Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The importance of frequency in training (why you need to work out more often)

Time to update my latest thinking about training, as my injury in December last year really got me off tracks at least until I lost the last shreds of respect I had for the medical profession (exaggerating just a little bit here) and decided not to undergo surgery, so its really only a couple months I’ve been training consistently again, and I still can’t say I’m fully back to the strengths levels I reached when my biceps tendon gave way. But I’m certainly getting closer, and one of the things I’ve (re)learned in the process is that you really should never lose sight of the importance of frequency (hence the title of this post). A bit of background will be necessary to clarify why I lost such sight, and what I’m doing to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Towards the end of last year I had a nice little routine in place that finally balanced (in a way that seemed to work for me) my powerlifting and Oly weightlifting interests: I did three “big sessions” per microcycle, and each session could be split up in two different days if for some reason I was pressed for time (that gave me some flexibility so I could finish writing my dissertation, and polish the articles I had to publish in peer reviewed journals in order to be able to defend it and get my PhD, and also attend to my other duties as salaried professional, parent and espouse). Those sessions had the right mix of “slow” and “fast” moves to develop both strength and explosiveness, and I was (theoretically) waving them in a way that allowed for a smooth progression for as far as the eye could see. The layout of each microcycle looked something like this:

Session 1
Session 2
Session 3
LBBS (PL prog)

BP (PL prog)

Farmers’ walk

BTN SG P Press

Chin ups 
Jump squats (immediately followed by bounded jumps)

Speed BP (doubles at 80%)

Power cleans (WL prog)

Savickas Press

Pull ups
FS (PL prog volume +)

Paused BP (PL prog)

DL (PL prog)

Paused PC

Power Jerk (WL prog)

Chin ups

I designed the program to have one floating day (whenever it fitted in the schedule) to work in explosiveness with shot putting (a bunch of throws) and hill sprints (ditto), but honestly I never found the willpower and time to actually do it.

A program, any program, is as good as the principles behind it, so I’ll explain why I chose those movements and the different progressions I applied to each one. First, this was a “strengthen your weakest link” program. I was tired of having a very subpar bench press, of not progressing in the squat, and of struggling with putting any significant amount of weight overhead. So I decided to squat every session, bench press every session, and put the bar over my head every session, and just try to tuck everything else (thankfully everything else was basically deadlifting, the only move I’m half proficient at so ti doesn’t need that much maintenance, and some power cleaning not to forget the Oly moves) in between. As for progression, I called this routine “Easy strength plus” as I didn’t want to overexert myself with frequent super-high intensity lifts that kept me away from the gym for days with the slightest excuse (well, sometimes it was legit, but my experience with going too frequently above 95% was that the microcycles extended more and more and one only partially unconscious cause was my lack of enthusiasm for the idea of going to the gym to fight a bone-on-bone grind almost every session) and wanted to try instead for some steady accumulation mostly in the 70-80% intensity zone. It worked like this: for each PL move (any squat variation, the bench press and the deadlift) I started doing 5x5 with 70% of my training max (which was in turn a 90% of my 1RM of the last month, typically calculated from any actual 3RM, 2RM or one actual 1RM that I had perceived as being truly limit in that period). Next week I would keep roughly the same total number of reps, in shorter sets (so I would normally go for a 6x4) adding 5 kg in the squat and BP, and 10 kg in the DL. Next week I would do the same (so this time it would be 7 or 8 sets of triples w 10 or 20 kg more), and finally the next week I would do 9 or 10 doubles with 15 kg more on the bar (for the squat and the BP) and 30 more kg on the deadlift. Depending on how that felt, I would go either for singles, or reset with 5 kg more (so if I started the BP doing sets of five across w 80 kg the first time, I would now start with the same sets of five across w 85).

You may have noticed that there wasn’t so much of Oly, just some paltry power cleans (one day with pauses -which I do both just below and just above the knees), some front squatting once a week and some power jerks. Not much technique or mobility, and no snatching whatsoever (well, I’m not arguing it was the perfect program, just that it seemed to serve me well at the time, just wait ‘til I describe how it has evolved!). Those were intended to be progressed more gradually, starting at a somewhat higher percentage (close to 80%) for triples, then 85% for doubles, then 90% for singles, and rinse and repeat, if possible with 2,5 kg more on the bar. If that increase in weight felt too heavy and the form was somewhat compromised, I would add some additional sets instead to consolidate, and run an additional wave with those extra sets before attempting the weight increase again.

A final note on chins and pull ups: they were there mainly to balance all the pushing I was doing with a somewhat equivalent amount of pulling, mainly for shoulder health reasons. I also didn’t dislike the idea of some indirect biceps work, to keep the tendons healthy for the deadlift (but most of you know how well that turned out). Of course, both chin ups and pull ups were strict: no kipping and no half-assing (all done from dead hang, full range of motion, having the sternum hit the bar to be counted as one rep, nothing of those semi-epileptic monstrosities that CrossFit has made so popular).

So how did it go? Somewhat of a mixed bag. I felt I was progressing in my traditional weaknesses, albeit at a very slow pace. Seen in retrospect, there were some glaring deficiencies (the speed BPs were done with too much weight, so they were not fast enough by a long shot, and I was doing too few sets with too many reps of the front squats for them to be of much use, as it forced me to use too light a weight), but the overall principles were pretty sound, and with some minor tweaks it would have served me well, were it not for the main defect in how I executed: I left too much time pass between sessions.

I have always valued the flexibility that comes with having your own home gym, as it allows you to train exactly when it best suits you, regardless of the day of the week or of the hour of the day. The dark side of such flexibility is that it makes it very easy to skip some days because really, you can do it tomorrow exactly the same (and it always sounds more convenient for some reason or other), and what difference does it make one way or the other, just to let an additional 24 hours pass? And whoever says 24 hours surely can say 48 hours (because the next day you have, honest to God, an important meeting at work that leaves you just too drained and “ego depleted” -a pity science has shown that is just junk- to go and train). And so it goes. So my microcycles, designed to be executed in a single week (so I did squats, in different configurations, thrice a week, and the same goes for overhead movements and bench presses) ended up taking ten days, then twelve days, then finally two weeks. And as of the three squat days two were with much lighter weights (the front squats, as I was doing too long sets for them to be of much use, and the jump squats, as honestly you neither can nor want to jump and land with 300 pounds on your tender back) that meant that I only squatted heavy’ish once every two weeks, which every seasoned coach will tell you is not enough by a mile.

The BP fared a bit better, as all the three sessions ended up being similarly heavy, so I was not anywhere near the thrice a week frequency I had devised originally, but was somewhat closer to “one and a half per week”, which is not so bad. Unfortunately, the bench press doesn’t have a systemic effect as powerful as the squat, so yep, my pecs and may be tris (that also had some extra work when overhead pressing) were growing steadily stronger, but my overall ability to exert force and sustain it for short periods was essentially stagnant. That was very apparent in the “explosive” Oly moves, where I was essentially spinning my wheels.

So big lesson learned: frequency is one of the most important variables to manipulate (Duh! That is like discovering gunpowder at this stage of human development), and to drive progress the frequency of “challenging” squats (the kind of squats that really disrupt the homeostasis your body so efficiently seeks to maintain and thus really force you to grow stronger) has to be above one per week. Upper body moves, being less demanding and easier to recover from, adapt themselves nicely to higher frequencies, admitting three per week with relatively short adaptation periods. Not that I needed a long self-experimentation period to discover that, as Mark Rippetoe had discovered it (and Bill Starr before him) a few decades ago, and called it “Texas method” for intermediates (having two days per week for each PL move, one day more oriented towards volume and one day more oriented towards intensity).

As is well known (while my training journal, full of hastily scribbled comments reflecting the increasing awareness of the need for more consistency and mostly a higher frequency of heavy squatting, clearly point towards the gradual correction of the problem), in December all that became moot, as I tore the biceps tendon of my left arm and had to stop any upper body lifting while I waited for surgery. Only towards the end of June did I realize (with the help of a fortuitous encounter with a colleague that had an Achilles tendon surgically reattached and was doubting the need of the procedure given what he had learned about how there are numerous historical examples of tendons healing with no need of intervention -as it was a common procedure to “hamstring” unsuccessfully escaped slaves by cutting tendons in the back of the knee or the heel) that my own injury had essentially healed by itself, a prolonged period of inactivity having been enough not only to make the pain disappear, but the ability to exert force to come back gradually (How I realized I was OK). So it was high time to revisit my last programming and update it with what I had learned to plan for the remainder of the year (and beyond).

Attending the fundamentals first, I liked the idea of having three big “sessions”, each involving the full body, although now I saw that it made sense to separate them in two days by design, with a first half mostly devoted to “slow” moves (powerlifting ones, with one exception we’ll talk about later) and the second devoted to more explosive ones, plus some accessories for balance. I also liked the idea of each day’s training consisting in around half an hour of very intense exercise, with relatively short rest periods. I realized that during my “low body dominated” training (while the tendon healed) I had gone a bit overbananas with the volume (I usually did a total of 70 reps, mostly of squats, per day, although it required up to 15 sets) so I decided to dial it down a bit, which should  also help making the program “stickier” and easier to follow.

As the squat is the most foundational movement, that helps drive all the rest by making you overall stronger (but also potentially hampering the rest of the training day by leaving you utterly depleted jut after completing it) I kept one squat type per session. One would be lighter (the front squat), but not so light that it didn’t help push the main move further (so I would do much shorter sets, with a weight that never goes much below 70% of the low bar back squat that acts as a benchmark, and at that comparatively low percentage still helps it by making the quads work significantly harder). The other would be really focused on speed, alternating jump squats and jump half squats (obviously with more weight) immediately followed by bounded jumps (two horizontal jumps, the second one over a bench to force some extra push and provide more consistency and comparability between sessions). The third one, obviously, would be the real deal, waving around 5x5, but starting with longer sets (3x8) and stopping at triples (at 8x3, which will take 6 weeks, and end with 30 kg more on the bar), only to start again 5 kg higher).
I also kept one bench press per session, usually right after the squat, but instead of toying with semi-different versions I’m sticking with different rep ranges of the same variant (close grip paused bench press), doing sets of 15 reps the first session, of 5 reps the second session (with roughly 30 kg more) and of 2-3 rep the third session (with about 10 kg more than the previous one), and trying to increase 2,5 kg from one microcycle to the next. If I can not complete the planned reps, I’ll keep adding reps per set ‘til I’m two or three reps above the 15/ 5/ 2 in all sets of every day, and I’ll then resume adding weight. I’ve found that both the close grip and the pause help with the high frequency, as they are much less aggressive on the shoulder and the pecs.

One deadlift session per microcycle also seems about right, seeing how depleting that is. I am happy with my current level, even after more than six months without training it seriously, and I confess that my main misgivings have to do with the potential loss of gripping power (I’ve experienced some almost-misses with very modest weights of late because of grip issues) that such low frequency may entail, as I’m also leaving aside farmers walks for now (the traditional recipe for improving the grip), but I’ll just monitor how it goes and adjust accordingly in one or two months if it further degrades.

For explosiveness, I’ll keep the power cleans and the power jerks (depending on the weight these may alternate with push presses some weeks), and substitute hang cleans for the paused ones (these I’ve found work very well when needing to transition from one move done from the floor to another one done from the pins of the rack, like when I have to move from power cleans to power jerks), and add power snatches. Overhead strength will also be worked in every session with the same scheme: in addition to the mentioned power jerks/ push presses there will be a day for heavy BTN SG push presses (aka Klokov presses), and another day for Savickas presses (although I have some doubts about how effective these really are, as they can only be done with very, very light weights, but they help with flexibility, stability and probably provide some extra core work, so I’ll keep them for now and see to what extent they help more than hinder the rest). As I have some concerns about how my form may have degraded in this time, I’ll start with a sets and reps scheme closer to the one I’m using for the PL moves (around 3x5), which forces me to use less weight, and by allowing me to accumulate more repetitions, some of them pretty exhausted, definitely pushes me to clean up my form (however, to avoid ingraining bad habits I’ll need to be more consistent videotaping myself and analyzing how it looks like intra sets).
In addition to chins and pull ups, I intend to do some dipping, both loaded and unloaded (as well as load some of the chin ups), as the tris are probably my weakest point (I think the main limiting factor both in my bench press AND my overhead moves), so it’s high time to really make it work (not just in every session, but every day within each session) and see how it responds. Putting it all together it looks like this:

One microcycle (duration: 10 days)
Session 1
Session 2
Session 3
Day 1
Day 1
Day 1
Front Squat (PL prog)

Bench Press (3x15)
DL (PL prog)

Power snatch (OL prog)
LBBS (PL prog)

Bench Press (5x2)
Day 2
Day 2
Day 2
Power Clean (WL prog)

Hang Clean

Push Press/ Power Jerk (WL prog)

Weighed chin ups
Bench Press (3x5)

Weighed dips

Savickas press

Pull ups

Jump squats + bounded jumps
BTN SG P Press


Chin ups

To be done in 10 days, allowing for roughly 1 day rest between each session (the days in the same session have to be done one after the other, if for some reason I have to skip a day the next one I do both back to back), with the possibility of the rest being extended to 2 days in the weekend (because the weekend is mostly for the family, so I’ll only train if there are absolutely no family events planned).

Finally, I still dream of being able to have one session here and there interspersed between the rest to go to the park and do some throwing and hill sprinting, just for fun and to stay supple. It will have to wait for temperatures to drop down a bit, as it is now too hot to think about it, but it will arrive. Another difference with how I’ve been doing things this last years is that I do not intend to make any effort at all to stuff myself with food no matter what. One side effect of my recovery (may be a bit before the injury I was already well down that road) is that, exercising considerably less I also ended up eating less, dropping a few pounds. Not something I ever obsessed about, but I’ve noticed my knees (mostly the surgically reconstructed one) ache and hurt much, much less when I go around weighing 190 pounds than when I weighed 210 pounds. So although I’m sure my lifting would improve faster if I went back to eating two servings of every dish, wolfing down pizzas and hamburgers as if there was no tomorrow and drinking gallons of milk multiple times a day to complete my caloric intake I plan not to do any of those. Not only that, I’ve discovered that not having lunch most days of the week leaves me with extra time to pursue other interests, saves me a lot of money and doesn’t noticeably impact my training sessions, so I’ll be in an unstructured IF (Intermittent Fasting) protocol for the foreseeable future, and see how my bloodwork evolves (again, not a big concern of mine, but curious about the purported miraculous benefits it is supposed to have). I’ll dine whatever I deem both edible and desirable (trying to stay clean, no processed food at all if I can avoid it, so no bread, pasta or sodas, just meat, fish, eggs, milk, vegetables and fruit… and beer, of course, beer is almost as old as humanity, so it doesn’t belong in the category of “processed food” at all) in the amount that leaves me fulfilled. If I gain weight, I gain weight, and if I lose some more weight, I lose it (my Wilks points at least seem to be improving so far). Needless to say, no supplements (that’s 99 times out of 100 for mentally weak people that have been sadly addled by the shady industry that sells such pricey and mostly useless stuff) and no drugs other than alcohol.

If possible, I’ll post more frequently how it is progressing and what adjustments I feel need to be done. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

After Trump, what?

Trump is going to lose the general election, although by a smaller margin than what the polls are currently predicting (my own take is he will be somewhere between 4-6% in the popular vote, and 180-190 of the electoral college). This much is already apparent for those with a functioning brain, a feature that sadly seems absent from many of the commenters in the political news of the outlets, like the NYT, the WaPo or the Grauniad, that still courageously allow their readership to express their opinions more or less loosely related to the pieces they’ve read. Yep, surprising as it may sound, you can’t scan the comments section of any piece of news related to the US presidential campaign without finding many guys -they tend to be mostly men, although there is some occasional lady- stating that no matter what the polls may or may not suggest, Trump is gonna win in a landslide come the 8th of November (they unfailingly take the occasion to fling some typically ugly epithets towards Democrat’s candidate Hillary Clinton along the way). As they say, haters gonna hate, and there’s not much common sense, third-grade level civility and a healthy respect for the force of facts can do against the willfully closed minds of some politically engaged individual (aka “low information voters”), from whatever end of the spectrum. Funnily, some of the angriest, more caustic and vitriolic denunciators of Mrs. Clinton are butt-hurt Bernie Sanders supporters, that criticize her -and surprisingly end up lionizing Trump, unsavory as he should appear to anybody with a minimally progressive sensibility- for not being revolutionary enough, being a “bought and paid for” puppet of corporate interests, being a status quo candidate, and thus somehow justifies voting for an unhinged plutocrat that in almost a year of exposure hasn’t been able to articulate a coherent policy on a single topic of interest for the republic… a story I devoted some space to in an older post (of HIllary's and Donald's prospects) but that has ended having much less impact in the dynamics of the election than I thought it would have.

Again, the result of the election is settled and foreordained, as the polls at this point in time are already clear and reliable enough: Clinton heads back to the White House, most likely the Dems retake the Senate but not Congress, and the only variable still in doubt is the margin of the Repubs defeat. It is after the morning of the 9th of November 2016 is when things start getting interesting in the old US of A. I think it is a fair assessment of the state of American politics to say that some old coalitions have disintegrated, some intriguing new ones may be in the first stages of formation, and some shared narratives seem shakier by the day. Starting with the first:

Bye bye Republican Party. Doesn’t matter if Trump loses by much or by little. The Genie is out of the bottle in this one, and the disgruntled voters that, who would have guessed? Turned out to be the vast majority of the GOP are not coming humbly back to the fold, tail tucked between their legs, and start drinking again the kool aid about free trade, small government, reasonable immigration, hawkish foreign policy (including an unconditional support for Israel) and low taxes (mostly) for the rich enabling a dynamic, unregulated economy that finally lifts all boats. The guys at National Review and the Weekly Standard are probably dreaming with a sound drumming of Drumpf that will cause an epiphany in enough millions of voters as to graft them back to their Country Club brand of traditional republicanism, but I’m afraid they are in for a rude awakening. The ideology they have been peddling for the last three decades (no kidding it always came back to Saint Ronald) has the electoral support of between one and ten million voters, and feels now as alien as XXth century objectivist philosophy to the roughly fifty million (41% of the electorate that will show no compunction whatsoever in voting for the Donald, assuming a low turnout election where only 50% of the 225.8 million people eligible to vote actually show up) that for all those years they thought they shared their political outlook with.
In the pundits’ mind, after Trump goes down in flames, those fifty million will be willing to embrace a more moderate, sounder conservatism, very much in the line advocated by the authors of the study conducted after Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012. You surely remember: show more tolerance for gays and minorities, especially Hispanics (to be shown in legislative support for a “comprehensive” immigration package like the one crafted by the “gang of four”… man, this really reads like very, very ancient history, and it was only four years ago), propose something to replace Obamacare with to exhibit some concern for the luck of those not so wealthy as the party’s donor base, assuage the concerns of the elderly population about the continuity of Social Security and Medicare, etc. You also know how well that worked: not a single point of the “Growth & Opportunity Project” was followed through, and if it had been it would have turned the base even more rabidly against the lawmakers trying to enact it (remember Eric Cantor, insufficiently conservative for his own constituents, and duly replaced by a Tea Party faithful that managed the not too shabby feat of making him look like a moderate?)

So the GOP is, for all practical purposes, dead and buried, no matter what it tries after the election. They will nominally be in control of one house of government (congress), but their ability to even mildly influence any legislation during the next following four years is going to be zilch, nada, zero. They will still enjoy an inordinate representation in local governments (at State level), and that will allow them to exert a disproportionate influence in redistricting (thus ensuring a number of safe seats for their brethren… until they crack some more and an open civil war make those safe seats much less safe, more on that later on), but they will have all but disappeared as a viable political force.

I like to think about it this way: there will be roughly 225 million Americans above 18 years of age and with no criminal record, thus eligible to vote. Only half of them will really bother to do so, which gives us a total size of the electorate of 120-125 million voters. Thanks to growing polarization and self sorting 60 million of the potential voters, if they vote at all, will vote Democrat, and a bit less (around 55 millions) will vote Republican (although they are less, they have been much smarter in translating them into electoral advantage, especially at State level). Between 5 to 10 million are more or less undecided, and can go either way, or even throw their vote away voting for a 3rd party option. So of the 55 millions of the Republican “base” we know 50 million are going to vote Trump, because what the heck. They don’t care that the party elders have warned them that the guy is a) racist (so are many of them, thank you very much); b) a narcissistic spoiled brat characteriologically unfit to occupy the highest office of the land; c) socially unreliable, and with strong liberal tendencies; and d) economically a basket case, who nobody can define what would do once in office (be against free trade? Or for it? Against military intervention abroad? Or in favor of launching attacks in every country that crosses him?). They will vote for him because they are sick and tired of what they perceive as a rigged system that doesn’t care for them, doesn’t provide them with what is rightfully theirs (at least the prospect of continuously improving standard of life for them and those in their ingroup) and especially doesn’t show the hypocritical pieties that other politicians show towards those “outsiders” (be them immigrants, blacks, jews, homosexuals, Wall Street bankers, or college educated kids) that they conveniently scapegoat as pulling ahead and illegitimately benefitting from their toil and effort. So I find it very unlikely that those 50 million can be counted to toe the party line ever again. That leaves the current establishment with 5 to 10 million followers they can reliably count upon. Somewhat better than the Libertarian Party (although it may gather as many as 15 million votes this peculiar electoral cycle according to some polls, many of those would be more than happy to come back to the Republican ticket once it is led by someone more of their liking) and definitely better than the Green Party, but not by much.          

Hello American National Socialist Workers’ Party, well, I don’t think they will go for such a controversial name, but that’s in essence what a good deal of the fifty million voters that are defecting the “old” GOP in this election would end up forming. Let’s see what may be the defining features of such voting bloc, forgetting labels and their semantic charge for a moment: Ultra nationalism (to the point of jingoism)? Check. Racial homogeneity (which easily derives into racial animus against other groups where other races are more visible)? Check. Economic populism (autarchy as logical consequence of the denunciation of free trade, big government handouts to buy large masses of their supporters, state intervention in the economy to redistribute to the well connected, etc.)? Check. Authoritarianism and cult of personality? Check. Reverence for the “good old days”, law and order (disorder seen as a convenient byproduct of some demonized “other” existence, and thus highly conductive to the use of the state repressive apparatus against such other), legitimation of a militarized police and a strong military? Check and double check.

Look, I know my “Goodwin’s Law” as well as the fella next to me, but what the rise of Trump tells us is that a sizeable amount of the American electorate doesn’t have any problem at all with a very strong totalitarian detour. A lot of ink has been spilled recently about how Trump is (or is not) the darling of the alt-right, or the neoreaction, or of White Nationalism. I’ve been following those tendencies for years, and there are good news and bad news in that front. The good news is that the most intellectually awake between them have not bought into the Trump craze. They see him as just making it up as he goes, as an unreliable, mercurial, deeply flawed personality. BUT. Not much worse than your run of the mill democratic (small d) politician, starting with Clinton. So they may occasionally hack for him just for the lulz, just for driving mad the “Social Justice Warriors” and libtards and cuckservatives and the like. The bad news is that what this situation is teaching them is that they are not just a tiny bunch of geeky nerds typing away in the darker recesses of 4chan, 8chan and the like. Beyond the usual readership of the Daily Stormer (and of breitbart, and Taki) there are tens of millions of countrymen that are “harvestable”, that can be recruited, may be in even bigger numbers when a more astute operator, a true leader, comes to call them. They see all the flaws of Trump, his essential unsuitability, and they see what for them is an electoral success beyond their wildest dream.

So do not worry, Donald Trump is not the future führer of a reborn American Fascist Federation. After this election we will probably not hear much from him in a long time (except as a cautionary tale from certain orphaned conservatives of what supposedly happens when you stray from their increasingly irrelevant dogma). The next guy that comes after him, draws from the same well of resentment (social, economic and, yes, also openly racial) and is able to attract followers from the other side reservoirs is the one we should be concerned about. Because, as we are about to see, there is indeed quite a lot to draw from.

Be careful what you wish for, Democrats. Let’s then have a look at the other side of the aisle. The Democrats may rejoice for a while seeing the self-destruction that has visited their longtime opponents, and dream with decades of almost effortless political dominance in the face of such division between a populist wing, too extreme to ever attract the majority of the electorate, and a moderate one too impotent to ever attract again a significant number of voters. But how solid will their control of their own electorate be? As has been repeatedly noted, the Democrats have obtained electoral success (when they win in November, they will have captured a majority of the popular vote in six of the last seven elections, spanning almost three decades, no mean feat) by keeping together a motley coalition with very different interests, and very different outlooks of how the republic should be managed. Some members of the coalition are socially conservative but economically progressive, expecting a significant redistributionist effort from the state. Some are economically conservative (favor a lesser participation of the state in the economy and accept a high degree of openness of the American economy towards international markets) but married to some socially progressive end (abortion rights, gay marriage, multiculturalism, feminism, strong repudiation of traditional social mores…) and some occupy some space in between, are satisfied with some aspect of the status quo and dissatisfied with other, and thus would be in principle open to be pried from the  Democratic coalition and desert to the opposing team.

Specially when we look at the elephant in the room: race. Let’s break down the numbers a bit. We mentioned there were 225.8 million eligible voters in the USA in 2016, of which only between 50 and 60% actually vote. Of those, 156.1 million are White, 27.4 million are Black, 27.3 are Hispanic and 9.3 are Asian. For the sake of argument, let’s assume there will be 85.9 million White voters, 12.3 million Blacks, the same 12.3 million Hispanic and 4.7 million Asians. Of the roughly 45 million of those that will vote for Trump (according to pols he is currently around 42% of the likely voters, the core constituency of what only half-jokingly I’ve called the future American National Socialist Workers’ Party) we can safely assume 90% are white, which leaves 45.9 million White voters to be splitted between Clinton, Johnson and Stein. How many of those 45.9 do you think will not be willing to consider the allure of a more revolutionary, better organized party that they see increasingly aligned with their worldview and interests? Put other way, how many of them are so virtuous, so positively repelled by any whiff of bigotry or racial hatred as to never cross the ideological divide and end up feeling more comfortable with their authoritarian (but racially more homogeneous) brethren?

History has taught me not to put too much stock in collective virtue.  Eight years ago, even four years ago any discourse even minimally tinged    with the faintest smell of tolerance for racial discrimination would be electoral poison, and the association with David Duke (a former Grand Wizard of the Klan, no less) would have spelled the political death of any politician not willing to put one thousand miles between himself and the guy. Today, obviously, that rule doesn’t apply any more. In that sense, the cat is out of the bag, and we can only wonder how things may look like four, eight or twelve years from now. Let’s just leave it at me not being overtly optimistic…          

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Jeez, we are already in the midst of a new feudal age!

Time to attend the anguished cries of my growing readership and get back to the scriptorium to provide them the nuanced and thoughtful content they have become accustomed to, after a long, blissful vacation that had me flying above the oceans and driving thousands of miles through multiple continents (I’m “barely” exaggerating in this era of shameless self-aggrandizement when every FB and Instagram user seems to be perpetually jumping from the Maldives to the Atacama desert, and from Phuket to Tokyo in the blink of an eye, only to attend to fancy parties and brainy conferences, but as usual I digress). Thankfully, all that flying and driving, and scuba diving and nonchalantly basking in the sun on crowded beaches has not prevented me from a healthy dose of reading, seeking to understand better the hidden currents that are shaping our global village, which run deeper and have a greater momentum than those that bath the Canary Islands from which I pondered such weighty trends.

Some of that reading has been on the topic of feudalism, whose application to our modern times I had already considered in a post of some time ago (entering a new feudal age), as I felt I needed to understand better that period of our shared civilization, what caused it, what made it tick and what finally condemned it to the proverbial dustbin of history. I went back to Europe Between the Oceans 9000 BC – AD 1000 by Barry Cunliffe, to Europe in the High Middle Ages by William Chester Jordan (within the excellent Penguin series on the history of the continent), but mainly I exploited my recently recovered ability to read French originals to visit what resulted in a much deeper understanding. Although my first foray (L’homme médiéval, a collection of essays on different human types barely edited by Jacques Le Goff) was somewhat disappointing, I ended up finding some real masterworks that have much clarified my views on the social dynamics prevalent then. In that vein, I can not recommend highly enough La société féodale by Marc Bloch, and to a lesser extent Le Problème de l’incroyance au XVIe siècle: la religion de Rabelais, by Lucien Febvre (that one touches only tangentially in a minute aspect of the middle ages, but which I needed to wholly grasp to complete my view of the period: the extent to which religious belief truly permeated the worldview of both the elites and the common people towards the end of the middle ages, when the feudal institutions were either greatly weakened or entirely disappeared).

Be it as it may, the three key insights I gained were a) the personal nature of the feudal bond between lords (formalized by the rite of hommage in which the would-be vassal put his joined hands between the hands of his future master, followed by a kiss in the mouth to signify the equivalence in dignity between both participants); b) the necessary insufficiency of the bonds towards state structure and family to ensure the safety and survival of the individual as a precondition for the voluntary acceptance of such vassalage bonds and c) the relative independence of such bonds from the economic structure, which was based on what Bloch calls “seigneurial” agricultural production, a system that vastly predates feudalism and long survived its demise (indeed, the “old regime” the French Revolution finally overthrew, although characteristically “feudal” in the eyes of its contemporaries, was indeed a seigneurial economic compact with no traces of feudalism whatsoever). Each of those insights have consequences of interest for the analysis of our own social order that I will proceed to unpack.

Personal nature of the bond, which presupposed a similar level of dignity between both participants, and determined thus the dynamics within the upper echelons of society, not affecting that much the way the mass of the people lived and were bossed around (such mass was formed mostly by peasants, in an era of very low, almost inexistent, urbanization). So personal was it that when either the lord or the vassal died, it had to be renewed by the deceased’s successor (only in lower Middle Age, as it would become hereditary afterwards, signaling a growing weakness of the top of the lords’ hierarchy, occupied by would-be nation-state kings). In its original form, the vassal committed his whole person to his lord, agreeing to support him in case of armed conflict (reflected in the widespread formula tes amies seront mes amies, et tes ennemies seront mes ennemies: “your friends shall be my friends and your enemies shall be my enemies”) in exchange for maintenance and the provision of means of subsistence. Those means of subsistence (that Bloch goes to great pains to differentiate from a “salary”) could be provided in the house of the lord, giving the vassal almost free access to food and lodging, or by the concession of populated land (a “fief”). Note the importance of the land being populated, as having a desert was of no interest to anybody. Difficult as it may be to imagine such state in our overpopulated times, land was back then the inexhaustible resource that kings could freely adjudicate to their subjects, and they liberally did so in exchange for their loyalty, the availability of settlers being the only “brake” to such adjudication.

Is there today something similar to land back in feudal times? Something that can be created almost “out of thin air” and given in compensation for fealty and a commitment to come in the defense of the giver if needs be? Well, of course there is. Capital is the new land, and with it the new “kings” (those who seat at the top of the managerial class) reward the loyalty of their followers. Technically, it is not them who control the “creation” of capital, something that formally only sovereign central banks can do, but think about it for a moment: why do central banks continue with a policy of “scarce money” and international monetary authorities keep on defending austerity in the face of 99% (and I’m being generous, see the last exasperated tirade of Paul Krugman on the topic: of the most reputed economists? What could the potential downside of a more expansionary policy be? A diminution in the value of the currency the ruling class uses to buy the loyalty of its barons and counts, of course! I’ll leave a more detailed analysis of the apparent inconsistencies of monetary policy (which of course, without resorting to any wacky conspiracy theory, only masks its utter coherence with the interests of the ruling classes, transmitted through the acceptance of a shared dominant reason that is a precondition for the whole society functioning as such).

However, identifying the personal character of the feudal bond helps us reveal the milieu where such type of relationship has become more prevalent today: that of the “modern” enterprise, where the CEOs of big multinational corporations act, for all practical purposes, as the kings of yore, appointing their barons (senior vice presidents) to rule over parts of their realm (geographical or functional divisions within the company) which they can more or less mercilessly exploit (and use the population contained within their fiefs as human chattel) as long as they pay homage to the boss, and come into his aid in case of conflict. Below them we can differentiate a bewilderingly complex hierarchy of counts, dukes, squires, viscounts and the like (sorry, I meant vice presidents, unit heads, division managers and the rest of the baffling “C-level suite” of any modestly successful corporation of today). The way thy rule over the lower strata is irrelevant here: some will be absentee landlords, some will dwell with their underlings. Some will by autocratic and tyrannical, some will be gentle and understanding, and give some voice to the “little guys” over which they lord. For the understanding of the whole system the really important thing is what moves the upper levels, regardless of how any of them individually decides to treat their serfs.

A system that requires a weak state and a weak family structure finds itself exactly and uncannily at home in our own troubled times. We have reduced families to the minimal expression (father, mother and a single child, that in most of the West now grows up barely knowing his or her grandparents, and has no uncles, aunts or cousins) and certain segments of the ruling classes are busily undermining the legitimacy of the state, as described by Nils Gilman in this article from the National Interest: the twin insurgency (thanks to the always interesting Branko Milankovic for the pointer). With no state to guarantee the bare necessities and almost no family to rely on, people have to turn themselves to the new lords at the top of the social hierarchy and offer themselves entirely to them, to be “friends of their friends and enemies of their enemies”. No shit Sherlock that the most rewarding multinationals expect nothing less than a 100% commitment from their executives. I distinctly remember attending (with growing unease) a lecture by one of the most successful honchos of the consulting company where I started my professional days, where he told us how he became the first executive to land a deal over 1 billion US dollars with a major client, which “only” forced him to move, family included (and also the families of his immediate reports) to a tiny village in the middle of nowhere where the client happened to have its headquarters. I had already witnessed how in my own geographic corner the families of the partners were understood to be an appendix of their professional careers, participating and creating the social opportunities to interact with potential customers to the exclusion of more uninterested (or non-monetizable) pursuits. Twenty four hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year, no holidays, rest or breaks allowed. But hey, as I said, we have created a system that exploits its most successful participants in ways that would put to shame a Roman slave master, and we fool ourselves proclaiming us the freer people on history, while boasting of work weeks of 80, 90, and up to 120 hours.

Independence of the bond between “lords” and between those and their “serfs”. Finally, we shouldn’t lose sight that what gave the feudal system its distinctive “flavor” was not the more or less strict serfdom on which it rested, or the other order of people on which it relied, the priestly class, which played a role very similar to that played today by scientists and scholars, both perfecting the common understanding of how the world, including the social reality, works and developing a common narrative to justify why it is the best of all the possible, imaginable arrangements. What was at the core of that flavor was the dense, strictly hierarchical network of fealty bonds that on the one hand kept the upper class together against external threats (from invasions -like the Saracens, the Vikings and the Magyars between the VIIth and the IXth centuries; from the dissatisfied peasants, through occasional but never too frequent revolts; from the plague and famines caused by bad harvests) while at the same time prevented them from accumulating too much power by continuously pitting them one against the other.

Because we shouldn’t forget the heyday of the feudal system were extremely violent times, the kind of times that inspired Hobbes to describe life outside the dominion of an absolute sovereign as “nasty, brutish and short”, a life of economic uncertainty, despair and arbitrary subjection to the ravaging armies of the nobles that in their own territories or in those of their rivals combatted their ennui by hunting or warring, or mixing both. A class whose superiority was originally predicated in the mastery of the more and more expensive weaponry demanded by “capital intensive warfare” (a horse and a full suit of armor was in those times as “expensive” as an M1 Abrams may be today, in terms of the amount of surplus that has to be extracted from the population to afford it, once the total factor productivity has been equalized) necessarily will keep justifying that superiority by the constant resource to military conflict. Land (the supposedly scarce resource, which for most of the Middle Ages was in more than abundant supply, as enormous extensions of forests laid fallow, waiting to be colonized all over the European land mass) was but a poor excuse, and war succeeded one after another as long as there were men to fought them.

Similarly, what we see today is a class (professional managers in large companies) more and more detached from the common men, which justifies their superiority by their business acumen, their imagined ability to turn a differential profit on the capital they are assigned… but let’s not forget that the base of that capital, namely money, could be conjured from thin air in limitless amounts by the authorities that control the printing presses in the central bank of every major currency-emitting nation. Such differential profit can only exist in an environment of apparently thinly regulated competition. I say apparently because the surest way of making tons of money is to be given a monopoly, and just extract the corresponding rents from it, something that companies seek ever more eagerly to do. All the while singing the praises of free competition, of course, as hereditary nobles, who had done really nothing to deserve their privileges (as it was some ancestor of them, more and more remote in the mists of time, who established the original agreement from which they were still benefitting), sang the praises of a status of perpetual war in which they did the looting and the enjoying while other, more numerous and less privileged, did almost all the dying…

What would finally stabilize our modern economic feudalism, and allow it to last for at least three or four centuries like the original one? To begin with, the recognition of a separate legal status for “managers”, including the guarantee to be judged only by their peers. Not that justice is that much universal nowadays, but formally we all still live under the same penal code, subject to the same set of laws and liable to be tried under the same procedural rules. I concede that only the very naïve can think that such “formal” equality doesn’t conceal a massive inequality, and that there are really two justice systems, one (marked by its harshness, a worrisome level of arbitrariness and high publicity of its supposedly exemplar punishments) for the poor and another, very different one, for the rich (marked in contrast by its leniency, its homogeneity across frontiers and jurisdictions and the comparative secrecy of the penalties it imposes).

Thankfully, such recognition of a separate legal status carries within itself the seed of the destruction of the system.  The moment in which it is formally recognized the people belonging to such privileged strata want to perpetuate it and grant it to their descendants, and such granting (and the desire of the rest of the population to achieve similar formally recognized status) ends up clashing with the personal nature of the feudal bond, and finally emptying it of any significance, being replaced by a hereditary office that is severed from the meritocratic principle and thus, subject to genetic drift, ends up distributed between not specially gifted individuals, that sooner or later lose the ability to prevent the masses from recovering most of them.
But such dissolution lies far away into the future. What I foresee in the following decades is still a consolidation of the managing class’s power, more and more along feudal lines, and an increasing pressure to differentiate themselves from the masses of common men over which they see themselves commanding (not by divine right, in a distinctly secular age, but by ill-defined “merit”, even if that merit is based on their superior intelligence, a mostly heritable, and thus as undeserved as may be dreamt of, trait). Just because the source of their prestige is economic success, which is always relative (it absolutely needs economic failure by its side to highlight its distinctiveness), such class will relentlessly foster an economic climate of (apparent) ruthless competition, scarcity and, as the last decade amply illustrates, public squalor and low growth, because in such low growth scenario the greatness of those that can still pull ahead (what we could call the “one percentedness” of the one per cent) is more noticeable. Unless, of course, a peasant revolt here and there convinces them that it is in their best interest to give a few more breadcrumbs to the masses (or, alternatively, to invest more heavily in mercenary armies, as I suggested in my last post may be already happening under our noses).