously purged their officer corps in the late ’30s, leading them to underperform pretty badly in the Winter War against Finland and in the first stages of the war against the Germans.  The major plots against Hitler all came from the old-school Prussian officer corps[3].  And both MacArthur and Patton were, in their own ways, significant political headaches for the American leadership.
  8. It explains, in part, the notable brutality in the way the war was fought.  This stands out in contrast to the First World War, which seems in retrospect so much more … businesslike, for lack of a better term.  The famous Christmas Truce of 1914, when random acts of peace broke out during a lull in the fighting, shows the lack of enmity between the common participants on the Western Front at the time.  Prisoners of war were generally accepted and treated reasonably well by all sides.  Mail, complete with food aid and under international supervision, was allowed into the camps from soldiers’ families.  By the time of the Second World War, very little of this tradition remained.  Surrendering prisoners were regularly gunned down or sent to brutal POW camps, especially on the Eastern Front and in the Pacific.  And this makes total sense from the caste perspective: heathens and infidels are subhuman, but rivals (either in business or in war) warrant respect.

I could keep going.  The trick is to find the stuff that’s common among all three sides, but that isn’t historically common in a broader sense.  It’s hard to do at first because, if your history training has been at all like mine, you’re conditioned to think of the sides as opposites.  But once you get the hang of it, you start seeing commonalities everywhere.  All three sides have so much more in common with each other than they do with the past.  And that’s not a coincidence: they share the same theocratic framework of values.  Their intense hatred for each other stems from the narcissism of small differences.

OK, so as anybody with a pulse is aware, Germany and Japan decisively lost the war.  Accordingly, fascism (or National Socialism) became a small, heavily suppressed minority religion throughout the civilized world.  So much so, in fact, that “fascist” rapidly became a common term of opprobrium everywhere.  Sometimes people try to claim that it is a technical term describing certain formal social structures used by Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, or wartime Japan, but it doesn’t take.  In the vernacular, “fascist” means pretty much exactly what “Satanist” or “witch” meant in the 17th Century: you are a bad person and an enemy of the state and, accordingly, deserve harsh punishment unless you recant.

Believe it or not, what happens after the war is even more fascinating from this religious perspective.  See, going back to the plutocratic era, there was a fissure in the broad socialist church.  The Communists were among the most militant and doctrinaire of the socialist sects; as such, they demanded no compromises and an immediate end to what they saw as the unjust capitalist order.  Meanwhile, the social democrats were those who wanted to work within the existing system to evolve it toward socialist ends.  The key doctrinal difference was between “revolution” and “evolution”.

This caused an asymmetry between the ways the two sides saw each other and the future.  The Communists had the moral prestige.  Street cred, if you will, as the socialist “original gangstas”.  So they naturally saw themselves as the light unto the world and the social democrats as sellouts.  Intriguingly, the social democrats largely accepted this criticism.  Their counter-arguments were largely along the lines of tactics, speed, and scruples.

This, I think, is why there was such broad sympathy toward the Soviets among the Western priest caste: they agreed with the Soviets that the USSR (or something much like it) was the future.  And because the priests were in charge of the US at the time, the USA was accordingly quite happy to make concessions to Russia, to help them model the future.

For instance, Roosevelt did a whole bunch of things that seem totally insane from a realpolitik perspective; most notably at Yalta, where he basically signed off on the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in exchange for Soviet intervention in China.  If you do the math on that from the US perspective, it pretty much means that you’re trading away big swaths of Europe in exchange for the opportunity to give the Russians big chunks of the Far East (including, it turned out, mainland China).  The Russians win coming and going.

Similarly, the sheer amount of Lend-Lease aid to the Russians was far in excess of what was needed to ensure Soviet victory.  The correct realpolitik play would have been to give the Russians the minimum amount of support necessary to keep them from getting run over, which maximizes the US influence over the post-war future.  If you’re playing Roosevelt and you’re really cold-blooded, you could have switched sides after Army Group Center was destroyed in 1944 and supported the Nazis against the Soviets, getting them to bleed each other entirely white.  Clearly, the people running the USA were not thinking in those terms at the time.

The crazy-close cooperation with the Soviets shows up all over the place.  Wherever Western priest caste members get the chance to help out, they do, without regard to the national interest or their formal responsibilities.  For instance, the Manhattan Project was famously super-secret, amazingly expensive, and incredibly important.  And nobody seemed to care overmuch about preventing the scientists from just handing over the results of their work to the KGB.[4]  Think about it.  US officials were willing to imprison hundreds of thousands of people who just happened to be of Japanese descent as presumed security risks, but when the FBI catches scientists working on the most important engineering project in the history of mankind giving away their secrets to a foreign power, they just give them a slap on the wrist and shuffle them to a different project.

The famous cases of Alger Hiss[5] and Harry Dexter White[6] both fit this pattern as well.  Both men were highly placed members of the US government (Hiss in the State Department and White in the Treasury Department) who were engaged in active espionage on behalf of the Soviets.  White’s case, in particular, is instructive.  To quote Wikipedia:

Benn Steil, director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, says White acted out of idealism, not as a member of the Communist Party, “not simply because he believed that the Soviet Union was a vital U.S. ally but because he also believed passionately in the success of the bold Soviet experiment with socialism.”

At the time, among the priest caste, it was totally OK to pass critical information to a foreign government as long as you were doing it out of pure religious intentions.  This explanation (by a very highly-placed American theocrat[7]) implies that it would have been illegitimate had White been taking orders or cash from Moscow.  But since he was doing it freely, out of love for the socialist future, it’s all good.

This also explains the seemingly strange phenomenon of “anti-anticommunism” during the Early Cold War.  Within Western societies, there were full-blown communists, straightforward anticommunists, and “anti-anticommunists”.   The former (whether pro-Moscow or not) weren’t terribly common, but they made up a good fraction of the priest caste.  The anticommunists were a mélange of the “Old Right” (devotees of the previous non-socialist order, often anti-theocratic) and nationalists who feared and distrusted the Soviets.  And the anti-anticommunists were the mainline social democrats.  They felt that, at times, the Communists might go too far, but their hearts were in the right place.  It’s unfair, they thought, to persecute Communists for their noble zeal.  In contrast, they felt the anticommunists were a collection of knuckle-draggers and mouth-breathers, which represented the retrograde forces that still needed to be defeated to make the way for the future.

This dynamic explains why the common association with McCarthyism and blacklists is so strongly negative.  It is an established historical fact that Joseph McCarthy’s witches really did exist[8], yet that revelation has changed virtually no one’s mind about whether or not McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were doing a good thing in the ’50s.  At the same time, very few have any problem with publically shaming or hounding fascists out of employment using many of the exact same tactics McCarthy used.  I maintain the difference comes down to whose ox is getting gored.  People mostly think what the priests tell them to think, and for more than fifty years now they’ve made McCarthy into a symbol of a particular political sin; namely, to unfairly oppress a priest for his noble (if unpopular) beliefs or his choice of idealistic friends.

Finally, I think that this model explains why democracy – as an ideal – is such a touchstone for Western leaders.  The social democratic acceptance of a mixed economy is very difficult to take from the perspective of socialist faith.  It does ensure the supremacy of the priest and his values over the merchant and his, which is a plus, but most strains of the pure faith demand the complete abolition of the merchant caste (often referred to as “capitalism” in shorthand).

Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that socialists demand the destruction of the merchant social role.  Marx drew a distinction between the petit bourgeois who was acceptable and the greater bourgeois who needed to be liquidated, and this distinction is honored in many other socialist sects.  But it means that as a matter of faith, merchants can’t be allowed to act according to merchant values.  Allowing merchants to do merchant things for merchant reasons is a betrayal.

But the formal system of multiparty representative democracy, as opposed to a Soviet-style one-party state run by the Communist vanguard … now that’s an ideal that can be positively defended.  Democracy, in practice and theory, is the ground on which a social democrat can argue that his system is actually better than the Soviet model, within the confines of the socialist creed.  So, in response to the Communist challenge, the leaders of the West made the idea of democracy central to their claim to legitimacy.

I mentioned before that there’s synergy between a theocracy and a democratic formal structure.  If most people believe what they’re told and vote accordingly, then theocrats will naturally outcompete people of other potential ruling castes in a democracy with a broad enough electorate over time.  The elegance of this system is appealing: the rulers of a democratic system are those that are the best at convincing their fellows, which is the core priest competency.  So the theocrats that are the best at democracy are, in a real sense, the best priests.  In a theocratic age, this lends great prestige to the democratic form.

There’s a catch, though.  In a legitimate multiparty democracy, sometimes the wrong guy wins.  When a progressive like FDR or LBJ gets elected with a clear mandate to advance toward the socialist future, it’s wonderful to have a responsive democracy.  But sometimes the forces of regression are popular, and they manage to slip into power intending to undo some of the good works of the past.  Like when the Republicans won control of the House and Senate in 1946 and passed the Taft-Hartley Act.  This legislation rolled back parts of the Wagner Act (which FDR had passed to legalize and protect trade unions), the net effect of which severely damaged the trade union movement in America.  The prospect of such presumably temporary “anti-progress” or “regress” is horrifying for a priest sympathetic to the goals of the ruling theocracy, with his faith that History moves in his direction.

The evolved response is twofold.  First, American political culture has built up the idea of “demagoguery”.  Take a moment to read this page:  As of this writing, this is clearly not a very popular page, so it hasn’t been polished with careful NPOV vetting.  In the way that second-rate literature is more evocative of the prejudices of the time that it’s written than the best stuff, this page is a gold mine of insight into the common understanding of the term.  As of this writing, it lists six notable examples of a demagogue: two ancient Athenians, an ancient Roman, Father Coughlin (basically Rush Limbaugh of the 1930s), Adolf Hitler, and Joseph McCarthy.

That’s a fascinating list!  Of the three modern figures, two were popular American anticommunists and vanquished enemies of the New Deal establishment, and the third is the incarnation of the Devil on Earth.  There’s clearly some guilt by association going on here.  The core idea is that there are some ideas that are wrong (as determined by the priestly consensus) but seductive, and if a politician uses them to secure his own personal power or popularity, he is a bad person and a danger to the system.  If left unchecked, he could potentially lead to a renewal of the horrors of the Second World War.

In practice, this desire to prevent demagoguery means that candidates for serious office (U.S. Senator, full professor in the Ivy League, or membership of the editorial board of the New York Times) must get and retain the informal blessing of key members of the elite as a precondition for nomination.  Some policy variance is allowed, but any significant heresy (especially one that appears to be popular) will be treated harshly.

The second filter on pure democracy in New Deal America is the permanent civil service.  Back in the 19th Century, whenever a President won an election, it was expected that he’d fire all the employees of the Federal government and replace them with his partisans.  This practice has come down to us as the “spoils system” (another one of those ideologically-loaded terms we officially use to describe the past), because the patronage opportunities were the spoils of democratic victory.  The Progressives of the early 20th Century didn’t think that this was conducive to good government, because people were getting hired and fired without regard to how good they were at their job.  So their idea was that, instead of having people serve at the whim of the President, they’d take a standardized examination to prove their competence and then be immune to being fired for political reasons.

The reform largely stuck.  To this day, it’s considered a grievous sin for a President or one of his cronies to “politicize” a part of the bureaucracy.  The idea is that the people in charge of running the day-to-day operations of the government continue to do so regardless of the desires of whoever might happen to be occupying the elected office at the formal summit of the organization.  After all, that guy might be a demagogue (or an appointee of said demagogue).

What this means, in practice, is that the bureaucracy does whatever the bureaucracy wants, as long as it follows the pre-established meta-rules.  And, in modern America, the culture of the bureaucracy is thoroughly theocratic (as is often the case for bureaucracies) and enthusiastically in favor of the official state religion.  When the progressive party is in power, the bureaucracy eagerly tries to follow the directives given to it.  And, conversely, when regressives are nominally in charge, the bureaucrats just ignore any contrary instructions, secure in the knowledge that they cannot possibly be replaced on ideological or political grounds.  The gears grind slowly, but they’re designed above all else to not slip backwards.

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[3] (note all the names with “von” in the list)