Thursday, September 29, 2016

Not with a bang, but with a whimper

I’ve been engaged recently in a number of discussions with people that wanted to know how likely and imminent did I really think it was a catastrophic collapse of social order in some (or all) of Western societies. I’ve also been discussing what weaponry would make more sense to have stockpiled for such scenario, and where to have such weapons (along with ammo, enough non-perishable food to sustain you and your loved ones until the second or third successful harvest and some other very basic necessities -abundant beer, fine bourbon and lots and lots of books first among them, of course), but it is only with the first part of such discussions with which I intend to entertain my readership in this post.

Let us start defining, then, what form such societal collapse may take, and concern ourselves with timeframe and probabilities afterwards. I’ll distinguish between “sudden”, or “catastrophic” dissolution of social structures and “gradual” or “incremental” decline. The first case unfolds in a few weeks, one or two months maximum, and requires the disappearance of the monopoly of violence by the state, and with it the lack of a legitimate, universally recognized police force and army as actors in front of which any other agent yields. With no ultimate guarantor for the compliance with laws, such laws stop being valid, so property rights become “fluid” and can be enforced only if backed by a private force overwhelming enough to overcome any disputation. Lack of enforceable property rights disrupts the economy to the point of causing major discontinuities in the production and distribution of basic necessities (mainly food, but also running water, electricity, gas and oil, many of which reinforce the other in a vicious circle of growing scarcity) so frequent riots break out to scramble for the stocks that are stored in the most densely populated areas (but which can sustain the population’s needs for just a handful of days). Historical examples like the French revolution (s), Russian Revolution and Chinese Revolution (as recounted by Theda Scokpol in her magisterial book on the subject) may serve as a guide on the conditions needed for such developments to take place (we’ll recap them in a moment) and, specially, on how they typically end (hint: after a lot of bloodshed an authoritarian regime reasserts control, and normally things go downhill from there).

The second case (gradual decline) is indeed unfolding in front of our eyes: lack of population growth (followed, a few decades afterwards, by accelerating population shrinkage) and lack of technological innovation cause the total output of society (measured in the material goods and services priced and exchanged in the market, as captured by each country’s GDP figures) to stop expanding and soon start contracting. Notice that such contraction, accompanied by a diminution of the total number of people between which such output has to be distributed is compatible with a (modest) increase in per capita income and wealth, as long as there are still some productivity gains to reap (as there will undoubtedly be, I’m not maintaining that technical progress has completely ended, only that it has significantly slowed). Unfortunately, that is not how things work. Being endowed with different capabilities, human beings rarely (if ever) tend to favor an equitable distribution of available riches (not necessarily “fair” or “just”, and surely not according to some definitions of justice having to do with merit and desert). The most capable between them have an almost insurmountable tendency to accumulate and hoard the fruit of their labor, and if possible, while they are at it, to appropriate the fruit of other people’s labor as well. When the collective pie is growing they may only take 90% of such growth and leave the remaining 10% for the majority, but when the total pie starts shrinking my prediction is they will ruthlessly increase the percentage of the total social output, to the detriment of such hapless majority, which will see how they average income, global standard of living and accumulated wealth all diminish in a slow but steady way.

Of course, such path will sooner or later reach a tipping point where the whole system in its current inception becomes unsustainable (well, it can be argued that ecologically it is pretty unsustainable already, but socially we have been successfully sustaining it for some decades) and it has to shed some features that today seem to us nonnegotiable (like capitalism and/ or democracy, as I argued in my last post). When that shedding comes is when we can truly talk of collapse, as the society likely to emerge is definitely discontinuous with our own (and will likely have to craft a different dominant reason, but we’ll get to that in a moment) and experience teaches us that some major trauma is required for any group to change their overarching values. Let’s discuss both scenarios (the gradual and the sudden) to better understand their implications and warning signals

The frog in the (slowly) heating water. Gradual decline

You don’t need a turbo charged imagination or be steeped in sophisticated hard-boiled Sci-Fi to grasp how gradual decline would look like. It’s the world we’ve been living in since the “Great Recession” of 2008, where some of the tendencies that started manifesting themselves in the 1970’s came to fruition. Technological stagnation (minus mobile telephony and the internet, and thankfully with the elimination of ultra-wide lapels and shirt necks from the world of masculine fashion and disco music not ruling the airwaves any more) had already settled in back then, and the population bomb with its sense of impending doom and imminent overpopulation was in the beginning of its defusing (and now, in the West, it’s fully defused, unloaded although not entirely put to rest: Liberals love their doom predictions as long as it's other people's fault ).

What does technological stagnation looks like? Very low growth of total factor productivity, and thus of per capita GDP. But it can be pretty worse than that. Because as TFP has had a brief spurt around the 90’s and until the Great Recession of 2008 GDP was still growing above 2% annually a case could be made that Western economies were still in pretty good health, and a “secular stagnation” was nowhere to be seen:

That’s the evolution of per capita GDP in the USA according to the World Bank: from the equivalent of roughly 7,000 2001 USD in 1975 to 55,000 in 2015, that’s almost an 800% increase in 40 years, which requires an average annual growth a tad above 11,2%. Something China has been pulling off for three decades now, but not surely the good ‘ol US of A. What gives? Basically, we are presenting the per capita GDP of different years in their nominal value, but of course 7,000 USD in 1975 could not buy the same than 7,000 USD in 2015, as there has been substantial inflation between both dates. Actually, once you apply the inflation correction those 7,000 USD turn out to be the equivalent of 34,452 USD of 2015, so the total growth of per capita GDP has been a still respectable 62% in 40 years, which requires (thanks to the magic of compound interest) an average annual growth rate of only 1,2%, not that far from the one actually recorded by the World Bank:

So all that stupendous growth you see the techno-optimists expounding ceaselessly? Yup, it all happened… in China. There is not a single developed economy that can show a sustained growth (four decades) well above 2% per year, which is nothing to brag about. OK, you may still argue that a 60% growth in 40 years is still not that bad. May be it doesn’t double the standard of living of each generation (that would require a 100% improvement every 40 years, as happened between 1920 and 1970, and had happened before between 1870 and 1920), but living with 60% of goods and services more than your parents is still pretty good, isn’t it?  Only the situation gets much, much worse when you consider how that growth has been distributed. To get a better grasp of how things feel for the populace we shouldn’t look at the average (for reasons we shall explain in a minute) but to the median, and this is how the median income of US households has been changing since the 70’s:

So for the majority of the population (I’m looking just at the “All races” line), and even after a significant uptick last year, the total improvement has been an even more modest 12% (from about 50 K USD per year to about 56 K USD per year), still below what they were making in 1996 (which is 20 years ago, how does time fly!).

To illustrate what that means, let’s imagine in 1975 we had a couple fried chickens between you and me. I had a full chicken and a wing, and you had one chicken without a wing. Our average wealth was one chicken per person, and our median wealth was also one chicken (as that’s the wealth level at which 50% of the population has less and 50% has more). Now fast forward 40 years and it happens that I have twenty chickens plus a wing and you still have one chicken (minus the wing, of course). Our median wealth is still one chicken (half of us -you- have less than one, and the other half -me- have more). But you should be bursting with happiness, truly ecstatic about the fact that our “shared” average wealth has skyrocketed to a whooping ten chickens per person. A full 1,000% improvement. What? What’s that grumpiness and discontent? What do you mean you still only have your lousy chicken, and that the comparison with my twenty chickens (that I flaunt endlessly in front of your envious eyes) makes it look even lousier? Now, that is really rude and impolite from you! That is engaging in class war, and unneeded animosity! It is also exactly how things have played out in the West.

You may have no class consciousness, but you are still a prole

I’m breaking no new ground here, as it is well known and accepted by everybody with a functioning brain that most of the economic improvement since the 70’s has been appropriated by a tiny sliver of the population (the infamous 1%, and according to some accounts by a 1% of that 1%). We can thank Thomas Picketty and Emmanuel Saez for putting such hard facts front and center of the public sphere (although you still occasionally find some second rate economist or economic journalist in the WSJ trying to dispute such facts), but the core of the debate is settled, and once you look under the hood of such contrarian argumentations you find that they are disputing a few percentage points here and there (so may be it was not just the 1% who benefitted, but the wealthiest 5%, and may be not 95% of the total GDP gains were hijacked by them, but a more modest 90%...) that doesn’t much impact the main conclusions that can be extracted from such state of affairs.

What conclusions are those? Not to put too fine a point about it, it means that Toynbee analysis in his Study of History in which he concluded that the West was the first society of history that could be exempt of the cycle of growth, maturity and decline (a conclusion he came to seriously doubt after the publication of the work) is as applicable as ever, but points to exactly the opposite outcome: the West is indeed a textbook example of how societies decline once they exhaust they capacity to offer a brighter future to its members, and we are witnessing the final stages of its fall. To understand such dynamic we have to resort to Toynbee’s concept of proletarian, a concept that to be fruitful has first to be liberated by the confusion and obfuscation that Marx had heaped upon it (in what I’ve always thought was one of the weakest point of a sociological outlook chock full of weaknesses… so there is a “class” that embodies the dialectic of history, the virtues of progressivism, the truth of the relations of production and whatnot? How convenient! And if such vaguely defined class doesn’t behave as historical materialism dictates it should you can always blame false consciousness and the evils of capitalism that can only aspire to thwart the march of reason with its cunning and devious stratagems for short periods… only the periods end up not being so short, but tell that to the remaining fossils, sorry, “Marxist academics”, that still heap such rubbish on their unsuspecting and innocent pupils).

But back to Toynbee, for him societies (any society in history) ends up stratifying itself in a ruling minority that starts being “crative” in the answers it can provide to face external challenges in a foundational stage. Such minority rules over a majority of people that, although not engaged in ruling, enjoy some level of legal protection and, most pointedly, become engaged in the common enterprise of keeping the society afloat and reproducing it by transmitting its values to their descendants. However, with time that creative minority loses its creativity, stops adapting to changing conditions, becomes too insular and isolated and enamored of itself and its traditions and mutates into a “dominant” minority, trying to impose a “universal state” over the majority (and over other neighboring societies), that in turns mutates into a proletariat, which start seeing themselves as the excluded ones, and stop identifying themselves with the dominant values, feeling they have no stakes in their survival. That proletariat could be internal to the society (like ancient time slaves) or entirely outside it (the “barbarians” which are proverbially always at the gates). The latter may have given it the coup de grace in many instances, but for Toynbee barbarian invasions were never the ultimate factor in the downfall of a social group, as for that invasion to happen the group needed to have been weakened from within by the (active or passive) disengagement of its internal proletarians. Of course, Toynbee’s vision was mainly influenced by the history of the Roman empire (more precisely, by Gibbon magisterial narration of it in his Rise and Fall), and his understanding of the proletariat reflects more directly the fate of the Roman plebeians and slaves, growingly separated from the ruling elites after the Republic and more and more impoverished in an ever more autocratic imperial structure that did not need them to feed the legions and the remaining patriciate. He could find, however, enough parallels of such growing disengagement in vast swathes of the population in Egypt, the Aztec (Mexican), Inca (Andean), Sumerian, Hittite, Mayan and Sinic civilizations as to validate its universal applicability.

When Toynbee published the last volume of his Study  (in 1961) he could still dream that Western society could for the first time in history form not a “universal state” but a “political and economical world-order” that would eventually encompass all the remaining civilizations (Western, Far Eastern, Hindu and Islamic) and could keep on successfully meeting any new challenge that may arise thanks to the discovery and interiorization of the scientific method, so it would finally free itself from the cycle of growth and decay that had been the common fate of all previous ones. Some prediction, huh? Not surprisingly, Toynbee is not that much quoted today, and his style of writing History (with a capital H) is decidedly out of fashion (very few hard numbers and graphs and tables and painstakingly collecting hard data to drive his points home), although you can see a lot of his ideas in Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Except for the part about the possible immortality of our own civilization (see how well the scientific method is serving us to deal with climate change, loss of biodiversity or the refugee crisis caused by the internal civil war of the Islamic group…) I think his insights have aged remarkably well, and provide a solid and useful framework to analyze our current predicament.

Can anybody doubt that Western ruling minorities have lost all its creativity (heck, even the “creative classes”, musicians, fiction writers, philosophers, moviemakers… seem utterly unable to come up with new ideas and all they seem to do is recycle once and again every genre and period piece they can put their hands on) and are becoming a “dominant” class, more interested in perpetuating their rule (less and less based on merit, and more and more on being born of the right parents) than in finding new solutions to our society’s ever more pressing problems? That what until recently could still be legitimately called “the citizenry” is more and more formed by disenfranchised, disenchanted and disinterested “proletarians” that really couldn’t bother to do much beyond voting every four years (or not even that) and that in pursuit of their individual, potentially selfish, and certainly hedonistic self-interest have managed to leave aside the most basic litmus test of the commitment with the group (leaving behind some descendant to perpetuate it)? Only the deluded could doubt it.

Seen in that light, the evolution of Western societies since the 70’s makes perfect sense. Of course the dominant majority is selfishly extracting as many resources as it can from the hapless masses. Of course it refuses to share even a tiny sliver of those extracted resources with them. Of course it has created an ideology of “universal state” (known alternatively as neoliberalism or the “Washington consensus”) that it tries to impose by force when “soft power” is not enough. Of course in turn those masses, proletarized without even knowing, are opting in growing numbers to “drop out” more or less explicitly (Otakus, Hikikomoris, DINKs, “herbivores”, Russian alcoholics, American meth and opioid addicts, videogames enthusiasts according to Eric Hurst with no interest in studying or working…). The only element still missing are the external proletarians (the barbarians, and no, a ragtag bunch of Islamic fanatics with half a dozen Kalashnikovs do not count as a true threat capable of causing a societal collapse) and the creation of a “universal church” by the internal proletarians as an alternative value system to the one the elites are trying to foist down their throats. But just watch out, because a decomposing society like ours is more than ripe for such an alternative to emerge, and start coalescing the unfulfilled dreams and aspirations of a permanently dissatisfied majority which the existing dominant reason can’t fool for much longer. And when such universal church arrives, it will probably horrify and scandalize us with its alternative set of values (I dare to forecast non-individualist, non-consumerist, less materialistic and less determinist, but the exact shape is yet to be decided), and we, having been bred in the old set, will most likely be at the forefront of its denunciation, excommunication and (God forbids) prosecution...

Dude, I’m Chinese, what has all of this to do with me?

You have surely noted that all this description applies to Western, “developed” societies (articulated around the venerable structure of the Nation State): North America (USA and Canada), all of Europe, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and to a certain extent to Latin America too (both Toynbee and Huntington had their doubts about to what extent was it correct to classify them with the rest of the West). What about Africa and Asia? For the former, they a) haven’t fully embraced yet the dominant reason that allowed the West to grow rich (but are in different stages of doing so, and it seems unlikely it is there where an alternative to the value set of desiderative reason may be formulated) and b) haven’t seen the pattern of joint wealth creation and distribution that ensured the buy-in of the system by the masses, followed by its subsequent appropriation by the elites, as the elites appropriated the wealth from the very beginning of post-colonial state creation before having to “bribe” the population or establish their legitimacy. There are a number of explanations of why they are in such a dire situation and how they are more likely to climb for it, but I think it is fair to say for the majority of African countries societal collapse is not high in the list of fates to avoid, but rather is a current condition to escape from. Their present is our future if we are not careful, and our present is their future if they are lucky (before they can concern themselves with how to avoid our future becoming their future, see how confusing this can get?).

Now for the latter (Asia), their predicament is quite different from ours. They are the poster boys for development policies, as one between them (China) concentrates practically all the world’s growth in the last two decades (almost three, come to think about it, since they curbed the worst excesses of Maoism after the death of Mao himself in 1976 but still took some years to rid themselves of some of the constraints he bequeathed the country). As I’ve mentioned in other posts, their ability to keep on growing and creating wealth led some Western analysts (like Giovanni Arrighi: Is China the focus of the next accumulation cycle? ) to prognosticate that Western dominance was a historical blip, and that soon we would see the return to the historical norm of China being technologically and economically ahead. According to such interpretations, the XXIst century belonged to China (while India was waiting at the wings), as the XXth (and the XIX, and the XVIII, and the XVII…) had belonged to Europe and the USA (an European outpost culturally). No talk then of cultural decline or potential societal collapse (gradual or sudden) due to the exhaustion of a dominant elite that has lost its ability to engage the ruled majority, huh?

Not so fast, I say. The reason China is growing (as Japan and South Korea did before her) is NOT because they have found an alternative to the West’s set of values (that’s desiderative reason for you boys and girls) that somehow avoids the pitfalls and limitations of the latter. Rather the opposite, they are growing precisely by enthusiastically embracing that exact same set of values while they are at a moment of their economic evolution in which there is still a lot of extra effort to be extracted from their populations, as they still produce with little per capita amounts of capital (why would they aggressively invest in additional capital goods while labor is still dirt cheap?) and with obsolete methods. Our exhausted system is still not so exhausted for them or, in other words, our socioeconomic model (directed by desiderative reason and embodied in a market economy that ultimately leads to crony capitalism, in which obviously you can get rid of the capitalist part but not of the cronyism) is passably good to take your median household income from 35,000 USD (of 2015) to 45,000 USD (of the same year), and positively great to take you from less than 1,000 USD (where the Chinese were only fifteen years ago) to 35,000 USD (so they still have some way to go, as they are currently somewhere around 10,000 USD).

So if you are Chinese, or Indian, or Bangladeshi, or Vietnamese you still have some mileage to go before you realize how proletarian you are, how the dominant minority is reaping most of the benefits of the collective growth and how the promises of a better life than your parents in exchange for submission, hard work and not rocking the boat or questioning the wisdom of your rulers are an empty shell, and not to be honored. I suspect that probably that mileage will run out of fuel well before those vaunted 35,000 USD per household per year are reached, as the next generation of cheap workers will need to compete with even cheaper ones: robots (yes, automation is a real threat to the workers all over the world: as cheap Asian labor was the tool used by Western elites to break the resistance of their own local labor movements and finally disentangle themselves from their dismal prospects, robots will be used by the Asian elites to decouple their fate from that of their less educated and cognitively skilled countrymen… tough luck, guys). But sooner or later you will find the same fate of the Western masses: a ruling minority too self-satisfied and enamored of their own image (and too isolated in their world-view to tolerate any alternative viewpoint) to take into account what the majority has to tell them, hell bent on  extracting as much surplus as possible form them (as consumers rather than as producers) and less and less able to woo them with creative solutions to ever more pressing problem (like the planet turning into a dystopian pressure cooker, from which they will be insulated enough to realize or to care).

This is the moment when I realize I’m already above 4,000 words and still have not discussed much how the societal decay (even in the West, where it should be more imminent) will look like in the gradual scenario, let alone in the sudden one. I’m afraid that discussion will have to wait for another post in the matter, as my two or three readers are probably bored to death alrady… 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Aren’t Democracy and Capitalism cute? Now choose which one you would sacrifice! (and do it fast!)

I hope after my latest cheerful posts about the looming end of the world as we know it (at least I’m not buying property in “the American Redoubt” with some safe storage for a few years’ worth of life necessities, even though I probably see the possibility of societal collapse as way more likely than many of the kindred spirits depicted in this article from the WaPo: Where survivalism meets normcore ) have not disheartened my loyal readers. To put in a better perspective my thoughts on the issue I want to devote today’s post to the analysis of which of the two features that more markedly distinguish our current socioeconomic system from the vast majority of what the human species has known in its roughly 100,000 years of history is likely to give way first and disappear from the landscape.

Those two features are, obviously, the ones I mentioned in the catchy title, democracy and capitalism, so we should first agree on what we mean when we say we (still!) live in a democratic, capitalist society:

·         One dupe, one vote: for a regime to be called democratic, we would expect the government to be elected by popular vote on a regularly scheduled basis, but furthermore, for such an election to be consequential we would also expect a free press (with multiple groups of different political leanings, least we end in a Berlusconi-style single party show where all the media with sizeable audiences ended up being property of the same guy which coincidentally won all the elections), an independent judiciary, and unimpeded access to the voting booth regardless of ethnicity, gender or class so every single citizen (I’m not going into the thorny debate of how much time should pass before legal residents are included in the citizenry and allowed to participate in the shaping of the collective destiny) has an equal say in the decisions that will shape their common future. Come to think about it, that leaves as truly democratic just about a bunch of countries in Northern Europe, and may be New Zealand, as almost any other country has either a judiciary grossly aligned with the main parties in power, or a press subdued to the extent of not having much independence, or places significant barriers to its poorer/ ethnically disadvantaged citizens.

Be it as it may, let’s assume democracy exists in a continuum, one extreme being so close to pure autocracy as to be almost indistinguishable (Putin’s Russia or Maduro’s Venezuela serve as examples of democracies so imperfect and corrupted that can barely be called so, even if they have periodic elections with multiple parties vying for the popular vote) and another one being the “most perfect” democracy where a well-educated, well-informed populace can truly choose between competing options after civilly debating and duly considering them, as exemplified by Denmark, Norway or Sweden.

I’ll just note that, as I expanded in another post (collectively deciding sucks ), It’s not like democracy has been winning many accolades of late. Democratic countries have been slower getting out of the economic abyss in which they were thrown by the Great Recession, and some of them are showing signs of a growing chasm (if not of outright divorce) between the ruling elites tasked with aggregating and translating into policy the preferences of the masses and the said masses, that in a number of instances seem to cantankerously and stubbornly refuse to follow the lead of their betters (see USA election circus, Spanish inability to form a government after two elections, likely going to a third one and Britain’s decision to leave the EU).

  -       One dupe, one sale: if Democracy comes in multiple forms and flavors, Capitalism nowadays is surprisingly monolithic: there is only one form it takes (I’ve variously called it “cybernetic” -stressing its reliance on the latest technology, although the term is somewhat out of fashion-, “postindustrial” -as it relies less in the production of large series of commodities and more in the generation of symbolic goods- and “desiderative” -according to the most salient feature of its dominant reason). Regardless of how we want to call that form, what distinguishes it from any other way of organizing the society (who produces what, and how the fruit of such production is distributed) is the following fact: everything everybody does is understood as a commodity. What is a commodity, you may ask? A product or service that can be and HAS to be exchanged in a market transaction. What, then is a market transaction? An exchange done with the purpose of acquiring the means to produce additional quantities of the product or service one gives away. So in our wonderful current system every single minute of our life is oriented towards the production of thingies that we can sell, and then apply the proceeds of such sale to produce even more similar thingies, in a never ending spiral of increasing production to support similarly increasing consumption, none of which can ever be done for the sake of its own enjoyment.

Of course, such imperative (producing for the market for the sake of being able to produce even more) is perfectly irrational. Not just not conductive to, but actively incompatible with, any minimal opportunity of human happiness and flourishing. But the system is not oriented towards ensuring the maximum happiness of those living under it (that nice sentence at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence about self-evident truths? Unashamed window dressing, if you ask my opinion, never meant seriously or truthfully), but towards having them produce as many material things as possible, their happiness, contentment or self-fulfillment be damned. Remember how it came to be (more details here: How desiderative reason came to dominate ): a bunch of warring societies got caught in an evolutionary arms race, where the ability to produce material goods ended up being the sole trait that got selected, as it alone ensured the societies manifesting it to a greater degree could obliterate their opponents and occupy all their ecological niche. Stephen Jay Gould famously said that “natural selection mills grind very slowly, but they grind exceedingly small”. Well, cultural evolution is much faster, and it grinds similarly small, producing societies so wondrously adapted to their purpose that the conscious design of an evil genius wouldn’t be able to outcompete them.

So before anyone tries to argue that things are not so bad, and we live times of miracle and wonder and freedom and plenty, even when nobody actually designed our societies to extract the absolute maximum productino capacity from every one of its members, that’s what they do to an unparalleled extent: We are expected to produce 24 hours a day, 7 day a week, 365 days a year. When people go on vacation, they are told in a million ways the ultimate end of such pause is to “recharge” so they come back to work with renewed energy. When they break for the weekend they are expected to rest the minimum necessary to perform even more ruthlessly and unsparingly the other five days. They may withdraw to their homely retreats to enjoy the company of their family, but more and more the family is seen as the support structure to help them recover better to be more productive at work. Leisure for leisure’s sake is something less and less understood, less and less promoted and less and less presented as desirable (as is the whole concept of a private sphere entirely alien to economic thinking, as explained by the whole hideous work of Gary Becker and recently revisited in a very civil exchange of opinions between Branko Milanovic and Diane Coyle: House work for sale? just great!, thanks to Pedro for the pointer). And again, no cunning cabal or secret council needed to explain the development of such dire state of affairs, just the blind evolution of social groups competing for limited resources and evolving and adapting to better do so, until they reach the ultimate level of adaptation, in which they exhibit the most advantageous trait to such an extent that it is not physically possible to go beyond it (you would need to truly transform human nature to have us collectively working our assess off more than we currently do, but just leave us a bit more time).

All well and good, you may say, but not overtly different to what has been going on in the planet for the last three hundred years (when our current dominant reason started taking shape, one element falling in place after another, until in WWII every piece adopted its current configuration). And both the political system (Democracy) and the economic organization (Capitalism) have been getting along just fine, each seemingly reinforcing the other to the extent that they were considered a single package (during the Cold War the CIA supposedly promoted both, but it’s difficult to determine which was in the driver’s seat and which was an adjunct). Has anything changed for them to become not just somewhat awkward partners, but may be even downright inimical? Yes indeed, and that’s what I’m about to explain.

Certainly, since our current compact started taking shape, the vast majority, when asked, has unambiguously supported it. People of any condition have actively voted for material enrichment, even when in a truly Faustian bargain it supposed surrendering more and more of their time and freedom to pursue an apparently irrational course (producing for production’s sake, for no other reason than they would then be able to produce even more) if by following such course they and their children would be materially better off. Both in the WSJ and in the NYT Deirdre McCloskey has been lately waxing rhapsodic about the “Great Enrichment” spearheaded by the West in the last two centuries, which she attributes to the liberation of their peoples to pursue their private interests (and we counter-attribute to their enslavement to pursue the production of more and more exchangeable commodities with the exclusion of any other possible life plan, conveniently shaping their desires so they thought they were being free when they actually weren't), and although pretty off the mark for an economic historian (such liberation happened in England not because of her laissez faire politics, but because she intervened much more actively in economic matters and regulated more heavily to benefit its budding industrialist class), she captures nicely the essentials of the bargain: people (the majority of people, enough of them to sway the government in a self-reinforcing cycle of ever more dominating desiderative reason) are happy to surrender their freedom and to submit to a punishing regime that condemns them to ever increasing amounts of toil in exchange for more private wealth.

What happens, then, when the system proves itself incapable of granting such increasing wealth? This week the USA Census Bureau released its yearly report on income, poverty and health insurance in the USA, and many economists (like Paul Krugman here: Progressive economics works! (keep on dreaming)) were ecstatic because the median income was finally rising, after untold years of barely budging. During all those years (that well antedate the Great Recession) all the fruits of economic growth and then some had been monopolized by a tiny minority (the infamous 1% in most advanced countries) thanks to the hollowing of the middle classes (and the unending sinking of the lower ones) catalyzed and accelerated by the advance of Globalization (that brought uncountable millions of cheap workers to directly compete with their Western counterparts in less and less regulated labor markets), and this much awaited rise in median incomes (by now confined just to the USA) is being celebrated as a harbinger of a more egalitarian, more enlightened era when, thanks to active government intervention the economy will finally lift all boats, and everybody’s fortune will at last improve.

May be. May be not (the interesting thing about the future, as Yogi Berra would have it, is that it has not yet come to pass, so anything could happen), but I’m not optimistic. That most recent uptick has not yet been enough to erase all the losses of the last years, so that median income is still below its highest point in the 90’s of last century. So that’s two decades not seeing any growth at all for most families. Probably much more than that for the lower half (I’d say that after the “great convergence” that saw wealth differentials shrink until the end of the 70’s, things have been either flat or downhill for at least half of us). That’s a whole generation that has been hearing, for all their adult life, that the future belonged to the committed. That they needed to continuously reinvent themselves to stay relevant in the “new economy”. That a safe, stable employment was a thing of the past (along with a collective “safety net” to prevent those with bad health or bad luck to utterly fall) but, in exchange, many more opportunities would abound for those willing to put the hours and make the effort.

Some opportunity. I dare to say that for almost 80% of the working age population, those have been empty promises, and they are approaching a moment in their life where they have to accept there is not much economic improvement in store for them (the most dynamic job market somehow is not so dynamic for those above 45 years old) and they may end up being less materially well-off than their parents (not to speak of “intellectually well-off”, as a life of almost exclusive focus on social betterment at work leaves one poorly prepared to do anything outside such work), with prospects than in many cases are truly dismal (better not check too frequently how your K401 or equivalent nest egg has been performing in a market with zero-bounded interest rates and essentially flat stock markets for as long as the eye can see). No surprise drug use is rampant in some sections of the American “precariat”, and that life expectancy is actually regressing between middle aged men with no college degree (things are even worse in Russia, and I dare say for similar reasons).

So there is a reason “this time is different”. Up until now capitalism has been able to successfully bribe the majority of the population with an ever increasing consumption level. It pushed for productivity gains that were more or less equitably distributed, but which always reached(some percentage of them, at least) most layers of the economic ladder (which incidentally allowed for enormous loads of crap iced with generous doses of intellectual dishonesty to pass as respectable wisdom, see “supply side economics”, “trickle-down economics” and the like). But a number of circumstances conspired to put an end to such productivity gains (whose denunciation has been a kind of mini-obsession for me, judging from the amount of posts I’ve devoted to it: No more progress, and No more civilization, and Progress? nope, just delusional, and State spending? it will take us nowhere, and Bill Gates? dead wrong, no progress, I tell you to point just to a few of them), and it is such failure of “the system” to withhold its side of the bargain which is leading, unsurprisingly, to increasing numbers of its citizens to start doing what in the 60’s was called “dropping out” (see the disheartening tendency of the labor force participation rate to stay flat and high regardless of the situation of “full employment” that should be drawing multitudes back in search of a job in the USA).

Not only are increasing numbers opting for a life entirely outside of the formal economy (see also the work of Erik Hurst, on how some perfectly fit young men just find more appealing to keep on playing videogames than to spend countless hours flipping burgers with zero real chances of ever advancing to a more rewarding occupation in a super-credentialized corporate world, who would know?), but for those that remain the “traditional”, “establishment” alternatives seem more and more like a bad joke. So the Brits vote themselves out of Europe, and 55 million Americans will vote in eight week for Donald Trump, an utterly shambolic candidate (but is he really that more shambolic than Hillary Clinton? Than Jill Stein? Than Gary Johnson? Are they not all of them peddling worn fantasies detached from any sliver of reality or even plausibility?) adored, beyond any semblance of rationality or plain ol’ respect for the law of non-contradiction, by Nazis and avowed racist (not “statistical”, “I end up unconsciously interacting more with whites” racists, but dyed-in-the-wool “send them back to Africa by force” racists, just to be clear).

Now any sober observer of our political and economic reality may object that this is just a transition phase. Healthy rates of growth will surely come back, and with them the faith in the ability of unfettered capitalism to “withhold its side of the bargain”, to fulfill its promise of ever increasing material wealth for the masses. And with such resumption of the normal course of economic development we will see those specters of old melt away, and people become reasonable again, respect their leaders, vote their establishment candidates and exile the peddlers of hate and exclusion to the fringe of the system, the realm of conspiracy theorists and Holocaust deniers and Moon landing doubters. Again, may be, but I’m sceptic myself (in many domains beyond economic optimism, which I see as utterly unwarranted). I’d rather prepare myself (and my loved ones) for an immediate future of growing crises, growing political disenchantment and extremism, growing conflict between classes that feel betrayed, that seek refuge and solace in the ones more similar to them, to the exclusion of anyone markedly different. The monopoly of violence by the state will be more and more difficult to maintain, and I see some enormous polities (starting with the very own USofA) as much more fragile than anybody realizes. Whoever wins this election there will have to preside over a polarized, rancorous and uncompromising half of the electorate that will question his (or her) legitimacy and in a growing number of cases will resort to their own private use of violence to settle the scores and the grievances they don’t recognize the state as being able to arbiter.

So again, practice with your guns, store ammo and learn to box… 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Git yerself some snatch, Bro! (or sis, ‘cuz stick figures are back!)

I get it, your poor snatch technique keeps you awake at night. I can sympathize, as I also had a truly abysmal form when snatching when I started back lifting, and still today I have difficulties to snatch above 90% of my bodyweight (as anybody knows, snatching what you weight is the bare minimum to be considered a semi decent human being in that area). So it can be argued that I’m one of the less qualified persons on earth to give anybody any kind of instruction on how to properly do the damn thing. Regardless of what I’m going to devote this post to expunge, in as fastidious a detail as I can, how to snatch. Why? Because if my patient readers are heartily encouraged to go find more reputable sources to learn, I myself want to put down how much I do understand, and to what extent I know what I am doing and how to progress to get better at it. And I do that by writing and drawing and reflecting (and then I publish it and find out what other people have to say).

Let’s start with the most basic question: do I really have to snatch? It is a darn complex movement, requiring an outstanding amount of speed, power, flexibility and coordination just to be completed with the friggin’ empty bar for a single rep. Which, of course, does zilch, zero, nada, for your strength, endurance or muscular hypertrophy. It won’t help you burn many calories (there are a gazillion ways to do that more effectively), thus if your goal is to get “jacked”, “ripped”, or to “look good naked” there are so many more effective ways of accomplishing it that it would take a whole super-wordy post just to enumerate them. But even then, the answer to the original question is still “yes”. There is no way around it, doesn’t matter what your damned goals are: regardless of your age, condition, gender, sexual orientation, religious outlook or philosophical stance, nobody can consider himself (or herself) a half complete exemplar of the human species without knowing how to grab a bar from the floor and putting it over his head in a single, graciously flowing, uninterrupted move. Asking if you really need to learn how to snatch is like asking if you really need to learn how to read, how to write sonnets, how to add fractional numbers, or how to formulate the fundamental theorem of calculus. No life can be called well lived that has not included mastering, even to the most humble degree (the aforementioned empty bar) such a distinctively human capability.

Once that has been settled, let’s review more mundane argumentations for snatching: it is the move in which you will need to manifest your strength in a shorter period of time, during a shorter range of movement (actually, it is the second one, as in the drive phase of the jerk you have to manifest more strength in less time and within a shorter range of motion), to be followed by a most dramatic crouching that requires substantial rearrangements, stretches and shortenings of most of your major muscle groups. That means that is forces you to be really explosive, really fast. It improves your overall ability to manifest strength fast, to coordinate substantial changes of direction, to relax muscles even faster than you contract their agonists, and to maintain an exquisite balance while doing so. All skills that come in handy for throwing heavy implements or for improving one’s ability to sprint and change direction on a crowded field. Furthermore, as improving in any field that requires constant practice, it develops a complete range of desirable character traits: humility (as you recognize you are never as good as a) you would like to be and b) those many, many masters of the sport that came before you -or after), a healthy stubbornness (to keep on trying during the many, many “dry spells” on which you will see no noticeable improvement for months), persistence, grit, resistance to pain and fatigue, concentration, enhanced attention to detail (as the most minute changes in position, typically due to distraction, can ruin the best thought record attempt) and, surprisingly enough, self-confidence (that comes from being able to improve in a most challenging endeavor). So if you want to improve at shot putting, you most definitely have to snatch, no question about it. But if you just want to be a better person, a more focused, more disciplined whatever, snatching also becomes highly recommendable.

So let’s assume my moderate rhetorical skills (or just the plain ol’ wisdom of so many meatheads of yore that made snatches a staple of their training) have convinced you that snatching is desirable, and you want to include it as a part of your training. How should you go about it? If you dig a bit in the forums and the most popular lifting pages, you may easily be discouraged. Most describe snatching as an almost preternatural ability, akin to breaking a 10’’ thick block of concrete with your bare hands. An esoteric mystery that requires entering a dojo when 6 years old and then spending a couple decades under the vigilant eye of an initiate in the weightlifting arts before even attempting it alone. I readily admit that it is mildly difficult, even challenging, but I’ll let you in a dirty little secret: my father taught me the rudiments (and it took me many years to discover how truly rudimentary those rudiments were) of the snatch and the clean & jerk when I was about 13 years old (may be even sooner), with a homemade bar that was probably not longer than 4 feet, in something like 5 minutes (something along the lines of “grab the bar solidly, with a wider grip than the one you just used for the C&J and then… hop! Put it over your head in a single movement”). I then snatched all on my own for a decade with no friggin’ problem or injury (not spectacular weights, mind you, as I did it in a garage with no platform and no bumper plates, so couldn’t drop the bar freely). Did I develop a technique I’m proud of? Hell, no! that was before the Internet, so all I knew of weightlifting technique was what I could grasp from seeing it every four years in the Olympiad (if I was lucky and could find some TV where they were showing it live, again, no YouTube or TiVo back then). I just tinkered with this and that to see what allowed me to lift a whiff more, without much aches or pains. I recall reading something similar in Jim Wendler’s blog regarding the power clean (Power Cleans in 5/3/1), just don’t let anybody else’s opinion scare you, just start light and add weight judiciously and you’ll be OK. We’ll talk a bit more towards the end of this post (or in a following one if this one gets too long) about how to program then within a well-rounded program, and how to progress them.

But before we run we must learn to walk, and before we integrate multiple sets and reps of snatches in our routine we have to perform them half competently. And there are a couple of strategies for that. The first one is what you may call the “top-down” approach: you start learning the standing-up catch position (how it should look like once you have received the snatch and recovered), then you learn the “power position” with a wide grip (how you would initiate the second pull, more about that in a moment), then you learn to transition from the later to the former (doing a hang power snatch), then you do that from the floor (doing a wide grip deadlift before initiating the second pull) and then you learn to catch in a deep squat position (doing what sometimes is called a “third pull” under the bar after you have completed the second one), and finally you try to put together such unholy mess until it clicks and flows.

The second one is, unsurprisingly, the “bottom-up” approach: you start learning to stabilize more or less heavy weights overhead in the bottom of a squat, you go to that position faster and faster (instead of going down slowly you “throw yourself under the bar” in a drop snatch or a balance snatch) and then you learn to do it when the bar is somewhat lower, after you have left it there “floating” with a powerful longish pull.

Both may work, and both have drawbacks. I have followed more or less the “top-down” with the predictable result that I power snatch more than what I snatch, because I just can’t find the confidence to change direction and resolutely pull me under the bar with moderately heavy weights (something that has a very clear recipe for being corrected: more frequent and heavier snatch balances and drop snatches, which I will incorporate when my training turns again more towards Oly lifting and shot putting). Had I followed the alternative route I would probably snatch a whiff more while being a whiff overall weaker, so no biggie, I’ll deal with it in a few months. What my limited experience allows me to generalize is that if you want to move a bit heavier weights sooner, and are not specifically focused in competing in Olympic Weightlifting, the first route seems easier, safer and, even if it lets you stuck with power snatches (where you catch the bar higher) that alone already is enough to qualify you as a complete human being, and can be more than enough for most purposes. If, on the other hand, you are bent of doing complete, honest to God full snatches, and have the time and the inclination to sacrifice that faster progress, then the second route seems more advisable. I will describe the complete movement regardless of what progression you use to become able to do it, and you may choose the one best suited to your particular inclinations. To that end, I will use again my much beloved stick figures.

Starting position:

A lot of ink has been spilled discussing the different options, which really should be dictated by the lifter limb’s proportions. There is some leeway regarding feet position (some lifters prefer to have them closer together – “frog stance”- and some prefer a more open stance, with feet roughly under hips) and how wide the grip should be, but the key aspects to consider are:
Some people will start with a lower hip and some people will have it higher, depending both on how flexible they are and how long their femurs and tibias are compared with their torso (I myself start with the hip consdierably higher). Don’t get too picky and just try what feels more natural, as long as you keep the bar roughly over the middle of your feet and, most important, keep your lower back in a neutral curvature, neither hyperextended nor hypoextended (“buttwinked”).

A couple of important cues, in addition to keeping the lower back “flat”, are to keep the arms straight (they should be in a position to transmit force, a force which is generated by the leg and the hips, not by themselves in any way folding or rowing the bar) and the chest puffed out, so the scapulas are retracted (pushed together and slightly down).

From there we will transition slowly towards the “power position”, with the bar slightly brushing the hips. Indeed, that is what should give as the cue of how wide should our grip be: as wide as necessary to have the bar sitting just below the IlioSacral (IS) protrusion in the hip (the noticeable -if you are not morbidly obese, that is- bone spurt in your hip) when we stand tall. The shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar and the knees should be slightly bent, as in a quarter squat (think in the position you would instinctively adopt to jump as high as possible: that is your power position in a nutshell; now just adopt it with the bar hanging in your hands, with relaxed arms).

I did say “slowly” on purpose. Nothing in weightlifting is really “slow”, as the whole movement should flow naturally, and as a whole be as explosive as possible, but if you want to be deliberate and thoughtful, this is the time to be it. A good rule is “the highest the bar is, the fastest it should go”, so do not move it so fast that it doesn’t let you accelerate it even faster in the next stage (the famed second pull). Greg Everett gives a very good analogy comparing the bar to those manual merry-go-rounds you probably can’t find any more in any children’s park in developed countries because theya re deemed too dangerous for the kids: when it is spinning really fast it is difficult to accelerate it even further because you can hardly grab it and it is already gone before you impart much more additional momentum to it, while when it is spinning slowly you cangrab it and accompany it for a longer time all the while imparting more force to it.

Power position (after first pull)

After a successful transition, you would be in a position to violently extend your whole body and propel the bar upwards, something like this:
Note that the arms are still fully extended, and ideally the bar has moved in a vertical a trajectory as possible, staying all the time over the arch of your feet. The shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar (but not too much, I myself am still fighting with my tendency to lean too far forward and then put the bar in place while the torso loses all momentum with the lats, which just shows a lack of proper timing and coordination… don’t be like me!) and the knees should stay slightly bent in preparation for the most explosive part of the lift. So explosive indeed, that any attempt to perform it consciously and in a controlled way is doomed to fail miserably.

Triple Extension (second pull)

This part of the lift has received much attention lately by being the supposed contention point of an especially vicious internet flame war that for months has pitched “triple extenders” against “catapulters” (just google it if you have a few hours to spare and enjoy that kind of mental masturbation). I won’t get in the scholastic nuances required to take a stance, and just try to define it as aseptically as possible. Just know that this is THE key part of the lift. All the speed that will determine if you manage to get under the bar on time (before it speeds too much downwards making it impossible to stabilize) is imparted in this portion, so this is really where you have to put all your heart if you want to complete the lift. All that has come before can be considered successful to the extent that it leaves you in the best position possible to do a hell of a triple extension. Everything that comes afterwards will come to fruition or fail depending on how powerfully you managed to triple extend (and thus to accelerate the bar). A strong triple extension can correct a lousy starting position and a wavering first pull. An authoritative, energetic triple extension makes it less necessary to nail it when trying to get under the bar (because it flies so high that even an arthritic 90 year-old granny with a bad hip and creaking knees could get under it comfortably). But neither a pitch-perfect first pull nor a vicious pull-under will likely compensate for a shabby, weak second pull.

So let us turn our attention to such essential move. If you are doing things right you won’t even think of it as a separate part, but just find yourself with a bar gently moving upwards (at the end of the first pull, until you are in the power position) while the rest of your body is coiled like a spring, ready to unleash a ton of accumulated energy. So just unwind and aggressively extend the hip, the knees and the ankles (those three joints are what give the triple extension its name) to propel the bar upwards. Mark Rippetoe describes it as a jump with the bar in the hands (which will in turn cause the shoulders to instinctively shrug, something that is not necessary to actively intend, as it will happen anyway), and such description causes much cringes in the purists (that prefer to emphasize the flow of the whole movement, with no discontinuities and no sudden changes of speed), but I think it is essentially on the mark. It is very much like jumping, just liberating as much energy as possible to transmit it to the bar, which should continue its upward acceleration at an even faster clip. That extension would normally require the torso to lean backwards, in order to keep the Center of Mass (CoM) of the whole system formed by the bar and your body well balanced over the center of your feet:

Catch (third pull)

If you’ve done it right (and it only takes a few attempts with the empty bar to get the hang of it) now you have a bar flying upwards, while you yourself are on the point of your feet, or even a bit higher (with your feet actually floating a few mm above the ground). If your arms were (as they absolutely should have been) relaxed and straight, so they have transmitted successfully 100% of the energy that your hips and legs have liberated to the bar, they now should be bending, as the bar goes up faster than the rest of your body. It should be noted that, after such extension and having lost contact with the ground, there is absolutely nothing else you could do to make the bar end a fraction of an inch higher, no more force to impart. Time to take advantage of that additional speed to aggressively (you’ll notice after the 1st pull, which is done at a comparatively more leisurely pace, everything is done “aggressively”, “viciously”, “violently”, “explosively” or at the very least “forcefully”… this is a very dynamic activity indeed) pull yourself under the bar, as low as possible while it is still moving upwards. Think of it as, after the extension, the moment you feel the bar is about navel height, you change direction (you had been using your strength to pull the bar, and yourself, up) and go down, as fast as you can, to the catch position, while the bar is still moving upwards:
Right after that change of direction there is a defining moment in which you should feel how the bar “floats” freely, as you are not pulling it any more, but rather using it as a reference of where your hands should stay and under which you should end. If you have timed things right, you should be able to start decelerating the bar (that while you crouched below it has already reached its zenith, and started to slowly fall back to Earth) before you reach the bottom of the deep squat in which you finally will settle, allowing you to completely “lock out” (extend the arms to create the stable structure that can successfully support the full weight of the loaded bar) down there. Such stabilization at the bottom will most likely require a considerable degree of flexibility in the shoulders, as there will be a noticeable angle between the back and the arms:
If you’ve gotten this far, and have been able to “settle” under the bar, rigidly supported over your head, all that remains to do is to stand up carefully (maintaining the bar in as vertical a path as possible, so you neither drop it in front nor in the back). As any weightlifter worth his salt is able to squat significantly more than what he can snatch, such recovery from the fully crouched to fully erect position is never challenging from a strength perspective (that is, it is never a lack of strength which may cause that final part of the lift to fail), but it is made so by the combination of balance and coordination it requires (if the bar shifts very slightly towards the front or the back it can be enough to trip the lifter, making the final part of the lift unrecoverable). Most failures at this stage are due to lack of technique (not being able to get in the precise position where the bar is caught exactly in a vertical line above the CoM of the body, which requires to position the torso and legs and arms in very demanding positions very fast), and very few due to a lack of power.

Again, the key to performing the move successfully is NOT to try to break it down in its component parts and then try to somehow link one with another in the best possible way. Once in the platform there are only two, may be three things you may try to focus on and adjust during the execution of the lift (that happens in less than a second), and if you attempt to really monitor how you are moving, in the vail hope of tweaking some movement pattern while it is unfolding you will “overthink”, “outguess” yourself and end up in a big mess (and most likely failing). Just let it flow, do what feels natural, don’t let your ego get the better part of you and start very light, with the empty bar, repeating many times until it feels automatic, until you don’t have to think about it, and then start adding plates VERY slowly. If you know somebody that could give you an educated opinion on how you are doing it, this early stage is the best moment to receive advice and correct failures that, if ingrained, may prove very difficult to eliminate later on (first between them, the bad habit of bending the arms prematurely, before starting the second pull). If you don’t, at least try to videotape yourself now and then to be able to assess your form “from outside”, as proprioception may be a terrible guide in such fast, explosive moves.

As so many difficult things in life, snatching benefits immensely from a steady, persistent dedication. You may improve by leaps and bounds when you are a total noob, and from never having done it you can find yourself moving 100 to 120 pounds relatively fast. That is when the struggle begins and a fascinating journey full of detours, stalling, plateauing and regressing as you deconstruct your abysmal form to build it from scratch (with much less weight on the bar, as taking significant weight off is the only way to really correct deeply ingrained problems) only to discover that you have indeed corrected some major flaw only to be hamstrung by another similarly significant one, which the previous one was masking. Great fun indeed, and such complexity is what makes it a worthy endeavor until you can achieve a level of competence similar to this:
Which requires, again, lots of consistency and an ability to identify one’s own failures (and apply all of one’s ingenuity to correct them) that can be profitably applied to many, many different aspects of your life. But that would be the content of another post.  

Friday, September 2, 2016

If you’re gonna shaft Goodwin’s law, at least do it right

Some comments I’ve received from my Nazi loved ones (you don’t have Nazi loved ones? Let me tell you your life is so much less interesting for it) made me think my latest post on what comes after Trump’s likely defeat in November require some clarification, and being in some form of philosophical dry spell these days I can’t find anything better to do with my blogging time these days than to extend on the first unmistakable signs of our civilizations demise (as do not fool yourselves, Trump’s rise, and the unabashed totalitarianisms likely to follow in Europe are but the harbinger of the final collapse of our societies’ dominant mode until now).

Let’s start then with the clarifications. Do I think the 40-50 million Trump voters are a bunch of fascists, salivating to wear their brown shirt and parade through the national mall in Washington wearing swastikas, their right arm held high & straight while they sing “sieg heil”? Nope, I don’t think so… yet. Most of them are your average run-of-the-mill conservative, America-loving, God-fearing, reasonably libertarian in economics (ie, standing for “minimal government intervention in the economy”, or “everyone for himself, your fellow citizens be damned, especially if they are from a different race”, depending on the political persuasion from which you observe them) and reasonably traditionalist regarding the organization of the family (mildly sexist -a modest amount of gender segregation is OK, gays should not marry-or even be visible at all , divorce is bad but should be allowed, philandering by men is admissible as long as done discreetly, abortion is bad but other forms of birth control are OK -especially abstinence… you know the package). As far from identifying with the super-evil, freedom-hating, Captain-America-already-kicked-their-butt Nazis as anybody from the left, they would think insulting to be equated with such traditional baddies in countless Hollywood flicks.

Or would they? I mentioned in my post that my own reading of the mood in the alt-right was that they were mostly young trolls, in it for the LOL and to scandalize the establishment, and not very conscientious about the political implications of their positions. Something that I found echoed in this widely commented article by Milo Yiannopulos and Allum Bokhari published recently in Breitbart: Another guide to the alt-right... . You may notice the authors self-deprecatingly use their own unacceptability for more traditional fascists (one is an openly homosexual half-jew, the other from Pakistani origin) to minimize the allegedly racist nature of the “movement” (of which they both consider themselves if not leaders at least spokesmen), regardless of what Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had to say in her recent speech denouncing the ties of such movement with Trump. So should we leave it at that, and accept that, by their own admission, they are not “true Nazis” but just a bunch of good-humored youngsters getting a laugh by adopting some of the external signs of the most demonized, most vilified boogeyman of the stale left they so much deride? That they adopt those external signs but do not share the most troubling tenets of such bogeyman? What would those tenets be?

Anti-Semitism may be a good place to start, as for long it has been almost unanimously considered the most poisonous and less morally defensible aspect of the Nazi ideology (as if you take hatred of the Jews away all you are left with is Nationalism -nothing any jingoistic American could criticize in others with a straight face; and Socialism, a failed ideology that admits of infinitely many gradations that go from the merely inefficient to the murderously psychopathic… as long as you stay closer to the first there is not that much to denounce there). According to Mr. Yiannopoulos and Mr. Bokhari the most vocal group within the alt-right, what they call the “meme brigade”:

Are they actually bigots? No more than death metal devotees in the 80s were actually Satanists. For them, it’s simply a means to fluster their grandparents. 

According to the authors, the only “bigotry” within the movement is confined to a tiny minority, the “1488ers” (the true believers), who they see as not very influential and more or less disregarded by all the rest.

Although Mr. Yiannopoulos is somewhat of a Twitter celebrity (banned and afterwards readmitted by the social network, where he obviously enjoys a numerous following, after some ugly comments towards the actress Leslie Jones that could be interpreted as being racist, which he undoubtedly hurled just to épater les burgeois and without actually meaning them…) with an audience in the order of a few hundred thousands, it may be more revealing to go to one of the alt-right leading web sites, the Daily Stormer, edited by Andrew Anglin and boasting a few millions of monthly visits, who recently published his own guide to the Alt-right: A normie's guide to the alt-right (one can not but think it is very much a response to Yiannopoulos & Bokhari, who he explicitly quotes in very disparaging terms). So much for the “accusation of Anti-Semitism is unfounded” defense. Front and center, the core belief of the alt-right, according to Mr. Anglin (which I think is many light years ahead of Mr. Yiannopoulos and Mr. Bokhari regarding legitimacy within the ranks) is that Jews dominate the world and are hell bent on exterminating the White race. You don’t need to go much further then to find an easy solution for all the ills and evils of modern society: get rid of the Jews and they will all miraculously correct themselves. Once you are at it, kick all other races out of the good ‘ol USofA for good measure. But not to worry, the Stormer assuages its potentially concerned readership with the following disclaimer:

We here at the Daily Stormer are opposed to violence. We seek revolution through the education of the masses. When the information is available to the people, systemic change will be inevitable and unavoidable.

Wow! I feel better already. When these nice people finally take power (more on that later) and start rounding up blacks and kikes to send them back to other countries where they will undoubtedly be happier between their natural brethren I’m sure they will instruct the police (and the army, both will need to be fused) to be polite and exquisitely civilized. No more Kristallnacht for you, that’s just barbarous and undignified. Nothing like a bit of education of the masses to have everybody understand what their place is and accept their fate without undue resistance. By the way, it is an interesting phenomenon that Anglin also talks about the 1488 as a separate group from himself, albeit much less disparagingly than Yiannopoulos & Bokhari. You have to go even more to the right (well into Stormfront territory) to find someone actually willing to identify as one…

What I’m driving at is that for a sizeable proportion of what calls itself “alt-right” (which overlaps substantially with the neo-reaction) any semblance of what we used to think as universally acceptable political discourse has been utterly rejected and abandoned. The way the see themselves is as a bunch of (so far) leaderless, distinctly intelligent people that have, independently, come to the same conclusion: the way the mainstream media reports about reality is not only highly biased, but craftily and willingly so, to hide the true reality of a socio-racial “war” already taking place, in which the superior class/race (well-off white heterosexual men) is being taken down by an alliance of feminists, blacks, the poor, Muslims and progressives (communists), with the witless acquiescence of the liberal left and the backstage organizing prowess of Jews (some NeoReactionaries, of Jewish origin themselves, substitute a vague cabal they call the “Cathedral” for the almost omnipotent Jews). As such conclusion flies in the face of what every scholar studying how society works today and has worked for the last twenty centuries knows and taches, the only “logical” and “reasonable” conclusion is that all such scholars are in cahoots with the MSM and the cabal that orchestrates such vast conspiracy, when not active participants in the same. And so the whole ideological construct escapes any possibility of empirical verification, as befits any paranoid schema for explaining the world (where lack of evidence, instead of militating against the plausibility of the whole thing just exacerbates its certainty, by reinforcing the hallucinatory perception of the deviousness and cunning of its instigators). The other thing all those intelligent guys have converged upon, and I think the two articles I’ve linked provide enough evidence, is that Donald Trump is a wonderful candidate, the best of all potential alternatives, and sure to receive their vote on November no matter what he does or say between today and then.

So I think it is pretty safe to state that some of Trump followers perfectly fit the traditional definition of Nazi (hell, they not only blame the Jews for all of society’s evils, but openly recognize Adolf Hitler as one of their heroes, and present nineteen thirties’ Germany as a paragon of virtuous society!) How many of them? I don’t know, and for reasons I’ll expound shortly thereafter, do not much care. The number that do not recoil from such label, the unrepentant Hitler fans is probably pretty small (a few hundred thousands tops). It is the number of those that are not troubled enough by such lack of recoiling to reconsider their vote, those that think that voting alongside a Jew-hating, Swastika-bearing brownshirt is preferable to stay home or (God forbid!) vote alongside the Democrats (many of whom are of a different race, oh hum!), which worries me. Because again, I know how many of those there are: Fifty five million. To put things in perspective, in the last election in Weimar Republic the Nazis (the true ones, no discussion of proper labeling here) ended up in power with a bit more than seventeen million votes, almost 44% (but that was after Hitler had already been appointed chancellor, after the Parliament’s arson was falsely attributed to the communists and a highly charged campaign in which the NSDAP had already most of the means of state coercion at its disposal, so may be a better figure is the amount of votes they received in the previous election, arguably the last “normal” one: a little bit less than twelve million, just a 33% of the electorate). We said the current American electorate is made up of 225 million citizens, of which only 55%, or 124 million, actually vote. So the 55 million willing to vote for Trump, regardless of who they associate with, constitute a “healthy” 44%. The Nazis didn’t need more back in the day.

Now, now! I can hear my readership uncomfortably rumbling in their seats while the implications of all this sink in. Am I saying the USA is heading towards a true National Socialist dictatorship with some genocide thrown in for good measure? Absolutely not, remember I think Hillary will win (which, by the way, does not mean that I want Hil to win, more on that later on). But just for the sake of historical perspective, of the 17 million Nazi voters in 1933 I bet my own (brown) shirt that only a very small minority would have heartily endorsed building concentration camps to send all the Jewish population there for extermination, burning books, giving extraordinary (and almost unlimited) powers to a secret police under direct control of the party (with no judicial review) and prohibiting free speech and any form of association not sanctioned by the state. Probably no more than a few hundred thousands were for all that since the beginning. Most just very strongly disliked the communists and socialists, and were willing to ignore the most unsavory elements of the “movement” they were voting with (rather than for). Like many Americans today just equally strongly dislike Democrats (many of which happen to be black, or to show more understanding to Latinos) and are willing to ignore the most unsavory elements of the alt-right that happen to be willing to vote for the same candidate as them. Both the original Nazis and the followers of the Daily Stormer have made their preferences and intentions abundantly clear, so nobody should be surprised if in the future the later act as the former did once in power…

But of course power is what the American right seems far, far from ever achieving, as the coalition they have been able to put together so for is still much smaller that the left’s. Unless they succeed, that is, prying a good chunk of the white working class from the Democrats (something they are already doing) and manage to make more significant inroads into the college educated and urban whites (the missing piece in the puzzle of their potential electoral majority). Something that may never happen. But let’s delve for a moment in the dynamic that this recognition of the racial animus behind a substantial part of the electorate is wont to have. The republican voters are going to get out of this election cycle not just bruised (with their candidate soundly defeated, especially when measured in terms of electoral college votes), and despondent of their ability to ever retake the white house (for the right wing media Hillary Clinton is the weakest candidate imaginable… if they have not been able to defeat her, with all the purported flaws that their opinion makers have been insisting on and exaggerating beyond all proportion, who will they ever be able to beat?), but with serious doubts about the legitimacy of the whole process.

What "their" media will have told them (and the fact that there are entirely different media for different parts of the public is itself a big part of the problem), once and again, is that they are the real victims of a system stacked against them, run by socialists that want to redistribute their hard earned wealth to undeserving “others” (mostly black and latino). That there are many just like them that do not buy in the previous consensus of “political correctness” that is just a thinly veiled justification for preserving such patently unfair status quo. That it is OK to rebel against that status quo, a rebellion that can take many forms, from rejecting affirmative action to seizing federal property á la Clive Bundy to murdering the attendants to a Black church á la Dylan Roof… if we are in the midst of a racial war, more glory to the warriors! The guys that were outside the fringe two electoral cycles ago now are fellow republican voters. They are not some loonies and wackos, but suddenly some people they have something in common with, which simply happen to espouse some more extreme version of ideas that are already out in the open, being discussed by perfectly acceptable people in the press and in TV. Because, and THIS is the seismic chance this election has brought, those are not any more the ideas that EVERYBODY is against. From now on they are the ideas that only the “liberals”, the “progressives” (or less respectful epithets: the “lefties”, the “commies”, the “libtards”, the “kikes”) are against. And the more ardently they denounce them, the more acceptable they will look like to those instinctively, pre-rationally opposed to the progressive worldview. What the embrace of Trump’s candidacy by the alt-right (what in any other place is called the extreme right, and for a long time has been the extra-parliamentary right due to its inability to attract enough electoral support) has achieved is the obliteration of the consensus against certain positions, like racism, Anti-Semitism or the acceptability of a police state unbound by constitution or law (in certain exceptional circumstances, but we know how such “extraordinary” situations tend to perpetuate themselves and end up being too much ordinary). Not only has such consensus been obliterated, but my prediction is that some of those positions will be openly embraced by bigger and bigger parts of the electorate, and some may even become part of a winning party’s platform in an advanced economy.

Big enough to eventually succeed? Even in the face of a concerted opposition from significant parts of the society? It all depends on how the whole of the economy goes. You rob the mob of much of its rightful indignation when you can buy it with the promise of increasing wealth for its members, and it is exactly the betrayal of that promise which has caused much of the discredit of the social compact of Western democracies. As long as the middle classes see that any improvement in the ability of their nation to produce riches is entirely hijacked by the wealthiest 1% (leveraging the competition from workers in low-pay, low-social-protection countries far away) I can see an inexhaustible well of animus and resentment easy to exploit by any demagogue. Our collective hope then rests in the ability of our leaders to reignite the growth engine of our free-market, rule-of-law based economies AND to ensure the fruits of such growth are equitable shared between all classes. Something especially challenging in the face of an exhausted dominant reason that seems unable to extract the necessary additional efforts from any substantial group (see Erik Hurst’s interview The Young These Days... about how more kids just choose to play videogames instead of pursuing an education that would land them in a shitty McJob anyway), doesn’t provide enough incentive for technological innovation, heck, doesn’t provide enough incentive for just reproducing… That is, we are essentially screwed