Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How To Become A Dictator

Opening Pitch: A Curveball, Low and Outside
If you look at a map of Africa, and gaze down its West Coast, 20 miles off the coast of Cameroon, in the Gulf of Guinea, you'll see a little island named Bioco. For nearly 500 years it was called Fernando Po, after its discoverer.

In the early 1970s Captain Ernesto Tequila y Mota read and re-read from Edward Luttwak's book Coup d' Etat: A Practical Handbook. Reading from yet another book that addresses Mota's coup: "He set up a timetable, made his first converts among other officers, formed a clique, and began the slow process of arranging things so that officers likely to be loyal to Equatorial Guinea would be on assignment at least 48 hours away from the capital city when the coup occurred. He drafted the first proclamation to be issued by his new government; it took the best slogans of the most powerful left-wing and right-wing groups on the island and embedded them firmly in a tapiocalike complex of bland liberal-conservatism. It fit Luttwak's prescription excellently, giving everybody on the island some small hope that his own interests and beliefs would be advanced by the new regime. And, after three years of planning, he struck: the key officials of the old regime were quickly, bloodlessly, placed under house arrest; troops under command of officers in the cabal occupied the power stations and newspaper offices; the inoffensively fascist-conservative-liberal-communist proclamation of the new People's Republic of Fernando Poo (sic) went forth to the world over the radio station in Santa Isobel. Ernesto Tequila y Mota had achieved his ambition - promotion from captain to generalissimo in one step. Now, at last, he began wondering about how one went about governing a country. He would probably have to read a new book, and he hoped that there was one as good as Luttwak's treatise on seizing a country."

I'm having you on, of course: that long passage I quoted was from the rollicking, psychedelic book of conspiracy theories, the eldritch and menacing underground fiction book, The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. (pp.18-19)

OG Loves His Crazy Books
Except...the Luttwak book is a real book. I own it. It's one of my favorite "Walter Mitty" books: I have a large collection of outrageous literature: Hitler's autobiography, The Turner Diaries, John Birch Society classics, books on how to get revenge on your enemies, Lyndon Larouche tracts, books explaining how advanced aliens have been herding humans like sheep since Day One, Report From Iron Mountain, a book called How To Start Your Own Country, on and on. There's a frisson I cop from owning these books; the reason I call them "Walter Mitty" books is because they have solely to do with some sort of ironic fantasy life: it's not that I would ever adhere to the ideologies in those books, much less take the same actions. The ideas are almost 100% abhorrent to me, but maybe they make for fascinating sociology? A large chunk of my epistemology is influenced by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's phenomenological sociology: knowledge must be anything that is taken as "real" by anyone. For my literary mind, these tomes represent possible habitable worlds. Possibly: worlds that some of my fellow Citizens take seriously as "real." (So...:"oppositional research"?)

These sorts of outrageous books also fuel the anthropological imagination. I like to imagine I could or would, but know I couldn't or wouldn't (I really want us to be nicer to each other: what a friggin' dreamer!) be in some racist, nazi terror group, for some inexplicable reasons not entirely clear to me. When friends see my couple shelves of Weirdo Lit, the easiest - and indeed very true - explanation is: I'm a hardcore 1st Amendment person, especially when it comes to books. But then there's my digression...

                                    Edward Luttwak, prodigious amoral scholar of power,
                                      born 1942.

Edward Luttwak
My, but Luttwak is a learned person, if an amoral one. I've seen him interviewed a few times and he's guileless. And smart. The amoral intellectuals scare the crap out of me, but fascinate me in roughly the same way that Mad Scientists do. I don't consider myself a Moralist, but when I'm confronted by the mind of a Luttwak, or Kissinger, or Herman Kahn, who experimented with LSD and found it a delightful enhancement to his schemes for winning a nuclear war, or...the King of the NeoCons, Leo Strauss...it makes me think.

Let me quote from Luttwak's Coup d'Etat:
(He's discussing France's ineffectual 4th Republic [1946-59]): "The France of 1958 had become politically inert and therefore ripe for a coup. The political structures of most developed countries, however, are too resilient to make them suitable targets, unless certain 'temporary' factors weaken the system and obscure its basic soundness. Of those temporary factors the most common are:
(a) severe and prolonged economic crisis, with large-scale unemployment or runaway inflation;
(b) a long and unsuccessful war or a major defeat, military or diplomatic;
(c) chronic instability under a multi-party system." (p.31)

Near the end of the book, in Appendix A, "The Economics of Repression," we read:
"Once we have carried out our coup and established control over the bureaucracy and the armed forces,  our long-term political survival will largely depend on our management of the problem of economic development. Economic development is generally regarded as a 'good thing' and almost everybody wants more of it, but for us - the newly-established government of X-Land - the pursuit of economic development will be undesirable, since it militates against our main goal: political stability." (p.175)

In 1999 Luttwak published an article in one of the foreign policy journals called "Give War A Chance." Some more idealistic scholars attempt to take him to task HERE.

                                        Out of the mouths of morons...

These Books Have Been Around For Yonks!
From Sun-Tzu's Art of War to (my personal fave) Machiavelli's The Prince, to Clausewitz on to today, polymathic scholars of realpolitick  have written books like Luttwak's. And what always strikes me when I read them: how refreshingly empirical and rational they are! I know that may sound horrible, but hear me out: given the 24/7/365 of corporate propaganda and punditocratic mush we're all subject to, I feel a sense of no-bullshit relief when reading the scholars of realpolitick. I'm not saying I agree with them - I cop to a certain idealism - but at least they are saying the stuff that you're not supposed to say. And if they have wit, all the better.

Back to my Walter Mitty frisson-dealio: I distinctly remember working in a posh old public library in a very rich and conservative area of Los Angeles, and I happened upon a field manual for how to conduct guerrilla war, by Che Guevara. Of course I checked it out and read it cover to cover. How it managed to stay on the shelves of that library (I doubt anyone had read it in at least 15 years), I don't know. That's one big reason I love physical books in physical libraries: the shock and joy of finding something that you didn't even know existed!

                                This is probably pretty close to what Machiavelli looked like

The Latest In This Hallowed Tradition: The Dictator's Handbook
Appearing in 2011 and subtitled, "How Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics," from NYU political scientists Alastair Smith and the very Robert Anton Wilson-y and Robert Shea-ishly-named Bruce Bueno de Mesquita (I actually thought that was Alastair Smith's nonexistent writing partner, a nom de plume of sorts), but Mesquita (not to be confused with the fictional character Ernesto Tequila y Mota) is not only real but he's a big deal. Apparently he has a odd track record of making predictions that come true, which, if you've been reading me for long, know is quite rare. HERE is a five minute piece on "the new Nostradamus" (as Mesquita's been called) on NPR, from November 2009.

Aye: "Using the logic of brazen self-interest" pretty much sums up Smith and Mesquita's approach to political power, whether it's Obama or some dictator in a war-torn little African country. The only difference, our NYU profs think, between democracy and dictatorship, is that the guy operating in the democracy has to deal with more constraints. For any leader, the goal is simple: to get power, keep it, and control the money as much as you can. Perusing The Dictator's Handbook reminded me of reading Luttwak, but it was more breezy, and had a Freakonomics-like vibe.

If "using the logic of brazen self-interest" makes you think immediately of Game Theory, then you're one of those I wanna party with. 'Cuz you're smart, not due to any adherence to a singular "logic of self-interest." Yes: Smith and Mesquita use game theory as both a method and as a motor of considerable rhetorical effectiveness. It's as if their deftness about embedding their ideas in the theory of games makes the book not only compelling due to argument, but thrilling due to mood. And why would I, a non-Gamer, who's never played Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft, find something thrilling in a popular-poli-sci book that seems to be imbued with a chunk of that same zeitgeist? I don't know, but it's not because I feel emotionally removed due to feeling like a disembodied player for hours-on-end of intense and involving video games. I think it's more that I'd rather my body not be as much affected by what I now - pessimistically? - call realpolitick. Fascistic, money-driven politics of the spectacle tend toward depressed moods. Therefore, I'll cultivate an...ironic mood?...towards... "reality"?

Let me think this through a bit more over the next week or so. And back to Mesquita and Smith.

Forget about the complex logistics and strengths and weaknesses of states, what "they" want, the grand strategies and even national interest and good and right and wrong and justice: you need supporters to keep you in power, and you need to draw from as large a pool of supporters as possible (which our profs call "the selectorate"). Who will keep you there? Billionaires and fanatical leaders of coalitions, which explains why a democratically elected leader will champion spending programs that a large chunk of the population don't really want.

There's soooo much bullshit in political reality - especially as we're ramping up for another Prez Election in Unistat - that reading a book like this might feel to you like going through the looking glass. One of our new Machiavellis, Alastair Smith, says, "It's virtually impossible to find any example where leaders are not acting in their own interest."

Another one: "If you're working for the common good you didn't come to power in the first place. If you're not willing to cheat, steal, murder and bribe then you don't come to power."

And every man's vote counts, right? Well...I have talked to a whole lot of very brilliant, well-read young people at Occupy rallies. They have read everything and they're articulate and passionate and they can't get a job to pay off their student loans. And they know why.

But when they vote, who reading me here believes their vote goes as far as a billionaire's or the leader of some fanatical coalition that will rally voters to the polls?

Furthermore: the leader must not terrorize his supporters or take money out of their pockets to make other people's lives better - says Smith and Mesquita - but it's okay for Occupy folk to feel terrorized; it's always better to tax the crap out of people and make them fear for their next meal; it is bad to let them grow their own food. So: Occupy kids: no change, plenty to fear, almost zilch for power. The CEOs on Wall Street?: they're part of the leaders' supporters, they take care of the members of the board and big investors and senior management people. No terror there. And for their "work" they receive mega-outrageously large bonuses.

When we were in grade school, the answer to the riddle, "What do you get when you cross a penis with a potato?" had a funny answer. Now? Maybe "funny" in another, darker way. And I'm reminded of Gore Vidal, who died last week. I paraphrase, but he often said that the American public were so gullible that they harbored the perennial belief that if we just elected a "good, nice man" as Prez, we'd be fine.

for extra credit:
How Will the 99% Deal with the Psychopaths in the 1%?
10 Mad Dictators From the 20th and 21st Century
Dictators and Fascists and their musical tastes: Kim Jong Il loved Eric Clapton?
Osama bin Laden smoked pot and watched "The Wonder Years" and was crazy about Whitney Houston?
George W. Bush 43: "Eight years was awesome and I was famous and I was powerful."
Got a budding scholar of dictatorships? Read 'em all!


Eric Wagner said...

Great piece, as usual. Coincidentally, my Special Topics in Literature class began Julius Caesar yesterday, which begins with Julius as dictator for life hoping to become king. The Romans at that time hated kings but they saws dictators as occassionally necessary.

I heard Herman Kahn speak once in the 80's at ASU. I remember CoEvolution Quarterly used to call him a "friend of the magazine."

Speaking of musical tastes of dictators, I have Hitler's fave, Wagner, playing right now.

Anonymous said...

archive.org has a copy of Frederick
of Prussias instructions to his
He was smart, realistic, and of course has been reviled for doing
overtly what others cover up with
it's worth adding to your shelf.
I wondered when someone else would
notice Strauss under his rock, or
as a contemporary put it U of
Chicago is a moral cesspool.
Wagner transcends politics.

michael said...

@Prof Wagner: Aye, Julius. Did the Empire ever end?

Kahn weighed over 300 lbs and in the 1970s predicted Unistat would have a large drop-out culture by 2000. By most accounts, his interest in LSD was about social control.

@Anon: Thanks for the tip on Frederick of Prussia!
I've never been to Chicago, and it only exists as a rich place mostly represented by minds fairly uncongenial to my own: Robert Maynard Hutchins as the youngest president of a university at age 30 (?) and his collaboration with Mortimer Adler on the Great Books program (I have a stormy relationship with the Great Books collection, but esp. with its hardcore adherents.) The Chicago school of economic thought represents, to me, one of the deep structures of atrocious thinking that has led to insane levels of inequality.

U. of Chicago: One of the most interesting academics of the 20th c - and one who led a fascinating life with a mysterious death at an early age: the Mircea Eliade-infl. anthropologist Ioan Coulianu (sp?). Ted Anton wrote a gripping book on his life and death, the title of which I've forgotten. Did the Romanian secret police hunt him down and kill him inside the US? If so, why?

Sue Howard said...

This reminds me of flipping through a Loompanics catalog(ue) - all that 'out there' strangeness, aka 'High Weirdness'.

I may've mentioned it before, but Luttwak was the very first person I heard claiming that Saddam Hussein had (and intended to use) missiles that would reach the UK & US, causing mass destruction - ie an early propagandist for Bush's & PNAC's insane war. (I heard Luttwak make these claims on BBC radio ages before it became a big 'newsworthy' thing).

michael said...

@Ms. Howard: I seem to remember you mentioning Luttwak and the NeoCons. If you read his Wiki, he's also involved in interrogation, detention, etc: And in 2008 he claimed Obama was a Muslim, because he was born under Muslim law, or something like that.

Like I said, he creeps me out.

He also likes to claim he's not affiliated with either party...which is sorta what you'd expect from him, after reading his realpolitick stuff, eh?

I have a friend who said he knows this guy who married an italian woman, and she and all her friends - hardcore working class types, no university degrees - dismiss official corporate news reports easily. They see through the BS because in Italy, it's clear that when, a judge who was going after the Mafia has his plane go down and he dies, the official news of "technical malfunction" is there for those who NEED to believe that; most people don't believe it for a second. They're just so used to this.

What's unnerving: the Italians may be more advanced in their cynicism, and don't care anymore, and allow someone like Rupert Murdoch to become President (Berlusconi). I fear Unistat is headed there: why not some POS like Trump for Prez? May as well; the people cannot affect change, even when they camp in the streets. The 1% have a lockdown surveillance state, the Constitution is weakened, the judiciary packed with right wing ideologues after 12 yrs of Reagan-Bush, then 8 more of Dumya 43.

And now they have half the population believing Obama is a "socialist." The United States of Amnesia, Gore Vidal called us.

Psuke said...

That remains my greatest fear, as well...especially when combined with the "can't happen here" mentality which too many people still seem to believe.

"Cthulu for President: why choose the *lesser* evil?"

michael said...

That's getting to the heart of my own personal darkness too: Since I was around 19 I've had a lovecrafty fear that the simulacrum will gradually devour more and more into its gaping maw: "reality" is an interesting topic, but diversionary, fake narratives which spin out other offspring false narratives, world without end: it seems to be panning out: you have all kinds of people who are throwing public tantrums over things which have ZERO basis in "reality" that I can tell. If you came from the future and told my 19 yr old self that yep: it'll get so much worse that...you'll see an angry old white person filled with venomous hate because he wants the government to keep its hands off his Medicare?

That may have been a Point of No Return Moment for me. I mean: what level of spun-confusion does it take to receive Medicare and NOT realize it's a decent, humane boon that government came up with? Just...wow.

And there are 1001 other examples either of us can think of.