A few years ago a group of researchers in Scotland studying learning in apes did some experiments (involving opening boxes to get a piece of candy inside) that showed that chimpanzees learn in a variety of “flexibly adaptive” ways, and that 3 year old children being presented with a similar task most often did it in ways that appear to be less intelligent than the apes. They “suggest that the difference in performance of chimpanzees and children may be due to a greater susceptibility of children to cultural conventions.” (Horner and Whiten, 2005; Whiten, et al., 2004).
In my newsletter on puberty, I described some of the effects of foods and hormones on intelligence. Here, I want to consider the effects of culture on the way people learn and think. Culture, it seems, starts to make us stupid long before the metabolic problems appear.
For many years I described culture as the perceived limits of possibility, but people usually prefer to think of it as the learned rules of conduct in a society. In the late 1950s I was talking with a psychologist about the nature of “mental maps,” and I said that I found my way around campus by reference to mental pictures of the locations of things, and he said that his method was to follow a series of rules, “go out the front door and turn left, turn left at the first corner, walk three blocks and turn right, ....up the stairs, turn right, fourth office on the left.” He had been studying mental processes for about 40 years, so his claim made an impression on me.
I thought this style of thinking might have something to do with the growing technological preference for digital, rather than analog, devices. The complexity and continuity of the real world is made to seem more precise and concrete by turning it into rules and numbers.
Around the same time, I found that some people dream in vivid images, while others describe dreams as “listening to someone tell a story.”
Several years later, a graduate student of “language philosophy” from MIT told me that I was just confused if I believed that I had mental images that I could use in thinking. His attitude was that language, in its forms and in the ways it could convey meaning, was governed by rules. He was part of an effort to define consciousness in terms of rules that could be manipulated formally. This was just a new variation on the doctrine of an “ideal language” that has concerned many philosophers since Leibniz, but now its main use is to convince people that cultural conventions and authority are rooted in the nature of our minds, rather than in particular things that people experience and the ways in which they are treated.
George Orwell, whose novels showed some of the ways language is used to control people, believed that language should be like a clear window between minds, but knew that it was habitually used to distort, mislead, and control. Scientific and medical practices often follow the authority of culture and indoctrination, instead of intelligently confronting the meaning of the evidence, the way chimpanzees are able to do.
Not so many years ago, people believed that traits were “determined by genes,” and that the development of an organism was the result of--was caused by--the sequential expression of genes in the nucleus of the fertilized egg. When B.F. Skinner in the 1970s said “a gestating baby isn't influenced by what happens to its mother,” he was expressing a deeply rooted bio-medical dogma. Physicians insisted that a baby couldn't be harmed by its mother's malnutrition, as long as she lived to give birth. People could be quite vicious when their dogma was challenged, but their actions were systematically vicious when they weren't challenged.
An ovum doesn't just grow from an oocyte according to instructions in its genes, it is constructed, with surrounding nurse cells adding substances to its cytoplasm. Analogously, the fertilized egg doesn't just grow into a human being, it is constructed, by interactions with the mother's physiology. At birth, the environment continues to influence the ways in which cells develop and interact with each other.
Even during adulthood, the ways in which our cells--in the brain, immune system, and other organs--develop and interact are shaped by the environment. When Skinner was writing, many biologists still believed that each synapse of a nerve was directed by a gene, and couldn't be influenced by experience.
Our brain grows into our culture, and the culture lives in our nervous system. If a person grows up without hearing people speak, he will have grown a special kind of brain, making it difficult to learn to speak. (Genie, wolf boy, Kaspar Hauser, for example.)
When we ask a question and find an answer, we are changed. Thinking with learning is a developmental process. But many people learn at an early age not to question. This changes the nature of subsequent learning and brain development.
In the 1960s, many textbooks were published that claimed to use scientific language theory to improve the instruction of English, from grade school level to college level. They didn't work, and at the time they were being published they appeared fraudulent to people who didn't subscribe to the incipient cults of “Generative Grammar” and “Artificial Intelligence” that later developed into “Cognitive Science.”
At the time that Artificial Intelligence was coming to the attention of investors and academicians, Neodarwinism had already cleansed the university biology departments of its opponents who advocated more holistic views, and the idea of a brain that was “hard-wired” according to genetic instructions had entered both neurology and psychology. The field concept was disappearing from developmental biology, as Gestalt psychology was disappearing from the universities and journals.
In the humanities and social sciences, a fad appeared in the 1960s, in which a theory of grammar advocated by Noam Chomsky of MIT was said to explain human thinking and behavior, and specialists in anthropology, psychology, literature, rhetoric, sociology, and other academic fields, claimed that it informed their work in an essential way. The rapid spread of a doctrine for which there was essentially no evidence suggests that it was filling a need for many people in our culture. This doctrine was filling some of the gaps left by the failure of genetic determinism that was starting to be recognized. It gave new support to the doctrine of inborn capacities and limitations, in which formulaic indoctrination can be justified by the brain's natural structure.
Chomsky was committed to an idealistic, “rationalist” doctrine of innate ideas, and to argue for that doctrine, which held that there are transcendent forms (or “deep structures”) that control mind, he disposed of the opposing “empiricist” approach to mind by claiming that children simply learn language so rapidly that it would be impossible to explain on the basis of learning from experience. Separating vocabulary from grammar, he acknowledged that each language is different, and can be learned as easily by the children of immigrants of different ethnicity as by children whose ancestors spoke it, but that all humans have a genetically encoded “universal grammar,” a “language organ.” It is this “inborn grammar” that allows children to learn what he said would be inconceivable to learn so quickly from experience.
The abstract, computational nature of the “inborn” functions of the “language organ” would make a nice program for a translating machine, and the absence of such a useful program, after more than 50 years of trying to devise one, argues against the possibility of such a thing.
Since Plato's time, some people have believed that, behind the changing irregularities of real languages, there is a timeless, context-free language. In the late 1950s, when I was studying language and the “ideal languages” of the philosophers, I realized that George Santayana was right when he pointed out that each time an artificial language is used by real people in real situations, it is altered by the experience that accrues to each component, from the context in which it is used. If real language were the model for mathematics, then the values of numbers would change a little with every calculation.
Adults are usually slower than children at learning a new language, but they can make the process much quicker by memorizing paradigms. With those models, they can begin speaking intelligible sentences when they know only a few words. These basics of grammar are often outlined in just a few pages, but listing irregularities and exceptions can become very detailed and complex. The grammar that children use isn't as subtle as the grammar some adults use, and college freshmen are seldom masters of the grammar of their native language.
There have been various studies that have investigated the number of words understood by children at different ages.
The Virginia Polytechnic Institute website says that
By age 4 a person probably knows 5,600 words
By age 5 a person probably knows 9,600 words
By age 6 a person probably knows 14,700 words
By age 7 a person probably knows 21,200 words
By age 8 a person probably knows 26,300 words
By age 9 a person probably knows 29,300 words
By age 10 a person probably knows 34,300 words
By age 20 a college sophomore probably knows 120,000 words
A dictionary with 14,000 words is a substantial book. The grammar used by a 6 year old person isn't very complex, because at that age a person isn't likely to know all of the subtleties of their language. There is no reason to assume that a mind that can learn thousands of words and concepts in a year can't learn the grammatical patterns of a language--a much smaller number of patterns and relationships--in a few years.
Idioms and clichés are clusters of words that are frequently used together in the same pattern to express a stereotyped meaning. There are thousands of them in English, and some of them have existed for centuries, while others are regional and generational. It is possible to speak or write almost completely in clichés, and they are such an important part of language that their acquisition along with the basic vocabulary deserves more attention than linguists have given it. A mind that can learn so many clichés can certainly learn the relatively few stereotypical rules of phrasing that make up the grammar of a language. In fact, a grammar in some ways resembles a complex cliché.
Recognition of patterns, first of things that are present, then of meaningful sequences, is what we call awareness or consciousness. There is biological evidence, from the level of single cells through many types of organism, both plant and animal, that pattern recognition is a basic biological function. An organism that isn't oriented in space and time isn't an adapted, adapting, organism. Environments change, and the organization of life necessarily has some flexibility.
A traveling bird or dog can see a pattern once, and later, going in the opposite direction, can recognize and find specific places and objects. An ant or bee can see a pattern once, and communicate it to others.
If dogs and birds lived in colonies or cities, as bees and ants do, and carried food home from remote locations, they might have a need to communicate their knowledge. The fact that birds and dogs use their vocal organs and brains to communicate in ways that people have seldom cared to study doesn't imply that their brains differ radically from human brains in lacking a “language organ.”
People whose ideology says that “animals use instinct rather than intelligence,” and that they lack “the language instinct,” refuse to perceive animals that are demonstrating their ability to generalize or to understand language.
Organisms have genes, so a person could say that pattern recognition is genetically determined, but it would be a foolish and empty thing to say. (Nevertheless, people do say it.) The people who believe that there are “genes for grammar” believe that these mind-controlling genes give us the ability to generalize, and therefore say that animals aren't able to generalize, though their “instinctive behaviors” might sometimes seem to involve generalization.
In language, patterns are represented symbolically by patterned sounds, and some of those symbolically represented patterns are made up of other patterns. Different languages have different ways of representing different kinds of patterns.
“Things” are recognizable when they are far or near, moving or still, bright or dark, or upside down, because the recognition of a pattern is an integration involving both spatial and temporal components. The recognition of an object involves both generalization and concreteness.
Things that are very complex are likely to take longer to recognize, but the nature of any pattern is that it is a complex of parts and properties.
A name for “a thing” is a name for a pattern, a set of relationships.
The method of naming or identifying a relationship can make use of any way of patterning sound that can be recognized as making distinctions. Concepts and grammar aren't separable things, “semantics” and “syntax” are just aspects of a particular language's way of handling meaning.
As a child interacts with more and more things, and learns things about them, the patterns of familiar things are compared to the patterns of new things, and differences and similarities are noticed and used to understand relationships. The comparison of patterns is a process of making analogies, or metaphors. Similarities perceived become generalizations, and distinctions allow things to be grouped into categories.
When things are explored analogically, the exploration may first identify objects, and then explore the factors that make up the larger pattern that was first identified, in a kind of analysis, but this analysis is a sort of expansion inward, in which the discovered complexity has the extra meaning of the larger context in which it is found.
When something new is noticed, it excites the brain, and causes attention to be focused, in the “orienting reflex.” The various senses participate in examining the thing, in a physiological way of asking a question. Perception of new patterns and the formation of generalizations expands the ways in which questions are asked. When words are available, questions may be verbalized. The way in which questions are answered verbally may be useful, but it often diverts the questioning process, and provides rules and arbitrary generalizations that may take the place of the normal analogical processes of intelligence. The vocabulary of patterns no longer expands spontaneously, but tends to come to rest in a system of accepted opinions.
A few patterns, formulated in language, are substituted for the processes of exploration through metaphorical thinking. In the first stages of learning, the process is expansive and metaphorical. If a question is closed by an answer in the form of a rule that must be followed, subsequent learning can only be analytical and deductive.
Learning of this sort is always a system of closed compartments, though one system might occasionally be exchanged for another, in a “conversion experience.”
The exploratory analogical mind is able to form broad generalizations and to make deductions from those, but the validity of the generalization is always in a process of being tested. Both the deduction and the generalization are constantly open to revision in accordance with the available evidence.
If there were infallible authorities who set down general rules, language and knowledge could be idealized and made mathematically precise. In their absence, intelligence is necessary, but the authorities who would be infallible devise ways to confine and control intelligence, so that, with the mastery of a language, the growth of intelligence usually stops.
In the 1940s and '50s, W.J.J. Gordon organized a group called Synectics, to investigate the creative process, and to devise ways to teach people to solve problems effectively. It involved several methods for helping people to think analogically and metaphorically, and to avoid stereotyped interpretations. It was a way of teaching people to recover the style of thinking of young children, or of chimps, or other intelligent animals.
When the acquisition of language is burdened by the acceptance of clichés, producing the conventionalism mentioned by Horner and Whiten, with the substitution of deductive reasoning for metaphorical-analogical thinking, the natural pleasures of mental exploration and creation are lost, and a new kind of personality and character has come into existence.
Bob Altemeyer spent his career studying the authoritarian personality, and has identified its defining traits as conventionalism, submission to authority, and aggression, as sanctioned by the authorities. His last book, The Authoritarians (2006) is available on the internet.
Altemeyer found that people who scored high on his scale of authoritarianism tended to have faulty reasoning, with compartmentalized thinking, making it possible to hold contradictory beliefs, and to be dogmatic, hypocritical, and hostile.
Since he is looking at a spectrum, focusing on differences, I think he is likely to have underestimated the degree to which these traits exist in the mainstream, and in groups such as scientists, that have a professional commitment to clear reasoning and objectivity. With careful training, and in a culture that doesn't value creative metaphorical thinking, authoritarianism might be a preferred trait.
Konrad Lorenz (who with Niko Tinbergen got the Nobel Prize in 1973) believed that specific innate structures explained animal communication, and that natural selection had created those structures. Chomsky, who said that our genes create an innate “Language Acquisition Device,” distanced himself slightly from Lorenz's view by saying that it wasn't certain that natural selection was responsible for it. However, despite slightly different names for the hypothetical innate “devices,” their views were extremely similar.
Both Lorenz and Chomsky, and their doctrine of innate rule-based consciousness, have been popular and influential among university professors. When Lorenz wrote a book on degeneration, which was little more than a revised version of the articles he had written for the Nazi party's Office for Race Policy in the late 1930s and early 1940s, advocating the extermination of racial “mongrels” such as jews and gypsies, most biologists in the US praised it. Lorenz identified National Socialism with evolution as an agent of racial purification. His lifelong beliefs and activities--the loyalty to a strong leader, advocating the killing of the weak--identified Lorenz as an extreme authoritarian.
When a famous professor went on a lecture tour popularizing and affirming the scientific truth and importance of those publications, and asserting that all human actions and knowledge, language, work, art, and belief, are specified and determined by genes, he and his audience (which, at the University of Oregon, included members of the National Academy of Sciences and Jewish professors who had been refugees from Nazism, who listened approvingly) were outraged when a student mentioned the Nazi origin and intention of the original publications.
They said “you can't say that a man's work has anything to do with his life and political beliefs,” but in fact the lecturer had just finished saying that everything a person does is integral to that person's deepest nature, just as Lorenz said that a goose with a pot belly and odd beak, or a person with non-nordic physical features and behavior and cultural preferences--should be eliminated for the improvement of the species. Not a single professor in the audience questioned the science that had justified Hitler's racial policies, and some of them showed great hostility toward the critic.
In the 1960s, a professor compared graduate students' scores on the Miller Analogies Test, which is a widely used test of analogical thinking ability, to their academic grades. She found that the students who scored close to the average on the test had the highest grades and the greatest academic success, and those who deviated the most from the average on that test, in either direction, had the worst academic grades. If the ability to think analogically is inversely associated with authoritarianism, then her results would indicate that graduate schools select for authoritarianism. (If not, then they simply select for mediocrity.)
Although Bob Altemeyer's scale mainly identified right-wing, conservative authoritarians, he indicated that there could be left-wing authoritarians, too. Noam Chomsky is identified with left-wing political views, but his views of genetic determinism and a “nativist” view of language learning, and his anti-empiricist identification of himself as a philosophical Rationalist, have a great correspondence to the authoritarian character. The “nativist” rule-based nature of “Cognitive Science” is just the modern form of an authoritarian tradition that has been influential since Plato's time.
The first thing a person is likely to notice when looking at Chomsky's work in linguistics is that he offers no evidence to support his extreme assertions. In fact, the main role evidence plays in his basic scheme is negative, that is, his doctrine of “Poverty of the Stimulus” asserts that children aren't exposed to enough examples of language for them to be able to learn grammar--therefore, grammar must be inborn.
I think Chomsky discovered long ago that the people around him were sufficiently authoritarian to accept assertions without evidence if they were presented in a form that looked complexly technical. Several people have published their correspondence with him, showing him to be authoritarian and arrogant, even rude and insulting, if the person questioned his handling of evidence, or the lack of evidence.
For example, people have argued with him about the JFK assassination, US policy in the Vietnam war, the HIV-AIDS issue, and the 9/11 investigation. In each case, he accepts the official position of the government, and insults those who question, for example, the adequacy of the Warren Commission report, or who believe that the pharmaceutical industry would manipulate the evidence regarding AIDS, or who doubt the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission investigation.
He says that investigation of such issues is “diverting people from serious issues,” as if those aren't serious issues. And “even if it's true” that the government was involved in the 9/11 terrorism, “who cares? I mean, it doesn't have any significance. I mean it's a little bit like the huge amount of energy that's put out on trying to figure out who killed John F. Kennedy. I mean, who knows, and who cares…plenty of people get killed all the time. Why does it matter that one of them happens to be John F. Kennedy?"
"If there was some reason to believe that there was a high level conspiracy" in the JFK assassination, "it might be interesting, but the evidence against that is just overwhelming." "And after that it's just a matter of, uh, if it's a jealous husband or the mafia or someone else, what difference does it make?" "It's just taking energy away from serious issues onto ones that don't matter. And I think the same is true here," regarding the events of 9/11. These reactions seem especially significant, considering his reputation as America's leading dissenter.
The speed with which Chomskyism spread through universities in the US in the 1960s convinced me that I was right in viewing the instruction of the humanities and social sciences as indoctrination, rather than objective treatment of knowledge. The reception of the authoritarian ideas of Lorenz and his apologists in biology departments offered me a new perspective on the motivations involved in the uniformity of the orthodox views of biology and medicine.
In being introduced into a profession, any lingering tendency toward analogical-metaphoric thinking is suppressed. I have known perceptive, imaginative people who, after a year or two in medical school, had become rigid rule-followers.
One of the perennial questions people have asked when they learn of the suppression of a therapy, is “if the doctors are doing it to defend the profitable old methods, how can they refuse to use the better method even for themselves and their own family?” The answer seems to be that their minds have been radically affected by their vocational training.
For many years, cancer and inflammation have been known to be closely associated, even to be aspects of a single process. This was obvious to “analog minded” people, but seemed utterly improbable to the essentialist mentality, because of the indoctrination that inflammation is a good thing, that couldn't coexist with a bad thing like cancer.
The philosophy of language might seem remote from politics and practical problems, but Kings and advertisers have understood that words and ideas are powerfully influential in maintaining relationships of power.
Theories of mind and language that justify arbitrary power, power that can't justify itself in terms of evidence, are more dangerous than merely mistaken scientific theories, because any theory that bases its arguments on evidence is capable of being disproved.
In the middle ages, the Divine Right of Kings was derived from certain kinds of theological reasoning. It has been replaced by newer ideologies, based on deductions from beliefs about the nature of mind and matter, words and genes, “Computational Grammar,” or numbers and quantized energy, but behind the ideology is the reality of the authoritarian personality.
I think if we understand more about the nature of language and its acquisition we will have a clearer picture of what is happening in our cultures, especially in the culture of science.
New Yorker, April 16, 2007, “The Interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?” by John Colapinto. “Dan Everett believes that Pirahã undermines Noam Chomsky's idea of a universal grammar.”
Language & Communication Volume 23, Issue 1, January 2003, Pages 1-43. “Remarks on the origins of morphophonemics in American structuralist linguistics,” E. F. K. Koerner. Chomsky has led the public to believe that he originated things which he borrowed from earlier linguists.
Science. 2008 Feb 1;319(5863):569; author reply 569. Comparing social skills of children and apes. De Waal FB, Boesch C, Horner V, Whiten A. Letter
Curr Biol. 2007 Jun 19;17(12):1038-43. Epub 2007 Jun 7. Transmission of multiple traditions within and between chimpanzee groups. Whiten A, Spiteri A, Horner V, Bonnie KE, Lambeth SP, Schapiro SJ, de Waal FB. Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution and Scottish Primate Research Group, School of Psychology, University of St Andrews, St Andrews KY16 9JP, United Kingdom. A.firstname.lastname@example.org Field reports provide increasing evidence for local behavioral traditions among fish, birds, and mammals. These findings are significant for evolutionary biology because social learning affords faster adaptation than genetic change and has generated new (cultural) forms of evolution. Orangutan and chimpanzee field studies suggest that like humans, these apes are distinctive among animals in each exhibiting over 30 local traditions. However, direct evidence is lacking in apes and, with the exception of vocal dialects, in animals generally for the intergroup transmission that would allow innovations to spread widely and become evolutionarily significant phenomena. Here, we provide robust experimental evidence that alternative foraging techniques seeded in different groups of chimpanzees spread differentially not only within groups but serially across two further groups with substantial fidelity. Combining these results with those from recent social-diffusion studies in two larger groups offers the first experimental evidence that a nonhuman species can sustain unique local cultures, each constituted by multiple traditions. The convergence of these results with those from the wild implies a richness in chimpanzees' capacity for culture, a richness that parsimony suggests was shared with our common ancestor.
J Comp Psychol. 2007 Feb;121(1):12-21. Learning from others' mistakes? limits on understanding a trap-tube task by young chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children (Homo sapiens). Horner V, Whiten A. Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, School of Psychology, University of St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, UK. Vhorner@rmy.emory.edu A trap-tube task was used to determine whether chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children (Homo sapiens) who observed a model's errors and successes could master the task in fewer trials than those who saw only successes. Two- to 7-year-old chimpanzees and 3- to 4-year-old children did not benefit from observing errors and found the task difficult. Two of the 6 chimpanzees developed a successful anticipatory strategy but showed no evidence of representing the core causal relations involved in trapping. Three- to 4-year-old children showed a similar limitation and tended to copy the actions of the demonstrator, irrespective of their causal relevance. Five- to 6-year-old children were able to master the task but did not appear to be influenced by social learning or benefit from observing errors.
Proc Biol Sci. 2007 Feb 7;274(1608):367-72. Spread of arbitrary conventions among chimpanzees: a controlled experiment. Bonnie KE, Horner V, Whiten A, de Waal FB. Living Links, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Atlanta, GA 30329, USA. Kebonni@emory.edu Wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) have a rich cultural repertoire--traditions common in some communities are not present in others. The majority of reports describe functional, material traditions, such as tool use. Arbitrary conventions have received far less attention. In the same way that observations of material culture in wild apes led to experiments to confirm social transmission and identify underlying learning mechanisms, experiments investigating how arbitrary habits or conventions arise and spread within a group are also required. The few relevant experimental studies reported thus far have relied on cross-species (i.e. human-ape) interaction offering limited ecological validity, and no study has successfully generated a tradition not involving tool use in an established group. We seeded one of two rewarded alternative endpoints to a complex sequence of behaviour in each of two chimpanzee groups. Each sequence spread in the group in which it was seeded, with many individuals unambiguously adopting the sequence demonstrated by a group member. In one group, the alternative sequence was discovered by a low ranking female, but was not learned by others. Since the action-sequences lacked meaning before the experiment and had no logical connection with reward, chimpanzees must have extracted both the form and benefits of these sequences through observation of others.
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006 Sep 12;103(37):13878-83. Faithful replication of foraging techniques along cultural transmission chains by chimpanzees and children. Horner V, Whiten A, Flynn E, de Waal FB. Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews, Fife KY16 9JP, United Kingdom. Observational studies of wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) have revealed population-specific differences in behavior, thought to represent cultural variation. Field studies have also reported behaviors indicative of cultural learning, such as close observation of adult skills by infants, and the use of similar foraging techniques within a population over many generations. Although experimental studies have shown that chimpanzees are able to learn complex behaviors by observation, it is unclear how closely these studies simulate the learning environment found in the wild. In the present study we have used a diffusion chain paradigm, whereby a behavior is passed from one individual to the next in a linear sequence in an attempt to simulate intergenerational transmission of a foraging skill. Using a powerful three-group, two-action methodology, we found that alternative methods used to obtain food from a foraging device ("lift door" versus "slide door") were accurately transmitted along two chains of six and five chimpanzees, respectively, such that the last chimpanzee in the chain used the same method as the original trained model. The fidelity of transmission within each chain is remarkable given that several individuals in the no-model control group were able to discover either method by individual exploration. A comparative study with human children revealed similar results. This study is the first to experimentally demonstrate the linear transmission of alternative foraging techniques by non-human primates. Our results show that chimpanzees have a capacity to sustain local traditions across multiple simulated generations.
Nature. 2005 Sep 29;437(7059):737-40. Conformity to cultural norms of tool use in chimpanzees. Whiten A, Horner V, de Waal FB. Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, School of Psychology, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife, KY16 9JP, UK. A.email@example.com Rich circumstantial evidence suggests that the extensive behavioural diversity recorded in wild great apes reflects a complexity of cultural variation unmatched by species other than our own. However, the capacity for cultural transmission assumed by this interpretation has remained difficult to test rigorously in the field, where the scope for controlled experimentation is limited. Here we show that experimentally introduced technologies will spread within different ape communities. Unobserved by group mates, we first trained a high-ranking female from each of two groups of captive chimpanzees to adopt one of two different tool-use techniques for obtaining food from the same 'Pan-pipe' apparatus, then re-introduced each female to her respective group. All but two of 32 chimpanzees mastered the new technique under the influence of their local expert, whereas none did so in a third population lacking an expert. Most chimpanzees adopted the method seeded in their group, and these traditions continued to diverge over time. A subset of chimpanzees that discovered the alternative method nevertheless went on to match the predominant approach of their companions, showing a conformity bias that is regarded as a hallmark of human culture.
Anim Cogn. 2005 Jul;8(3):164-81. Causal knowledge and imitation/emulation switching in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children (Homo sapiens). Horner V, Whiten A. Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, School of Psychology, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, KY16 9JU, UK. Vkh1@st-andrews.ac.uk This study explored whether the tendency of chimpanzees and children to use emulation or imitation to solve a tool-using task was a response to the availability of causal information. Young wild-born chimpanzees from an African sanctuary and 3- to 4-year-old children observed a human demonstrator use a tool to retrieve a reward from a puzzle-box. The demonstration involved both causally relevant and irrelevant actions, and the box was presented in each of two conditions: opaque and clear. In the opaque condition, causal information about the effect of the tool inside the box was not available, and hence it was impossible to differentiate between the relevant and irrelevant parts of the demonstration. However, in the clear condition causal information was available, and subjects could potentially determine which actions were necessary. When chimpanzees were presented with the opaque box, they reproduced both the relevant and irrelevant actions, thus imitating the overall structure of the task. When the box was presented in the clear condition they instead ignored the irrelevant actions in favour of a more efficient, emulative technique. These results suggest that emulation is the favoured strategy of chimpanzees when sufficient causal information is available. However, if such information is not available, chimpanzees are prone to employ a more comprehensive copy of an observed action. In contrast to the chimpanzees, children employed imitation to solve the task in both conditions, at the expense of efficiency. We suggest that the difference in performance of chimpanzees and children may be due to a greater susceptibility of children to cultural conventions, perhaps combined with a differential focus on the results, actions and goals of the demonstrator.
Learn Behav. 2004 Feb;32(1):36-52. How do apes ape? Whiten A, Horner V, Litchfield CA, Marshall-Pescini S. Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, Scottish Primate Research Group, School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. A.firstname.lastname@example.org In the wake of telling critiques of the foundations on which earlier conclusions were based, the last 15 years have witnessed a renaissance in the study of social learning in apes. As a result, we are able to review 31 experimental studies from this period in which social learning in chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans has been investigated. The principal question framed at the beginning of this era, Do apes ape? has been answered in the affirmative, at least in certain conditions. The more interesting question now is, thus, How do apes ape? Answering this question has engendered richer taxonomies of the range of social-learning processes at work and new methodologies to uncover them. Together, these studies suggest that apes ape by employing a portfolio of alternative social-learning processes in flexibly adaptive ways, in conjunction with nonsocial learning. We conclude by sketching the kind of decision tree that appears to underlie the deployment of these alternatives.
© Ray Peat Ph.D. 2009. All Rights Reserved. www.RayPeat.com
Is it so, as some wags say, that industry no longer makes money; only finance does? That’s been the operating theory for much of the West lately. Of course, that invites the question: what then is finance supposed to finance… that is, put money into? Why… industry, of course, and in the broadest sense of the word: the production of goods… goods being things that have value (that’s what’s good about them). How quaint! But most of the industry that used to be here has gone to other lands.
What about all that money (capital) flowing into technology: Facebook, Google, Amazon? Hmmmm. What does Facebook produce, besides conflict between its users? Okay, it harvests data about them to sell to advertisers. And what are the advertisers advertising? Their products. Who produces the products? Mostly those people in other lands. Facebook users, then, are increasingly not employed, at least not in the production of goods. Perhaps in services like nursing, trucking, garbage pickup, food prep, police, firemen, prison guards, government bureaucracy (is that a service or a dis-service?) and et cetera.
Anyway, those service people are being fired left-and-right now because they refuse to be coerced into taking a vaccine that was never properly tested and has many scary side-effects. By the way, as of Sunday, the “newspaper-of-record” (The New York Times) finally had to come clean, after months of whistling past the graveyard, and admit what the public already knows: mRNA vaccines are dangerous:
While we’re on the subject, what does Google produce? Supposedly, answers to questions, plus, like Facebook, it harvests information about the people who ask the questions and then sells the info, blah blah. And whutabout Amazon? Don’t they sell a lot of products? Yeah, mostly produced by those people in other lands. What Amazon really produces is a phenomenal amount of motion — trucks going hither and thither, at increasing cost now as the price of gasoline and diesel fuel shoots up. To me, that looks like a problem for Amazon’s business model. Another problem is the growing number of people without gainful employment who have little money to buy stuff from Amazon, wherever it comes from.
That last problem has been papered-over for two years by “helicopter money” from the federal government — direct payment to the people for doing nothing, producing neither goods nor services. This has been an impressive trick. The money comes from nowhere and for nothing. The trick is based on simple accounting fraud. The second law of thermodynamics, a.k.a. entropy, suggests that eventually this process will degrade the value of the money (or “money”) issued by the fraudsters.
The hand in play for the moment is the spending legislation proposed by “Joe Biden.” It would generate a whole helluva lot more helicopter money from nowhere for nothing, and would theoretically keep the game going a little bit longer — except the process will only generate more unwanted entropy, causing decay in the value of that “money” and canceling the desired effect of spreading it around. That’s called inflation. If the value of money drops hard and fast, that is called hyperinflation. It would be politically and socially devastating, and probably lead to the downfall of the government. The net effect would be a nation bankrupt at all levels and that will segue into an epic economic depression.
If the legislation doesn’t get passed, the USA will perhaps skip the hyperinflationary intermezzo and move straight into a deflationary depression, which is what you get when nobody has any money. When that happens, especially in a system with money actually based on debt-creation, debts do not get paid (mortgages, car payments, credit cards, perhaps even coupons on US Treasury bonds), and when debts are not paid, money disappears. Poof! No money! It’s a vicious cycle. The more money disappears the more money keeps disappearing. None of this bodes well for the winter ahead.
Add to that the growing breakdown in global trade operations. Even many of those goods produced in other lands aren’t making it to the docks, and the reduced flow of goods that happened to already land on the docks can’t get unloaded and delivered to its various destinations because of disruptions in the US trucking sector. To some degree, those disruptions are caused by bonehead government regulations, especially in California, where most of the stuff from Asia lands. The bonehead regulations (like, outlawing trucks more than three years old) can be thought of as typical government “dis-services.”
Now add to that the rising cost of oil, natural gas, and coal — the global economy’s primary resources — and disruptions in the industries that produce these vital resources and you’ve got another layer of disorder being introduced into the system (entropy again). For the moment, government propaganda tries to divert your attention to a possible shortage of Christmas presents as the nation’s main concern. Don’t be fooled. It’s more about total systemic economic breakdown, as in US citizens having no heat and no food. Also, no gasoline and no parts for fixing broken cars (and trucks).
Do you suppose the capital markets will keep rising as all this spins out? I would suppose that the capital markets will lose 80 to 90 percent of their value when all is said and done. The fabled “One Percent” will finally feel the pain that was previously distributed among the rest of us. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the One Percent can control the situation. They are mere Wizards of Oz, barfing into their laptops. If working-from-home wasn’t a thing, they’d be jumping out of windows on Wall Street.
It’s a grim outlook, I admit, but you could see it coming over the horizon from a thousand miles away. Where I differ from other observers is that I doubt that any sort of extreme government surveillance state can be imposed on the public under these conditions. The people will be too pissed-off and, anyway, the current regime will be broke and out of mojo — possibly to the degree that it has to be shoved aside. “Let’s Go Brandon” is serious business. It’s the end of something.
In the background lurks this virus thing, and the insane vaccination program it prompted. We know that people have been harmed by the vaccinations, but not how many people altogether will be affected moving forward. The possibility, though, is for a nation both broke and sick struggling to get through a dark passage of history. Stay nimble, stay local, stay reality-based, be helpful, be honest, be brave, and be kind to each other. We’ll get through it.
This year’s theme is Global Shake-up in the 21st Century: The Individual, Values and the State. The four-day programme includes over 15 in-person and online sessions.
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Ladies and gentlemen,
To begin with, I would like to thank you for coming to Russia and taking part in the Valdai Club events.
As always, during these meetings you raise pressing issues and hold comprehensive discussions of these issues that, without exaggeration, matter for people around the world. Once again, the key theme of the forum was put in a straightforward, I would even say, point-blank manner: Global Shake-up in the 21st Century: The Individual, Values and the State.
Indeed, we are living in an era of great change. If I may, by tradition, I will offer my views with regard to the agenda that you have come up with.
In general, this phrase, “to live in an era of great change,” may seem trite since we use it so often. Also, this era of change began quite a long time ago, and changes have become part of everyday life. Hence, the question: are they worth focusing on? I agree with those who made the agenda for these meetings; of course they are.
In recent decades, many people have cited a Chinese proverb. The Chinese people are wise, and they have many thinkers and valuable thoughts that we can still use today. One of them, as you may know, says, “God forbid living in a time of change.” But we are already living in it, whether we like it or not, and these changes are becoming deeper and more fundamental. But let us consider another Chinese wisdom: the word “crisis” consists of two hieroglyphs – there are probably representatives of the People's Republic of China in the audience, and they will correct me if I have it wrong – but, two hieroglyphs, “danger” and “opportunity.” And as we say here in Russia, “fight difficulties with your mind, and fight dangers with your experience.”
Of course, we must be aware of the danger and be ready to counter it, and not just one threat but many diverse threats that can arise in this era of change. However, it is no less important to recall a second component of the crisis – opportunities that must not be missed, all the more so since the crisis we are facing is conceptual and even civilisation-related. This is basically a crisis of approaches and principles that determine the very existence of humans on Earth, but we will have to seriously revise them in any event. The question is where to move, what to give up, what to revise or adjust. In saying this, I am convinced that it is necessary to fight for real values, upholding them in every way.
Humanity entered into a new era about three decades ago when the main conditions were created for ending military-political and ideological confrontation. I am sure you have talked a lot about this in this discussion club. Our Foreign Minister also talked about it, but nevertheless I would like to repeat several things.
A search for a new balance, sustainable relations in the social, political, economic, cultural and military areas and support for the world system was launched at that time. We were looking for this support but must say that we did not find it, at least so far. Meanwhile, those who felt like the winners after the end of the Cold War (we have also spoken about this many times) and thought they climbed Mount Olympus soon discovered that the ground was falling away underneath even there, and this time it was their turn, and nobody could “stop this fleeting moment” no matter how fair it seemed.
In general, it must have seemed that we adjusted to this continuous inconstancy, unpredictability and permanent state of transition, but this did not happen either.
I would like to add that the transformation that we are seeing and are part of is of a different calibre than the changes that repeatedly occurred in human history, at least those we know about. This is not simply a shift in the balance of forces or scientific and technological breakthroughs, though both are also taking place. Today, we are facing systemic changes in all directions – from the increasingly complicated geophysical condition of our planet to a more paradoxical interpretation of what a human is and what the reasons for his existence are.
Let us look around. And I will say this again: I will allow myself to express a few thoughts that I sign on to.
Firstly, climate change and environmental degradation are so obvious that even the most careless people can no longer dismiss them. One can continue to engage in scientific debates about the mechanisms behind the ongoing processes, but it is impossible to deny that these processes are getting worse, and something needs to be done. Natural disasters such as droughts, floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis have almost become the new normal, and we are getting used to them. Suffice it to recall the devastating, tragic floods in Europe last summer, the fires in Siberia – there are a lot of examples. Not only in Siberia – our neighbours in Turkey have also had wildfires, and the United States, and other places on the American continent. It sometimes seems that any geopolitical, scientific and technical, or ideological rivalry becomes pointless in this context, if the winners will have not enough air to breathe or nothing to drink.
The coronavirus pandemic has become another reminder of how fragile our community is, how vulnerable it is, and our most important task is to ensure humanity a safe existence and resilience. To increase our chance of survival in the face of cataclysms, we absolutely need to rethink how we go about our lives, how we run our households, how cities develop or how they should develop; we need to reconsider economic development priorities of entire states. I repeat, safety is one of our main imperatives, in any case it has become obvious now, and anyone who tries to deny this will have to later explain why they were wrong and why they were unprepared for the crises and shocks whole nations are facing.
Second. The socioeconomic problems facing humankind have worsened to the point where, in the past, they would trigger worldwide shocks, such as world wars or bloody social cataclysms. Everyone is saying that the current model of capitalism which underlies the social structure in the overwhelming majority of countries, has run its course and no longer offers a solution to a host of increasingly tangled differences.
Everywhere, even in the richest countries and regions, the uneven distribution of material wealth has exacerbated inequality, primarily, inequality of opportunities both within individual societies and at the international level. I mentioned this formidable challenge in my remarks at the Davos Forum earlier this year. No doubt, these problems threaten us with major and deep social divisions.
Furthermore, a number of countries and even entire regions are regularly hit by food crises. We will probably discuss this later, but there is every reason to believe that this crisis will become worse in the near future and may reach extreme forms. There are also shortages of water and electricity (we will probably cover this today as well), not to mention poverty, high unemployment rates or lack of adequate healthcare.
Lagging countries are fully aware of that and are losing faith in the prospects of ever catching up with the leaders. Disappointment spurs aggression and pushes people to join the ranks of extremists. People in these countries have a growing sense of unfulfilled and failed expectations and the lack of any opportunities not only for themselves, but for their children, as well. This is what makes them look for better lives and results in uncontrolled migration, which, in turn, creates fertile ground for social discontent in more prosperous countries. I do not need to explain anything to you, since you can see everything with your own eyes and are, probably, versed on these matters even better than I.
As I noted earlier, prosperous leading powers have other pressing social problems, challenges and risks in ample supply, and many among them are no longer interested in fighting for influence since, as they say, they already have enough on their plates. The fact that society and young people in many countries have overreacted in a harsh and even aggressive manner to measures to combat the coronavirus showed – and I want to emphasise this, I hope someone has already mentioned this before me at other venues – so, I think that this reaction showed that the pandemic was just a pretext: the causes for social irritation and frustration run much deeper.
I have another important point to make. The pandemic, which, in theory, was supposed to rally the people in the fight against this massive common threat, has instead become a divisive rather than a unifying factor. There are many reasons for that, but one of the main ones is that they started looking for solutions to problems among the usual approaches – a variety of them, but still the old ones, but they just do not work. Or, to be more precise, they do work, but often and oddly enough, they worsen the existing state of affairs.
By the way, Russia has repeatedly called for, and I will repeat this, stopping these inappropriate ambitions and for working together. We will probably talk about this later but it is clear what I have in mind. We are talking about the need to counter the coronavirus infection together. But nothing changes; everything remains the same despite the humanitarian considerations. I am not referring to Russia now, let’s leave the sanctions against Russia for now; I mean the sanctions that remain in place against those states that badly need international assistance. Where are the humanitarian fundamentals of Western political thought? It appears there is nothing there, just idle talk. Do you understand? This is what seems to be on the surface.
Furthermore, the technological revolution, impressive achievements in artificial intelligence, electronics, communications, genetics, bioengineering, and medicine open up enormous opportunities, but at the same time, in practical terms, they raise philosophical, moral and spiritual questions that were until recently the exclusive domain of science fiction writers. What will happen if machines surpass humans in the ability to think? Where is the limit of interference in the human body beyond which a person ceases being himself and turns into some other entity? What are the general ethical limits in the world where the potential of science and machines are becoming almost boundless? What will this mean for each of us, for our descendants, our nearest descendants – our children and grandchildren?
These changes are gaining momentum, and they certainly cannot be stopped because they are objective as a rule. All of us will have to deal with the consequences regardless of our political systems, economic condition or prevailing ideology.
Verbally, all states talk about their commitment to the ideals of cooperation and a willingness to work together for resolving common problems but, unfortunately, these are just words. In reality, the opposite is happening, and the pandemic has served to fuel the negative trends that emerged long ago and are now only getting worse. The approach based on the proverb, “your own shirt is closer to the body,” has finally become common and is now no longer even concealed. Moreover, this is often even a matter of boasting and brandishing. Egotistic interests prevail over the notion of the common good.
Of course, the problem is not just the ill will of certain states and notorious elites. It is more complicated than that, in my opinion. In general, life is seldom divided into black and white. Every government, every leader is primarily responsible to his own compatriots, obviously. The main goal is to ensure their security, peace and prosperity. So, international, transnational issues will never be as important for a national leadership as domestic stability. In general, this is normal and correct.
We need to face the fact the global governance institutions are not always effective and their capabilities are not always up to the challenge posed by the dynamics of global processes. In this sense, the pandemic could help – it clearly showed which institutions have what it takes and which need fine-tuning.
The re-alignment of the balance of power presupposes a redistribution of shares in favour of rising and developing countries that until now felt left out. To put it bluntly, the Western domination of international affairs, which began several centuries ago and, for a short period, was almost absolute in the late 20th century, is giving way to a much more diverse system.
This transformation is not a mechanical process and, in its own way, one might even say, is unparalleled. Arguably, political history has no examples of a stable world order being established without a big war and its outcomes as the basis, as was the case after World War II. So, we have a chance to create an extremely favourable precedent. The attempt to create it after the end of the Cold War on the basis of Western domination failed, as we see. The current state of international affairs is a product of that very failure, and we must learn from this.
Some may wonder, what have we arrived at? We have arrived somewhere paradoxical. Just an example: for two decades, the most powerful nation in the world has been conducting military campaigns in two countries that it cannot be compared to by any standard. But in the end, it had to wind down operations without achieving a single goal that it had set for itself going in 20 years ago, and to withdraw from these countries causing considerable damage to others and itself. In fact, the situation has worsened dramatically.
But that is not the point. Previously, a war lost by one side meant victory for the other side, which took responsibility for what was happening. For example, the defeat of the United States in the Vietnam War, for example, did not make Vietnam a “black hole.” On the contrary, a successfully developing state arose there, which, admittedly, relied on the support of a strong ally. Things are different now: no matter who takes the upper hand, the war does not stop, but just changes form. As a rule, the hypothetical winner is reluctant or unable to ensure peaceful post-war recovery, and only worsens the chaos and the vacuum posing a danger to the world.
What do you think are the starting points of this complex realignment process? Let me try to summarise the talking points.
First, the coronavirus pandemic has clearly shown that the international order is structured around nation states. By the way, recent developments have shown that global digital platforms – with all their might, which we could see from the internal political processes in the United States – have failed to usurp political or state functions. These attempts proved ephemeral. The US authorities, as I said, have immediately put the owners of these platforms in their place, which is exactly what is being done in Europe, if you just look at the size of the fines imposed on them and the demonopolisation measures being taken. You are aware of that.
In recent decades, many have tossed around fancy concepts claiming that the role of the state was outdated and outgoing. Globalisation supposedly made national borders an anachronism, and sovereignty an obstacle to prosperity. You know, I said it before and I will say it again. This is also what was said by those who attempted to open up other countries’ borders for the benefit of their own competitive advantages. This is what actually happened. And as soon as it transpired that someone somewhere is achieving great results, they immediately returned to closing borders in general and, first of all, their own customs borders and what have you, and started building walls. Well, were we supposed to not notice, or what? Everyone sees everything and everyone understands everything perfectly well. Of course, they do.
There is no point in disputing it anymore. It is obvious. But events, when we spoke about the need to open up borders, events, as I said, went in the opposite direction. Only sovereign states can effectively respond to the challenges of the times and the demands of the citizens. Accordingly, any effective international order should take into account the interests and capabilities of the state and proceed on that basis, and not try to prove that they should not exist. Furthermore, it is impossible to impose anything on anyone, be it the principles underlying the sociopolitical structure or values that someone, for their own reasons, has called universal. After all, it is clear that when a real crisis strikes, there is only one universal value left and that is human life, which each state decides for itself how best to protect based on its abilities, culture and traditions.
In this regard, I will again note how severe and dangerous the coronavirus pandemic has become. As we know, more than 4.9 million have died of it. These terrifying figures are comparable and even exceed the military losses of the main participants in World War I.
The second point I would like to draw your attention to is the scale of change that forces us to act extremely cautiously, if only for reasons of self-preservation. The state and society must not respond radically to qualitative shifts in technology, dramatic environmental changes or the destruction of traditional systems. It is easier to destroy than to create, as we all know. We in Russia know this very well, regrettably, from our own experience, which we have had several times.
Just over a century ago, Russia objectively faced serious problems, including because of the ongoing World War I, but its problems were not bigger and possibly even smaller or not as acute as the problems the other countries faced, and Russia could have dealt with its problems gradually and in a civilised manner. But revolutionary shocks led to the collapse and disintegration of a great power. The second time this happened 30 years ago, when a potentially very powerful nation failed to enter the path of urgently needed, flexible but thoroughly substantiated reforms at the right time, and as a result it fell victim to all kinds of dogmatists, both reactionary ones and the so-called progressives – all of them did their bit, all sides did.
These examples from our history allow us to say that revolutions are not a way to settle a crisis but a way to aggravate it. No revolution was worth the damage it did to the human potential.
Third. The importance of a solid support in the sphere of morals, ethics and values is increasing dramatically in the modern fragile world. In point of fact, values are a product, a unique product of cultural and historical development of any nation. The mutual interlacing of nations definitely enriches them, openness expands their horizons and allows them to take a fresh look at their own traditions. But the process must be organic, and it can never be rapid. Any alien elements will be rejected anyway, possibly bluntly. Any attempts to force one’s values on others with an uncertain and unpredictable outcome can only further complicate a dramatic situation and usually produce the opposite reaction and an opposite from the intended result.
We look in amazement at the processes underway in the countries which have been traditionally looked at as the standard-bearers of progress. Of course, the social and cultural shocks that are taking place in the United States and Western Europe are none of our business; we are keeping out of this. Some people in the West believe that an aggressive elimination of entire pages from their own history, “reverse discrimination” against the majority in the interests of a minority, and the demand to give up the traditional notions of mother, father, family and even gender, they believe that all of these are the mileposts on the path towards social renewal.
Listen, I would like to point out once again that they have a right to do this, we are keeping out of this. But we would like to ask them to keep out of our business as well. We have a different viewpoint, at least the overwhelming majority of Russian society – it would be more correct to put it this way – has a different opinion on this matter. We believe that we must rely on our own spiritual values, our historical tradition and the culture of our multiethnic nation.
The advocates of so-called ‘social progress’ believe they are introducing humanity to some kind of a new and better consciousness. Godspeed, hoist the flags as we say, go right ahead. The only thing that I want to say now is that their prescriptions are not new at all. It may come as a surprise to some people, but Russia has been there already. After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks, relying on the dogmas of Marx and Engels, also said that they would change existing ways and customs and not just political and economic ones, but the very notion of human morality and the foundations of a healthy society. The destruction of age-old values, religion and relations between people, up to and including the total rejection of family (we had that, too), encouragement to inform on loved ones – all this was proclaimed progress and, by the way, was widely supported around the world back then and was quite fashionable, same as today. By the way, the Bolsheviks were absolutely intolerant of opinions other than theirs.
This, I believe, should call to mind some of what we are witnessing now. Looking at what is happening in a number of Western countries, we are amazed to see the domestic practices, which we, fortunately, have left, I hope, in the distant past. The fight for equality and against discrimination has turned into aggressive dogmatism bordering on absurdity, when the works of the great authors of the past – such as Shakespeare – are no longer taught at schools or universities, because their ideas are believed to be backward. The classics are declared backward and ignorant of the importance of gender or race. In Hollywood memos are distributed about proper storytelling and how many characters of what colour or gender should be in a movie. This is even worse than the agitprop department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Countering acts of racism is a necessary and noble cause, but the new ‘cancel culture’ has turned it into ‘reverse discrimination’ that is, reverse racism. The obsessive emphasis on race is further dividing people, when the real fighters for civil rights dreamed precisely about erasing differences and refusing to divide people by skin colour. I specifically asked my colleagues to find the following quote from Martin Luther King: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by their character.” This is the true value. However, things are turning out differently there. By the way, the absolute majority of Russian people do not think that the colour of a person's skin or their gender is an important matter. Each of us is a human being. This is what matters.
In a number of Western countries, the debate over men’s and women’s rights has turned into a perfect phantasmagoria. Look, beware of going where the Bolsheviks once planned to go – not only communalising chickens, but also communalising women. One more step and you will be there.
Zealots of these new approaches even go so far as to want to abolish these concepts altogether. Anyone who dares mention that men and women actually exist, which is a biological fact, risk being ostracised. “Parent number one” and “parent number two,” “'birthing parent” instead of “mother,” and “human milk” replacing “breastmilk” because it might upset the people who are unsure about their own gender. I repeat, this is nothing new; in the 1920s, the so-called Soviet Kulturtraegers also invented some newspeak believing they were creating a new consciousness and changing values that way. And, as I have already said, they made such a mess it still makes one shudder at times.
Not to mention some truly monstrous things when children are taught from an early age that a boy can easily become a girl and vice versa. That is, the teachers actually impose on them a choice we all supposedly have. They do so while shutting the parents out of the process and forcing the child to make decisions that can upend their entire life. They do not even bother to consult with child psychologists – is a child at this age even capable of making a decision of this kind? Calling a spade a spade, this verges on a crime against humanity, and it is being done in the name and under the banner of progress.
Well, if someone likes this, let them do it. I have already mentioned that, in shaping our approaches, we will be guided by a healthy conservatism. That was a few years ago, when passions on the international arena were not yet running as high as they are now, although, of course, we can say that clouds were gathering even then. Now, when the world is going through a structural disruption, the importance of reasonable conservatism as the foundation for a political course has skyrocketed – precisely because of the multiplying risks and dangers, and the fragility of the reality around us.
This conservative approach is not about an ignorant traditionalism, a fear of change or a restraining game, much less about withdrawing into our own shell. It is primarily about reliance on a time-tested tradition, the preservation and growth of the population, a realistic assessment of oneself and others, a precise alignment of priorities, a correlation of necessity and possibility, a prudent formulation of goals, and a fundamental rejection of extremism as a method. And frankly, in the impending period of global reconstruction, which may take quite long, with its final design being uncertain, moderate conservatism is the most reasonable line of conduct, as far as I see it. It will inevitably change at some point, but so far, do no harm – the guiding principle in medicine – seems to be the most rational one. Noli nocere, as they say.
Again, for us in Russia, these are not some speculative postulates, but lessons from our difficult and sometimes tragic history. The cost of ill-conceived social experiments is sometimes beyond estimation. Such actions can destroy not only the material, but also the spiritual foundations of human existence, leaving behind moral wreckage where nothing can be built to replace it for a long time.
Finally, there is one more point I want to make. We understand all too well that resolving many urgent problems the world has been facing would be impossible without close international cooperation. However, we need to be realistic: most of the pretty slogans about coming up with global solutions to global problems that we have been hearing since the late 20th century will never become reality. In order to achieve a global solution, states and people have to transfer their sovereign rights to supra-national structures to an extent that few, if any, would accept. This is primarily attributable to the fact that you have to answer for the outcomes of such policies not to some global public, but to your citizens and voters.
However, this does not mean that exercising some restraint for the sake of bringing about solutions to global challenges is impossible. After all, a global challenge is a challenge for all of us together, and to each of us in particular. If everyone saw a way to benefit from cooperation in overcoming these challenges, this would definitely leave us better equipped to work together.
One of the ways to promote these efforts could be, for example, to draw up, at the UN level, a list of challenges and threats that specific countries face, with details of how they could affect other countries. This effort could involve experts from various countries and academic fields, including you, my colleagues. We believe that developing a roadmap of this kind could inspire many countries to see global issues in a new light and understand how cooperation could be beneficial for them.
I have already mentioned the challenges international institutions are facing. Unfortunately, this is an obvious fact: it is now a question of reforming or closing some of them. However, the United Nations as the central international institution retains its enduring value, at least for now. I believe that in our turbulent world it is the UN that brings a touch of reasonable conservatism into international relations, something that is so important for normalising the situation.
Many criticise the UN for failing to adapt to a rapidly changing world. In part, this is true, but it is not the UN, but primarily its members who are to blame for this. In addition, this international body promotes not only international norms, but also the rule-making spirit, which is based on the principles of equality and maximum consideration for everyone’s opinions. Our mission is to preserve this heritage while reforming the organisation. However, in doing so we need to make sure that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the saying goes.
This is not the first time I am using a high rostrum to make this call for collective action in order to face up to the problems that continue to pile up and become more acute. It is thanks to you, friends and colleagues, that the Valdai Club is emerging or has already established itself as a high-profile forum. It is for this reason that I am turning to this platform to reaffirm our readiness to work together on addressing the most urgent problems that the world is facing today.
The changes mentioned here prior to me, as well as by yours truly, are relevant to all countries and peoples. Russia, of course, is not an exception. Just like everyone else, we are searching for answers to the most urgent challenges of our time.
Of course, no one has any ready-made recipes. However, I would venture to say that our country has an advantage. Let me explain what this advantage is. It is to do with our historical experience. You may have noticed that I have referred to it several times in the course of my remarks. Unfortunately, we had to bring back many sad memories, but at least our society has developed what they now refer to as herd immunity to extremism that paves the way to upheavals and socioeconomic cataclysms. People really value stability and being able to live normal lives and to prosper while confident that the irresponsible aspirations of yet another group of revolutionaries will not upend their plans and aspirations. Many have vivid memories of what happened 30 years ago and all the pain it took to climb out of the ditch where our country and our society found themselves after the USSR fell apart.
The conservative views we hold are an optimistic conservatism, which is what matters the most. We believe stable, positive development to be possible. It all depends primarily on our own efforts. Of course, we are ready to work with our partners on common noble causes.
I would like to thank all participants once more, for your attention. As the tradition goes, I will gladly answer or at least try to answer your questions.
Thank you for your patience.
Moderator of the 18th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club closing session Fyodor Lukyanov: Thank you very much, Mr President, for your detailed remarks covering not only and not so much the current political problems, but fundamental issues. Following up on what you said, I cannot fail to ask you about the historical experience, traditions, conservatism and healthy conservatism that you have mentioned on several occasions in your remarks.
Does unhealthy conservatism frighten you? Where does the boundary separating the healthy from the unhealthy lie? At what point does a tradition turn from something that binds society together into a burden?
Vladimir Putin: Anything can become a burden, if you are not careful. When I speak about healthy conservatism, Nikolai Berdyayev always springs to mind, and I have already mentioned him several times. He was a remarkable Russian philosopher, and as you all know he was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1922. He was as forward-thinking as a man can be, but also sided with conservatism. He used to say, and you will excuse me if I do not quote his exact words: “Conservatism is not something preventing upward, forward movement, but something preventing you from sliding back into chaos.” If we treat conservatism this way, it provides an effective foundation for further progress.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Speaking of traditions, you also tend to mention traditional values quite frequently, and this is a hot topic in our society. In particular, you have proposed relying on traditional values as a foundation for bringing the world together. However, traditions are destined to be unique for every nation. How can everyone come together around the same traditional values, if they have their own traditions?
Vladimir Putin: Do you know what the trick is? The trick is that of course there is a lot of diversity and every nation around the world is different. Still, something unites all people. After all, we are all people, and we all want to live. Life is of absolute value.
In my opinion, the same applies to family as a value, because what can be more important than procreation? Do we want to be or not to be? If we do not want to be, fine. You see, adoption is also a good and important thing, but to adopt a child someone has to give birth to that child. This is the second universal value that cannot be contested.
I do not think that I need to list them all. You are all smart people here, and everyone understands this, including you. Yes, we do need to work together based on these shared, universal values.
Fyodor Lukyanov: You made a powerful statement when you said that the current model of capitalism has run its course and no longer offers a solution to international issues. One hears this a lot these days, but you are referring to our country’s unfortunate experience in the 20th century when we were actually rejecting capitalism, but this did not work out for us either. Does this mean that this is where we want to return? Where are we headed with this dysfunctional capitalist model?
Vladimir Putin: I also said that there were no ready-made recipes. It is true that what we are currently witnessing, for example on the energy markets, as we will probably discuss later, demonstrates that this kind of capitalism does not work. All they do is talk about the “invisible hand” of the market, only to get $1,500 or $2,000 per 1,000 cubic metres. Is this market-based approach to regulation any good?
When everything goes well and there is stability, economic actors around the world demand more freedom for themselves and a smaller role for the state in the economy. However, when challenges arise, especially at a global scale, they want the government to interfere.
I remember 2008 and 2009 and the global financial crisis very well. I was Prime Minister at the time, and spoke to many Russian business leaders, who were viewed as successful up to that point, and everything is fine with them now, by the way. They came to me and were ready to give up their companies that were worth tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, for a ruble. Why? They had to assume responsibility for their workforce and for the future of these companies. It was easier for them just to keep what they earned and shift their responsibility to others.
At the time, we agreed that the state would lend them its shoulder: they kept their businesses, while the state paid off their margin loans and assumed responsibility, to a certain extent. Together with the businesses, we found a solution. As a result, we saved Russia’s largest private companies, and enabled the state to make a profit afterwards. We actually made money because when the companies were back on their feet, they paid back what they owed the state. The state made quite a profit.
In this regard, we do need to work together and explore each other’s experience. Other countries also had positive experiences in making the state and the market work in tune with each other. The People’s Republic of China is a case in point. While the Communist Party retains its leading role there, the country has a viable market and its institutions are quite effective. This is an obvious fact.
For this reason, there are no ready-made recipes. Wild capitalism does not work either, as I have already said, and I am ready to repeat this, as I have just demonstrated using these examples.
In a way, this is like art. You need to understand when to place a bigger emphasis on something: when to add more salt, and when to use more sugar. You see? While being guided by the general principles as articulated by international financial institutions such as the IMF, the OECD, etc., we need to understand where we are. To act, we need to understand how our capabilities compare with the plans we have. By the way, here in Russia we have been quite effective over the past years, including in overcoming the consequences of the epidemic. Other countries also performed quite well, as we can see.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Do you mean that we are moving not only towards an optimistic conservatism but also towards an optimistic capitalism?
Vladimir Putin: You see, we need to build a social welfare state. Truth be said, Europe, especially the Nordic countries, have been advocating a social welfare state for a long time. This is essential for us, considering the income gap between various social groups, even if this problem exists in all the leading economies of the world. Just look at the United States and Europe, although the income gap is smaller in Europe compared to the United States.
As I have said on multiple occasions, only a small group of people who were already rich to begin with benefited from the preferences that became available over the past years. Their wealth increased exponentially compared to the middle class and the poor. This problem clearly exists there, even if it is not as pressing in Europe, but it still exists.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Thank you.
I will ask the last question so that we do not keep the audience waiting. You mentioned the UN’s invaluable role. We can understand this, since the UN is a fundamental institution, and so on. However, many now criticise the UN, and you have mentioned this in your remarks.
Just a few days ago, President of Turkey Erdogan, whom you know well, said that the Security Council must be reformed because a group of WWII victor countries monopolised power, which is not the way it should be. Do you agree with this statement?
Vladimir Putin: I do not. He has recently visited Russia, as you know, and I had a meeting with him. I raised this question myself, saying that I saw his main points. I have to admit that I did not read the entire book, but I did look at some of the ideas. I agree with some of them. This is a good analysis. We can understand why a Turkish leader raises this issue. He probably believes that Turkey could become a permanent Security Council member. It is not up to Russia to decide, though. Matters of this kind must be decided by consensus. There are also India and South Africa. You see, this is a question of fairness, of striking a balance.
Different solutions are possible here. I would rather not talk about this now, getting ahead of things and preempting Russia's position on this discussion. But what is important (I just said so in my opening remarks, and I also said this to President Erdogan), if we dismantle the permanent members’ veto, the United Nations will die on the same day, will degrade into the League of Nations, and that will be it. It will be just a platform for discussion, Valdai Club number two. But there is only one Valdai Club, and it is here. (Laughter.)
Fyodor Lukyanov: We are ready to step in.
Vladimir Putin: Valdai Club number two will be in New York.
Fyodor Lukyanov: We will go and replace it with pleasure.
Vladimir Putin: But this is the point – we would rather not change anything. That is, some change might be necessary, but we would rather not destroy the basis – this is the whole point of the UN today, that there are five permanent members, and they have the power of veto. Other states are represented on the Security Council, but they are non-permanent members.
We need to think how we could make this organisation more balanced, because indeed – this is true, and in this sense, President Erdogan is right – it emerged after World War II, when there was a certain balance of power. Now it is changing; it has already changed.
We are well aware that China has overtaken the United States in purchasing power parity. What do you think that is? These are global changes.
And India? Another nation of almost 1.5 billion people, a rapidly developing economy, and so on. And why is Africa not represented? Where is Latin America? We definitely need to consider this – a growing giant there such as Brazil. These are all topics for discussion. Only, we must not rush. We must not make any mistakes on the path of reform.
Fyodor Lukyanov: The leaders of the Valdai Club will consider holding a meeting in New York. Only, they might not issue visas to all of us, I am afraid, but no problem, we will work on that.
Vladimir Putin: By the way, why not? The Valdai Club might as well meet in New York.
Fyodor Lukyanov: After you and Biden agree on the visas. (Laughter.)
Vladimir Putin: I do not think the heads of state will need to step in. Just ask Sergei Lavrov, he will speak with his colleagues there.
Why not? I am serious. Why not hold a Valdai Club session on a neutral site, outside the Russian Federation? Why not? I think it might be interesting.
We have important people here in this room, good analysts who are well known in their countries. More people can be invited in the host country to join these discussions. What is wrong with that? This is good.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Well, we have just set a goal.
Vladimir Putin: It is not a goal; it is a possibility.
Fyodor Lukyanov: A possibility. Like a crisis. It is also a possibility.
Vladimir Putin: Yes.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Please, Piotr Dutkiewicz.
Piotr Dutkiewicz: Mr President, I would like to return to the words you have just said, that Russia should rely on Russian values. By the way, we were talking about this at a Valdai Club meeting the day before yesterday.
I would like to ask you which Russian thinkers, scholars, anthropologists and writers do you regard as your closest soul-mates, helping you to define for yourself the values that will later become those of all Russians?
Vladimir Putin: You know, I would prefer not to say that this is Ivan Ilyin alone. I read Ilyin, I read him to this day. I have his book lying on my shelf, and I pick it up and read it from time to time. I have mentioned Berdiayev, there are other Russian thinkers. All of them are people who were thinking about Russia and its future. I am fascinated by the train of their thought, but, of course, I make allowances for the time when they were working, writing and formulating their ideas. The well-known idea about the passionarity of nations is a very interesting idea. It could be challenged – arguments around it continue to this day. But if there are debates over the ideas they formulated, these are obviously not idle ideas to say the least.
Let me remind you about nations’ passionarity. According to the author of this idea, peoples, nations, ethnic groups are like a living organism: they are born, reach the peak of their development, and then quietly grow old. Many countries, including those on the American continent, say today’s Western Europe is ageing. This is the term they use. It is hard to say whether this is right or not. But, to my mind, the idea that a nation should have an inner driving mechanism for development, a will for development and self-assertion has a leg to stand on.
We are observing that certain countries are on the rise even though they have a lot of unsolved problems. They resemble erupting volcanoes, like the one on the Spanish island, which is disgorging its lava. But there are also extinguished volcanoes, where fires are long dead and one can only hear birds singing.
Piotr Dutkiewicz: Mr President, you have referred to Lev Gumilyov, who presented me with a samizdat edition of his first book in St Petersburg in 1979. I will pass this samizdat on to you.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Samizdat, a tradition.
Dear friends, please introduce yourselves, when you take the floor.
Alexei Miller: Good afternoon, Mr President.
I am Alexei Miller, a historian from the European University at St Petersburg.
Vladimir Putin: There are two Alexei Millers. Russia is a rich country. (Laughter)
Alexei Miller: Two years ago, you were asked during a meeting at the Valdai Club about the European Parliament’s resolution, which made the Soviet Union (and hence Russia) and Nazi Germany equally responsible for the outbreak of WWII. Since then, you have commented on this issue several times in your statements and in the article published in the summer of 2020.
In particular, during the ceremony to unveil a monument to the victims of the siege of Leningrad at the Yad Vashem memorial complex in January 2020, you said you would like to propose a meeting of the Big Five leaders to discuss this issue as well, so that we could overcome the current confrontation and end the war on memory. I believe the situation has not improved since then. Or maybe you know something the general public is not aware of, maybe there have been some improvements? It would be great if you could tell us about this.
My second question follows on from the first one. When there is such confrontation in the countries that are involved in the war on memory, some forces may be tempted to join ranks and to restrict, to a greater or lesser degree, the freedom of discussion, including among historians. Such discussions always involve a difference of opinions and some risqué or even wrong views. Do you envision the threat of such restrictions in our country?
Vladimir Putin: No, I do not believe there is such a threat in our country. We sometimes see the danger of not being responsible for what some people say, indeed, but then this is the reverse side of the freedom you have mentioned.
As for my initiative to hold a meeting of the heads of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, it has been supported by everyone, in principle, and such a meeting could have been organised. The problems that arose are not connected with Russia but with some disputes within this group of five countries. As I have said, they are not connected with Russia. This is the first point.
And the second is that the pandemic began soon after that, and the situation has become really complicated.
The idea of the meeting received a highly positive response, and I hope it will be held eventually. This definitely will be beneficial. We are discussing this with our American partners, with our Chinese friends, with France – incidentally, the French President supported it immediately, as well as with Britain. They have their own ideas and proposals on additional subjects that can be discussed at such a meeting. I hope the necessary conditions will develop and we will hold this meeting.
As for historical memory, the memory of WWII, you know, of course, that I am ready to talk about this with arguments in hand. We have many complaints about the country’s leadership between 1917 and 1990, which is obvious. However, placing the Nazis and the Communists before WWII on the same level and dividing responsibility between them equally is absolutely unacceptable. It is a lie.
I am saying this not only because I am Russian and, currently, the head of the Russian state, which is the legal successor of the Soviet Union. I am saying this now, in part or at least in part, as a researcher. I have read the documents, which I retrieved from the archives. We are publishing them now in increasingly large amounts.
Trust me, when I read them, the picture in my mind started changing. You can think about Stalin differently, blaming him for the prison camps, persecution campaigns and the like. But I have seen his instructions on documents. The Soviet government was genuinely doing its best to prevent WWII, even if for different reasons. Some people would say that the country was not ready for the war, which is why they tried to prevent it. But they did try to prevent it. They fought for the preservation of Czechoslovakia, providing arguments to protect its sovereignty. I have read, I have really read – this is not a secret, and we are declassifying these archives now – about France’s reaction to those events, including regarding the meeting of the leading politicians with Hitler in Munich in 1938.
When you read this, when you see it, you understand that attempts can indeed be made to distort these facts. But you can at least read these documents. I can understand the current Polish leadership’s attitude to the 1939 events, but when you tell them: Just take a look at what happened slightly before that, when Poland joined Germany in the division of Czechoslovakia. You lit the fuse, you pulled the cork, the genie came out, and you cannot put it back into the bottle.”
I also read the archival documents which we received after the Red Army entered Europe: we have German and also Polish and French documents, we have them. They directly discussed the division of Czechoslovakia and the time for the invasion. And then to blame it on the Soviet Union? This simply does not correspond to reality and facts.
Simply put, who attacked who? Did the Soviet Union attack Germany? No, it did not. Yes, there were secret agreements between Germany and the Soviet Union. Incidentally, I would like to note that the Soviet troops entered Brest when the German troops had been already deployed there; the Germans simply moved back a little and the Red Army moved in. Do you see?
There is no point adding a political dimension here. Let us act calmly at the expert level, read the documents and sort things out. Nobody is accusing the Polish leadership. But we will not allow anyone to accuse Russia or the Soviet Union of what they did not do.
And lastly, I would like to say that there are some perfectly obvious things. Firstly, it was Germany that attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and not vice versa, and secondly, let us not forget who stormed Berlin. Was it the Americans, the British or the French? No, it was the Red Army. Have you forgotten this? It is easy to recall, for it is an obvious fact.
As many as 1.1 million of our people died in the Battle of Stalingrad alone. How many casualties can Britain claim? 400,000. And the United States, less that 500,000. A total of 75 percent, and probably even 80 percent of the German military potential was destroyed by the Soviet army. Are you a little rusty on this?
No, you are not rusty at all. These events are being used to deal with the current internal political matters in an opportunistic manner. This is wrong, because nothing good will come of manipulating history. At the very least, this does not promote mutual understanding, which we need so badly now.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Orietta Moscatelli, go ahead please.
Orietta Moscatelli: Orietta Moscatelli, Italy. Thank you for the meeting.
As you mentioned, different things have been said about Homo sovieticus over the 30 years since the Soviet Union’s disintegration. Was there really a person like that? Here is my question: Do you think it was true? Do you believe Russia has fully overcome Soviet experience as a society? What are the main features of the Soviet times that you have kept in your life?
Vladimir Putin: I, as well as many people of my generation certainly remember this idea and this formula – a new community, Soviet people, the Soviet person. Of course, all of us remember this. In reality, this definition is not at all bad. This is my first point.
The second point. Look, the whole world and the United States describe the US as a “melting pot,” in which people of different nations, ethnicities and religions are melting together. What is bad about this? They are all proud – the Irish, people of European and East European origin, you name it, as well as Latin Americans and Africans by their initial descent – many of them are proud to be US citizens and this is wonderful. This is what “the melting pot” is about.
Russia is also “a melting pot.” Since the formation of a united Russian state – the first steps were made, probably in the 8th-9th centuries, and also after Conversion of Rus’, the Russian nation and a centralised Russian state began to take shape with a common market, common language, the power of a prince and common spiritual values. The Russian state began to be established and later expanded. This was also a “melting pot.”
Nothing particularly new was created in the Soviet Union except one very important circumstance: this new community, the Soviet person, the Soviet people acquired an ideological tinge. Of course, there was nothing good about this because this narrows the horizons of the possible. This is the first point.
The second point. Positive features of the Soviet times reflected on the Soviet people. What were they? Patriotism inherent in our peoples, supremacy of the spiritual dimension over material things, all these values I mentioned, including family ones. But negative things in the life and destiny of the Soviet Union also stuck to the Soviet people. Thus, they were deprived of property as such. Private property was embodied in a household plot, but this is quite a different category. Hence, their attitude to labour, the one-size-fits-all approach and so on.
The Soviet Union had many problems. They triggered the events that led to the collapse of the USSR. However, it is wrong, crude and inappropriate to paint everything black. Yes, I know we have people that paint everything black. Hence, they deserve to be put into something that smells bad.
There are both pluses and minuses, as for “the melting pot,” I think it was good to have it because it enriches the people, enriches the nation.
You know, what is typical of Russia, something you can find in all historical documents: when expanding its territory Russia never made life difficult for the people who became part of the united Russian state. This applied to religion, traditions and history. Look at the decrees of Catherine the Great who issued her instruction in clear terms: treat with respect. This was the attitude towards those who preached Islam, for instance. This has always been the case. This is a tradition. In terms of preserving these traditions, the new community of the Soviet people had nothing bad about it except the ideologisation of this melting pot and the results of its functioning.
I think I have described everything linked with the Soviet period of our history. Now I have mentioned this again and I do not think it is worth discussing this topic again.
As for me, like the overwhelming majority of people of my generation, I faced the problems of that period, but I also remember its positive features that should not be forgotten. Being from a family of workers, yours truly graduated from Leningrad State University. This is something, right? At that time, education played the role of a real social lift. On the whole, the egalitarian approach was very widespread and we encountered its negative impact, such as income levelling and a related attitude to work, but a lot of people still used the preferences of social lifts I mentioned. Maybe, it was simply the legacy of past generations or even cultivated in the Soviet Union to some extent. This is also important.
I have now recalled my family. My mum and dad were simple people. They did not talk in slogans but I remember very well that discussing different problems at home, in the family, they always, I would like to emphasise this, treated their country with respect, speaking about it in their own manner, in simple terms, in the folk style. This was not demonstrative patriotism. It was inside our family.
I think I have the right to say that the overwhelming majority of the Russian people and the other peoples of the USSR cultivated these positive features. It is no accident that over 70 percent of the population voted for preserving the Soviet Union on the eve of its collapse. Many people in the union republics that gained independence regretted what had happened. But now life is different and we believe it is going its own way and generally recognise current realities.
As for the Soviet person, the new formation, as they said then, I believe I have already said enough on this subject.
Fyodor Lukyanov: This year’s Valdai Club meeting is special in part because we have a Nobel Peace Prize laureate here with us for the first time in our history.
I would like to give the floor to Dmitry Muratov.
Dmitry Muratov: Thank you. Good afternoon.
Mr President, Valdai Club guests, Fyodor, I want to let everyone know that the prize money has been distributed.
Thanks go to the Circle of Kindness Foundation. Furthermore, we hope that our modest contribution will help everyone realise that the Circle of Kindness Foundation helps young people under 18, but then after they are 18, they are left without guidance. It is like saying, “Thank you, we saved you, and now goodbye.” We look forward to the Circle of Kindness Foundation (they appear ready to do this) expanding its mandate. There is the children's hospice Lighthouse, the First Moscow Charity Hospice Foundation Vera, the Podari Zhizn Foundation, the Anna Politkovskaya Award, and the Foundation for Medical Aid for Media Members. That is all.
Of course, I also think that, to some extent, probably, this is a prize for our country as well, although I consider myself an impostor. I will do my best to make sure it benefits our people.
Now, if I may, a brief remark and a question.
Mr President, I have very carefully studied the answer you gave during Moscow Energy Week regarding foreign agents, where you said that we were not the first to adopt this law, that the United States did so back in the 1930s.
But, Mr President, since we do not adopt every law that is adopted in the United States, my question about foreign agents remains. After all, I believe this concerns not only dozens and dozens of journalists and human rights activists who are listed in the register, but also hundreds of thousands and even millions of readers. Therefore, I believe it is a serious matter.
Most importantly, you have just mentioned Leningrad University and I think your subject of study will help us understand each other well. This law does not provide for any court recourse. You are designated a foreign agent and there is no argument of the parties, no provision of evidence, no verdict. It is a stain. Let me remind you of our favourite childhood book. This is the same kind of brand Milady in The Three Musketeers had. But before Milady was beheaded, the executioner of Lille read the verdict to her at dawn whereas in our case there is no verdict whatsoever.
Furthermore, it is impossible to get away from this law. There is not even a warning that you become a foreign agent starting, say, tomorrow. For many, this status undoubtedly means they are an enemy of the Motherland. I remember from my days of army service that under the guard service regulations, the sentry first fires a warning shot in the air. Excuse me, but only security guards at prison camps shoot to kill without a warning shot.
I believe we need to sort this out, since the criteria are woefully vague. Take, for example, receiving organisational and methodological assistance. What does this mean? If I am asking a member of the Valdai Club for a comment, and they come from another country, does that make me a foreign agent? They make their announcements on Fridays. I want to remind you that tomorrow is Friday.
I would like to ask you to respond to the way this issue is presented. Perhaps, you, Mr President and, for example, the State Duma Chairman, could hold an extraordinary meeting with the editors from various media in order discuss the issues at hand.
Thank you very much.
Vladimir Putin: First, I would like to congratulate you on the Nobel Prize. I would like to draw your attention to one fact: Nikolai Berdyayev, whom I have mentioned, was expelled by the Bolsheviks on the well-known Philosophy Steamer in 1922. Nominated for a Nobel Prize more than once, he never received this award.
Dmitry Muratov: That was about literature.
Vladimir Putin: No difference, but yes, I agree. The first Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Barrack Obama also received Nobel peace prizes. So, you are in good company. Congratulations! But we really know. You have just spoken about a hospice. I would give you a prize for that because you are doing this good work. It is truly noble work, the Circle of Kindness, and the like.
Your concern about foreign agents; I will not deviate to the right or left. Look, you said that here when these decisions are made… firstly, American laws. Do we have to copy everything from the Americans? No, we do not need to copy everything. Yet many liberals in Russia still think we should copy almost everything. But I agree with you: not everything.
You said this is not decided in court. This is not done in the United States either. They summon people to the Department of Justice. Ask Russia Today about what they are doing. Do you know how tough they are? Up to and including criminal liability. We do not have this. This is not about the position of some public figure, some public organisation, or a media outlet. Their position does not matter. This law does not ban anyone from having one’s own opinion on an issue. It is about receiving financial aid from abroad during domestic political activities. That is the point. The law does not even keep them from continuing these political activities. The money that comes from abroad, from over there, should simply be identified as such. Russian society should know what position someone comes from or what they think about internal political processes or something else, but it should also realise that they receive money from abroad. This is the right of Russian society. In fact, this is the whole point of this law. There are no restrictions in it at all.
So, when you said there is no verdict, that is right. There is no verdict. There was a verdict for Milady – her head was cut off. Here nobody is cutting off anything. So, just continue working like you did before.
But you are right about one thing. I will not even argue with you, because this is true. Of course, we probably need to go over these vague criteria again and again. I can promise you that we will take another look at them. I know it happens occasionally. Even my personal acquaintances who engage in charitable activities were telling me that cases were being made against them portraying them as foreign agents. I am aware of the fact that our colleagues discuss this at the Human Rights Council. I keep issuing instructions on that score to the Presidential Administration and the State Duma deputies so that they go over it again and again, improve this tool, and in no way abuse it.
So, thank you for bringing this up. We will look into it.
Thank you very much.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Just a quick follow-up on that. Mr President, are you not afraid of excessive acts?
Vladimir Putin: I am not afraid of anything, why is everyone trying to scare me?
Fyodor Lukyanov: Okay, then we are afraid, and you tell us about excessive acts, since you know your former security service colleagues well.
Vladimir Putin: Not everyone, this is a mass organisation, how can I know everyone?
Fyodor Lukyanov: Well, not everyone, but many.
Vladimir Putin: When I was [FSB]director, I sometimes even summoned operatives with specific cases and read them myself. And now I do not know everyone there. I left it a long time ago.
Fyodor Lukyanov: I am talking about specific cases. Their psychological makeup is that overdoing things is a safer approach than missing things. Will there be no blanket approach to identifying foreign agents?
Vladimir Putin: What?
Fyodor Lukyanov: Will they not use a blanket approach to identifying foreign agents?
Vladimir Putin: Is there anything there that looks like a blanket approach? How many do we have? Every second, or what? I believe there is no such thing as widespread branding of people as foreign agents.
I think the danger is vastly exaggerated. I believe I have formulated the underlying reasons for adopting this law quite clearly.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Good. In addition to a Nobel prize winner, we also have a foreign agent in the audience.
Margarita Simonyan, please share your experience.
Margarita Simonyan: Yes, thank you, good afternoon,
We have been foreign agents for many years now. Moreover, I was summoned for interrogation in the United States several years ago, because we did not register as foreign agents earlier, despite the fact that our lawyers, including former rather high-ranking officials from the US Department of Justice (Dima, this information is mostly for you, congratulations on winning the prize), told us – and we have these legal opinions in writing – that this law does not apply to us, because it clearly said in English “except the media.”
But when our audience started growing, and we got in their way, they told us: “We do not care what the Department of Justice is telling you, you either register or go to prison for five years.” And I have a summons for questioning because I myself failed to register earlier, before they registered me. I do not travel there anymore, just in case, because I might be jailed. This is my first point.
Vladimir Putin: There is no fence against ill fortune, Margarita.
(Addressing Dmitry Muratov) You see, in the United States, some people face a five-year sentence.
Margarita Simonyan: Yes, five. And we know people who are doing time under this law, five years.
Secondly, unlike in Russia, this law definitely has consequences and implies sanctions. For example, one’s accreditation to Congress gets instantly revoked, and if you are not accredited with Congress in the United States, you can no longer go anywhere – not a single event, nowhere (I can see people that know this nodding their heads). You actually work on semi-underground terms there. This is how we have been working for how long now? Six years. But we will continue to do this work.
Mr President, as a mother of three young children, I would like to thank you very much for your healthy conservatism. I am terrified by the thought of my 7-year-old son being asked to choose a gender, or my 2-year-old daughter being told from all mobile devices, and even at school, as is now happening in many Western countries, that her future is that of a “person with human milk who gave birth to a baby.” And the thought that these tentacles of liberal fascism, so-called liberal, will reach us and our children. I really hope that this will never be allowed in our country, despite its great openness.
You mentioned bloviating, which the so-called humanistic foundation of the European political thought turned out to be, but this so-called freedom of speech turned out to be bloviating too. Freedom of speech turned out to be a postcard made for the people we were in the 1990s, so that we could look at it and think: “Wow, it does exist. Great, we will do that too, we will not have foreign agents, and everything will be fine with us.” This freedom of speech has just strangled our YouTube channel, which was very popular, and everything was cool there, really. And you know very well that this is not a privately-run outfit, but a public project which we created not for ourselves, but for the Motherland, and we have run out of options to get this project back. And we no longer believe in anything other than reciprocal measures.
According to their own analyses, Deutsche Welle was behind us in Germany in certain rankings. It broadcasts in Russia without any problems, but we cannot broadcast there. We have already built studios, hired people, produced shows and earned an audience, but now, with the strike of a pen and without any reason, and, Mr Muratov, without a court ruling, everything fell apart in a single moment.
This is no a question actually, I am asking, pleading for protection, Mr President. I do not see any other way to protect us other than through retaliatory measures.
My question is the following. Moscow has recently hosted a Congress of Compatriots, and you sent greetings to the participants. I took the floor at this forum and asked those of my colleagues in the audience, people who are proactive in defending the Russian world and the Russian language around the world, sometimes putting their lives and freedom at risk, who wanted but could not obtain Russian citizenship, to raise their hands. Half the audience had their hands up.
We have discussed this many times. You may remember that several years ago we spoke about granting citizenship to Donbass residents. The procedure was streamlined for them. Can this be done for all Russians? Why is Russia shying away from doing this? The Jews did not hesitate about it, and neither did the Germans nor the Greeks, but we are hesitating. This is my question. Thank you very much.
Vladimir Putin: First, regarding the retaliatory measures, I think we need to be cautious when someone makes mistakes like this, and I do believe that you have suffered from them, when a channel is closed or you are unable to work. I know about the fact that your accounts were blocked and that you could not open, etc. There is a plethora of instruments to this effect.
Margarita Simonyan: More like carpet-bombing.
Vladimir Putin: Yes, to make it impossible for you to work there. I know.
On the one hand, of course, they are infringing on freedom of speech and so forth, which is a bad thing. But since they are doing this, you and I have to think about how to spread the word about the fact that they are cancelling you, and then more people will become interested in what you do.
Margarita Simonyan: The only problem is that there is no place for people to watch us. People are interested, but there is nowhere to watch us.
Vladimir Putin: I do understand, but we need to give this some thought, and explore technical and technological opportunities.
As for retaliatory measures, let me reiterate that what matters the most is that they do not turn out to be counterproductive. I do not oppose them, but I do not want them to be counterproductive.
As for your question on Russian citizenship, you are right. My position is that we need to improve this tool. There are questions here related to socioeconomic matters: clinics, kindergartens, jobs, housing, etc. Still, the citizenship laws must become increasingly liberal. This is obvious. By the way, this is what the labour market compels us to do. We are thinking about this.
Margarita Simonyan: Thank you, Mr President.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Colleagues, in addition to those in this room, there are other participants who are watching us online, as they could not join us here due to the well-known circumstances.
I would like to ask – Robert Legvold, our longtime friend, member of the Valdai Research Council, professor at Columbia University.
Robert Legvold: Thank you very much, Fyodor. For me, it is a disappointment that I have not been able to be with all of the participants in the Valdai conference, but I am particularly pleased to have this opportunity to be part of this session. The topic of Valdai this year has been very transcendent and fundamental questions, and I admire Valdai for doing that.
President Putin has certainly risen to the challenge of that agenda and has addressed it in an extremely engaging and revealing fashion.
My question, however, is narrower but more specific, and I apologise for descending to this level, but it is a question that is important in my country. I think it is important in your country. Although neither your government nor the Biden administration believes that a reset of the US-Russian relationship is possible at this juncture, how do you evaluate or assess the evolution of US-Russia relations since your meeting with President Biden in June? In what areas has there been progress, if any? And what, in your view, are the obstacles to further progress? Thank you very much.
Vladimir Putin: On the whole, I have spoken about this; I have answered questions like this. I can only repeat myself now. On second thought, not just repeat – there is actually something to be said about what is happening.
The meeting in Geneva was generally productive, and it seemed to us – when I say ‘us,’ I mean my colleagues and myself – that overall, the administration was interested in building ties, reviving them at least in some important areas.
What did we agree on? We agreed to begin consultations on strategic stability, and the consultations began and are held regularly, on cybersecurity issues as well. At the expert level, cooperation has started. So we can safely say that although the scope of matters we agreed on was limited, we are on the right track nonetheless.
These are the most important matters for today. And in general, the administration (on the American side) and Russia (on the other side) are fulfilling the plans and are moving along this path. And when this happens, as we know, it is always a sign, one of a systemic nature. And now, look, our trade has already grown by 23 percent and in many areas. This, among other things, is an indirect effect of our meeting in Geneva.
So, overall, we are on the right track, although, unfortunately – I would not like to talk about sad things now, but we also see certain backslides, remember that phrase we used years ago – one step forward, two steps back – this is also happening sometimes. Still, we are progressing in line with our general agreements.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Thank you. Since we are in a new world now, for balance, I will give the floor to our kind friend Zhou Bo from Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Go ahead, please.
Zhou Bo: Mr President, it is really my great honour to ask you this question. First of all, let me thank you for this opportunity. I will ask you something about Afghanistan. Afghanistan lies in the heart of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. So, if Afghanistan has a problem, then the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has a problem. Now the United States has withdrawn from Afghanistan. So how can the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is led by China and Russia, united with other countries, help Afghanistan to achieve political stability and economic development? Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: The situation in Afghanistan is one of the most urgent issues today. You know, we have just had a meeting in the appropriate format, in part, with representatives of the Taliban. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is also active in Afghanistan. This is a very serious issue for all of us because for both China and Russia it is extremely important to have a calm, developing Afghanistan that is not a source of terrorism, or any form of radicalism, next to our national borders, if not on our borders.
We are now seeing what is happening inside Afghanistan. Unfortunately, different groups, including ISIS are still there. There are already victims among the Taliban movement, which, as a whole, is still trying to get rid of these radical elements and we know of such examples. This is very important for us, for both Russia and China.
In order to normalise the situation properly and at the right pace, it is necessary, of course, to help Afghanistan restore its economy because drugs are another huge problem. It is a known fact that 90 percent of opiates come to the world market from Afghanistan. And if there is no money, what will they do? From what sources and how will they fund their social programmes?
Therefore, for all the importance of our participation in these processes – both China and Russia and other SCO countries – the main responsibility for what is happening there is still borne by the countries that fought there for 20 years. I believe the first thing they must do is to release Afghan assets and give Afghanistan an opportunity to resolve high priority socio-economic problems.
For our part, we can implement specific large projects and deal with domestic security issues. Our special services are in contact with their Afghan counterparts. For us, within the SCO, it is very important to get this work up and running because Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are right on the border with Afghanistan. We have a military facility in Tajikistan. It was based on the 201st division when it was still Soviet.
Therefore, we will actively continue this work with China on a bilateral plane, develop dialogue with relevant structures and promote cooperation within the SCO as a whole. In the process, we will allocate the required resources and create all the conditions to let our citizens feel safe regardless of what is happening in Afghanistan.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Thank you.
Mikhail Pogrebinsky, please.
Mikhail Pogrebinsky: Thank you, Fyodor. Thank you, Mr President.
I will try to ask a question, the answer to which is awaited, I am sure, by hundreds of thousands of people in my homeland.
You mentioned a Chinese proverb about living in a time of change. Our country has been living like that for almost 30 years now, and the situation is becoming more difficult in anticipation of winter, amid the pandemic, and, I would say, the situation with the Americans. A couple of days ago, we had Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin visit our country. He brought $60 million worth of weapons and promised us a bright future as a NATO member, figuratively speaking.
I will note right away that any allegations that NATO is irrelevant because Europe does not agree, are prevarication. One does not need to be a NATO member to have US or British military infrastructure deployed in Ukraine. I believe this process is already underway.
In your July article on historical unity, you wrote that transforming Ukraine into an anti-Russia country is unacceptable for millions of people. This is true, and opinion polls confirm it. Over 40 percent have good or very good thoughts about Russia. However, this transformation has, in fact, started. A rather long and very dangerous, in my opinion, distance in this direction may have already been covered. I think that if this idea with a para-NATO infrastructure continues to be implemented, the process to form what is now a not so stable anti-Russia Ukraine will be cemented for many years to come.
You wrote in your article that if the process continues unabated, it will pose a serious threat to the Russian state, and this may be fraught with Ukraine losing its statehood. People who oppose this movement are facing reprisals. You are aware that they are trying to put Viktor Medvedchuk in prison based on some outlandish charges.
How, in your opinion, can this process be stopped? Maybe, you have a timeline for when it might happen? What can be done in this regard at all?
Vladimir Putin: Unfortunately, I will probably have to disappoint you – I do not yet know the answer to this question. On the one hand, it seems to lie on the surface: the easiest thing is to say that the Ukrainian people must make a decision themselves, and form the bodies of power and administration that would meet their needs and expectations. From one perspective, this is indeed true.
But on the other hand, there is another perspective, and I cannot avoid mentioning it. You have just mentioned Viktor Medvedchuk, who has been charged with high treason. For what? Did he steal some secrets and illegally disclose them to a third party? No. What then? Was it his open political position about stabilising Ukraine’s internal affairs and building relations with its neighbours because those relations are extremely important for Ukraine itself? It is concerning that such people are not allowed to raise their heads. Some of them end up killed, and others locked up.
One gets the impression that the Ukrainian people are not allowed and will not be allowed to legally form the bodies of power that would uphold their interests. The people there are even afraid to respond to polls. They are scared, because the small group that has appropriated the victory in the fight for independence holds radical political views. And that group actually runs the country, regardless of the name of the current head of state.
At least this is how it was until recently: people ran for leadership positions relying on voters in the Southeast, but once elected, they almost immediately changed their political positions to the opposite. Why? Because that silent majority voted for them in the hope that they would fulfil their campaign promises, but the loud and aggressive nationalist minority suppressed all freedom in decision-making that the Ukrainian people expected, and they, in fact, are running the country.
This is a dead end. I do not even know how this can be changed. We will wait and see what happens in Ukraine’s political affairs in the near future.
For our part, we are making every effort to improve these relations. But the threat you just spoke about — not even spoke about, only mentioned — is quite important to us. And you are right that formal NATO membership may never happen, but military expansion on the territory is already underway, and this really poses a threat to the Russian Federation, we are aware of this.
Consider what happened in the late 1980s – early 1990s (I will not tell the whole story now, although you just made me think about talking more about it), when everyone assured us that an eastward expansion of NATO infrastructure after the unification of Germany was totally out of the question. Russia could be absolutely sure of this, at the very least, so they said. But those were public statements. What happened in reality? They lied. And now they challenge us to produce a document that actually said that.
They expanded NATO once, and then expanded it twice. What are the military-strategic consequences? Their infrastructure is getting closer. What kind of infrastructure? They deployed ABM (anti-missile) systems in Poland and Romania, using Aegis launchers, where Tomahawks can be loaded, strike systems. This can be done easily, with the click of a button. Just change the software – and that is it, no one will even notice. Medium and short-range missiles can also be deployed there. Why not? Has anyone even reacted to our statement that we will not deploy this kind of missile in the European part if we produce them, if they tell us that no one will do so from the United States or Europe? No. They never responded. But we are adults, we are all adults here. What should we do in this situation?
The Minister of Defence arrives, who, in fact, opens the doors for Ukraine to NATO. In fact, his statement must and can be interpreted in this way. He says every country has the right to choose. And nobody says no, nobody. Even those Europeans you mentioned. I know, I spoke to them personally.
But one official is not a security guarantee for Russia – he may be here one day and he might be replaced the next. What will happen then? This is not a security guarantee; it is just a conversation on a given topic. And we are naturally concerned.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Mr President, since you mentioned NATO…
Vladimir Putin: Yes, sorry. About the bases – I know about the corresponding clauses in the Ukrainian constitution. It allows setting up training centers. But these can be anything at all, accounted for as a training center. As I already said, and it was also said publicly: what if tomorrow there are missiles near Kharkov – what should we do then? We do not go there with our missiles – but missiles are being brought to our doorstep. Of course, we have a problem here.
Fyodor Lukyanov: We started talking about NATO. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was interviewed just two days ago, and he announced that NATO is adjusting its strategic vision somewhat, and now views Russia and China as one common threat rather than two threats. This is an interesting approach, apparently a far-reaching one. But if this is how they see us, maybe it is time for us to unite with China and consider someone else as a threat?
Vladimir Putin: We have said many times that we are friends with China, and not against anyone else, but in each other’s interests. This is the first point. The second point is, as distinct from NATO, from the NATO countries, we are not creating a closed military bloc. There is no Russia-China military bloc and we will not create one now. So, there is no reason to talk about this.
Fyodor Lukyanov: I see.
Mark Champion: Thank you. Mr President, on the subject of the potential for sending extra gas to Europe, which, as you know, is in a gas crisis at the moment, you have talked about this before, but, you know, at times it has been quite confusing. Sometimes Russian officials indicate that there is additional gas available that can be sent if Nord Stream 2 is opened, and at other times, they have suggested that there is no gas available to send to Europe. And I just wondered if you would take this opportunity to clarify whether there is additional gas available that Russia can send to Europe, if say, Nord Stream opened tonight, or if there is not.
Vladimir Putin: Frankly, it is strange for me to hear questions like this. It seems to me I explained everything during the Russian Energy Week in Moscow. However, if these questions are being asked, we should certainly talk more about it.
Look what is happening. I believe I said at the meeting with the Government yesterday or the day before yesterday: this is not just about energy sources or gas, but also about the state of the global economy. Shortages are increasing in the leading, economically advanced countries. Take the United States, for one. It has recently made yet another decision to increase its national debt.
For those who do not deal with the economy, I can tell you what a decision to increase the national debt means. The FRS will print money and put it at the government’s disposal. This is emission. The deficit is increasing, and inflation is increasing as an emission derivative. This leads to price increases on energy sources, on electricity. This is how it works, not the other way around.
However, the situation is also deteriorating due to realities in the energy market. What are these realities? You just spoke about Europe. What is going on in Europe? Maybe I will repeat some of my ideas or maybe I will say something new, if I recall it. In the past few years, the European Commission’s philosophy was entirely devoted to regulating the market of energy sources, including gas, via a commodities exchange, through the so-called spot market. They tried to persuade us to give up long-term contracts where prices were tied to the exchange, that is, market quotes on crude oil and petroleum products.
Incidentally, this is market price formation. Since gas prices are established with a lag of six months after a change in oil prices, this is, firstly, a more stable situation and, secondly, a six-month lag allows consumers and suppliers to make adjustments along the way based on developments on world markets.
So, everything began to be brought to this spot market, but it largely holds gas on paper, not real gas. These are not physical amounts, which are not increasing (I will explain why in a minute). A figure is written on paper, but there is no physical amount, it is declining. So, a cold winter requires gas from underground storage; a wind-free hot summer means a lack of wind generation on the necessary scale. I have already mentioned the macroeconomic reasons, and these are the sector-based reasons.
What happened next on the European market? First, a decline in production in the gas producing countries. Production in Europe fell by 22.5 billion cubic metres during the first six months. This is first. Second, gas storage facilities were underfilled by 18.5 billion cubic metres and are only 71 percent full. The gas storage facilities were underfilled by 18.5 during the first six months of the year. If you look at annual consumption, this number must be doubled.
Primarily American, along with Middle Eastern companies withdrew 9 billion cubic metres from the European market and redirected the gas to Latin America and Asia. By the way, when the Europeans were formulating the principles governing the formation of the gas market in Europe, and said that all gas must be traded on the spot market, they were proceeding from the assumption that the European market is a premium market. But the European market is no longer a premium market, you see? It is no longer a premium market. Gas was redirected to Latin America and Asia.
I have already said that 18.5 billion cubic metres, plus double that amount, 9 billion (undersupplied to the European market from the United States and the Middle East), plus a decline in production of 22.5 billion – the deficit on the European market may amount to about 70 billion cubic metres, which is a lot. What does Russia have to do with it? This is the result of the European Commission’s economic policy. Russia has nothing to do with it.
Russia, including Gazprom, has increased deliveries to the European market by 8.7 percent, I believe, and deliveries to non-CIS countries by 12 percent, I think. But when we speak about non-CIS countries, we mean China as well. This is also good for the international market, because we are increasing deliveries to the global market, and increased deliveries to the European market by 8.7. In absolute terms, this represents over 11 billion cubic metres of gas. American and Middle Eastern companies undersupplied by 9 billion, while Gazprom increased its supplies by more than 11 billion.
Can everyone hear me? Not in this audience, but the so-called stakeholders. Someone out there is cutting supplies to you, while we are increasing them.
But this is not all. Today, under the so-called long-term contracts – I would like you to listen attentively and to hear what I say – the price of gas is now $1,200 or $1,150 for a thousand cubic metres. European companies that have long-term contracts with Gazprom receive it – take note – at four times less than the current price! Gazprom does not make any windfall profits. We are not concerned about this because we are interested in long-term contracts and long-term mutual commitments. In this case, we ensure the opportunity to invest in production and produce the required amounts for our consumers steadily and reliably.
You are asking me if it is possible to increase supplies. Yes, this is possible. Speaking about Nord Stream-2, its first line is filled with gas and if the German regulator issues the permit for shipping tomorrow, it can deliver 17.5 billion cubic metres of gas the day after tomorrow.
Technological work on filling the second line of Nord Stream-2 will be completed before the end of this year, in mid- or late December. The total volume is 55 billion cubic metres of gas. Considering that in our estimate the shortage of gas in the European market will reach 70 billion cubic metres, 55 billion is a decent amount.
Once the second line is filled, and the German regulator issues its permit, we can start supplies on the next day. Is this possible or not, you asked. Yes, it is possible, but one must have a responsible attitude to one’s commitments and work on this.
By the way, we keep saying: Nord Stream-2, Gazprom… But there are five European companies taking part in this project. Why do you mention Gazprom alone? Have you forgotten about them? Five major European companies are working on this project. So, this affects not only the interests of Gazprom but also the interests of our partners, primarily in Europe, of course.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Mr President, to an extent, Nord Stream 2, which is now on everyone’s lips, can be viewed as your joint achievement with Angela Merkel. Do you regret that she is leaving office? Will you miss her?
Vladimir Putin: The decision on her departure was not mine, after all, but hers. She could have run for another term. She stayed in power for 16 years.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Not a long tenure, at all.
Vladimir Putin: You cannot say that this is not long enough. Quite a tenure. Helmut Koehl, who unified Germany, also spent 16 years at the top.
As for the Nord Streams, we started this process back in the Schroeder days. At the time, when we were working on Nord Stream 1, there were similar attempts to undermine this process, just like today. It was all the same. Fortunately, today this pipeline delivers gas to Europe and Germany, and the volumes are quite high.
By the way, we are all talking about green energy. This is important, of course. If there are questions on this subject, I will try to explain how I see this. As for the Russian natural gas, let me emphasise that it has a three times lower carbon footprint compared to LNG from the United States. If the environmental activists are not guided in their efforts by a political agenda and really do care about the future of humanity, they cannot fail to hear this. They must oppose the construction of and demand that all LNG terminals are closed.
Unfortunately, the same applies to Ukraine’s gas transit system. I have already said that Nord Stream 2 is a modern, state-of-the-art pipeline that can handle higher pressure. There are absolutely no emissions involved when you deliver gas via the bottom of the Baltic Sea. The compression stations are like small factories. They are gas-fired and also emit CO2 into the atmosphere. Emissions from Nord Stream 2 are 5.6 times lower compared to Ukrainian gas transits, because the system there is old and has been in use since the Soviet times. Environmental activists should have said: “Immediately close down the Ukrainian gas transit!” But no, it is the opposite: “Go ahead and increase supplies through Ukraine.” How is that possible?
In fact, it is the same with oil. Even if we leave gas alone, since I have already talked about this at length, what is going on with oil? In think that from 2012 until 2016 annual investment in oil extraction was at about $400 billion, but in the years that preceded the pandemic investment decreased by 40 percent, and now stands at $260 million. This is a cycle that lasts for 15 to 30 years. Do you understand this?
In my opinion, what are current problems on top of what I have said? I talked about various political issues. This is one of the important topics that springs to mind. There is a lack of overlap between political and investment cycles in the leading economies, including in energy, a very important sector. How long is a political cycle? Four or five years. What do the leading political forces, parties and politicians do all this time? They make promises. They promise everything, as much as possible and at the lowest cost. This applies, among other things, to the green economy. What comes out of this? Banks stop funding investment, and investment dwindles. The time will come like what we are seeing today, when the market will need to accomplish a breakthrough, but there will be nothing to back this effort. Even today, OPEC Plus countries are increasing oil production even slightly above their agreement, but not all oil producing countries can increase output quickly. This is a long-term process, and the cycle is quite long.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Please, Raghida Dergham.
Raghida Dergham: Thank you very much, Fyodor.
Mr President, it is good to see you again in Valdai and Sochi. My name is Raghida Dergham. I am the founder and executive chairman of Beirut Institute. So I have come to you, I have come to Sochi, from Lebanon, a very wounded country. I am sure, sir, that you are aware of the explosion that took place – the fourth largest – at the port, the civilian port of Beirut. There has been an attempt to investigate what happened, the story itself. There was a Russian captain, there was a Georgian owner of the ship.
There was a request to you, Mr President, to share – the request came to you from the judiciary, and it is an independent body from the government – to share what you have, from your satellite pictures, to tell us, to help find the story, this horrible story that happened, that amounted to the assassination of the city, of the capital. My first question, sir: are you willing to share now the information you have, the satellite information, and to lend cooperation to this investigation so that, you know, the values that you spoke about are implemented where it really matters?
And secondly, your two allies, Hezbollah and Iran, have been resisting and, in fact, have been demanding the dislodging of the – not the prosecutor, he is really the investigator – the judge who is investigating the case. They have issued a warning that if – to both friends of yours, the President, Michel Aoun and the Prime Minister, Najib Mikati – that if they do not dislodge this investigator, this judge, then the government will fall. Do you support such a position, particularly given that this country is on the verge of a civil war, with Mr Nasrallah announcing that he will not back down, announcing, at the same time, that there are a hundred thousand fighters ready to launch? So, this is a civil war in the action, maybe, right next door to a prize accomplishment of yours, Mr Vladimir Putin, which is in Syria. I thank you.
Vladimir Putin: Just a minute, please. Can you explain the beginning of which war you are talking about? I do not understand.
Raghida Dergham: Civil war, because, you see, there are armed people on the streets already. You do remember the civil war in Lebanon, and right now… Hezbollah is not the only armed group, I am not claiming that. There are many armed groups, but right now the conflict is over this investigator. His name is Tariq al-Bitar. The insistence of Hezbollah is that he needs to be dislodged. And, in fact, this is interfering with the very principle of the separation of powers, and that led to confrontations on the streets and the possibility of a civil war really happening, Mr President. Do not dismiss that possibility; it is a very scary one. And I am not sure at all it would be in the interests of the Russian policy even for Syria, never mind for Lebanon, and we wish that you will pay attention to Lebanon, particularly after hearing you today emphasise these values.
Vladimir Putin: First, about the explosion in the port of Beirut. Frankly speaking, when that tragedy happened – I would like to once again offer my condolences to the Lebanese people over it, the large number of casualties and catastrophic damage – I learned about it from media reports, of course.
Many years ago, ammonium nitrate was delivered to and stored in the port; the local authorities did not give it the attention it needed, although, as far as I know, they wanted to sell it profitably. And that desire to sell at a profit came into conflict with the possibility of doing so, with the market and some internal contradictions related to who would get the profit, and so on. In my opinion, this is the main reason for the tragedy, and that is it.
As for helping with the investigation, frankly speaking, I do not understand how satellite pictures can help, and whether we even have any. However, I promise that I will make inquiries, and if we do have anything and can provide assistance to the investigation, we will do this. But first I need to discuss the matter with my colleagues who may have this information.
As for Hezbollah, Iran and so on, regarding the situation in Lebanon. Take Hezbollah: different people in different countries have a different attitude to it, which I am well aware of. Hezbollah is a serious political force in Lebanon itself. But there is no doubt that we always, including in Lebanon, call for settling any conflicts through dialogue. We have always tried to do this, one way or another. We are maintaining contact with nearly all political forces in Lebanon, and we will try to continue doing this in the future as well, so that the situation can be settled without any bloodshed. God forbid. Nobody is interested in this. The situation in the Middle East has been precarious recently as it is. Of course, we will do everything we can to convince all the parties to the internal political process to stick with common sense and to strive for agreements.
Please, take the microphone.
Raghida Dergham: President Vladimir Putin, do you support the ultimatum given by Hezbollah that either the investigator Tarek Bitar is dislodged or there is a downfall of the government? Do you support that ultimatum?
Vladimir Putin: Listen, colleague, we cannot comment on the internal political processes you have mentioned, whether we support an ultimatum of one of the sides or not, or one of the side’s positions. This would amount to taking the side of one of the conflicting parties, which would be counterproductive regarding the effectiveness of our peace-making efforts. Therefore, I would like to abstain from making such comments. As I have noted, the main thing is to find a platform that can be used as the basis for agreements, without any shooting, God willing. We in Russia are definitely interested in that.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Please, Stanislav Tkachenko.
Stanislav Tkachenko: Thank you.
Stanislav Tkachenko, St Petersburg State University.
Mr President, a question about energy. On October 13, Chief of the European External Action Service Josep Borrell first unveiled the Arctic Strategy and then sent it to the European Commission and the EU Council – a new EU document that considers a wide range of problems, including energy.
I would highlight two points in that strategy. First, the European Union believes that the mineral resources found in the Arctic – oil, gas and coal – should stay in the ground, including in the Arctic, and to achieve that, the world may even have to impose a temporary moratorium. The second point is linked to the first one. It concerns plans by the European Union and its member states to develop a series of instruments, financial and others, to prevent countries (perhaps primarily the Russian Federation), which will be selling energy resources on the global market, from selling the resources produced in the Arctic.
My question is: What is Russia’s attitude to this. Thanks.
Vladimir Putin: Right. To be honest, I try to follow what is happening there behind the European scenes, what is going on there every day, but at times, as our people say, I feel like I am missing something.
Regarding the EU's Arctic Strategy, what can I say? Russia has its own strategy for our presence in the Arctic – this is my first point. Second, we have always worked and are working quite productively; Russia is currently chairing the Arctic Council, where EU countries are also represented. Third, we have always talked about this, and I actually spoke about this at the meeting with President Biden and his team members in Geneva: we are ready to continue cooperation, in a broad sense, with all interested countries in the Arctic, within the framework of international law.
As you know, there are several conventions, on territorial waters, and on the law of the sea, from 1986, I think. We act on the basis of those internationally recognised documents, which Russia is a party to, and we are ready to build relations with all states including the European Union on the basis of those documents.
But if someone from the outside is trying to circumvent these internationally recognised documents and limit our sovereign right to use our own territory – according to international law, territorial waters are part of a coastal state’s territory – it is an infringement using mala fide means.
The same applies to the 400-mile zone, which is called the zone of preferential economic development. The rules that apply to that area are determined by international law, and we fully adhere to these requirements.
By the way, consider the Nord Stream project – in accordance with these rules, we had to request appropriate permits from the coastal states – Finland, Sweden, and Denmark – when we did not even have to enter their territorial sea, but the pipeline crossed those countries’ exclusive economic zones. This is a requirement of international law, and we abide by this law, and everyone, including Europeans, insisted that we acted within the framework of those international legal norms. Do they mean they are not going to abide by them now, or what? We are required to comply, but they can suddenly ignore them, is that it? It will not happen.
And if they want to restrict our activities, including in the energy sector, it is up to them, and they can try it. We can see what is happening in the world now, including in the European energy market. If they act like this, take categorical and poorly substantiated action, I doubt anything good will come of it.
I remember this popular fairy tale, at least with the Russian audience, where one of the characters makes a wolf fish in the ice-hole in winter using its tail as a rod, and then sits by the wolf’s side chanting quietly, ‘freeze, freeze wolf's tail.’ If the Europeans follow this path, they will find themselves in the same position as those characters in the Russian fairy tale.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Who is the wolf?
Vladimir Putin: It is not difficult to guess, I think.
Fyodor Lukyanov: I don’t get it, I really don’t. Do you mean Russia? They chant –
Vladimir Putin: The wolf is the one who has put its tail into an ice-hole in winter trying to catch some fish, in troubled water in this case – that's who. They will freeze. But of course, if they try to impose restrictions. They are already restricting investments, as I said, the investment period in the oil industry is 15–20, or even 30 years, and now banks are refusing to issue appropriate credit resources for these projects. Here you go – the shortage will be felt soon, and nothing can be done about it.
The problem is that, unfortunately, decisions in this area, in the energy sector, are made as part of political cycles, which I have already mentioned, and they are not made by experts. As one of my colleagues said, the decisions are not made by engineers, but by politicians who are not really competent in the matter, but they simply deceive their voters.
Everyone is alarmed by the climate agenda, which suggests a gloomy future unless we achieve a decrease in the temperature rise to its pre-industrial level, the level as of the beginning of industrialisation. Yes, we know. Between 1.5–2 degrees is the critical line, we know this. But this must be done carefully, while relying on a thorough and deep analysis, not on political slogans. But we can see that some countries are guided precisely by political slogans, which are not even feasible.
Still, no one can forbid us to act on our territory as we see fit. We are ready to negotiate with everyone, but we hope that it will be a professional conversation.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Mr President, you keep referring to international law, and have just mentioned it once again. So does Russian diplomacy. However, international law is not written in stone like Moses’ tablets. It results from a certain balance of power and interests, then it changes. Maybe it is time to adjust it?
Vladimir Putin: But these adjustments are always late, which applies to all kinds of law, including international norms. Social interactions and international relations change faster than the legal norms. This is a well-known tenet of state theory and law. Relations change quicker, they need to be regulated, and those in charge of setting norms usually fail to keep up with these changes.
What is international law? It is an aggregate of international norms. By the way, these are not simply rules that someone has scribbled under a blanket, thinking that everyone has to follow them. If we are discussing international public law, the norms governing interstate relations have to be coordinated and agreed upon: you sign them, assume obligations and honour them. If today’s world order hinges upon sovereignty, this means that if someone does not sign a document, you cannot demand that this state complies with something it did not subscribe to. This is called “trying to impose someone’s will on other countries.” The faster we move away from attempts to introduce such practices into international relations, the better, and this would make the world calmer and more stable.
Fyodor Lukyanov: We have another colleague from the United States – Christian Whiton, Centre for the National Interest.
Christian, you have the floor.
Christian Whiton: Hello, Fyodor. Great. Thank you so much for calling on me, and thank you for Valdai, for organising this important conference.
President Putin, I really appreciate your important comments, which I do not think we have heard from any other world leader, about culture and its importance. One person here in the United States that might be interested and supportive of what you have said is former President Donald Trump. I am not certain about that, but he has spoken of similar things. My question for you is that there is a lot of speculation that former President Trump may again run for office in 2024, and you have spoken about Angela Merkel, for example. What do you think about the idea of a second Donald Trump presidency?
Vladimir Putin: Would you vote for him? (Laughter.)
I am not kidding. Where is the joke? Please help us. Would you vote for Donald Trump as a presidential candidate in the United States of America?
Christian Whiton: I am sorry, I thought you were asking President Putin.
Yes. My view, and I worked in the Trump administration at the State Department, early in his administration. I think it is remarkable. He has redefined conservatism, perhaps, along some of similar lines that President Putin talked about healthy conservatism.
However, in our system, if you begin a second term, you are essentially a lame duck, in that you cannot run again, so people start discounting you. Also I like what Donald Trump does in challenging the vocal minority that has infected our culture, but on the other hand his administration had a lot of inefficiencies, if you will, staff in very senior levels that did not agree with his agenda. Sometimes it seemed like the authority of his presidency did not extend beyond the White House to the rest of the very large US government.
So my preference is that other conservatives step up like Ron DeSantis, the Governor of Florida, step up and run for President. But if it is a choice between Donald Trump and a Democrat, I would vote for Donald Trump, yes.
Vladimir Putin: If you allow me, I would prefer to keep my point of view on this matter to myself and refrain from commenting on what you have just said. Otherwise, you will have to register as a foreign agent. (Laughter.)
However, I do understand your idea.
Thank you very much for your participation.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Anastasia Likhacheva.
Anastasia Likhacheva: Thank you.
Mr President, when speaking about the biggest challenges of our time, you have mentioned water scarcity and food supply issues. In your opinion, what positive contribution could Russia make to addressing them within as well as beyond its borders, considering that Russia ranks second in the world in terms of its renewable freshwater resources, and has its unique Lake Baikal and great traditions in research, on top of being a major food exporter. Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: We are already doing this and will step up our efforts even more. Let me explain what this means and where the concerns about a possible food crisis come from.
As I have already mentioned, both at a recent meeting with members of the Government, and just now, there are system-wide dysfunctions within the global economy. They are attributable to growing deficits and inflation and lead to disrupted supply chains. This is not just about the Suez Canal, and the shortage of lorry drivers in Great Britain for delivering fuel to the pump. There is a general disruption, and COVID-19 did play a role in this, unfortunately.
There are other reasons, however. Where does all this lead? We were discussing rising fuel prices. This, in turn, pushes up electricity prices. If we convert our prices into euros, one megawatt-hour costs 20 euros in Russia, and over 300 euros in European countries. Of course, there is a difference in terms of income levels, but this gap is too big.
Some governments and representatives of international institutions say: “This is the right way to go, keep up the good work.” Just think about this. They are now thinking about paying out subsidies in order to offset this huge hike in energy prices. It could seem appropriate. After all, the state must lend its shoulder to its people. However, this is a one-time fix, and afterwards people will still suffer.
Why? Because the volume of primary fuel stays the same, which means that someone will not get it. People, the households who receive this subsidy will not reduce their consumption, despite all the fear mongering on German television. They will not reduce their consumption as long as they are subsidised. Why cut back? But the supply will remain the same. What does this mean? Someone will have to consume less. Who will that be? Industry. In what sector? The metals industry. This will lead to higher prices on all products containing metal and all the way down the value chain. This is a huge chain, from cars to tiepins.
Second, fertiliser producers that use natural gas are already closing their manufacturing facilities. This is already happening. There are reasons to believe that the soil fertilizer sector will be underfunded. What will this result in? There will be less food on the global market, and people will have to pay higher prices. Once again, it all falls on the people, although it all started with an initiative designed to help them.
It may seem as if it is headed in the right direction, but it is necessary to raise the question of whether it is appropriate to restrict extraction, including in the Arctic. Do we need to restrict new transit routes, including Nord Stream 2, for political reasons? These are the questions to be asked. We need to think about fundamental things.
Considering the growing risks and uncertainty, do we really have to transfer all the supplies to the spot market? Or maybe thinking about long-term investment would make more sense, and using long-term contracts instead, at least in part. This is what we must think about. This is how we can prevent crises from suddenly breaking out.
Russia is making a significant contribution to food security today. We are increasing food supplies to the world market; we are exporting over US$25 billion worth of foodstuffs. I have already said this many times and I would like to thank our agricultural producers once again. This is primarily the result of their efforts. We could never even dream about this. Now we must thank the Europeans for their agricultural sanctions. Well done. Thank you for all your sanctions. We have introduced countermeasures in agriculture and invested appropriate resources.
By the way, we have boosted the so-called import substitution in industry, not only in agriculture. And I must say, the effect has been good. I did have some anxiety, I must admit, but the overall effect has been very good. We have used our brains, resumed some old projects, and started new ones, including in high-tech industries. I hope will continue to increase production in agriculture.
Climate change has also been bringing changes to Russian agriculture. What am I referring to? For example, in Russian black soil regions, the quality of the soil is changing, and things are shifting a little further north. There are also problems caused by natural phenomena and cataclysms – desertification and things like that. But Russia will adapt to this, this is quite obvious, and it will fully meet not only its own needs, but also provide our main partners in the world markets with high-quality and affordable food at world prices.
There is also something else. I just said fertiliser plants are closing, but the quality and quantity of harvests, the volume of crops depend on them. But we supply the necessary amounts of fertilisers to international markets, and we are ready to increase production further. By the way, in this respect, in terms of their impact on human health, our fertilisers are among the best in the world – our companies’ rivals are reluctant to talk about this. But I hope that after I have mentioned this, our media will show what I mean, I just do not want to waste time now.
Well, as for water resources, some say water will soon be more expensive than oil, but we are not yet planning projects to reverse rivers. This must be treated very carefully and with an understanding of the long-term consequences of the decisions we make. But in general, Russia is one of the countries whose water balance will be stable and secure for a long time. Although we must also think about it. We must think about the purity of our rivers, carefully watch what is happening with the water sector in the Far East, at Lake Baikal, and so on.
I will not go into detail now, but we really have enough problems to address. We know about them, we identify new problems. We will continue working according to the plans we have outlined in this regard. When faced with new challenges, we will try to overcome them.
Vladimir Putin: You have just mentioned the possibility of assuming the lead. You know, of course, it seems to me that one should seek to tackle the most important objectives. But it is necessary to proceed from reality. We publicly declared our aim of achieving hydrocarbon neutrality by 2060, and so we are doing this.
Incidentally (I have mentioned this repeatedly and will say so once again), Russia has a greener energy mix than that of many other industrialised countries. In Russia, 86 percent of the energy mix is composed of nuclear power generation that produces almost no emissions, hydropower generation, gas generation, and renewable sources. Eighty-six percent! The US figure is 77 percent. In Germany, if my memory serves me right, it is 64 percent, and even less so in Asian countries. Isn’t that the lead? It certainly is!
We understand, of course, that this is not enough. This is not enough even for us, because here the temperature is rising more rapidly than the global average, while in the North the rise is even faster than on average in the rest of Russia. For us, this is fraught with serious consequences, given that a considerable part of Russia’s territory is in the Far North. We certainly are thinking about this.
A few words about people’s lives.
Starting with the removal of all kinds of landfill sites, which also generate CO2 in large cities and contaminate people’s lives, something that we are working on, and ending with the situation in our large industrial centres, we have a programme for all of this. We may not be advancing as fast as we would like to, but, overall, we are on schedule with our plans.
We would have accomplished this earlier if it were not for the 2008–2009 crisis, which came to us from without, as we are all aware. But our industry simply screamed that many enterprises would keel over if we started to implement the so-called best technologies in that sphere. We had to postpone the implementation of our plans, but now the decisions have been taken at the legislative level and are being implemented.
We are giving priority attention in our programme to 12 cities that are the largest emission producers, after which we will turn our attention to all the other emission producers and all industries. This is one of the priorities of our national projects and national plans.
As for carbon neutrality in general, it should be remembered that 45 percent of carbon emissions are being absorbed, if my memory serves me well. Incidentally, in this connection we will insist that our absorption ability is taken into account, that is, the absorption ability of our forests, our seas and the territories connected with the ocean. It is an objective fact, and it should be taken into account.
Moreover, in this context we have major reserves regarding the implementation of plans, for example, in the area of housing and utilities and energy efficiency. This is definitely what we can and should work on.
In other words, what we need is not a mechanical, mindless implementation of measures formulated by others, but a result. We intend to work towards this result absolutely transparently and honestly. However, I would not like our efforts to protect nature and implement climate policy recommendations to become a covert instrument of rivalry on the global markets. This would be very bad. This would undermine trust in what we are doing for the future of humankind.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Mr President, do we have a programme of our own regarding our actions in the event the EU introduces a carbon tax and Russian producers have to pay it?
Vladimir Putin: So far, no fundamental decisions have been taken that would undermine our interests or that would be non-transparent or absolutely unfair. I have talked with some of the [Western] leaders – I will not name them now – who are aware that the requirements that are being formulated at the level of European institutions are not transparent and cannot be described as fair. All of this certainly calls for more work. We hope that this will be done through dialogue with other countries, including Russia.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Angela Stent, our veteran and scientific council member, is with us from Washington.
Angela, please, go ahead with your question.
Angela Stent: Thank you very much, Fyodor, and I am sorry I am only here virtually.
Mr President, I heard you talk about some ways in which the US and Russia are working together, and I want to ask you another question about Afghanistan.
Twenty years ago Russia and the United States cooperated to defeat al-Qaeda and to remove the Taliban from power. Twenty years later, now in the aftermath of the American withdrawal, do you believe that counterterrorist cooperation between Russia and the United States is desirable? Is it possible? Do you think we would still share some of the same goals vis-à-vis Afghanistan that we did twenty years ago?
Vladimir Putin: I think that cooperation between Russia and the United States on counter-terrorism is not only possible, but is a necessity. We have discussed this many times, including with you. It is too bad you cannot be in this room with us today.
It is obvious that this is a common threat. Unfortunately, it has not become less of a danger than it was 20 years ago. Moreover, this threat has been growing bigger and took on a global dimension on our watch. We can only be effective in countering it by working together.
I have already said that our countries’ special services maintain contact, although in my opinion they could have established an even closer relationship, but we are grateful to our American partners for the information that has enabled us to prevent terrorist attacks in the Russian Federation.
I can assure you that we will do everything we can to relay any necessary information to our American colleagues in a timely manner if it is relevant to them and if we have the information at our disposal. I would like to emphasise once again that everyone stands to benefit from this cooperation.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Mr President, on Afghanistan. The Taliban is de facto in control there. They came to Moscow, and in general communicate with everyone. How long will Russia view them as a terrorist organisation with everyone having to say it is a terrorist organisation every time it is mentioned?
Vladimir Putin: This is not about us, Russia. You can see that we work with the Taliban and invited them to Moscow, and we have been maintaining contact with them in Afghanistan.
In fact, these decisions were taken at the UN level. It is clear that the Taliban are currently in control in Afghanistan, and we expect them to bring about positive momentum. Depending on how it goes, we will come together to decide whether it can be excluded from the list of terrorist organisations. I believe that we are getting there. Russia’s position will be to move precisely in this direction.
However, we need to take decisions like this the same way they were adopted before, when we decided to designate this movement as a terrorist organisation.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Asia is clearly underrepresented.
We have Professor Shimotomai joining us. Please go ahead.
Nobuo Shimotomai: Thank you.
Mr President, I am honoured, although I was unable to come to Sochi this time.
I found your report very interesting, including your point that state borders have become an anachronism. Indeed, perhaps the most acute antagonism exists in Northeast Asia over state borders and the like. Prime Minister Abe and you made an attempt to fill this gap in search of a new peace treaty. However, over the past two years the prime minister of Japan has changed twice without meeting with you. How do you see future bilateral relations, primarily, the prospects for a peace treaty between Russia and Japan? Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: Yes, indeed, political life in Japan is structured in a way where the political scene changes quite quickly, but the interests of the Japanese and Russian people remain unchanged and are based on the desire to reach a final settlement in our relations, including the conclusion of a peace treaty. We will strive to make this happen despite the changes in figures on Japan’s political stage.
Most recently, as you are aware, on October 7, I spoke with the new Prime Minister of Japan by telephone. He is undoubtedly an experienced person and is up to date on our relations since he was engaged in international affairs. He is fairly close in a political sense to former Prime Minister Abe. So in this sense, of course, I think we will see continuity in Japan’s position regarding its relations with Russia.
Under Mr Abe, we aligned a series of joint actions and joint work to bring Russian-Japanese relations to a new level. I would very much like this work to continue in the same vein going forward.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Friends, the President has been taking our questions, just questions, for two and a half hours now. I have a suggestion to optimise our work. We will have a quick Q&A session now. Please, ask short questions, do not make statements like Ms Dergham just did, but ask short questions. The President will give quick answers like a machine-gun burst. Yes?
Vladimir Putin: I will do my best.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Ryan Chilcote, go ahead please.
Ryan Chilcote: Thank you, Fyodor.
But please, do not give me a machine-gun burst in response.
Fyodor Lukyanov: It depends on your question.
Vladimir Putin: We have it, too. (Laughter.)
Ryan Chilcote: I understand.
My question is about the pandemic. The biggest foreign agent and the greatest external threat is the continuing pandemic. The only difference between Russia and many countries is the low vaccination rate. What do you think about mandatory vaccination as a solution to the problem?
Vladimir Putin: I have already said that vaccination will become mandatory when it is listed in the National Immunisation Calendar. Vaccination against the coronavirus infection is not listed there, and in this sense, it is not mandatory. But under current legislation, the regional authorities have the right to introduce mandatory vaccination for certain categories of people in conditions of a growing epidemic on the recommendation of chief sanitary doctors. This is what is happening in our country.
But a requirement is not the point. I personally do not support it. Why? Because it is possible to get around any decision imposed from above. People will buy certificates.
Maybe it is the other way around with those who get some Western vaccine. I have heard many times how it goes: citizens from European countries come here and get a Sputnik jab and then buy a certificate that they got Pfizer. I am serious. This is what doctors from European countries say. They believe that Sputnik is more reliable and safer.
But this is not the point. I am saying this not to promote Sputnik. I am saying that it is relatively easy to get around any imposed solution. It is a well-known observation that hundreds or thousands work on the laws and millions think about getting around them. As a rule, they succeed. Therefore, it seems to me, it is necessary to convince people rather than impose something on them. We need to convince them, to prove that vaccination is a better choice. I talked about this just recently.
This applies not only to Russia but also to other countries. There are only two scenarios for almost every person: either get sick or get the vaccine. It is not possible to slip through raindrops. It is necessary to enhance the confidence of people in the actions of the authorities. It is necessary to be more convincing and to prove a point through example. I hope we will learn to do this.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Mr Sajjadpour, go ahead please.
Seyed Kazem Sajjadpour: Thank you, Mr President. My question relates to Afghanistan. How do you see the American defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan in a broader strategic sense? Would it change the US global positioning, and what would impact on the alignment of forces that you talked about? Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: First, I would like to say that the President of the United States did the right thing by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Probably, he did not know the details of how this would proceed but he understood that this would be a line of attack on the domestic political scene. But he still made this decision and assumed this responsibility.
Of course, we see how this happened and probably it could have been done differently. Naturally, this will primarily affect the attitude towards the US of those countries that consider the US their ally. But I think that with time everything will fall into place and there will be no cardinal changes.
Yes, this will affect relations with allies in the near future but the appeal of a country still depends not on this but on its economic and military might.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Alexander Rahr, go ahead please.
Alexander Rohr: Mr President, when you and Gerhard Schroeder met at the first session of the Petersburg Dialogue, you said relations between Germany and Russia were the best in a hundred years.
Unfortunately, they have deteriorated a lot now. My question is: Will it be possible to resuscitate at least the Petersburg Dialogue with the new German Chancellor, in all probability, this will be Olaf Scholz.
Vladimir Putin: You know, Alexander, this does not depend solely on us. If the Germans display interest in this issue, we will step up our efforts in this area. That said, the Petersburg dialogue still exists, it has not disappeared and it continues in principle. Of course, it is possible to make bilateral contacts more intensive and productive. I understand this but it is necessary to depoliticise these contacts. I hope this will be done.
The coalition in Germany seems to be complicated and its various political forces are likely to have different views. Let’s see what it leads to in practice. I don’t know. But we are for it, we are ready for this.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Anatol Lieven, go ahead please.
Anatol Lieven: Thank you, Mr President, for coming. Anatol Lieven from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
China and other countries have made a move to electric cars, a key part of their action against climate change. What are Russia’s plans in this regard? Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: I have spoken about this many times. Of course, when cars move in cities they are one of the biggest air pollutants like housing and utilities and industry. This is obvious. But on a global scale we should not forget where electricity comes from.
Let us be straight with each other. Electric vehicles are a good thing but pollution of the environment during electricity generation is not so good. Meanwhile, the coal generation in European countries, such as Germany, since Alexander just asked about this, is twice as much as in Russia. It is double there. I think it amounts to 32 percent, and here is it 15–16 percent.
But in principle this is good. In Russia, such global reserves of natural gas could make gas engine fuel an alternative. It is necessary to change the energy balance in favour of the green agenda and in this case, we will achieve the desired result.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Mr President, have you driven an electric car?
Vladimir Putin: Yes, I have, in Ogaryovo.
Fyodor Lukyanov: How is it? Is there a difference?
Vladimir Putin: I drive these cars in Ogaryovo, this is true, but I don’t feel much difference. They are good cars.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Konstantin Zatulin.
Konstantin Zatulin: Mr President, I am Konstantin Zatulin, a member of the State Duma from the city where we are meeting [Sochi]. But my question is not about this.
Vladimir Putin: But mentioning this is not out of place.
Konstantin Zatulin: Yes, certainly.
My question is about history and memory. At the beginning of this meeting much was said about “Homo Sovieticus,” post-Soviet countries and post-Soviet space today. I would like to note that on November 2 we will mark 300 years of the Russian Empire.
This year we celebrated the 800th anniversary of Prince Alexander Nevsky, and you personally unveiled a monument, which made a great impression on many people. But for some reason nothing is being said about the 300th anniversary of the Russian Empire. Is it because we are embarrassed to use the word “empire”? If so, this is a bad idea. This was a major period in our history, the continuous existence of our state, from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union and on to the Russian Federation, even though they might reject each other in some ways.
I would like to hope – we have addressed you on this occasion – that you will receive our letter and will consider the possibility of taking a more active part in this event, even if we miss the exact date, November 2, at least we will remember it.
Vladimir Putin: I agree with you. The continuity of history is important for knowing where we are moving. I fully agree with you. If we have missed something here, please accept my apologies. The next event will be connected with your name. (Laughter.)
Fyodor Lukyanov: Yury Slezkin.
Yury Slezkin: My question concerns history as well. You have been the head of the Russian state for many years, and you certainly think a great deal about your role in Russian history. What do you regard as your main achievements and largest failures as head of state?
Vladimir Putin: You know, I never think about my role in history. As soon as you start thinking about this, you need to step down because these thoughts stand in the way of decision-making. I am speaking absolutely honestly now. As soon as you think: “What if this or that happens, and what would Princess Maria Alekseyevna say?” – the game is over, and you better step down.
As for what I have accomplished, we had 40 million people living below the poverty line. Today there are too many as well, over 19 million, or even 20 million, according to various estimates. This is too many, but not as many as 40 million. This is probably my main achievement.
Our economy has recovered. Some industries, including the defence sector, were as good as dead. If we had lost more time, we would have been unable to restore them; the production links and our scientific schools would have been lost forever. We have restored them, not to mention the fact that the statutes and constitutions of the constituent members of the Russian Federation included all manner of provisions, including the right to mint money, they even had their own state borders, but they did not mention the fact that they were constituent members of the Russian Federation. It was a very serious challenge. We have dealt with that.
Or take the fight against international terrorism. You know, I will tell you what I sometimes think, and will be honest with you. Yes, we did overcome that difficult period in the life of our country, especially when it comes to terrorism. This was by far not only my personal contribution that we did it, but thanks to the patience, courage and will of the Russian people. I am not saying this for effect but absolutely sincerely, because I saw the difficulties and suffering Russian families faced. But Russia was equal to the task, which means that this passionarity we mentioned at the beginning, has a big role to play in the Russia nation. We definitely have the internal impetus for development and it is very powerful.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Mr President, since you don’t want to talk about your role in history, I would like to try another track.
There is a popular trend to discuss the vision of the future, everyone is looking for a vision of the future. The Valdai Club is also looking for it as are many others. Mr Andrei Bezrukov is sitting here in the front row; he also does a lot in this regard.
Personally, I am afraid we will not find a vision now, because the world is incredibly uncertain. But I might be wrong.
Do you have any vision of Russia’s future, or the world’s, something you would like to see or that you would like your descendants to see?
Vladimir Putin: You know, one can talk a lot about this, and I have already answered this question more than once, one way or another, in different forms, and I do not want to repeat my old phrases.
I would start with the theme of today's Valdai meeting. What is it?
Fyodor Lukyanov: The Return of the Future.
Vladimir Putin: No, no. The slogan of today's meeting?
Fyodor Lukyanov: Global Shake-Up.
Vladimir Putin: It’s longer.
Fyodor Lukyanov: The Individual, Values. But “individual” is rarely remembered.
Vladimir Putin: Well, it should be, because this is the most important point.
I have been remembering [Nikolai] Berdyaev. As you know, he wrote several major works, and they are still popular. He wrote about the new Middle Ages, as was relevant at that time, about freedom, how it was such a heavy burden. But he also said something else – that the individual should always be at the centre of development. The individual is more important than society or the state. I would very much like to see a future where all the resources of society and the state are concentrated around the interests of the individual. We definitely need to strive for this. It is difficult to say now how effective we will be in creating such a system, but this is what we should strive for.
A young man over there has raised his hand. Go ahead, please.
Dmitry Suslov: Thank you very much, Mr President.
Dmitry Suslov, Higher School of Economics.
You noted in your remarks today that disagreements around the world – both intranational and international – have reached a level where world wars used to break out in previous eras. So far, we have not seen a world war, at least not a ‘hot’ one.
Vladimir Putin: Do you miss this?
Dmitry Suslov: I just wanted to ask if this means – we probably have not seen a world war because the world has nuclear weapons – but does this mean it cannot happen at all? And if it cannot happen, it’s like Dostoevsky wrote: if there is no God, anything is permitted. I mean, if there is no threat of a world war, it can lead to complete irresponsibility: you can do whatever you want because there will be no world war, there are no obstacles for pursuing an aggressive policy – and so on.
But, if there is a threat of a world war, if the danger of a world war is still out there, shouldn’t Russia, as a nuclear superpower, as a country that has gone through the hardest wars – you also mentioned this today – a country that knows the value of peace, and peace is probably also a universal value, shouldn't Russia declare a little more strongly that the protection of peace, strengthening peace is the goal of Russia’s foreign policy, and some practical steps should be taken here too?
Vladimir Putin: We say a lot of positive and important things, but our partners simply prefer not to notice many of them.
So more talk would be pointless; we must act to achieve what we are talking about. This is not an easy job, not an easy task, but we will definitely work at it.
You spoke about nuclear weapons. It is a huge responsibility that nuclear powers have. You also said a third world war may be improbable in the modern situation; but there is still a threat of mutual destruction, let’s not forget about that.
The central sector now, please.
Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean: Thank you very much.
Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean, French Institute of International Relations.
I have a question that may seem unexpected but it is very important for France. Newspapers have been asking questions these past days about the presence of Russian mercenaries in Mali. To keep it short, this is my question: can the interests of a private military company that operates outside Russian law be at odds with Russia’s state interests? Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: We have discussed this with our French colleagues on numerous occasions, including with President Macron who raised this subject with me.
You said that these are private companies, not the state. They do not represent the interests of the Russian state. If they are operating somewhere without instructions from the Russian state, this is a private business, private initiatives related, among other things, to fuel production and other resources, gold, or gems, what have you. However, if this contradicts the interests of the Russian state, which can happen, we will unfortunately have to respond, and we will definitely do something about it.
Mehdi Sanaei: Mr President,
First, thank you for this opportunity to have this conversation.
I have a question about South Caucasus. There was a ceasefire and some agreements were reached, but so far, there has been no final solution, and you know that some countries, republics in the regions, have reasons to question whether this will happen.
The three-plus-three format emerged, including with Russia’s support. However, it has yet to become operational. Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia had a platform for working on the North-South corridor. Iran, Russia and Turkey had a trilateral platform for fighting terrorism. By the way, it is unfortunate that South Caucasus has also been affected by terrorism.
Of course, Russia plays a very important role here. Other formats with the participation of Armenia and other countries are also possible.
Do we need to fast-track initiatives in order to create a format of this kind? What do you think? What format, in your opinion, would offer the most effective solution, taking into consideration the interests of the South-Caucasian republics and countries in the region?
Vladimir Putin: First, I would like to praise the President of Azerbaijan and the Prime Minister of Armenia for their political wisdom. After all, despite all the tragedy with the ongoing developments, they were able to rise above the political fray and make some very responsible decisions.
I do know that they have been facing criticism inside their own countries, as strange as this may seem. There are always political forces that are unhappy and believe that things could have been better. “Go ahead and do a better job” – this is what always springs to mind. After all, President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan succeeded in stopping the bloodshed.
However, there is more to it, although there is nothing more important than saving human lives. Nonetheless, there are other critical aspects to it, namely: it is vital to create proper conditions for a long-term settlement in the region. These conditions can be created only if both sides accept the existing arrangements as long-term and appreciate the advantages, I want to emphasise this, offered by peaceful coexistence, and everyone is interested in this.
Azerbaijan is interested in normal transport links with Nakhichevan. It is interested in deblocking connection lines. One of the first tasks facing Armenia is to create an effective economic life and effective interaction in the region going forward, including with Azerbaijan. Armenia is basically interested in this. Interested in unfreezing its relations with Turkey and giving them a modern dimension.
In either case, it should lead us to achieving our main goal which is to create a safe environment for the coexistence of the two states and for economic growth. Is it possible to accomplish this or not? It may well be. We did our best to stop the bloodshed, and not only this. Our peacekeepers are performing their duty in a dignified manner, and over 50,000 refugees have returned home.
Overall, the situation in the conflict zone remains as it is with no major hostilities. Unfortunately, some incidents do happen, and unfortunately, people die sometimes. Maybe it is difficult to conjure up a completely idealistic picture after so many years of confrontation. The most important thing to do now is to finally settle the situation at the border. Of course, not much can be accomplished without Russia's participation. Perhaps, we do not need anyone else but the two sides and Russia. Why? There are simple and pragmatic things, such as the maps that show where the border between the Soviet republics was in the Soviet period, which are kept by the General Staff of the Russian army.
Based on these documents, both sides should sit down and talk. There are things that require compromises on both sides: some things need to be straightened out and some exchanges could be made but both sides must recognise that a deal is beneficial for both sides. Can this be done or not? It can. But, of course, we are also in favour of establishing a multilateral format, such as, say, step up the Minsk Group’s activities. We are working on this, including with our partners.
Most importantly, we should achieve our main goal which is to ensure security and to build relations in a positive manner. So far, we have been able to achieve our goals. Of course, we need to look to the future and see what will happen next. It is not about a declaration on a possible extension of the Russian contingent’s stay; it is not about that. The point is to properly align relations between these two countries. This is what matters. I hope we will be able to get it done.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Igor Istomin. He has been holding his hand up for a long time.
Vladimir Putin: We must wrap up, it is already after 9 o’clock.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Yes, we are wrapping up.
Igor Istomin: Good evening, Mr President. Igor Istomin, MGIMO [Moscow State Institute of International Relations].
In your speech – I hope I am quoting you correctly – you said that the reforming or cancellation of some international organisations may be on the agenda. In this context, I would like to ask you about the prospects for the Council of Europe and the OSCE, as well as prospects for Russia’s participation in them. Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: In general, if these organisations work for implementing the goals that they were established for in a broad sense, there are prospects for their existence. The Council of Europe is primarily a European question. The same largely applies to the OSCE. But if they work exclusively with the post-Soviet space, trying to lecture the newly-formed independent states that appeared in the post-Soviet space, their prospects are limited. I can assure you that if Russia were to withdraw from one of these organisations it would be interesting to see what would happen with them as regards the participation of other countries.
Nobody needs moral preaching. So, we need to take a broader look at humanitarian issues and cooperation with the Council of Europe, or security issues in Europe in the broad sense of this word.
But let’s finish our session. There’s a colleague with his hand up in the centre.
Muhammad Athar Javed: Thank you very much. Dr Athar Javed from Pakistan House, Islamabad.
Actually, with all due respect, of course, the counterterrorism campaign is very important internationally, and it will continue. My question to you, Mr President, is about the ongoing negotiations in Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China. And, of course, Pakistan facilitated this Doha process as well. In the wake of NATO failing completely on almost every adventure – or misadventure – they made, including Afghanistan, of course, the mess is their responsibility. But if the Taliban manages to prevent drug trade, secures its territory against ISIS and terminates all the infrastructure, what will be the reaction or the response from Russia, China and Pakistan?
Of course, it is not about recognition only. It is, as you said very rightfully, important to empower the Taliban on the ground economically, so the continuity should award social areas, like doctors, salaries, nurses, education, teachers or anything else related to social factors.
I think I would really appreciate if you could, say, shed light on this one, on how important it is to again wrap the mess of NATO. But it is important for the region, that is why I think Russia and China should take the lead on this account as well. Thank you very much for this opportunity.
Vladimir Putin: As for the mess created by NATO, I do not think we should comment on this because everyone has already expressed his opinion on what the United States and President Biden have done. I have already said what I think about this. I think he did the right thing by deciding to withdraw the troops. But, of course, now we should look to the future. But because they were the one to create this mess, as you said, they shouldn’t shed the responsibility for what is going on there and for the future. And they have plenty of instruments, primarily financial ones, for exerting influence on the situation in Afghanistan. Europe has them, too. One shouldn’t look down at this territory, as our colleagues in the Council of Europe often do. They are also responsible for what happened there. So everyone should join in helping the Afghan people.
However, we must still avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Nobody should impose on the Afghan people what the Soviet Union or the United States tried to inflict on them. Incidentally, the Soviet Union was even more prudent there and this is why the word “shuravi” as the Soviets were called, does not have a negative connotation. The region’s countries are even more interested in normalisation, and Russia will do all it can to achieve it.
We see the Taliban trying to fight the extreme radicals and organisations such as ISIS, which leave no doubt as to their terrorist intentions. Yes, they were their fellow travellers, we understand that – after all, we are proceeding from reality – momentary fellow travellers. Now they are attacking the Taliban.
But the thing is the Taliban needs to establish relations with all ethnic and religious groups, with all political and public organisations inside Afghanistan.
Let’s start with the ethnic component. Yes, the Taliban is mostly made up of Pushtun groups. But there are also the Tajiks – from 40 to 47 percent, according to various estimates. This is a lot, isn’t it? There are Uzbeks, the Hazara, and so on. If we look at this component, then right, I know of course that these groups have their representatives at the ruling level, in the government, but they are not playing the leading roles, and these people do aspire to take important positions in the national governance system. This balance must be found.
We are not pushing them, we are just saying how this is seen, in principle, from the outside. We are doing our best to influence them to have regard for the appetites of the people we are in contact with – and we are in contact, by the way, with all political forces in Afghanistan, and we are establishing sufficiently stable relations with everyone. But we would like acceptable compromises to be found so that the problems confronting the country are not being resolved with weapons alone, as it has been. Women’s interests should be taken into consideration as well.
After all, Afghanistan is aspiring to be a modern state. And it seems to me that Pakistan plays a no less important part in this than Russia or China. This is why we are interested in promoting cooperation, including with your country, to achieve a common, desirable result.
There is no doubt that Russia is interested in Afghanistan at long last emerging from the unending, permanent civil war. The people of that long-suffering – without exaggeration – country must feel safe within their national borders and have a chance for development and prosperity. We will seek in every way to attain this goal.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Mr President, thank you for the conversation. I will relieve you of your duties as a moderator, because it is time.
Vladimir Putin: I am not claiming your salary.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Well, just in case, pre-emptively.
I think we had an exceedingly interesting session because we covered practically all matters. Thank you very much.
In the course of this session, I was thinking that we should probably stay away from New York for a while. Next year, the Valdai Club will probably meet in Sochi again. We very much hope that everything will be good, and we will see you like this, in person, and talk – only our conversation will last about five hours then. Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much.
There is no need to hold the closing session in New York; I am saying this without irony. It is fun to visit New York, and some platforms there… It is good to visit Afghanistan, and it makes sense to do that. Other places, like Europe, as well, and to discuss issues that concern Europe most of all such as energy and climate. Why not? I know forums are being held one way or another.
Fyodor Lukyanov: We are holding them in many places.
Vladimir Putin: Yes. New York is an option, too.
Fyodor Lukyanov: Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: Are you laughing? Do you think this is impossible? (Laughter.)
Colleagues, I want to thank you. Indeed, you have been coming to Russia for many years now and continue to show interest in our country. This gives my colleagues and me an opportunity – I am not the only one at this forum, our ministers attend as well, such as the Foreign Minister and the mayors, and the Mayor of Moscow spoke recently – to share our vision of Russia in the modern world and where we are headed. In my opinion, this has a positive practical outcome.
Our colleagues travel abroad occasionally. A Deputy Prime Minister returned from the United States recently and had the following to say: “I was surprised to find out during my conversations with top officials from the US administration or a national security adviser that there is a lack of information.” That is strange. Maybe they do not have enough trust in the CIA, I am not sure. But, in fact, such forums are much sought after, since they provide an opportunity to have a candid conversation, to have a sense of each other and to give the people who make decisions at different levels of power an opportunity to be aware of what is being discussed, including at the Valdai Club.
Thank you very much.
It is probably prudent to start with a clear affirmation that the pandemic is real, that COVID-19 has taken many lives, and that public health measures have been necessary to try to limit the devastation of the disease. No denying here.
But it is also evident that the messaging by health authorities has often been confusing, and that has undermined their own credibility: for example, in the shift from initial advice against wearing masks to the current (if inconsistent) mandate to do so. If the science on a particular question is not fully settled, it might be better for the authorities to be honest about that indeterminacy rather than to lay claim to an infallibility they cannot maintain. That clarity, however, would mean a willingness to trust the public to think on its own and to act in the spirit of individual responsibility, instead of issuing orders and vilifying critics.
Communication concerning COVID-19 was exacerbated in the United States by the context, as the pandemic erupted onto a highly polarized political landscape just prior to a national election. As a result, every coronavirus policy immediately turned into a target of partisan crossfire, whether at the federal, the state, or the local levels. When governors and mayors were caught disobeying their own ordinances, public doubt could only grow. Similarly, the remarks by then vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris that she would not take a vaccine developed under the Trump administration has likely contributed to anti-vax sentiment in minority communities. And the ups and downs of fatality rates under Democratic and Republican governors are given more or less prominence in the press, depending on the partisan orientation of the respective newspaper. No wonder the expectations about objective journalism are so low.
Yet the coronavirus debate is not only an American phenomenon. Overseas, notably in France, the Netherlands, and especially Germany, there have been robust and often polemical debates—although never as clearly party-political as in the United States—concerning the character of the restrictions imposed on society in the name of slowing the spread of the disease or “flattening the curve.” There have been plenty of different strategies, and, in the future, there will be ample room for political scientists, civil rights advocates, and epidemiologists to review data in order to ask which country got it right: too much or too little lockdown of the economy, too severe or insufficient the suspension of education, religious services, or other public gatherings, and so forth. In earlier texts published here, we have seen German philosopher Otfried Höffe prioritize liberty over excessive restrictions, while novelist Thomas Brussig controversially proposed “more dictatorship.” Clearly the pandemic required some policy response, but we are still a long way away from a nonpartisan evaluation of the different sorts of strategies and their effectiveness. That necessary discussion is still pending. We are likely to be able to determine, sometime in the future, that some leaders got it all terribly wrong.
German historian and author Gérard Bökenkamp, in an essay translated here, approaches the problem from a different angle. He sheds important light on what we have been living through, including the heated polemics around coronavirus policies—but he links it all to the phenomena of climate politics as well. Yet instead of asking which policies were effective and which failed, he reflects on a widespread (but surely not uniform) willingness of the public to embrace them. Why has so much of the public willingly submitted to restrictions on their freedoms, and why have they responded with such animated hostility toward the minority of opponents to the coronavirus prevention regime or to climate policies? In other words, his argument is not an attack on the scientific legitimacy of the public health measures adopted, about which he maintains a distanced agnosticism here. Nor does he cast doubt on the claims about climate change. He does not even present an argument about the dramatic power grab by political authorities, their utilization of the crises to introduce new strategies of societal control. Instead Bökenkamp proposes a hypothesis concerning the motivation underlying the willing and often eager public acceptance of restrictive orders: not why this or that policy was right or wrong but why the German public largely acquiesced. What makes obedience so attractive?
Drawing on the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas and the scholar of religions Walter Burkert, Bökenkamp argues that the public’s proactive embrace of the various strictures associated with policies linked to the pandemic (e.g., mandatory social distancing) and climate change (reduced energy consumption) repeats some recognizable patterns that he associates with certain religious phenomena. These include expectations of sacrifice, in the form of self-denial or self-punishment; the prioritizing of moralistic arguments (pandemic or floods as punishments for wrongful behavior); rhetorics of denunciation targeting heretics (anti-vaxxers and climate deniers); and the emergence of prominent figures who, in Bökenkamp’s view, play the roles of saints or priests. The participation in coronavirus and climate policies, he argues, involves the repetition of atavistic behavior patterns otherwise familiar from traditional religions but now, in a largely secular society, played out under the aegis of scientific authority. Hence his suggestion that science has been operating as a substitute religion.
Bökenkamp provides a convincing description of the phenomena, the rapid willingness of much of the public to accept limitations on their exercise of freedoms previously assumed to be unquestionable. Presumably some of this participation might, of course, be reasonably attributed to the assumed credibility of science: rightly or wrongly, the public “believes” in science. Some of it might also be explained in terms of an inclination to obedience, in the sense of a noncontroversial willingness to respect the law, whatever it is. With those alternative explanations in mind, one can ask whether Bökenkamp’s insistence on an analogy between aspects of public behavior and anthropological aspects of religion is credible and whether it suffices to prove that a religious substance is at play.
There are no doubt some apparent similarities between, on the one hand, public behavior facing the crises, COVID and climate, and, on the other, aspects of traditional religion—sacrifice, guilt, and the denunciation of heretics are Bökenkamp’s main points. Yet other parts of religion, perhaps the most vital parts, seem to be absent: the centrality of numinous or holy experiences, the role of miracles (which would of course be at odds with the priority of science), and the absence of any possibility of transcendence. The simulacrum of religion at stake in the embrace of crisis politics is at best an impoverished religion or the eviscerated substitute for religion in a largely secular culture. With that limitation, Bökenkamp is surely on to something important.
In any case, Bökenkamp does describe convincingly the emergence of a repressive conformism, legitimated in the name of public health crises—whether or not one can describe this adequately as a form of religion is almost secondary. While his examples draw on the specific German example, the account rings true for the United States as well, where, however, the twin crises of COVID and climate have been compounded by the cultural moment around BLM and the emergence of cancel culture censorship. Actually Bökenkamp’s religion thesis might find supporting evidence in parts of the American experience, especially the pseudo-religious liturgical moments: the taking the knee ritual at athletic events and the insistence on reciting the names of the dead. Germany and other European countries also have had their versions of American neo-anti-racism, but it was rarely as overwrought as in the United States, from which ultimately it was imported. (Indeed the dissemination of this American discourse can be viewed as a new form of American soft power in the present, even as it purports to be critical of the U.S. past.) Whatever the particular religious dimension of this current development—and this depends a lot on how one evaluates religion as such—Bökenkamp is certainly right to point out this new wave of repressive conformism as a culturally distinct event, with transatlantic common denominators despite some specific national distinctions.
The net effect of these three arenas—public health responses to the pandemic, new regulations associated with global warming, and the various formulations of cancel culture—has been an acceleration of the management of public opinion: from above, through media and employer mandates, and from below, through social pressure, including threats of violence. How so? In the end, we are facing greater monitoring of mobility in the interest of contact tracing, heightened security at various buildings (greater frequency of the need to swipe into buildings that were previously open to the public), a generalized kind of biopolitical surveillance through extensive testing, social ostracism directed at dissenters, and especially the pervasive prospect of censorship on social media. Merely by calling out censorship or doubting the infallibility of government scientists, this text may by endangered. Read it while you can.
How to explain this transformation? The space of unmonitored freedom has been reduced considerably. Yet the public responds with a gleeful renunciation of its previous lifestyle, a willingness to accept policing (even as police forces are to be defunded!), and a particular fanaticism in the denunciation of heterodox viewpoints. We have long ago lost the expectation of a space of public debate in which one could claim to disagree with an opponent on the basis of reason and evidence: at stake now is the vilification of antagonists in order to silence them. Voltaire’s promise to defend the right of one’s opponent to speak has been abandoned.
The steps taken to respond to real crises, like the pandemic, are increasingly a matter of prohibitions and mandates, with little value placed on individual responsibility. That distinction however may help understand what is going on. Modern societies are undergoing a quantum leap increase in social control. Bökenkamp’s concluding explanation—leaving the religion question aside—is alarmingly credible. We have been living in societies with deficient social cohesion. The social-political disciplining that ensued from the Cold War ended decades ago. Traditional cultural ties that can bind and that may have existed in the past are gone, and this structural disruption has surely been amplified by the experiences of globalization, as well as the protest against it, populism. The new forms of social control, legitimated by pandemic and climate change, should be understood as a response to that instability: manage opinion and monitor behavior in order to limit dissent. Meanwhile the new technologies and their transformation of the public sphere provide the infrastructure for surveillance and censorship. The social system has been able to take advantage of the genuine challenges to public health, whether from the virus or from climate change, in order to impose a new regime of control. The crises have been turned into opportunities that are not going to be wasted. Welcome to the new panopticon.
The following essay first appeared in Achgut.com on September 18, 2021, and appears here with the permission of the author. Translated by Russell A. Berman, with comments here.
From the very start of the pandemic, corona and climate change have always been mentioned in the same breath. Indeed, the parallels are unmistakable. In both cases it is a matter of invisible threats from natural phenomena. In both cases, the discussion is shaped by scientists with data and modelings that are difficult to follow, as they demonstrate the need to limit personal freedoms. In both cases, large parts of the population submit to these prohibitions and limitations on freedom. In both cases, we have seen radical movements emerge, like Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, and Zero-Covid, that demand even more extreme measures, reminiscent of charismatic conversion cults and chiliastic sects. In both cases, “deniers” and “skeptics” are denounced as dangers who stand in the way of preventing a catastrophe. After the COVID lockdown, a climate lockdown will take place, with the one transitioning into the other seamlessly.
Niklas Luhmann distinguished between system and environment. The social system “society” only includes what is communicated inside the social system. “Climate” and “corona” are in themselves not part of society, but the communication about them certainly is. The manner in which they are discussed tells us as much about the society that addresses them as do the communications concerning natural phenomena. The communication about climate and corona displays religious elements. In the climate and corona politics we find four classical figures from the history of religion:
- moral guilt
- religious sacrifice
- the distinction between pure and impure
- divine revelation
Corona and Climate Change in the Service of Morality
Corona and climate have found such a strong resonance because they fill the vacuum that classical religions have left behind. The Bible already named catastrophes and plagues as punishments for moral failings, most prominently the ten plagues that God imposed on the Egyptians to punish them for enslaving the Israelites. This ancient narrative has lost none of its epic strength. When the rivers in the Rhineland overflow their banks or the pandemic infection numbers rise, the explanation is sought in moral failings
Inattention to the wearing of the obligatory mask or not maintaining social distancing, as well as unnecessary long-distance air travel for recreation and leisure or excessive electricity consumption, or in general our “false living” in the West—it is all wrong because of the inherent enjoyment of life, the “materialism” and the consumption that characterize it. In addition, there is heresy, the falling off from the “true belief” by “skeptics and “deniers,” who undermine the grand moral purification through their doubts. For this we are punished by God, i.e., in the pantheistic understanding of our time, by “nature,” that sends us viruses and diseases, floods and droughts.
Because corona and climate are treated as divine punishments for sin, these problems cannot be approached pragmatically or practically. It is pointless to try to avoid corona fatalities or to avert the climate catastrophe without simultaneously extirpating the “sin.” Morality is not at the service of the fight against corona and climate change, but on the contrary, corona and climate change serve morality. Pragmatic initiatives, such as protecting at-risk groups with tests in nursing homes or the expansion of a carbon credit system or the development of nuclear energy might reduce the fatalities and carbon dioxide emissions; but they do not contribute to reaching the real goal: the moral purification of society—and for this reason, such practical steps are largely ignored in Germany.
Simple Solutions are Immoral
Obligatory masks outdoors, the speed limit on the Autobahn, and the surfeit of prohibitions and climate regulations are, in comparison, relatively ineffective, but they serve the genuine purpose: forcing the individual to repent. To put it bluntly: simple solutions are immoral solutions. For a solution to be regarded as a moral one, every individual must bear a burden and participate in the suffering. The only possible rescue from certain destruction—so that we do not face divine punishment, as did Sodom and Gomorrah, and that we are not forced into the long march through the wilderness of the desert, as were the people of Israel after the dance around golden calf—the only path is submission to the societal injunction, the subordination of individual desires and needs to the interest of the community, the path of renunciation and repentance.
The politicians’ call for willing sacrifice, exertion, denial, and subordination falls on psychologically fertile ground in the face of the catastrophe. For there is a universal phenomenon of humans who, in the face of a threat, respond by imposing limitations on themselves and inflicting themselves with pain. This ritualized masochism can take various forms: the flagellation processions of the Middle Ages in response to the Black Plague or the so-called finger sacrifices, in which people underwent amputations to ward off catastrophe. To use a mask to deny oneself fresh air outside, to avoid human contact, and to put oneself under house arrest, cut off from social life—these all meet the criteria of a religious sacrifice.
The Same Behavioral Patterns as Our Ancestors
The positive response to the lockdown in large parts of the populations is indicative of the fact that in our secular, post-heroic society there is an unfulfilled desire to offer sacrifices because sacrifice is simultaneously a form of self-exaltation and revaluation. This primitive religious-psychological mechanism is operating in Western societies. No matter how we try to convince ourselves that our civilization rests on the rational foundation of the Enlightenment, the political practice and social behavior of broad sectors of our society prove otherwise. We are caught up in the same atavistic behavioral patterns as our ancestors; we have just given them a somewhat different form.
The scholar of religions Walter Burkert even claims that the widespread character of these rituals of penitence plausibly points to a sociobiological basis. Humans have an inner need for renunciation, limitation, and self-punishment, all the way to physical and psychic mutilation, that becomes active when we face danger, be it real or invented. The corona restrictions and climate politics are not supported by such a majority of the population despite their limitations on normal life but rather precisely because they do limit it. They thereby satisfy the deep-seated spiritual need for “sacrifice,” “repentance” and “submission.”
Absolute, No Longer Questionable Truths
These genuine causes of the catastrophes, the moral failings and the transgressions against divine commandments, are, as Burkert puts it, apprehended by the “knowing” mediators with a transcendent diagnosis. They in turn provide the rationale for the religious rituals. These “knowing mediators” are, for example, saints, prophets, and priests. We find these archetypical figures again today. There is the “pure virgin” in the form of the saintly Greta Thunberg; the world-renouncing ascetic Karl Lauterbach; and the priesthood represented by Christian Drosten and Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber. Instead of appealing to divine revelation, they invoke science, which however practically fulfills the same function. Franz Werfel’s novel about the prophet Jeremiah bears the title Hearken Unto the Voice. For Greta Thunberg this turns into “listen to the science.” The religious echoes are evident.
That science today is viewed as the source for the justification of existing morality and not as a tool for the pursuit of disinterested knowledge is shown by the fact that its results are only widely accepted when they legitimate existing political and moral convictions, not however when they call them into question. When Thilo Sarrazin, for example, based his theses on the hereditability of intelligence on current scientific research—even submitting it for review by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which in turn confirmed that he had described the science correctly—he could not have his claims accepted; on the contrary, the science was called into question. “Science” will always be invoked as an authority when its results support the hegemonic discourse, not however when it challenges it.
Politics and the public do not expect “science” to provide new knowledge nor to examine existing assumptions—and certainly not to overturn them—but rather to confirm existing views and norms. The “scientist” in the corona and climate crises is not playing the role of a researcher, reporting results in a value-free manner, following Hume’s dictum that the ought should not be derived from the is, i.e., that ethical norms should not be derived from scientific knowledge. Instead the “scientist” has become the herald, the warner, and the voice of conscience, that is, those functions that in another age were carried out by priests. “Science” in the Western world has become a substitute religion. Climate and corona models, as the ultimate justification for the rules of social order, lay claim to the role of divine revelation, the source of absolute, unquestionable truths.
Dividing the World into Pure and Impure
In addition to the search for “moral guilt” and religious sacrifice, climate and corona politics include a third universal psychological mechanism, the separation between “pure” and “impure.” In 1966, the British anthroplogist Mary Douglas (1921–2007) published her famous book Purity and Danger. Douglas believes that the “imaginations of separation, cleaning, limiting and punishing transgressions had the function above all of systematizing an un-ordered experience.” The separation of the world into pure and impure produces order in a disordered world. It is typical that this separation of pure and impure refers to invisible dangers. The threat comes from an imperceptible world that reaches into the world of visible phenomena.
The parallels to the predominant corona and climate angst are clear. Both COVID-19 and CO2 are invisible phenomena, associated with the ideas of pollution and contamination. In place of spirits and demons, we now have viruses and greenhouse gases. As in archaic societies, the answer involves purification rituals for the whole society. The separation of the vaccinated from the unvaccinated is a matter of separating the pure from the impure. The same holds for the differentiation between the “clean energy” of the wind and the sun and, on the other hand, fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Similarly vegan diets, separating types of trash, disinfections, and masks all belong to today’s omnipresent purification rituals.
The corona crisis and climate change are enabling new forms of social disciplining and the imposition of the priorities of the collective over and against the individual, including ostracism, exclusion, punishment, and the marginalization of all those who resist this social disciplining. Western societies are no longer held together through kinship relationships as in traditional tribal societies, nor are they based on coherence via the identification with an ethnic-national collective. The legitimacy of social rules no longer involves reference to a classic religion. Corona and climate policy together represent the ambitious effort to provide the de-nationalized and increasingly atomistic global society with a new goal, direction, and order on the basis of an expectation of salvation and apocalyptic versions of the end of times, all with a pseudoscientific grounding.
1) Greta Thunberg is the Swedish environmentalist activist, born 2003, who has been especially influential in Germany through the “Fridays for Future” movement. Karl Lauterbach, since 2005 a member of the Bundestag from the Social Democratic Party, is an epidemiologist who often advocated against loosening the steps taken to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Christian Drosten is a prominent German virologist whom the Guardian called Germany’s “face of the coronavirus crisis.” Hans-Joachim Schnellnhuber, a German climatologist, is the former chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change.
2) Franz Werfel was an Austrian novelist, born 1890 in Prague (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and died in exile, in 1945 in Beverly Hills. Höret die Stimme or Jeremias appeared in 1937.
3) Thilo Sarrazin is a German politician, formerly a member of the Social Democratic Party and until 2010 a member of the Executive Board of the Bundesbank, became a controversial figure with the publication of his book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Abolishes Itself), critical of immigration policies and multiculturalism.
Excerpt from the book Jason Louv. "John Dee and the Empire of Angels. Enochian Magic and Occult Roots of Modern World." Rochester; Toronto: Inner Traditions, 2018.
As of the twenty-first century, Drake’s Bay lies thirty miles northwest of the hyperreal technological mecca of San Francisco, California, a short drive across the Golden Gate Bridge through the low, mist-covered hills and forest of Marin County. The bay stretches along eight miles of coast, and centers at Drake’s Beach, a small cove that looks out onto the Pacific, surrounded by sandstone hills and ice plant.
Here, in 1579, a privateer named Francis Drake landed after circumnavigating the tip of South America in a clandestine mission, proving that it could be done for the first time. He named the coast he had alighted upon Nova Albion. The man who had masterminded Drake’s mission was John Dee.
While Dee’s previous work had been theoretical, in the 1570s he involved himself in Elizabeth’s geopolitical planning, laying the ideological framework for building a new world empire. This empire—which would spread the new ideals of the Reformation and lead to the birth of America—would soon grow to compete with the Spanish Catholic efforts at colonization. It was to be a cold war for a New World.
An omen of this war came seven years earlier, in 1572, when a new star appeared in the heavens, remaining visible night and day for seventeen months—we now designate it SN 1572, a Type Ia supernova that occurred in the constellation Cassiopeia.1 Dee, who rushed to make observational measurements of the supernova, thought that it confirmed that the final restoration of the world—the eschaton—was at hand.2 The astronomer, alchemist, and astrologer Tycho Brahe, for whom the supernova is now named, believed that it was the first new star to appear in the sky since the birth of Christ. Five years later, in 1577, a great comet arrived above England, also observed by Brahe—confirming for the populace that the end of the world was nigh, fears upon which Dee was called to consult by Elizabeth.3
Indeed, it was the end of the world. By Dee’s time, Luther’s Reformation had initiated sea changes in Europe that broke a centuries-long status quo. Inheriting a tiny and vulnerable country, Elizabeth had pursued a strategy of avoiding war with the Catholic powers. To do so, she had kept France and Spain out of conflict by offering to increase support for whatever country was threatened by the other; both religion and Elizabeth’s own marital status were drawn into this delicate political maneuvering. Yet the gambit could only last so long before war did break out, dragging England into the fray.4 Concurrently, the Netherlands had erupted into open revolt against the Roman Catholic King Philip II of Spain, which would result in the formation of the Protestant Dutch Republic by 1581.
England was also economically insecure, besieged by desperation, homelessness, and plague. As England still grew its own food, it was vulnerable to famine if a wheat crop failed. Although the country’s food supply never ran out, famines would later make the 1580s and ’90s miserable for many, with the poorest potentially resorting to eating bark and grass; French peasants from the same time period are recorded as feeding on unripe grain, roots, and the intestines and blood left over from animals slaughtered for those that could afford them.5 One of the primary reasons for England’s failing economy was the massive amount of silver that Spain was extracting from its New World colonies, massively tipping the balance of economic power toward Spain. By contrast, England relied on textile exports, the manufacture of which had kept its population employed, and Continental demand was now minimal, leaving much of the country out of work. Trade with Russia, the Mediterranean, and Guinea had brought in some funds, but the real prize would be wresting at least partial control of the New World from Spain.6
Fig. 1. Francis Drake. Portrait by Crispijn van de Passe the Elder, 1598.
It is in this context that Dee gave the world the concept of a “British Empire,” a phrase he coined. After Columbus’s discovery of the New World, Pope Alexander VI had divided the Americas between Portugal and Spain in the Treaty of Tordesillas, handing them dominion over the Atlantic. Dee, with his back pocket full of superior knowledge of geography, navigation, and optics, would soon suggest Elizabeth contest this, and expand into the New World not just to rival Catholic domination, but for economic growth. Dee’s knowledge of optics, as well as the geographic and cartographic information he had absorbed under Mercator and his other mentors, at a time when accurate cartographic information was largely confined to the Continent, made him invaluable in not only conceptualizing but actualizing this plan. Yet for Dee himself, exploration of the New World had little to do with mercantile or even political goals. His fascination with imperialism pertained more to his occult calculations. It was clear to Dee, if no one else, that America had been colonized by King Arthur—even that still-existing Arthurian colonies might be found in the Northwest Passage. If this was the case, England had just as much spiritual claim to America as Rome did.7
The Muscovy Company, however, was already engaged in making real profits from trading with the tsar in Russia, and wasn’t seeking to take further risks on exploring west. Martin Frobisher got Elizabeth to lean on the company, and they in turn granted Frobisher a license with the proviso that he accept a company man, Michael Lok, as his treasurer. Dee was brought in to minimize risk by examining the plans for the voyage and imparting his knowledge of geometry, cosmography, and navigational instruments to the expedition leaders; Dee had spent fifteen years planning logistics for just such a voyage.8 Lok quickly warmed to Dee after realizing Dee wasn’t interested in competing with him. Since Lok had outfitted the expedition with expensive new navigational technology, he also had to make sure that Dee explained to his men how to use it without breaking it. Two ships were next commissioned—the Gabriel and Michael, named after the archangels that Dee would later record extensive traffic with during the angelic conversations.
Despite mishaps along the way, the Michael being forced back to port, and the near loss of the Gabriel (it was only heroics by Frobisher himself that saved the ship, nearly killing him) the voyage found land—the cyclopean ice walls of what Frobisher called Meta Incognita, the Unknown Limit, which we now know as Baffin Island in Canada. While exploring the coastline, Frobisher’s expedition came into conflict with Inuits, capturing and marooning one individual on a rock. An exploratory mission of Frobisher’s men went missing shortly thereafter. After taking an Inuit as a hostage with a boat hook, Frobisher abandoned hope for the return of his men and reversed course to England. The Inuit captive would be recorded as an object of great wonder and fascination for the English, before vanishing into the annals of history and a probably unpleasant fate.9
Fig. 2. Later map of Meta Incognita by Sir Robert Dudley and Antonio Francesco Lucini, c. 1647.
Even more interesting to the Crown was a sample of black ore that Frobisher had found in Meta Incognita, and that English alchemists claimed to have found gold in. For Dee, this discovery validated that the 1572 supernova foretold the discovery of the philosopher’s stone. For the English government, it was a galvanizing reason to return to Meta Incognita for more, under the cover of secrecy, to avoid claim jumping. Funding was no longer an issue—even the cash-poor Dee, seeing the potential for return, invested £25 (about £6,000 or $7,700 in 2017 terms).10
A crew of 140 was raised, including several prisoners who were to again board the Michael and Gabriel, along with a third ship entitled the Aid, and then to be left in the New World to try and win the “good will” of the locals, in much the same way that America and Australia would later be colonized. After six weeks, the expedition reached what is now known as Frobisher’s Strait and moored in what they named Jackman’s Sound, which Frobisher claimed for England in the country’s first act of colonial conquest of the New World. Setting out to search for more of the gold ore, the crew found nothing but a dead narwhal, which they called a “sea unicorn.” Immediately thereafter, the sailors found more of the black ore, which they began loading into the ship, all while fighting off violent attacks from the now-incensed Inuits.11
In all, Frobisher hauled over 140 tons of the ore back to England, presenting news of his find to Elizabeth, along with the narwhal’s horn. The ore was put under lock, key, and security detail, and tests on it commenced, whereupon only minute quantities of gold and silver were extracted, to Frobisher’s dismay.12
Despite the low yield of precious metals, a third voyage was sent back to Canada to claim what profits could still be salvaged. The crew returned with 1,150 tons, but by this time Lok’s Cathay Company was severely over budget; as a result of the expeditions, Lok declared bankruptcy and was thrown into debtor’s prison. After countless salvage attempts, the final extracted yield from the black ore was one single pinhead of silver.13
To Dee, however, the political value of the English voyages to Newfoundland and Baffin Island was immense—and not only because they were gathering data in the search for the Northwest Passage.14 In November 1577, Dee presented a new imperial plan to Elizabeth, suggesting that England wrest control of the New World from Spain—General and Rare Memorials, a set of documents laying out plans and technical guidelines for a new era of English colonization.
The Memorials continued the occult inquiry Dee began in the Propaedeumata aphoristica and Monas hieroglyphica; as with those books, Dee thought the Memorials divinely inspired (also by the angel Michael, in the case of the Monas). For Dee, the Memorials were a revelation from the angels, divine guidance on the creating of a British Empire, through a Royal Navy that would hold the world in its sway.15
In the text, Dee argued that Britain had the greatest need of any country for a continually operational navy, and that it also had the world’s greatest supply of timber, shipbuilders, willing volunteers for shipyard labor and staffing ships, and even suitable harbors. Establishing such a navy would make Britain nigh-on invincible (it did), and expansion of the British Navy and colonization of the New World not only had historical precedent but would surely raise vast riches for the Crown (it did).16 Such a plan would establish Elizabeth as the world ruler before the end times arrived; the money raised for the naval effort, Dee later added, could also be used to help build a new alchemical institute to produce the philosopher’s stone—the final perfection of which would reestablish the empire in full.17 In his partially lost 1577 manuscript “Famous and Rich Discoveries,” Dee speaks of how he would ascend above the heavens, to look down upon the earth and divine the Northwest Passage.
The cover of the Memorials depicts Elizabeth helming a ship representing British imperialism, with the angel Michael flying before her with sword and shield in hand and the Tetragrammaton above her, the ship being drawn forth by “Lady Occasion” toward freshly conquered territories. Following this are several pages rebuking Dee’s reputation as a sorcerer—Murphyn and Prestall’s attacks had been so successful that Dee was forced to address their slander upfront.
The four volumes of Dee’s imperial magnum opus were as follows:
General and Rare Memorials, completed and still extant. This addressed raising funds for and constructing a Petty Navy Royal of sixty 120-ton to 200-ton “tall ships” and twenty small warships weighing between twenty and fifty tons each, staffed by 6,600 well-paid men, the funds to be raised through taxation, as the wealth gained by imperial expansion would trickle down to the English people. This navy, Dee thought, would be the “Master Key” that would solidify English dominance, a “war machine”10 to guard England against its enemies. Although Dee was not originally concerned with state affairs, court politics would later force Dee to rewrite the Memorials to encourage the support of Holland and Zealand. The combination of the Dutch and English militaries would solidify control over the Narrow Seas in the wake of Spain’s withdrawal from the Low Countries. Also disgusted by the state of the Thames (upon which Mortlake was situated), Dee added an ecological broadside against the improper use of nets to fish the river.18
Fig. 3. Cover of Dee’s General and Rare Memorials, 1577.
A set of navigational tables, calculated using Dee’s paradoxical compass, which would have been larger than the English Bible. This was unpublished and is presumed lost. (Dee’s paradoxical compass could have been used along with these tables to keep navigation precise; unfortunately, the newly drafted sailors found it too complex, and resisted training in its use.)19
A volume so secret that Dee stated it “should be utterly suppressed or delivered to Vulcan’s custody” (i.e., burned).20 Also lost, this manuscript may well have dealt with angelic magic or other occult or astrological calculations relating to imperial expansion. It may also have had to do with Rome or the Spanish, which would have necessitated even greater secrecy than occult material.
Of Famous and Rich Discoveries, which survived, albeit in a partly fire-destroyed form. Here Dee set forth the case for English expansion and territorial claims, and suggested exploratory voyages.21
Following the exploration of Newfoundland, Dee became concerned with discovering if America was a separate continent from Asia. Abraham Ortelius had suggested that a “Strait of Anian” connected the Northwest Passage to the Pacific; however, North America was suspected to be so large that anybody who tried to discover this passage by entering Newfoundland where Frobisher had and continuing to sail west would run out of supplies and freeze to death long before hitting the Pacific. Yet if one were to sail south, rounding the tip of South America, conditions would be far more favorable to continued sailing, and an expedition could look for the outlet of the Northwest Passage on the other side of North America. In the pages of Of Famous and Rich Discoveries, Dee made a compelling case that England should do exactly that.22
To undertake this perilous voyage, Dee and Elizabeth looked to an unlikely candidate: the privateer and slave trader Francis Drake. Drake undertook the mission between 1577 and 1580, taking a fleet of six ships, including his own Pelican. The voyage was beset by storms, loss of personnel, mutiny, and ship rot—by the time Drake reached the Pacific, only the Pelican remained, which he rechristened the Golden Hind. Drake proceeded up the coast of South America, attacking Spanish settlements and capturing ships as he went, looting treasure, wine, and maps in the process. Had Drake been commanding an official English fleet, this would have been an act of war, but his privateer status lent England plausible deniability, making Drake’s raids a form of naval black ops. In June 1579, he landed at what is now called Drake’s Bay, north of San Francisco, before reversing course, and returning to England by way of the Cape of Good Hope and the Sierra Leone. Upon his arrival, the logs of the expedition, and therefore the route Drake had discovered, were immediately ordered classified.23 Drake returned to England a celebrity, and was knighted soon thereafter.
As soon as Drake returned, plans for another voyage began to coalesce. In September 1580, Humphrey Gilbert and Dee drew up a plan that, should Gilbert gain control of the northern New World, Dee would receive everything above the fiftieth parallel—granting him Alaska and the majority of Canada.24 Two years later, Dee still suspected that a Northwest Passage existed across the top of North America, and drew a map for Gilbert depicting it, in which he placed the West Coast of North America only 140 degrees west of England.25
Meanwhile, on February 5, 1578, Dee had married Jane Fromoundes. Supported by Elizabeth, he had proposed only a few months after the death of his first wife, Kathryn Constable, in March 1575. Jane was a member of court, a gentlewoman servant to Lady Katherine Howard, Elizabeth’s best friend. Fromoundes’s Catholic family hardly approved of the “arch-conjuror”; her father, Bartholomew Fromoundes, died of a stroke the day after John and Jane Dee’s son Arthur was born.26 Dee may have had one eye on securing a better position for himself by marrying into court. Unfortunately, to Dee’s lifelong disadvantage, there was no patronage for scientists during Elizabeth’s reign—unlike the Continent—explaining Dee’s quest for patronage abroad. The best Dee could hope for in England was an academic or Church position, and even these he was regularly frustrated in attaining.27
In the meantime, sectarian conflict was only intensifying. Over the previous decade, the Protestant Low Countries had exploded into open revolt against Spain’s Catholic rule, which would soon result in the formation of an independent Dutch Republic, and suggest strategic alliances with England. This added to the backdrop of war between the Protestant and Catholic spheres. Dee was soon called upon to defend Elizabeth from Catholic magical attack yet again, when wax images of Elizabeth and members of the Privy Council were discovered in a dunghill—as the dunghill melted the wax, by the logic of sympathetic magic, so would Elizabeth and her council come to harm.
Though the Council was as alarmed by Dee’s countermagic as they were by the original sorceric attack, Dee found himself well positioned: Dudley needed him to dig up as much evidence as possible on Catholic magical attacks, as this would assist Dudley against his Catholic rivals at court. Those captured thanks to Dee’s detections were held and tortured.28 Among those arrested on Dee’s cue was John Prestall, who was tied to a suspected Catholic conspiracy to magically attack the queen. Elizabeth was indeed ailing, but the cause was probably poor dental hygiene, not the occult. Prestall—whom Dee may have had arrested at least partially out of desire for revenge—was tortured for over a month, but no information on any conspiracy was forthcoming. The Council subsequently fetched Prestall’s cosaboteur Vincent Murphyn for interrogation.29
While Dee was sent to seek a cure for Elizabeth’s ailment from the German alchemist Leonhard Thurneysser, Dudley whipped up a propaganda war against Catholic sorcery, which could be lurking around any corner. But Dee and Dudley’s occult pogrom collapsed when it was revealed that the magician Thomas Elkes had made the wax dolls as part of a love spell for a client. Dee was revealed to have been wrong the entire time.30
After long decades of theoretical work, Dee was now turning his attention to actual operative magic—he had embarked on a series of alchemical experiments with an assistant named Roger Cook, as well as attempts at angelic contact with Humphrey Gilbert’s brother Adrian.31 The court, perhaps impressed with any magic Dee had performed to alleviate perceived attacks against the queen, also furnished Dee with a new scryer, Bartholomew Hickman.32
In the meantime, Dee’s enemies were plotting their revenge against the “arch-conjuror.” Prestall was now locked in the Tower under a death sentence, where he would stay until 1588; this left Murphyn to counteraccuse Dee of being a Catholic conspirator who was himself working magic against the queen. Dee’s occult experiments at Mortlake would furnish Murphyn with new ammunition. Dee sued in response.33
So alarmed was Elizabeth with Dee’s absence from court that on September 17, 1580, she traveled to Mortlake to roust him from his studies herself, riding by coach and appearing in his garden; as Dee recorded in his diary, “She beckoned her hand for me. I came to her coach side: she very speedily pulled off her glove and gave me her hand to kiss: and to be short, willed me to resort to her Court.”34 Two weeks later, Dee arrived at court to hand deliver a new manuscript, the Brytanici imperii limites or “Limits of the British Empire.”
Addressed solely to Elizabeth and her Privy Council, the Limits sought to establish a spiritual mandate not only for giving Elizabeth control of both the Low Countries and America, but for establishing her as the sovereign of a new global order. Dee now privately elaborated the occult and esoteric dimensions of the Memorials that he had wisely withheld from the general public.35 Just as he believed the Memorials to have been divinely inspired by angels, Dee thought he had been moved to write the Limits by the Holy Trinity itself. The same angelic idea that had inspired him, he believed, had inspired Edgar I’s naval expansion in the tenth century.36
Dee argued that during his reign King Arthur had held dominion not only of America, but of thirty countries.37 If this was indeed the case, then England had at least as much of a spiritual claim to world power as Rome, and all Elizabeth had to do was assume his mantle and become the Arthurian world empress. Even Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, whose court circle Dee had connections with during his time at Louvain, had long seen Arthur as the model on which the future world ruler would be based. After the Dutch Revolt, it was hoped that Elizabeth would claim Dutch sovereignty—and that she, and not a Habsburg, would become the Arthurian world emperor, uniting the globe under the banner of a reformed Christendom.38
Mercator himself had written to Dee that King Arthur had sent an expedition of four thousand men into the seas near the North Pole, and that some of the members of the team had survived, with their descendants appearing at court in Norway in 1364. Also of interest was the Welsh legend of Madoc, a prince who supposedly explored the New World in 1170; Dee not only feverishly sought to discover evidence of Madoc’s existence in Spanish records of America, but believed that he was descended from the prince. Claims by Dee that Arthur had ruled over “Hollandia” only added to the case for Elizabeth becoming the world emperor of Christendom. Maps drawn up by Dee on the foundation of the Arthurian claim to the New World sprawled from Florida to Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean.39
Save the Arthurian angle, this was not a new idea—the hope for a last world emperor had long been part of Catholic eschatology, with the long-expected monarch reestablishing a new Roman Empire with dominion over the entire globe, as a bulwark against the Antichrist. This final emperor had been predicted in the widely known seventh-century Syriac text Apocalypse by Pseudo-Methodius, a product of Eastern Christianity, which prophesied that Christendom would be savaged by Muslim invaders as God’s retribution for widespread sexual licentiousness, including homosexuality and even transgenderism. This onslaught would be overcome by the final Roman emperor, who would push back the forces of the Antichrist to come, who would be born in the village of Chorazin.*11
An earlier individual who had connected this apocalyptic prophecy with European exploration of the New World was none other than Christopher Columbus. After the completion of his voyages, Columbus composed a religious text entitled El libro de las profecias, the “Book of Prophecies,” which suggested (following Joachim of Fiore) that four critical events were necessary to prompting the Second Coming. These were the Christianization of the planet, the discovery of the physical Garden of Eden, a final Crusade to recover Jerusalem from Islam, and, ultimately, the election of a last world emperor to ensure the crushing of Islam, the retaking of the Holy Land, and the return of Christ to the world.40
While Columbus had held out for Ferdinand and Isabella to assume this world emperor role, Dee’s plan marked a radical departure by suggesting that the world emperor should be Protestant, not Catholic—Elizabeth. Where the Catholic and Protestant vanguards of exploration differed was not in their goals, but in jockeying for control. As a result, Dee set to work building a case for Elizabeth-as-emperor, using the Arthurian claim to the New World.
Dee was further encouraged in his belief that Elizabeth should assume world power by Trithemius,41 whose De septem secundeis concerns itself not with terrestrial empires but rather with the course of history. For Trithemius, history was ruled by seven angels corresponding to the seven planets, each of which held regency over a period of 354 years and 4 months, beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelation. Trithemius’s scheme held a deep appeal for Dee, who nevertheless recalculated the senior initiate’s math, assigning the Elizabethan period to the angel Anael, Venus, on account of the great number of female leaders in Europe, as well as the 1572 supernova. And though Elizabeth’s regency was currently guaranteed by the angel of Venus, a shift to the age of Jupiter was imminent. Dee felt it his sacred duty to initiate British expansion before Jupiter arrived and the window passed.42
Like Dee’s later Monas, De septem secundeis had been addressed to the Holy Roman emperor—in this case Maximilian I, not II; Trithemius’s introduction to the work suggests that he was delivering it to the emperor not as his own work but as an emissary of a body of initiates who concurred that, indeed, seven spirits corresponding to the seven planets, proceeding from the first Intellect, ruled the world in successive periods. This concept was not unique to Trithemius—some early Gnostics held to a doctrine of seven Archons, or evil “rulers” of reality, who were arguably related to the seven planets. In the nineteenth century, the dispensationalist evangelical John Nelson Darby would propose that there were seven distinct periods or dispensations of world history, beginning with the Fall and culminating with the Second Coming, a belief system now adhered to by the majority of American evangelical Christians.
Just as with the similar Hindu system of Yugas,44 Trithemius’s scheme outlines rising and falling curves in the quality of the overall consciousness in humanity, with debased periods marked by witchcraft, the worship of multiple gods, and even the worship of princes and rulers as gods. The great drama of history, for Trithemius, hinges on celestial events as well as terrestrial political shifts, with comets and other events in the skies marking the progress of history—like (as Dee did not fail to note) the supernova of 1572 and the Great Comet of 1577.
Remarkably, De septem secundeis, composed in 1508, predicts “the institution of some new Religion,” that “a strong sect of Religion shall arise, and be the overthrow of the Ancient Religion. It’s to be feared least the fourth beast lose one head.”45 The fourth beast is the fourth beast of Apocalypse from Daniel, a world kingdom that devours the earth. As Trithemius was writing the Septem, Martin Luther had only just been ordained a priest. It was not until 1517 that he would post the Ninety-Five Theses and spark the Reformation. Even if Trithemius was extrapolating future events from pre-Luther European sentiment, his prescience was outstanding. And thanks to Dee, a world kingdom was indeed about to arise to devour the world.
If Dee’s calculations were correct—and Elizabeth had both a legal mandate for imperialism, following Arthur, and an astrological one, following Trithemius—then this opened the way for the true apocalyptic goal of establishing an evangelical British Empire: converting the entire world to Christianity, and thereby assuring that the souls of the world’s inhabitants were accounted for prior to the Second Coming. While the new empire would be a Protestant one, Dee was not exclusively Protestant in his imperial scheme, suggesting that Elizabeth convert the American Indians partly to Protestantism, partly to Catholicism. The idea that Elizabeth would convert the world to Christianity and lead it into the eschaton as its reigning sovereign was not unique to Dee; it was broadly circulating in English society at this time, with the end of the world predicted for 1588 by the author and translator James Sandford.46
As payment for his intellectual contribution, Dee requested free reign in the dominions under Elizabeth’s absolute protection, to fulfill unspoken services for the empire—not for Elizabeth, but under the direction of God himself.47 This would have meant the expansion (or recovery) of the now-named British Empire, including America. Dee’s use of the term British Empire long predated the use of the word British to mean the British Isles; it referred instead to Arthur’s legendary Britain, reaching to North America.48
Though Dee’s occult expansionism captivated the Privy Council, including Dudley and Philip Sidney, Cecil was underwhelmed. Despite the grandiose patriotism of Dee’s plan, Cecil scoffed at Dee’s claims of Elizabeth’s Arthurian genealogy, and, most of all, the foreign policy disaster that overtly pushing Elizabeth as the world sovereign would create. Part of the reason Cecil may have soured on Dee was that shortly before their meeting he had entertained Vincent Murphyn, and heard the cunning man’s concocted story of Dee’s Catholic plotting. Whether he believed Murphyn or not, enough of a germ of suspicion was raised that Cecil decided he was unable to take even the slightest security risk. Patiently sitting through Dee’s arguments, Cecil grew irritated and finally stonewalled Dee altogether.49
Dee, now fifty-three, had offered up the fruit of his youth and of his Great Work; the Memorials and Limits had been the culminating achievement of his laborious studies, his burning patriotism, his far travels, and even the tortures he had endured for staying loyal to England. He had given everything to advance the cause of his country. Despite little to no recognition or recompense, Dee had continued toiling in Elizabeth’s service for decades, producing the imperial plan that would save his nation from poverty and conquest, for which Dee regarded himself a “Christian Aristotle.”50 Yet the response from Elizabeth’s court in general, and Cecil in particular, had been to say “thank you very much,” take his work, and show him the door. Dee must have been heartbroken.
Returning to Mortlake in defeat, Dee found his mother seriously ill. She died soon thereafter, compounding the sorrow of one of Dee’s darkest hours. Elizabeth visited him personally the same day to console him, telling him that all was not lost, and that she would study his plan in greater detail—even that Cecil had been impressed by his historical reasoning. Cecil later sent Dee a joint of venison—small payment for the gift of an empire. Yet no reversal of Cecil’s (apparent) decision to shut Dee and his plan out would be forthcoming, and Dee, who shrank in fear from Cecil, would find himself progressively estranged from court. Shifting European politics would make Dee’s apocalyptic imperial thinking less relevant, and further voyages to the New World would fail to turn up any evidence of Arthurian settlements, undermining Dee’s claims. In the midst of this, Murphyn attacked Dee yet again, although Dee now had an ally in Elizabeth, as Murphyn was later brought up on charges for slandering the queen.
While Dee himself was shut out of Elizabethan geopolitical strategizing, his plan itself would soon be enacted. England would develop great naval might, take the New World, triumph over the Spanish, and establish a British Empire. But Dee, the initiating magus, would enjoy no part of it, not even as a commercial partner; Dee’s place in the “Fellowship of New Navigations Atlantical and Septentional” would be taken by the younger Sir Walter Raleigh.51 History itself would forget Dee’s role in establishing the empire, passing over his legacy in favor of that of Richard Hakluyt, Francis Drake, and Raleigh—despite the fact that Dee was far more central to planning.52 Dee’s contribution was providing the justification and story behind why expansion was important, christening the nascent British Empire and giving his child a life script and ideology.53
In time, this single idea of a British Empire, dreamed up by an eccentric English academic—or given to him by the archangel Michael, as Dee believed—would come to dominate the planet. Following World War I, the “Empire on which the sun never sets” claimed over 458 million subjects, somewhere between one-fifth and one-fourth of the world’s population,54 and covered a full fourth of the land on Earth as well as most of the world’s oceans.55 What had once been a tiny nation that would today be considered developing—wracked by poverty, hunger, religious terrorism, and fearful superstition—now dwarfed the achievements of Alexander, Caesar, or the Khans. During its time, the empire controlled Canada, the eastern colonies in America, parts of the Indies and British Guiana, a large swathe of Africa, much of the Middle East including Palestine and Iraq, India, Burma, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Antarctica, and many more territories around the world.
If we are to consider the American empire to be the logical successor of the British one, to which global power was transferred when its progenitor began to collapse due to financial overextension, then we must also hold John Dee as the great-grandparent of the modern world. This Anglo-American world order is ruled not by a single world sovereign but by a bureaucratic centralization of power, united not under the banner of Protestantism but under that of its crowned and conquering child, the single world religion of global capitalism, yet with the exact same Protestant eschatology operating in the background.
And if all of this can be said to stem from revelations given to Dee by Michael, it fires the imagination to consider that the Islamic world stems from the utterance of Michael’s companion Gabriel, who gave Muhammad the Quran, and would also be present at Dee’s later angelic conversations. It is also Gabriel who told Mary of the coming birth of Christ. Angels guided Abraham and were present at the delivery of the Law to Moses, creating Judaism; Michael is said to safeguard the state of Israel. Yet if all of these things were indeed created by the same beings, why do they consistently come into conflict with each other?
If geopolitics are a “grand chessboard,”56 as former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski famously said, then the players are the angels, and they play multiple sides. God works, we are told, in mysterious ways, though God’s workers should look to store up for themselves “treasures in heaven,”57 rather than this world, if Dee’s payment with a single haunch of meat is any indicator.
Can all of this be said to serve a greater good? It depends on whether one accepts a teleological view of history. If, like Teilhard de Chardin or John Dee, you believe that time is moving toward an Omega Point or eschaton—the Second Coming of Christ—it all comes into focus.58 After all, the angels who exiled mankind east of Eden also, through the British occupation of Palestine, laid the groundwork for the modern state of Israel east of the Mediterranean, upon which both Judaic and evangelical Christian eschatology, and the final redemption of mankind, thereby hangs.
As to the empire itself—how to even begin assessing the effects of Dee’s creation on the world?
The archly conservative English historian Niall Ferguson has argued that the British Empire was the best of all possible empires; it was considered a leading light in the world, the “global policeman” before America inherited the mantle, and by comparison, its rival empires—the French, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, and others—were even more monstrous. Indeed, Ferguson argues, the British Empire was a liberal one, built on the principles of Edmund Burke, with occupied territories expected to come to self-governance.59
But the empire was not without its atrocities. Among them were the ongoing rape of India under the Raj and tens of millions of continual starvation deaths, including the 1760s Bengal famine in which one-third of the Bengali population died (with some victims resorting to cannibalism) while England grew fat on the spoils,60 and the nineteenth-century policies that resulted in the hunger deaths of twenty-nine million Indians.61 There were the massacres of the indigenous peoples of the Americas by British colonists, including the use of smallpox blankets as biological warfare during the Siege of Fort Pitt—an estimated two to eighteen million Native Americans died during European colonization of North America, in part thanks to English settlers.62 In the Oceania region, Tasmanians and Australian aborigines were genocided by the English en masse.
Then there was the role of the slave trade in building the empire—until the 1807 British abolition of slavery, the English transported over 3.5 million Africans to the Americas to be used in forced labor, one-third of the total transatlantic slave traffic.63 Once colonies were established, British efforts toward crushing rebellions were severe, as in the Sudan, Ceylon (where 1 percent of the population was killed in a single retribution), Jamaica, Burma, the detainment of almost the entire Kenyan population in camps (in which thousands were beaten to death or died from disease, including almost all of the children),64 South Africa (where one-sixth of the Boer population died in English concentration camps, primarily children), Afghanistan, and Iraq.
These are, of course, only some of the crimes we know about. Many of the archived records detailing the abuses committed during the final years of the empire were intentionally and illegally destroyed by the Foreign Office before they could be moved into the public domain, allegedly including records of the torture and murder of Mau Mau insurgents; the massacre of unarmed Malayan villagers by the Scots Guard; records of a secret torture center in Aden, Yemen; and all of the sensitive records pertaining to British Guiana.65 While the empire spread across the globe, racism, cruelty, and genocide followed in its shadow.
Perhaps the nineteenth-century British politician Lord Salisbury summarized the empire best when he quipped, “If our ancestors had cared for the rights of other people, the British Empire would not have been made.”66
: #0xx0oA “On the Origin of the World, Nag Hammadi Codex 2, 5, in Barnstone and Meyer, The Gnostic Bible, 416–37."
Pandemic Brooding: Can the Permaculture movement survive the first severe test of the energy descent future? - Holmgren Design
As the pandemic rolled into its second year, I became concerned that the psychosocial fallout of the pandemic, and especially the response at the global and local levels, could represent an existential threat to permaculture and kindred movements. At one level, this threat is the same as that to families, workplaces, networks and organisations more generally, where a sense of urgency to implement the official response, especially lockdowns and mass vaccination, is producing a huge gulf between an ever more certain majority and a smaller minority questioning or challenging the official response.
My aim in this essay is to focus on the critical importance of using all our physical, emotional and intellectual resources towards maintaining connections across what could be a widening gulf of frustration and distrust within our movement, reflecting society at large. I want to explore how permaculture ethics and design principles can help us empathetically bridge that gulf without needing to censor our truth or simply avoid the issues.
While the pandemic and the responses to it will pass in time, I believe the future will be characterised by similar issues that test our ability to tolerate uncertainty and diversity and to thus exercise solidarity within kin, collegiate and network communities of practise.
International Permaculture Day May 2013 Daylesford Community Garden
Future Scenarios and the Brown Tech future
The positive grounded thinking that characterises permaculture has always been informed by a dark view of the state of the world and long-term emerging threats. Future Scenarios is my 2008 exploration of four near-future ‘energy descent’ scenarios driven by the variable rates of oil and resource depletion on the one hand and rate of onset of serious climate change on the other. Six years later, I wrote the essay ‘Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future’ where I ‘called’ Brown Tech as being the already emergent scenario.
In the longer version of this ‘Pandemic brooding’ essay, I review and reinterpret this work in light of the pandemic and responses to it.
Anyone involved in permaculture knows that permies can come to quite different conclusions about what is the most ethical and practical solution to the same problem. For example faced with marauding wildlife, some will go to considerable expense (and resource consumption) building elaborate fences, anti-aviaries and other deterrents to separate wildlife from food. Others will treat the wildlife as another abundance of the system to be harvested. Various permaculture principles, as well as the fundamental ethic of Care of Earth, might be invoked to support both approaches.
Likewise, many permies believe taxation is essential to redistribute resources from places of abundance to those of scarcity and as an expression of solidarity essential to any functioning, let alone ethical, society. Others see almost all the expenditure by governments of tax revenues as representing rape of Mother Earth’s abundance and theft from Indigenous peoples, and further as either downright evil or at best a bandaid covering festering wounds. An ethical response is to minimise taxpaying (by reducing income and consumption). Again, design principles and ethics can be invoked to support either position.
From my perspective, grappling with the ethical and systemic issue is more important than the notion that there might be a correct answer, and therefore a wrong answer, to the challenge. In the past, there have been heated debates, and agreements to disagree, but rarely would participants in permaculture design courses, convergences or networks see the answers of others as reasons to reject permaculture. Many celebrate personal actions as small-scale experiments with their good, bad and interesting outcomes informing other experiments, especially the next generation’s, as we muddle through energy descent to hopefully more benign, or at least less-bad, futures.
Pandemic flavoured Brown Tech
I believe the pandemic and the responses to it represent a major turning point in crystalising the Brown Tech future. It ticks so many boxes:
- a nature-driven crisis which has been long predicted, and to some extent, planned for
- rolling uncertainty that progressively breaks down past expectations
- a crisis which, like a war, requires the suspension of normal economic activity, personal rights and governance processes
- a demand for strong action by government for the common good informed by science
- a revival of Keynesian policies including a massive increase in government debt
- an enemy (the virus) that can be easily demonised without there being too many defenders to ignore or silence
- strong censorship of broadcast media and novel efforts to censor social media to sideline debate that could undermine the rapidly emergent and evolving program.
If the crisis is not solved, then demonisation progressively shifts to those resisting the plan.
This situation is creating the fork in the road where some permies will find themselves (perhaps surprisingly) following the program, while others will have become certain that they will at least quietly resist complying to some degree or other, right up to a radicalised public resistance, whether that be through resigning from work, street protest or satirical art.
We can learn and gain, individually and collectively, from these increasingly divergent paths – but the learnings could be painful. Let’s consider the benefits that might have led permies down one or another path, perhaps unwittingly, to increasingly polarised positions.
The mainstream plan
Although there are differences of emphasis and policies around the government responses to the pandemic, these debates are around the margins, even if they are at times heated. Most fundamentally, the mainstream plan, informed by the scientific and medical establishment, takes the following as self-evident:
- The virus is an existential threat to society that must be contained and disarmed if not eliminated before an establishment of some hoped-for, tolerable new normal.
- Social distancing, disinfectant cleaning, testing, contact tracing, masks and various levels of quarantine, border controls and lockdowns are the only mechanisms available to prevent collapse of the health system and deaths escalating to horrific levels in the short term.
- Novel vaccine technology is the only real hope for a tolerable new normal.
- To achieve effective herd immunity and minimise death, some great majority of the adult population and probably children need to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
- The adverse effects of these provisionally approved vaccines are minor and/or rare and much less than the risk of the disease.
- Preventative and early treatments are at best of marginal value, or more likely based on false hope and fraud.
- The suspension of normal civil liberties is a necessary, albeit temporary, measure to achieve the plan in a timely fashion and reduce the suffering both from the virus and the plan itself.
- People who actively resist the plan need stronger social, economic and, where necessary, legal sanctions to ensure their actions don’t prevent the plan from working for the common good.
- Apart from debate around the margins about how best to respond to these givens, debate and questioning at the level of science, logistics, economics, law, politics, media and social media is not just unnecessary, but an existential threat to the plan and society at large, so must be prevented by unprecedented means.
- It is the responsibility of every citizen to play a part in the plan, be bold in convincing those who are hesitant, and challenging those not following the plan, especially those actively resisting it.
Permies following the plan are likely to see themselves as being part of a society-wide collective effort to minimise pain and suffering in the aged, the disadvantaged and those in poor health; a choice in favour of collective and longer-term gain at the cost of individual and short-term sacrifice. For many of us, this is a perfect metaphor for what is needed to address the climate emergency. By accepting what appears to be a broad consensus of global, national and local medical and scientific experts, we avoid the protracted debate and lack of a technical consensus that has stymied governments in initiating strong action to address the climate emergency.
For permies in despair about the waste and dysfunction of the consumer economy, the closure, albeit temporary, of many discretionary services and businesses is a taste for how we might need to decide what is important; maximum consumer choice for the affluent versus the provision of basic needs for all. The personal sacrifice and adaptation to difficulties, including stay-at-home lockdown, have been opportunities to focus more on the important things in life and get a taste of what social solidarity feels like.
Reports of contrarian views seem to mostly come from sources contaminated by association with climate denial and other views we categorically reject. The resisters’ outrage looks to many like just more selfish, science denying and ignorant right-wing rednecks, trying to prevent collective wisdom and social solidarity from working. Familiar powerful bad players in global corporations or nation states have been replaced by much more immediate angry undesirables, who without much power or vision, could wreck the hard work of the collective to create a workable new normal.
The dissident view
It is more difficult to generalise about those who question or reject the program. A great diversity of views, explanations, feelings and actions flourish in an environment of unprecedented censorship. While there is great sensitivity about the term ‘censorship’, let alone ‘propaganda’ by those supporting the plan, for those on the other side, it is astonishing how rapidly the axe has fallen on enquiry, and debate, in the mainstream media, social media, workplaces and families, let alone in defence of what – until very recently – most of us took as our inalienable rights.
For many permies, the pandemic seems another example of hyped threat like the ‘war on weeds’, ‘war on drugs’, ‘war on terror’ used to manipulate the population to comply with some version of disaster capitalist1Disaster capitalism feeds off natural (climate change) and other disasters to provide recovery and reconstruction services funded by the public that typically benefit the corporate providers and contribute to ongoing dependencies. The term was used by Naomi Klein to describe the evolution of late stage capitalism over recent decades. solutions. Most sceptics acknowledge the virus as real, but not as dangerous as the cure in lockdowns and other draconian measures. The ‘war on the virus’ seems just as futile or misguided as all the other wars on nature, substances and concepts. So much for trying to have nuanced discussions about viruses as an essential and largely symbiotic mechanism for the exchange of genetic material and mediation of evolution!
While the closure and loss of cafés, gyms and hairdressers might not be a great loss, except to those directly affected, many of us have noticed that the official response to the pandemic tends to follow a pattern of support and strengthening of dominant corporations while leading to the weakening and likely collapse of small business and community self-organised activities.
During the first lockdown, ‘stay at home in your household’ was celebrated as a great plus for people getting the RetroSuburbia message. More recently, the messaging about the problem of shared and multi-generation households being suspect has been building, especially in the working-class western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne where many of essential and less well paid workers live. We have shifted from a joke about ‘which permie created the pandemic?’ to a gritted teeth recognition that the response to the pandemic is working to vacuum people into another level of dependence on techno-industrial systems.
Many permies have taken advantage of the shift online to network more effectively around the country and the world, but we are deeply troubled by our increasing dependence on mediated experiences and what seems like draconian regulation of informal engagement with people and nature. The concerns for what this is doing to children are far more serious than the loss of the regulated version of social interaction that children get at school.
For many of us, it is completely natural to be sceptical about one big fast answer provided by the giants of the pharma industry, while they have been granted legal immunity for the consequences of their novel products. Many have made the rational assessment that the very low risks of the virus (for most of us at least) seem better than the unknown of a novel technology approved and pushed on a frustrated and frightened population in record time. Some in this camp were sceptical about vaccines in general but most have been influenced by the largely censored views from some leading global experts, that these vaccines are in a totally different risk category to all previous vaccines.
While waiting and seeing what happens next may look selfish to the majority, the difficulty in getting access to data and unbiased interpretation drives many to rely on their gut feelings. One or more examples of spin and manipulation of data by officials, and especially the media, leads to a general collapse in trust about any, and even all, aspects of the official story. For instance:
- Many of us have seen evidence that existing low cost and low risk treatments are available and used effectively in some countries resisting the ‘no available treatment’ orthodoxy.
- Most understand that while the vaccines seemed to give some protection from more severe effects at least in the early stages, they do not appear to stop transmission, at least of the latest variant.
- Many wonder why the build-up of natural immunity from prior exposure to the virus is not considered as part of the solution that should at least be discussed before vaccine passports are implemented.
Concerns about more serious adverse effects of the vaccines, as predicted by some experts, have developed into alarm, anger and resistance as both the evidence increases and efforts at cover up and spin become worse. Extreme consequences that many of us dismissed early on as highly unlikely are now showing up in hard-to-read scientific papers, clinical reports and official records and databases.
A similar process has happened with the official responses. For example vaccine passports are now widely discussed and debated as part of the attempt to get as many people vaccinated as possible, as the efficacy of vaccines falls and concerns about adverse effects lock in resistance by a minority. At the start of the pandemic this possibility was decried as paranoid conspiracy theory.
France has been leading the charge to impose vaccine passports for many public and work spaces including hospitals. It’s hard to assess how large the resistance will be in different countries and circumstances but there are already signs that whole industries will lose a significant part of their workforce as some substantial minority of the population withdraw their work, consumption and investment in the system rather than getting the vaccine. Whether by design, policy stupidity or the unexplained viral power of censored scientists and vaccine doubters to overcome the largest public health education/public relations/propaganda effort in history, it is conceivable that the result could be economic contraction on a much larger scale than has occurred as a result of lockdowns so far.2 I can’t help but see what is unfolding as a bizarre version of my ‘Crash on Demand’ scenario
Economic contraction could mostly be in the discretionary economy, but how would the health system cope with a loss of staff, especially if some combination of ineffective vaccines against new strains and antibody-enhanced disease lead to medically informed people losing faith before the general public? Part of the solution might be doctors and nurses from overseas,3In the week since I wrote this sentence, doctors from overseas are now part of the plan for Australia or the adoption of treatment options for Covid currently being used with success in countries like Mexico and India.
Australia and New Zealand seem to be something of a test bed for the most authoritarian regulations in an attempt to keep Covid as close to zero as possible (and failing). Large numbers of people in other countries see us as a police state and wonder why there hasn’t been more resistance Down Under.
Some of us have noted plans promoted by the World Economic Forum for a Global Reset that will require a command economy to respond to the climate emergency, and that the pandemic is an opportunity to implement some of the structures and processes needed to create what some fear is a global new world order.
For many people, the trajectory from trust to mistrust often leads to either deep depression or an energised anger, mostly focused on the authorities but often expressed to friends and family at great cost to all concerned.
Although I have some of those thoughts and feelings, I mostly feel a great tension between a deep and somewhat detached fascination with the big picture and the sense of urgency I habitually feel in spring to get fully cranking with the seasonal garden and generally keeping our home at Melliodora shipshape. I feel like I finally have a box seat to watch the train of techno-industrial civilization hitting the Limits to Growth stone wall and breaking apart, all in slow motion.
The rapidly evolving situation and all its psychological, sociological and economic dimensions suggest an expanding field of possibilities. These could include:
- a cyber pandemic that crashes the global financial system,
- a short war between China and the USA4Part of my ‘A History from the Future’ story happening in 2022
- rapid reduction in consumption of oil and other critical resources and consequently greenhouse gas emissions as a result of the virus,
- plus of course accelerating climate disasters.
In different scenarios, concern about the virus and the ability to implement the plan could become ever more intense, or alternatively, be shunted offstage or metastasised into dealing with the next crisis. Consequently, the details of what worked, what didn’t, who takes the credit and who gets the blame, would probably all be lost in the swirling muddy waters of compounding crises.
A personal view of the pandemic
Up until this point, I have not indicated my personal interpretation of either the virus or the response because I wanted to focus on the bigger systemic drivers without getting muddied in the good/bad, right/wrong, us/them polarities. However we all have to face what life throws in our path with whatever internal and collective resources we have at hand. As is my lifelong habit, I have done my own ‘due diligence’ to understand and guide my personal decisions. In the past I have always been open about my conclusions and decisions, whether around the campfire or on the most public of forums. I have often joked about the comfort I feel in being a dissident about most things including being beaten up at primary school in the early days of the Vietnam war for being a ‘commie traitor’ to being ostracised in the 1990s for opposing the ‘war on weeds’ orthodoxy of the environmental mainstream. But today being a dissident is no joking matter. Unfortunately the psychosocial environment has now become so toxic that the pressures to self-censor have become much more complex and powerful. Much more is at stake than personal emotions, ego, reputation or opportunities and penalties.
Following my instinct for transparency, I will state my position, which has been evolving since I first started to consider whether the novel virus in Wuhan might lead to a repeat of the 1919 flu pandemic or even something on the scale of the Black Death. I can summarise my current position and beliefs as follows:
- The virus is real, novel and kills mostly aged, ill and obese people with symptoms both similar to and different from related corona viruses.
- It most likely is a result of ‘Gain of Function’ research at Wuhan Institute of Virology in China supported by funding from the US government.
- Escape rather than release was the more likely start of the pandemic.
- Vaccines in use in western world countries are based on novel technology developed over many years, but without resulting in effective or safe vaccines previously.
- The fear about the virus generated by the official response and media propaganda is out of proportion to the impact of the disease.
- Effective treatment protocols for Covid-19 exist and if those are implemented early in the disease, then hospitalisation and deaths can be greatly reduced, as achieved in some countries that faced severe impacts (especially Mexico and India).
- The socioeconomic and psychosocial impacts of the response will cause more deaths than the virus has so far, especially in poor countries.
- The efficacy of vaccines is falling while reported adverse effects are now much greater proportionally than for previous vaccines.
- The under-reporting of adverse events is also much higher than for previous vaccines, although this is still an open question.
- The possibility of antibody dependent enhancement (ADE) leading to higher morbidity and death in the future is a serious concern and could be unfolding already in countries such as Israel where early and high rates of vaccination have occurred.
Given the toxic nature of views already expressed about (and by) people I know and respect, I am not going to engage in an extensive collating of evidence, referencing who I think are reliable experts and intermediaries who can interpret the virus, the vaccine or any of the related parts of the puzzle. Outsourcing personal responsibility for due diligence to authorities is a risky strategy at the best of times; in times of challenge and rapid change the risks escalate. I do not want to convince anyone to not have the vaccine, but I do want to provide solidarity with those struggling (often alone and isolated) to find answers, so the following are two starting points that I think could be helpful:
- For those trying to understand the vaccines, their efficacy and risks, ‘This interview could save your life: a conversation with Dr Peter McCulloch’ provides a good overview with full reference to official data, scientific papers and clinical experience.
- For those focused on treatment options, the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance (FLCCA) physicians are a good source on this rapidly emerging field of clinical practise.
As a healthy 66-year-old I am not personally afraid of the virus, but if greater virulence and death rate do emerge with new variants, I might consider the preventative regimen recommended by the FLCCA doctors. There is no way I will be getting any of the current vaccines in the foreseeable future, no matter what the sanctions and demonisation of my position on this matter.
At this point there may be readers who decide to ignore anything and everything I have written as obviously deluded. These are the costs of transparency.
Valuing the Marginal
Tolerance, let alone celebration of diversity, is not the easy permaculture principle many of us assume. Valuing the marginal can be even harder, especially if we study the darker periods of human history.
Over most of history, minority ethnicities and subcultures lived in ambiguous complementarity with dominant majorities. For hundreds, if not a thousand, years my Jewish ancestors made valuable contributions to European culture while managing to maintain their own culture to an extraordinary extent. They lived in ghettos not just for protection from the eruptions of intolerance in the dominant Christian communities but to ensure their language and culture wasn’t swamped by that of the majority. While the Jews carried the elitist belief that they were God’s Chosen People, they didn’t attempt to gain converts and were naturally respectful to the majority Christians. They survived through all but the worst of antisemitic pogroms by not antagonising the majority, largely accepting the restrictions placed on them by society. What else could they do?
Similar dynamics could emerge from the virus and the vaccine, where a subculture of home birth, home education, home food production and alternative health brings together people of previously diverse subcultures, including permies, who are excluded from society. That exclusion will seem self-inflicted to the majority, but for those excluded it will feel critical to both survival and identity.
Is it sensible to plead for tolerance in line with sensitivities to the rights of other minorities? Or is that just an invitation to be stoned to death, if not literally then virtually, on social media?
Unfortunately one of the weaknesses of western culture, which shows up in both Christian and Muslim traditions, is the idea that if a particular path is the correct one, then everyone should follow it. From the perspective of east Asian philosophy and many Indigenous traditions, harmonious balance is more important than the right way. The yin yang symbol showing each polarity containing the seed of its opposite encapsulates this critically important antidote to the recurring western theme about the triumph of good over evil. In The Patterning Instinct Jeremy Lent explores how these different world views have shaped history and that any emergent ecological world view will foreground the importance of harmonious balance.
The wisdom of the collective
I want to lead by example in trying to understand and articulate why it is good that the majority of the population appears to be strongly behind the official plan and that maybe it is even good that a majority of my permaculture colleagues might be lining up to get vaccinated, when I have no intention of doing so.
Firstly, I acknowledge the obvious reason that if the official story is right, the majority getting vaccinated will combine with naturally acquired immunity and control the worst effects of the virus without the need to get every last dissenter vaccinated.
Secondly, given the pressure to push the vaccination rate in every way possible, encouraging some extra hesitators to resist will only increase the pressure and possibly lead to harsher sanctions as well as more broken family relationships, reputations, pain and suffering, which could be worse than potential adverse effects of the virus, or the vaccine, on those people.
Thirdly, because so many people I respect as intelligent and ethical are following the plan, I won’t fall into the trap of losing respect for who they are, what they have done and what else they might do in the future. And if it turns out this is the start of a more permanent hard fascist command state, then we need people of good values on the inside to keep open whatever channels of communication remain possible.
As systems unravel, the stories that make sense of the world also fall apart and in the desperate search for mental lifeboats, different stories come to the fore. The mainstream story around the pandemic is one such mental lifeboat that allows people to maintain faith and function. Without the renewed source of faith and order from rational science guiding technological wizardry, the psychosocial shock from a pandemic could be enough to create social, economic and political chaos on a historically unprecedented scale, at least in long-affluent countries like Australia.
Whatever the nature of the next crisis, I think it will require citizens to by and large accept that the behaviours, rights and freedoms we took for granted are artifacts of a vanishing world. Further, it will provide a harsh reality check on how dependent most of us are on systems we have no control over, so most will find they have little choice but to accept the new state of affairs.
While I might resent what I see as unnecessary sanctions on those resisting, I accept than in the early stage of Brown Tech energy descent, harsh and by some perspectives, arbitrary, controls on behaviour will be part of our reality and are arguably necessary to maintain some sort of social order (even if short-sighted or not sustainable in the long run). My aim is to focus on how we ameliorate the adverse effects of a predicament that humanity cannot escape.
More philosophically, the virus and the response to it could be seen as a meditation practise showing us how no one is an island separated from the whole of life. To break down the toxic notion that we are free agents to do as we choose without consideration of consequences, especially for future generations and the wider community of life, is something permaculture teaching has tried to bring to daily life. How we do this in meaningful ways is a constant challenge.
Sympathy for the devil
Having at least had a go at seeing the good in the mainstream plan, I now want to articulate quite passionately why the majority should at least tolerate and not seek to further punish the minority for their resistance. To advocate for this within the permaculture movement, I appeal to our pluralism in celebrating the diversity of action. This is especially where permies take the risk of being the unvaccinated guinea pigs, who can at least be a control group in this grand experiment on the human family. Beyond that, I hope our colleagues inside the tent will see the need to express solidarity with our right to chart our own course and not feel they have to be silent for fear of being cast out of the tent.
While I respect the younger permaculture folk following the plan for the common good, I still believe the most creative deep adaptations to the Brown Tech world will be crafted at the geographic and conceptual fringes by younger risk takers coming together in new communities of hope. While the paths to the armoured centre and the feral fringes both have their risks, those on the inside, especially older people, should accept that the young risk takers on the fringes might create pathways though the evolutionary bottleneck of energy descent more effectively than the best resourced and rationally devised plans from within the system of thinking that has created the civilisation crises.
Whether or not the pandemic will lead to the flowering of creative light-footed models for adaptation, the larger energy descent crisis for which permaculture was originally designed (that most permies recognise as the ‘Climate Emergency’) needs these responses at the margins. If the permaculture movement cannot digest this basic truth and at least defend the right of people to craft their own pathways in response to collapse of all certainties, then our movement will have failed the first great test of its relevance in a world of energy descent.
Some permie dissidents will double down in their focus on preparation to survive and thrive in spite of the sanctions, while others will be energised by non-violent direct action to resist what they see as draconian and counterproductive collective punishment. In doing so they may draw on past experience, or inspiration, from the frontlines of anti-war, environmental defence and free communication resistance.
In the past, more apolitical permies trying to introduce permaculture to socially conservative punters could still acknowledge, at least privately, the element of truth in the quip ‘permaculture is revolution disguised as gardening’. In today’s climate, can permies inside the tent accept and appreciate their colleagues on the frontlines of a new resistance movement that might moderate the extremes of how society navigates the larger climate emergency? Or will they flip and decide permaculture was, after all, mostly hippy nonsense now further contaminated with toxic right wing conspiracy madness, so must be dumped as unfit for purpose in our new world?
In saying this, I’m not suggesting we should all follow suit, let alone belittle or demonise those who don’t take the walk on the wild side. That would also be a contradiction of permaculture ethics and design principles. As we have always taught, ethics and design principles are universal but rarely lead to clear and conclusive solutions. Strategies and techniques vary with the context; wonderful elegant design solutions for one context can be hopeless white elephants, or worse, in another. Context is everything and as colleague Dan Palmer has so effectively applied in his Living Design Process, the people context is as complex, subtle and diverse as that of the land and nature.
The sovereignty of persons to choose freely how they grapple with the tension between autonomy and the needs of the commonwealth is not just an ideal from western Enlightenment civilisation working out how to apply the gift of fossil fuel wealth. It is a fundamental expression of how the ecology of context is constantly shifting, and that all systems simultaneously express life through bottom-up autonomy of action and top-down guidance of collective wisdom.
In times of great stability, the distilled wisdom of the collective, embodied in institutions, carries human culture for the long run. Sometimes the sanctions on the individuals who rejected the rules of the collective were harsh and, according to modern thinking, arbitrary but over long periods of relative stability, those rules kept society working. In times of challenge and change it is, ironically, dissidents at the fringes who salvage and conserve some of the truths of the dying culture into the unknown future to craft new patterns of recombinant culture.
What we call ‘science’ had its origins in what Pythagoras salvaged, almost single handedly, from the decadent and corrupt theocracies of ancient Egypt of which he was an initiate, before he walked away from the centre to the margins of civilisation. Major failures in the application of so-called trusted science have been a feature of our lived experience. Tragically, science could be one of the casualties as humanity passes through the cultural evolution bottleneck of climate chaos and energy descent. Permaculture was one attempt to craft a holistic applied design science grounded in observation and interaction, taking personal responsibility and accepting (negative) feedback, designing from patterns to details, and creatively using and responding to change. I still believe that salvaged and retrofitted versions of practical science crafted at the margins will serve humanity better than rigid faith in the priests of arcane specialised knowledge maintained by an empire of extraction and exploitation. Can we be sure what the father of science and mathematics would do in this time of turmoil?
Whatever the historical significance of these times, maintaining connections across differences of understanding and action within permaculture and kindred networks will strengthen us all in dealing with the unfolding challenges and opportunities of the energy descent future.
The hands of an elderly member of the Japanese mafia (the "Yakuza"). In addition to the tattoos, note the amputation of the little finger. It is one of the many forms of ritual mutilation practiced in human society. The idea is that the suffering involved proves the will of the sufferer to belong to a specific group.
Translated from Italian and slightly modified from "Effetto Seneca"
Until recently, there existed a criminal organization in Japan whose members went by the name of Yakuza. It was similar to the Italian mafia, so much that it is often called the "Japanese mafia." The Yakuza practiced various forms of ritual mutilation, one was the amputation of the last phalanx of the little finger. Fosco Maraini describes it in his "Meeting with Japan" (1958), telling us that he himself cut his little finger as a protest against the Japanese government during WW2.
Cutting off a phalanx of the little finger is a good example of a ritual mutilation. As an impairment, it is minor, but it is visible, painful, and a test of courage for those who do it. Thus, it is a testimony of belonging to a certain group - in this case the Yakuza. Today, they have almost disappeared in Japan and with them the hands with the amputated little finger. But ritual mutilation in other forms is common in other regions of the world.
In the western part of Eurasia, there are two types of widespread ritual mutilations: male circumcision and infibulation in its various forms of female genital mutilation. For both, there is talk of possible health benefits, but there is no definite evidence for that. They are, rather, evidence of belonging to a social or religious group. As we know, circumcision is mandatory for Jews, it is common, but not mandatory, among Muslims although, it is less common but not rare among Christians. In Europe, about 20% of the males are circumcised, a percentage that rises to about 80% in the United States.
All in all, circumcision does not have great effects on the body of the circumcised, but as far as infibulation is concerned, we are talking about a real mutilation that heavily affects the sexuality of the woman who undergoes the practice. It is condemned by the Christian religion, it is not part of the Jewish tradition, and has been the subject of Islamic Fatwas that prohibit it. In many states, it is explicitly prohibited by law.
Yet, infibulation in its various forms tenaciously resists in certain areas of the world where it is an ancient tradition, especially in Africa. It is difficult for us Westerners to realize why women in these regions do not see it as an imposition, but as a source of pride, a proof of maturity, and of belonging to the society in which they live. In these societies, the non-infibulated woman is considered an outcast, an enemy to be isolated and demonized. It is a perverse mechanism that persists despite many attempts to eradicate the practice.
There are, and were in the past, many other ritual mutilation practices that affect both men and women. It is said that in ancient times the Amazons amputated one of their breasts to shoot better with the bow. It is almost certainly a legend. Even if it were true, it's unlikely it would have improved their ability to skewer enemies with arrows. If the Amazons (assuming they ever existed) did that, it was for the same reason that led the Yakuza to sever a phalanx of their little finger: publicly showing that they belonged to the group.
In China, the binding of girls' feet was practiced until recently. It was a form of mutilation: a real daily torture with consequences that lasted for a lifetime. As adults, these women were unable to walk alone. Fortunately, today it is no longer practiced, but some elderly Chinese women who underwent this practice in their youth are still alive.
In the West, the prevalence of the Christian vision starting from Paul of Tarsus tended to reject any irreversible intervention on the human body. Nonetheless, minor forms of mutilation remained common, such as piercing the earlobes for earrings.
More often than not, in recent times, mutilations were performed with the support of "Science." One example was the removal of children's tonsils, as it was fashionable to do in the 1970s. An operation that probably did not cause much harm, but whose usefulness is at least questionable. It is still performed nowadays.
Much worse is the case of radical mastectomy for the treatment of breast cancer. As Siddhartha Mukherjee describes in his book. "The Emperor of All Maladies" (2010), it was an invasive therapy that in some cases involved "the complete excision of all breast tissue, axillary contents, removal of the latissimus dorsi, major pectoral muscles and minor and internal mammary lymph node dissection". And all this without a real medical reason to justify it. The result was a radical and irreversible mutilation that turned the woman into an invalid for the rest of her life.
In our society, theoretically rational, we might think that we have freed ourselves from these customs that we consider superstitions or at least errors of evaluation of a still imperfect science. But the "suffering-based proof of belonging" mechanism is deeply ingrained in our thinking and tends to pop up in one way or another, with or without medical justifications.
Let's just think about the use of tattoos, considered primitive and barbaric in the West until a few decades ago, today widespread among young people. Getting a tattoo is painful and therefore a test of courage for those who do it. It is also irreversible so that it is proof of definitive belonging to a certain social group. So it is not surprising that it has spread so quickly in a society that gives to the young little or nothing, apart from beatings, real or virtual.
It is impossible to deny that, under a smattering of rationality, our mentality is still that of much older times. And when we are under social stress, obsessive and punitive tendencies come out easily and are impossible to stop. Thankfully, women today don't have to cut their breasts for better accuracy with the bow (for now), and men don't have to slice off their little fingers to show their courage (for now).
But society changes in unpredictable ways and today it would be possible to use new ways to prove that someone willingly underwent some kind of painful ritual in order to belong to a certain group. No need to show actual scars, a digital certificate will be enough. Whether this will actually take place is left to the reader to ponder.
Quoted from: Cederlof, Gustav, and Alf Hornborg. “System boundaries as epistemological and ethnographic problems: Assessing energy technology and socio-environmental impact.” Journal of Political Ecology 28.1 (2021): 111-123.
What are the social and environmental impacts of carbon and low-carbon energy technologies in different places and at different times? To answer this question, we are faced with an epistemological dilemma. Before measurement takes place, we need to define where and when the phenomenon we are measuring begins and ends—to define its “system boundaries.” For instance, one liter of semi-skimmed milk, bought in a British supermarket, has an energy content of 380 kcal. However, to think of the milk in terms of energy also evokes the far-reaching social and environmental contexts that bring milk to the market.
Beyond the energy content declared on the milk carton, we can undertake a life cycle assessment (LCA)—expanding the system boundaries—to account for the energy (or the carbon, water, labor, or land) “embodied” in the milk via its production and distribution. We might include the energy content of processed cattle feed, electricity used to run milking machines, cooling tanks, water boilers, and lighting, energy inputs in alkaline and acid detergents, diesel for tractors, and a wide range of other energy technologies used in production.
We might expand the system boundaries further to account for the fuels needed to generate the electricity, run the chemical plant, fuel the milk tanker, power the dairy plant, and so on. Arguably, we should also account for the energy expended in the production of the electricity generator, the milking machine, the milk tanker and the tractor, fencing and the batteries storing energy to electrify it. But if an electricity generator and a battery are somehow embodied in a liter of milk, we have culturally come far away from what we normally understand milk to be. Where, then, should we draw the system boundaries around an object in order to gauge its social and environmental impact?
More than just posing epistemological problems, however, we argue that system boundaries present an ethnographic problem and that they should be exposed to cultural as well as political analysis. As cultural artefacts, system boundaries sustain different power-serving worldviews, and the way system boundaries are drawn in discussions on energy transitions calls into question how the existence of energy technologies relies on a geographical displacement of environmental load, including flows of resources, land, and emissions.
In discussions on green development and strategies for a low-carbon energy transition, there is a strong case made for technologically utopian solutions in which novel, more efficient technologies will enable a decoupling of environmental impact from economic growth. These solutions range from a complete electrification of transport to the mainstreaming of “cultured” meats, milk, and eggs to a wholesale transition to a solar economy. Depending on the exponent’s political allegiance, they often resonate with teleological imaginaries of technological progress inspired by the American “technological sublime” or the Marxist “development of the productive forces”. However, the socioenvironmental impact of green technology is contingent on the definition of system boundaries. A technologically utopian solution rests on narrowly defined system boundaries.
Read more: Cederlof, Gustav, and Alf Hornborg. “System boundaries as epistemological and ethnographic problems: Assessing energy technology and socio-environmental impact.” Journal of Political Ecology 28.1 (2021): 111-123.
The ultimate goal of every totalitarian system is to establish complete control over society and every individual within it in order to achieve ideological uniformity and eliminate any and all deviation from it. This goal can never be achieved, of course, but it is the raison d’être of all totalitarian systems, regardless of what forms they take and ideologies they espouse. You can dress totalitarianism up in Hugo Boss-designed Nazi uniforms, Mao suits, or medical-looking face masks, its core desire remains the same: to remake the world in its paranoid image … to replace reality with its own “reality.”
We are right in the middle of this process currently, which is why everything feels so batshit crazy. The global capitalist ruling classes are implementing a new official ideology, in other words, a new “reality.” That’s what an official ideology is. It’s more than just a set of beliefs. Anyone can have any beliefs they want. Your personal beliefs do not constitute “reality.” In order to make your beliefs “reality,” you need to have the power to impose them on society. You need the power of the police, the military, the media, scientific “experts,” academia, the culture industry, the entire ideology-manufacturing machine.
There is nothing subtle about this process. Decommissioning one “reality” and replacing it with another is a brutal business. Societies grow accustomed to their “realities.” We do not surrender them willingly or easily. Normally, what’s required to get us to do so is a crisis, a war, a state of emergency, or … you know, a deadly global pandemic.
During the changeover from the old “reality” to the new “reality,” the society is torn apart. The old “reality” is being disassembled and the new one has not yet taken its place. It feels like madness, and, in a way, it is. For a time, the society is split in two, as the two “realities” battle it out for dominance. “Reality” being what it is (i.e., monolithic), this is a fight to the death. In the end, only one “reality” can prevail.
This is the crucial period for the totalitarian movement. It needs to negate the old “reality” in order to implement the new one, and it cannot do that with reason and facts, so it has to do it with fear and brute force. It needs to terrorize the majority of society into a state of mindless mass hysteria that can be turned against those resisting the new “reality.” It is not a matter of persuading or convincing people to accept the new “reality.” It’s more like how you drive a herd of cattle. You scare them enough to get them moving, then you steer them wherever you want them to go. The cattle do not know or understand where they are going. They are simply reacting to a physical stimulus. Facts and reason have nothing to do with it.
And this is what has been so incredibly frustrating for those of us opposing the roll-out of the “New Normal,” whether debunking the official Covid-19 narrative, or “Russiagate,” or the “Storming of the US Capitol,” or any other element of the new official ideology. (And, yes, it is all one ideology, not “communism,” or “fascism,” or any other nostalgia, but the ideology of the system that actually rules us, supranational global capitalism. We’re living in the first truly global-hegemonic ideological system in human history. We have been for the last 30 years. If you are touchy about the term “global capitalism,” go ahead and call it “globalism,” or “crony capitalism,” or “corporatism,” or whatever other name you need to. Whatever you call it, it became the unrivaled globally-hegemonic ideological system when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s. Yes, there are pockets of internal resistance, but it has no external adversaries, so its progression toward a more openly totalitarian structure is logical and entirely predictable.)
Anyway, what has been so incredibly frustrating is that many of us have been operating under the illusion that we are engaged in a rational argument over facts (e.g., the facts of Russiagate, Literal-Hitlergate, 9/11, Saddam’s WMDs, Douma, the January 6 “insurrection,” the official Covid narrative, etc.) This is not at all what is happening. Facts mean absolutely nothing to the adherents of totalitarian systems.
You can show the New Normals the facts all you like. You can show them the fake photos of people dead in the streets in China in March of 2020. You can show them the fake projected death rates. You can explain how the fake PCR tests work, how healthy people were deemed medical “cases.” You can show them all the studies on the ineffectiveness of masks. You can explain the fake “hospitalization” and “death” figures, send them articles about the unused “emergency hospitals,” the unremarkable age-and-population-adjusted death rates, cite the survival rates for people under 70, the dangers and pointlessness of “vaccinating” children. None of this will make the slightest difference.
Or, if you’ve bought the Covid-19 narrative, but haven’t completely abandoned your critical faculties, you can do what Glenn Greenwald has been doing recently. You can demonstrate how the corporate media have intentionally lied, again and again, to whip up mass hysteria over “domestic terrorism.” You can show people videos of the “violent domestic terrorists” calmly walking into the Capitol Building in single file, like a high-school tour group, having been let in by members of Capitol Security. You can debunk the infamous “fire-extinguisher murder” of Brian Sicknik that never really happened. You can point out that the belief that a few hundred unarmed people running around in the Capitol qualifies as an “insurrection,” or an “attempted coup,” or “domestic terrorism,” is delusional to the point of being literally insane. This will also not make the slightest difference.
I could go on, and I’m sure I will as the “New Normal” ideology becomes our new “reality” over the course of the next several years. My point, at the moment, is … this isn’t an argument. The global-capitalist ruling classes, government leaders, the corporate media, and the New Normal masses they have instrumentalized are not debating with us. They know the facts. They know the facts contradict their narratives. They do not care. They do not have to. Because this isn’t about facts. It’s about power.
I’m not saying that facts don’t matter. Of course they matter. They matter to us. I’m saying, let’s recognize what this is. It isn’t a debate or a search for the truth. The New Normals are disassembling one “reality” and replacing it with a new “reality.” (Yes, I know that reality exists in some fundamental ontological sense, but that isn’t the “reality” I’m talking about here, so please do not send me angry emails railing against Foucault and postmodernism.)
The pressure to conform to the new “reality” is already intense and it’s going to get worse as vaccination passes, public mask-wearing, periodic lockdowns, etc., become normalized. Those who don’t conform will be systematically demonized, socially and/or professionally ostracized, segregated, and otherwise punished. Our opinions will be censored. We will be “canceled,” deplatformed, demonitized, and otherwise silenced. Our views will be labeled “potentially harmful.” We will be accused of spreading “misinformation,” of being “far-right extremists,” “racists,” “anti-Semites,” “conspiracy theorists,” “anti-vaxxers,” “anti-global-capitalist violent domestic terrorists,” or just garden variety “sexual harassers,” or whatever they believe will damage us the most.
This will happen in both the public and personal spheres. Not just governments, the media, and corporations, but your colleagues, friends, and family will do this. Strangers in shops and restaurants will do this. Most of them will not do it consciously. They will do it because your non-conformity represents an existential threat to them … a negation of their new “reality” and a reminder of the reality they surrendered in order to remain a “normal” person and avoid the punishments described above.
This is nothing new, of course. It is how “reality” is manufactured, not only in totalitarian systems, but in every organized social system. Those in power instrumentalize the masses to enforce conformity with their official ideology. Totalitarianism is just its most extreme and most dangerously paranoid and fanatical form.
So, sure, keep posting and sharing the facts, assuming you can get them past the censors, but let’s not kid ourselves about what we’re up against. We’re not going to wake the New Normals up with facts. If we could, we would have done so already. This is not a civilized debate about facts. This is a fight. Act accordingly.
Young people around the country have been seen telling Boomers to put down the avocado toast, stop being so entitled and go out and get a jab. This comes after research suggests nearly 30% of Australians are now hesitant to get the life saving vaccine over a blood-clotting risk potentially high as 0.0017%, which has led to the Boomer generation to be way too ‘choosy’ about which vaccine to have. Now young people have had enough and have told the lazy Boomers to ‘go out an get a vaccine, any of the vaccines are better than nothing.’
“Have you bothered to go get a vaccine yet?” said Mike a 26 year old after getting home from trying to find an entry level job that doesn’t require 5+ years of experience in the field and a degree. “All you do is sit around watching tv. Put down the avocado toast, be a grown up and get a vaccine! I don’t care if it isn’t your dream vaccine, it is at least a vaccine that works. Go now, it’s for your own good.”
“Classic old people they are just so entitled these days,” said Lauren a 20 year old full time-student who also has 2 jobs so she can pay her bills, “they just expect everything to be handed to them. They have been spoiled their entire lives and now they refuse to do anything for themselves. Growing up with these cheap houses meaning rent money is just handed to them, it’s made them so selfish and lazy. You know in my day, we have to go out and find a roommate to be able to afford rent in a run-down 1 bedroom apartment, but we do because we know what is important.”
“First the housing market and now vaccines, they just hoard everything for themselves even if they don’t actually want to use it. What a selfish and rude generation they are!”
In response to this issue, clickbait writers have begun writing predictable articles called “How this country’s old people managed to get a much lower death rate from Covid” with every article always having a part about how young people and their parents got vaccinated.
By Larry Romanoff for the Saker Blog
On September 4, 2004, Yang Huanyi died at her home in Central China. She was 98 years old, and the last fluent practitioner of Nüshu, one of the oldest and most beautiful, and certainly one of the more intriguing languages in the world. (1) (2)
Nüshu, (女书), (literally, women’s writing and/or women’s script) is the only known language in the history of the world that was created by women and that was used and understood only by women, handed down for generations from mother to daughter. The origins of the language are lost in the mists of time, with scholars today debating almost every aspect of its existence, including its origin and creation. The few written works remaining today are at most around 100 years old, though some place the origin at more than 1,000 years ago.
Nüshu is what we today would term a ‘dead language’, one no longer in use, and one which, without the intervention of Providence, would have died and become extinct without even a funeral. This mysterious language was accidentally discovered only about 40 years ago. In the early 1980s a teacher accompanied his students to a remote area of China’s Hunan Province to study local customs and culture. During their studies, they found a strange calligraphy which they discovered no man could understand, with characters very different from Chinese letters and from any other script in the world.
Nüshu was a special form of writing and song that was used and understood only by the women in Jiangyong County in China’s Hunan Province, and in corners of three adjacent provinces. Despite its long history, it seemed that no one outside the area, including much of Hunan Province itself, had seen it or was even aware of its existence. Immediately recognising the importance of their discovery, the teacher sought help from professional linguists who formed a research group where they collected samples and recordings, and created a dictionary. Nüshu, which had been passed quietly from woman to woman for uncounted centuries, had now left its rural home with its secrets exposed, causing ripples of excitement both at home and abroad. Nüshu has been officially declared a World Heritage item, and listed as one of the world’s most ancient languages and the only exclusively female language ever discovered.
Because it was virtually a secret language, we can find no references to it in old documents or historical works, and no one outside the area appears to have been familiar with it. Yet that cannot be the entire story because in Nanjing in 1999 some coins were discovered which bore inscriptions in the characters of Nüshu, coins which had been minted by the Taiping government dating from the early to mid 1800s. These were legal coins, which means Nüshu must have been in some kind of official use during that period, but to date no documentation has been discovered. (People’s Daily News international edition dated March 2, 2000).
The End of a Tradition
Nüshu declined in the 1920s in the midst of various social and political changes, and use of the script was heavily suppressed by the Japanese during their invasion of China in the 1930s-40s because they feared it could be used to send secret messages. As well, during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the language was discouraged as a kind of feudal leftover in a time when the nation was trying to throw off two centuries of stagnation and bring itself into a modern world. More social and cultural changes occurred during the latter part of the 20th century, including the standardisation of the Mandarin language and simplification of the characters, resulting in the younger generation adopting Mandarin and abandoning Nüshu which then fell into disuse as the older women died.
It seems always true that as times change, especially with major social upheavals, our cultures and traditions evolve and sometimes dissipate. NüShu fell victim partially to the Cultural Revolution which was rewriting history for a new China, and simultaneous universal educational reforms focused on Mandarin and rendered NüShu redundant, so it ceased to be taught, and gradually disappeared from the culture of the time.
Nüshu in Daily Life
Using their script, the women wrote letters, poetry, and songs in books and on paper fans, and they often embroidered the script into cloth for handkerchiefs, scarves, aprons and other handicrafts. Instead of writing letters, they would often embroider poems and messages onto handkerchiefs to be delivered as essentially secret messages to their friends and relatives back home. In addition to poetry and songs, they wrote Nüshu in their prayers and chants to god, but perhaps the most notable use was in their letters and vows to each other as sworn sisters.
It was a tradition among the girls of this area to enter relationships with each other which were called Jiebai Zimei (結拝姉妹) or “sworn sisterhood” which entailed pledging commitment to female friends who were not biologically related but committed to a deep friendship. These sworn sisters were generally were much closer to each other than to their real sisters, and one of the main uses of NüShu was as a means of recording these lifelong friendships in letters and poetry.
These were serious relationships of emotional companionship, almost akin to marriage and expected to last for life. The girls would swear pledges to each other and share fortune and misfortune, a practice that played a very important role in the invention and dissemination of Nüshu. Much of the Nüshu writing and embroidery consisted of letters between sworn sisters, and there is reason to believe that the need for accurate expression of these emotional bonds was responsible for the creation of the language.
One of the more charming traditions involved books knows as San Chao Shu, (三朝书, literally third-day book) which were beautiful hand-made cloth-bound booklets written in Nüshu and to be given to a daughter or a sworn sister upon her marriage. In the traditional Chinese marriages of the time, a bride would join her husband’s family and would have to move, sometimes far away, perhaps rarely seeing her birth family or her sworn sisters again.
These lovely San Chao Shu were wedding gifts delivered on the third day after the young woman’s marriage, typically expressing fond hopes for the girl’s future happiness as well as describing the sorrows upon being parted from her. The first several pages were filled with songs and poems for the young woman leaving the village, while the remaining pages were left blank to be used as a personal diary. These books were looked upon as great treasures and were considered very personal, so much so that they were usually either burned or buried with the woman upon her death – a practice which explains the dearth of examples of NüShu extant today.
When we examine the NüShu writings available, we realise we are looking into not only the lives but the hearts of these village women, reflecting the deepest feelings and emotions in their hearts, a form of expression that became rooted in the consciousness of the women. These women created something by and for themselves, a language perfectly tailored to the needs of women for expression. The script is so feminine and the writing so descriptive that together they touch the souls of these sworn sisters, transmitting accurately through their letters, poems and songs their hopes and tears, their joy and despair.
Nüshu has been described as “A light of civilisation in history, an especially beautiful scenery in the history of women, a method to build a rare and valuable, and beautiful, spiritual kingdom unique to women”. Nüshu is a large measure of a rich folk culture, a product of the great Chinese civilisation, which was formed in a very special and complex cultural soil. One scholar wrote that now that Nüshu has withdrawn from the historical stage with the blessing of history, what remains today is “a rainbow of human civilisation”. (Zhao Liming)
It is more than fascinating that Nüshu could ever be created because, while the purpose of all language is to communicate, Nüshu was created as a language of emotion and feeling. This is so true that one Hunan woman, writing a poem in Nüshu, was asked why she didn’t write in Mandarin which would be easier. Her reply was that she couldn’t, that it was too daunting to even think about recording or expressing her feelings in another language but, using Nüshu, she could do it. Nüshu is not so much a language of the heart, but of the soul. One woman described her expressions in Nüshu as an ability to whisper her deepest hidden feelings, to describe not only tears, but “crimson-colored tears”.
It is well-known that different languages have different abilities to communicate concepts. There are German words – for example, schadenfreude – which cannot be translated into a single word in another language. Sometimes, a paragraph may be needed in one language to express a single word in another. With most languages, the expression of facts is easy, but feelings and emotions are more difficult to express verbally or in writing without resorting to much flowery vocabulary.
The conclusion that seems to fit the circumstances is that this valley of women in Hunan felt a need to express their emotional thoughts, feelings, desires, sorrows and hopes, and so created a language specifically for women which contained the vocabulary to do precisely that. And they expressed all those delicate and indefinable feelings through the vocabulary they created for Nüshu. If this assumption is accurate, it is not a surprise that no man could understand it nor that no man would be invited to understand it. Nüshu is entirely a language of emotion and feeling; perhaps the first (and only) time women were able to accurately express the secrets of their heart.
All Nüshu writings are from women to women, whether letter, song or poem, each an artifact of a unique woman’s culture reflecting and preserving the spiritual feelings of female friends. The language, a unique artistic wonder, was the basis not only for communication but for cohesion, creating as one author wrote, “a romantic spiritual kingdom based on the realistic feelings and sufferings of these women”. Simply put, the women needed a way to express themselves but, lacking the necessary tools in the common dialects, used their unique knowledge of their own hearts to create a new language with an appropriate subjective vocabulary to reflect female emotions. It was this that could create the scaffolding for the sworn sisters to swear their vows, almost like a secret female sorority. Nüshu is a great initiative of Chinese women and a contribution to human civilisation.
It is interesting to note that in all the Nüshu writings discovered, there are no love songs.
Many scholars have collected examples of the Nüshu script and created dictionaries of some repute, but my feeling is that a cat cannot be turned into a bird. In the case of Nüshu it is only in a very specific emotional environment that the true and complex sentiment of a group of characters can be understood. This cannot be translated into other languages which have no vocabulary for those sentiments. The words to describe subjective feelings of resonance with one’s sisters, as one of the basic needs of human spiritual life cannot be found in most dictionaries, especially those created by men.
For its part, the Nüshu script is exclusively feminine. If there is one striking sign of this language, it is the gender. Nüshu characters have a soft and flowing, quaint and unique, female beauty. Considering that this was a means to communicate privately, these lovely small letters were beautifully designed.
Many scholars, instead of focusing on the material issues of the language usage and intent, seem to busy themselves with similarities to Chinese or other characters. However, Chinese is a character language with each character representing an idea, or a word or part of a word. Nüshu on the other hand, is phonetic, with the characters (letters) representing sounds rather than concepts. They are not ideas, but pronunciations, as in most Western languages. It is primarily for this reason that I believe dictionaries and translations may be of limited use.
Nüshu characters are a primarily a storehouse of female culture, not a list of nouns. Nüshu has more than 2,000 characters, some of which have no spoken counterparts, and which display little mutual intelligibility with other languages. In addition to all the above, Nüshu has a full set of rules for layout with pronunciation, style, and a framework of grammar.
I stated above that scholars appear to focus entirely on elements that are almost irrelevancies in the overall picture. To my mind, there are two factors most important in the study of this language.
First is the female and feminine nature of the language, the emotional foundation, a language created by and for women apparently for the purpose of expressing the deepest and almost inexpressible feelings in their hearts.
The second is perhaps even more astonishing and more cause for wonder. How did a group of peasant women living in a remote valley in China’s Hunan Province 1,000 years ago, women who were possibly illiterate but who almost certainly had never attended a school of any sort, manage to create a full-fledged language with 60,000 words and rules of grammar, and an entirely new and very beautiful script designed to express those ‘inexpressible feelings’? That task today would be so daunting as to be almost impossible for even the most accomplished linguists, yet it was done.
Every Silver Lining has a Cloud
When Nüshu was first discovered, many foreign ‘scholars’ made their way to Hunan and looted the finest and oldest examples of the Nüshu writing, the San Chao Shu, and the embroidered artifacts, all of which were of immense historical and cultural significance to China. They are now gone forever because of this predatory “research”.
Additionally, too many foreigners have conducted research on Nüshu and produced a flood of papers and books which are wrong at best and fraudulent and insulting at worst. Nüshu has been the basis of several Western documentaries, all bad, all serving primarily to denigrate China and, in one way or another, to trash this beautiful historical artifact.
More disappointingly, many foreign so-called scholars have executed written and film works on Nüshu which are intended to be offensive, to denigrate yet another beautiful portion of Chinese cultural heritage. One author dismissed Nüshu as “a language designed for a culture of lesbians”, then claiming the Chinese national government moved to save the language from extinction only because it envisioned huge potential profits from cultural tourism.
Other uninformed ‘scholars’ state women learned this language because they were forbidden formal education and prohibited from learning Chinese. Some claim the women “rebelled” against a “grotesque male-dominated Confucian society”, the language emerging as a result of the conflict. Others view Nüshu through a feminist lens, forming imaginary Western parallels with “empowering women” by “strengthening their collective ego consciousness”. Some claim men disregarded the Nüshu language “in feudal China” since women were considered inferior, denied educational opportunities and condemned to social isolation with bound feet. And so on. Of all those I have seen, none exhibit any understanding of the cultural or social context, and none even recognise, much less appreciate, the primordial underlying elements.
I am therefore by design providing no Western links for any part of this article. I would strongly advise readers interested in Nüshu to avoid any website that is not physically in China and created by authoritative Chinese sources. There are dozens of foreign Nüshu websites purporting to be Chinese but which are primarily US-based and which have little or no accurate or factual information to provide.
Mr. Romanoff’s writing has been translated into 30 languages and his articles posted on more than 150 foreign-language news and politics websites in more than 30 countries, as well as more than 100 English language platforms. Larry Romanoff is a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. He is one of the contributing authors to Cynthia McKinney’s new anthology ‘When China Sneezes’.
His full archive can be seen at https://www.moonofshanghai.com/
He can be contacted at: email@example.com
(1) Last female-only Nüshu language speaker dies
September 24, 2004, China Daily
(2) China to reveal female-specific language to public. March 16, 2004;
(3) Qinghua University Research Center of Ancient Chinese Characters
(4) For Nüshu images:
The original source of this article is The Saker Blog
Copyright © Larry Romanoff, Moon of Shanghai, Blue Moon of Shanghai, 2021
The March 1971 issue of Harper’s was one of the most famous—and notorious—that the magazine had published in its then-121-year history. Even now, 50 years later, it is still just as famous and just as notorious. The issue consisted almost entirely of a cover-story essay by Norman Mailer (then aged 48) entitled “The Prisoner of Sex,” that ran into tens of thousands of words and declared war on the movement then known as “women’s liberation.” Within two months, the essay appeared in slightly altered form as a book, also entitled The Prisoner of Sex, and shot to the top of the bestseller lists. Mailer was already infamous in feminist circles for such remarks during media interviews as “All women should be kept in cages” and “[T]he prime responsibility of a woman probably is to be on earth long enough to find the best possible mate for herself, and conceive children who will improve the species.” (He maintained that both statements were testimony to women’s powers.)
At the time “The Prisoner of Sex” appeared, Mailer had already burned through four of the six wives he would marry, and fathered six of his nine children, at least one by each of his spouses. In 1960, he had made headlines for stabbing his second wife, Adele Morales, during a rowdy all-night party in Greenwich Village. Morales fully recovered and declined to press charges (although the marriage stumbled to its end two years later), and Mailer was sent to New York’s Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric observation, then placed on three years’ probation. Over the ensuing months, “The Prisoner of Sex” became the subject of a sustained attack in print and on television by such public-intellectual luminaries as Germaine Greer and Gore Vidal.
Town Bloody Hall (C.Hegedus, D.A.Pennebaker -1971) - Youtube
Most notably, the essay was memorialized in a debate entitled “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation.” The event was held on April 30th, 1971, at the Town Hall, a performance space in midtown Manhattan, and featured Mailer, Greer, the literary critic Diana Trilling, the president of the National Organization for Women (NOW)’s New York chapter Jacqueline Ceballos, and the lesbian polemicist Jill Johnston. The city’s intellectual-elite were all in attendance and the 1960s cinéma verité documentarian D.A. Pennebaker sneaked into the auditorium with two other cameramen to film the debate. It was rumored that Pennebaker’s involvement was at the instigation of the publicity-hungry Mailer, who had previously collaborated with the filmmaker on three avant-garde films. Pennebaker’s footage was eventually edited by Chris Hegedus (who later became his wife) and turned into a 1979 documentary entitled Town Bloody Hall. In 2017, the Wooster Group, an experimental theater company in Manhattan, restaged Town Bloody Hall as a Mailer-bashing play, The Town Hall Affair, that reminded the New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead of Donald Trump’s “arrogant objectification of women.”
“The Prisoner of Sex”—in both magazine and book form—was largely a baroque riposte to Kate Millett’s bestselling feminist polemic Sexual Politics. Published in 1970, Sexual Politics had been the academic salvo (although not the only representative) of a radical wing of second-wave feminism that managed to displace overnight in the public imagination the middle-class, “respectable” wing of the movement represented by Betty Friedan’s 1963 monograph, The Feminine Mystique. Friedan had argued that women’s emancipation should be pursued via legal changes that would help transform women from unpaid housewives into equal participants in economic and political life. Millett—whose unsmiling face was turned into an icon of women’s liberation by its appearance on a 1970 Time magazine cover—went many Marxist steps further, attacking “patriarchy” as a pervasive and brutal system of male domination intended to objectify women economically, politically, and personally.
Sexual Politics was an amplification of Millett’s doctoral dissertation in English literature at Columbia University, so it singled out three male 20th-century novelists for condemnation who had focused on explicitly sexual subjects—Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, and Mailer. Blasting past any aesthetic analysis of their works, she castigated all three as primarily “sexual politicians… concerned with a social order in which the female would be perfectly controlled.” Literature, she argued, is essentially an epiphenomenal manifestation of political power structures; in that sense she was among American academia’s first postmodern theorists. She was also perhaps the first cultural Marxist, defining the female sex as an oppressed class. Millett contrasted what she saw as themes of brutish male domination of women via sexual conquest in the work of these three men with the works of the French novelist and playwright Jean Genet, whose fictionalizations of his experiences as a petty criminal, homosexual prostitute, and career prisoner, she admired. Genet’s narratives of pimps, drag queens, and sadistic male-on-male prison sex, Millett argued, were actually instructional parodies of “the power structure of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ as revealed by a homosexual, criminal world that mimics with brutal frankness the bourgeois heterosexual society.”
Millett denounced Miller’s sexually graphic (and long-banned) novels as exercises in “the pleasure of humiliation” of women, typically described in unappetizing detail. She accused Lawrence of indulging in “an increasing fondness of force” in certain of his novels that feature highly educated, artistically sensitive women surrendering to men of primitive masculinity (Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not Lawrence’s only foray into this topos). As for Mailer, Millett targeted his 1965 novel, An American Dream, in which the first-person narrator, Stephen Rojack—a Harvard-educated World War II veteran like Mailer himself—strangles his estranged wife after a quarrel in which she belittles him sexually. The murder is an existential catharsis for Rojack, who is transformed from his hollow previous life as college psychology professor and talk-show host into something more real and authentic, if decidedly violent—immediately after the crime he has rough anal sex with the housemaid in an act close to rape. Millett called Mailer “a prisoner of the virility cult” whose “powerful intellectual comprehension of what is most dangerous in the masculine sensibility is exceeded only by his attachment to the malaise.”
The Harper’s article and its subsequent book version were quintessential Mailer, with all the faults and virtues of that unique genre. During his early career, Mailer’s reputation had been mostly as a novelist of varying critical success. His widely acclaimed first novel, The Naked and the Dead, based on his World War II experiences in the Philippines, had made him a celebrity at the age of 25, but he followed it with several others that critics largely panned, including An American Dream. Between works of fiction, he led a boisterous and well-publicized personal life, helped found the Village Voice, dabbled in money-sucking avant-garde filmmaking, and in 1969 ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City. But almost inadvertently—in magazine articles for Esquire and other periodicals that paid more reliably than trying to write the Great American Novel—he became a pioneer of 1960s New Journalism, which used the techniques of fiction in nonfiction reporting. (He had dress-rehearsed this change of genre in a 1959 collection of essays as well as fiction, Advertisements for Myself.) A 90,000-word cover story for Harper’s about his participation in an anti-Vietnam War protest at the Pentagon in 1967 became a 1968 book entitled The Armies of the Night that won him the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. The Prisoner of Sex employed literary approaches that Mailer had perfected in The Armies of the Night. Like other New Journalists, Mailer made himself a third-person participant—indeed the protagonist—in the action he narrated. This strategy enabled him to portray himself, with large doses of self-mockery, as the much put-upon victim of whatever malign forces he deemed were arrayed against him.
In The Armies of the Night, he had been “the Novelist,” contriving to get arrested and then complaining about the breakfast menu in jail and wondering whether he should give away the bail money he had brought with him or use it to get himself out. In The Prisoner of Sex, he was “the Prisoner”—of “the legions of Women’s Liberation”:
…a vision of thin college ladies with eyeglasses, no-nonsense features, lips as thin as bologna slicers, a babe in one arm, a hatchet in the other, gray eyes bright with balefire. Four times beaten at wedlock, his respect for the power of women was so large that the way they would tear through him (in his mind’s eye) would be reminiscent of old newsreels of German tanks crunching through straw huts on their way across a border.
In a lengthy prelude, he either amused or exasperated his readers by recounting his dashed expectations of receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, a lunch he had eaten with a hostile but “never unattractive” Gloria Steinem, and a deadpan narrative of the six weeks he had spent during the summer of 1970, after his estrangement from his fourth wife, the actress Beverly Bentley, playing stay-at-home parent to five of his children in a Maine cottage. He wrote that “he could be a housewife for six weeks, even six years, if it came to that”—although in fact, as he admitted, he’d had to recruit his sister, his mistress, the two older of his daughters there, and a full-time cleaning lady to bring order to the ensuing chaos.
Mailer’s writing style, honed (if that’s the word) by his facility at turning out massive amounts of copy in short order (he wrote all 90,000 words of The Armies of the Night in two months), was in the classic American tradition of verbose rhetorical extravagance exemplified by Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Allen Ginsburg: often brilliant, often merely wordy and overblown. It is hard to know what to make of this nearly interminable sentence in which Mailer avers that the “male contempt of the pussy” hammered by Millet can be evenly matched by what he calls female “penis contempt”:
Now penis contempt may well accompany the others, for the look in the woman’s eye bemoans the fact that she is not a man, since if she were a man, or better still, a woman with command of a phallus entrusted to her, she would know how to use it, God she would know how to use it better than a man, which may not be an unfair portrait of a woman thinking across the gulf of sex: whereas a man is not often ready to explain that a phallus is not a simple instrument but a contradictory, treacherous, all-too-spontaneous sport who is sometimes the expression of a part of oneself not quite under Central Control, indeed often at odds with the will.
Is this bombast, misogyny, or a profound recognition of the terrifying vulnerability that men as well as women bring to the sexual act? Mailer’s preternaturally vivid prose, dumped onto the page in mounds like scoops of ice cream with nuggets of humor folded into the boozy apocalyptics, has a hypnotic quality that makes The Prisoner of Sex, for all its shortcomings, impossible to put down.
For some reason, Mailer never got around to responding specifically to Millett’s critique of An American Dream, except to say she had misread his work of fiction as an instruction manual on “how to kill your wife and be happy ever after.” (During the Town Hall event he railed repeatedly at the feminists present for not being able to distinguish between the words uttered by fictional characters and their creators.) Instead, he tore into Millett’s habit of quoting Miller and Lawrence selectively and out of context in order to make polemical points. Mailer had majored in aeronautical engineering at Harvard, and he used his acumen to drill down with mathematical precision into Millet’s textual distortions, citing passage after passage comparing Millett’s truncated quotations to their less malign authorial originals.
But his real quarrel was with Millett’s assertion that the sexes were exactly alike except for accidents of genitalia, and that men had contrived over the centuries—by imprisoning women in cycles of enforced monogamy, childbirth, and economic dependency—to bend them to their wills, sexual and otherwise. Millett argued for an end to all societal taboos against homosexuality, non-marital sex in general, out-of-wedlock childbearing, prostitution, and the double-standard, with the goal of creating a “permissive single standard of sexual freedom” that would make women the equals of men. Mailer derided this proposal as creating a “free market for sex, a species of primitive capitalism where the entrepreneur with the most skill and enterprise and sexual funds could reap the highest profit—the adoration of countless mates and mistresses in that ubiquitous world where men and women were as interchangeable as coin and cash.”
Besides Millett, Mailer attacked other second-wave feminists who had made headlines by demanding release from perceived male domination. Among them: Anne Koedt, whose 1970 essay “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” argued that the clitoris was the primary source of women’s sexual pleasure, so that conventional male-female sex was neither necessary nor necessarily normal; and Ti-Grace Atkinson, whose 1969 pamphlet “Radical Feminism” advocated the development of “extra-uterine conception and incubation” that would disconnect sexual intercourse from “[s]ociety’s means to population renewal” so that women would no longer have to “bear the burden of the reproductive process.” “[I]n order to improve their condition… [w]omen must, in a sense, commit suicide, and the journey from womanhood to a society of individuals is hazardous,” Atkinson declared. Koedt and Atkinson were probably among the most radical of the second-wavers, but there were others. Alix Kates Shulman wrote “A Marriage Agreement” in 1969, which proposed to turn wedlock into a tit-for-tat business partnership (“Husband does all the house-cleaning in return for wife’s extra child care”). Contributors to Robin Morgan’s 1970 anthology Sisterhood is Powerful lauded two medical inventions of the 1960s and early 1970s—the birth-control pill and the suction-abortion machine (“The entire process takes about two minutes,” Lucinda Cisler enthused)—that promised to level the sexual and career playing-field for women at last.
Mailer decried all of this as the “technologizing of sex.” He was already notorious for his opposition to contraception and masturbation as sterile dead ends of sexuality, and in The Prisoner of Sex he doubled down. He described the second-wavers’ call for a single standard of sexual freedom as “all part of the huge revolutionary statement that all fucking high and low, by any hole or any pit, was pleasure, and pleasure was the first sweetmeat of reason… Well, conception stood in the way of reason, for conception was embarkation on a train whose stations were obligation and guilt.” The prospect of conceiving a child, relished or dreaded, rendered sex serious. And the fact that conception took place inside the body of a woman rendered the difference between the sexes the most important of all human differences:
Men were by comparison to women a simple meat; men were merely human beings equipped to travel through space at a variety of speeds, but women were human beings traveling through the same variety of space in full possession of a mysterious space within… Women, like men, were human beings, but they were a step, or a stage, or a move or a leap nearer to the creation of existence, they were—given man’s powerful sense of the present—his indispensable and only connection to the future…
Mailer asserted, contra Millett, that Genet’s literature of prison homosexuality, far from parodying heterosexual males’ subordination of females, realistically portrayed a “world where everything is homosexual and nowhere in the world is the condition of being a feminine male more despised… For whatever else is in the act, lust, cruelty, the desire to dominate, or whole delights of desire, the result can be no more than a transaction—pleasurable, even all-encompassing, but a transaction—when no hint remains of the awe that a life in these circumstances can be conceived.” By this measure, heterosexual coupling with contraception was little different from homosexual encounters, Mailer averred. But this, he wrote, was exactly the aim of the feminist movement—to “technologize” women, turning them, unencumbered by the naggings of their reproductive systems and living atomized without the freight of either babies or prudish inhibitions, into efficient, career-oriented “units” of production in a brave new world—mechanized, contractual, and run for the benefit of the corporate state, but where they could count on their sexual desires being satisfied by someone or something. He called this phenomenon “Left totalitarianism,” marked by its mix of sexual radicalism, bureaucracy, and faith in science. He called himself a “Left conservative.” That was a fair summary.
Released exactly at the time when nearly every college-educated woman in America, schooled in Friedan and then electrified by Sexual Politics and its counterparts, was starting to call herself a feminist and resonating vicariously to second-wave radicalism, The Prisoner of Sex garnered enormous attention, most of it negative. On March 4th, 1971, within days of the publication of the magazine version, Willie Morris, the 36-year-old editor-in-chief of Harper’s who had commissioned the piece, resigned under fire. Morris, regarded as a 1960s wunderkind, had also commissioned the magazine version of The Armies of the Night, and his penchant for edgy, if critically acclaimed New Journalism narratives had cost the magazine advertising. This time the owners of Harper’s were said to be disturbed by the number and frequency of four-letter words in Mailer’s article, some in quotations from Miller and Lawrence, some in the writings of the feminists Mailer scrutinized, and some in Mailer’s own vocabulary choices. Then came the book reviews. Some were flattering. The critic Anatole Broyard, writing in the New York Times, called The Prisoner of Sex “a love poem” to women and Mailer’s “best book.” Most women seemed to think otherwise. Novelist Brigid Brophy’s review, also in the New York Times, was scathing. She called the book “an appreciative meditation by Norman Mailer on Norman Mailer. It establishes merely that if Kate Millett could put him down with bad logic and bad prose, he can puff himself up with more and worse of both.”
But it was Mailer’s appearance at the Town Hall event on April 30th that firmly, perhaps finally, placed him and his views on women beyond the ideological pale. His double role—he was both panelist and moderator—had been the idea of the dancer and choreographer Shirley Broughton, who liked to bring artists and celebrities together in symposia that she called the Theater of Ideas. She had hoped to induce Millett to join the panel, but Millett refused to debate Mailer. Other leading second-wave feminists also declined, including Friedan, Steinem, Ti-Grace Atkinson, and Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. They were apparently offended by the notion of a male moderating a panel on feminism, and they also might have wondered whether they would be participating in a publicity stunt orchestrated by Mailer himself. Broughton did manage to recruit Jill Johnston and the literary critic Diana Trilling. Johnston was something of a cult figure. Technically she was the dance critic for the Village Voice, but her column had long since evolved into a rambling, free-association exploration of her sexual orientation. (Her book Lesbian Nation, a compilation of those columns, would follow in 1973.) Friedan headed NOW at the time, and she sent Jacqueline Ceballos to represent the organization in her stead.
Finally, there was the Australian-born Greer, in New York promoting her internationally bestselling first book, The Female Eunuch. The Female Eunuch was even more popular with women readers than Sexual Politics; an excerpt appeared in the March 1971 issue of McCall’s, a leading middlebrow women’s magazine. Greer, although academically trained (she had a PhD in English literature from Cambridge and a teaching post at the University of Warwick), knew how to write in a zesty, racy style that never shied away from the outrageous, as, for example, when she famously advised women: “[Y]ou might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood—if it makes you sick, you’ve a long way to go, baby.” Mailer had quoted this passage with a degree of awe in The Prisoner of Sex: “[N]ow women were writing about men and themselves as Henry Miller had once written about women.”
The thesis of Greer’s book was that women had internalized this male revulsion—exacerbated by consumerist, cleanliness-obsessed suburban culture and the stifling nuclear family—at the grosser aspects of their reproductive functions. They had weakened and desexed themselves—taken on “impotent femininity”—in order to make themselves acceptable, and then, as wives and mothers, became resentful, nagging shrews who damaged their children irrevocably. Greer urged women to flaunt their sexuality and leave their husbands or, preferably, not marry at all, and bring up their children in free-form communal arrangements in which the youngsters would essentially “raise themselves,” liberated from the stifling “Oedipal” dynamics of the middle-class Western household.
Greer was already a celebrity in Britain, annoying other feminists by flaunting her own sexuality and announcing that just as men hated women, women also hated women—a claim which undercut the idea that sisterhood was powerful. In The Female Eunuch, she had mocked NOW and its push for legal tinkering with the system instead of outright rebellion. The prospect of her confrontation with Mailer was irresistible. The Town Hall sold out all 1,500 of its seats and went to standing room only, even though the tickets cost $25, about $161 in today’s dollars. The attendees, zoomed into close-ups by Pennebaker’s telephoto lenses, included such notables of second-wave feminism as Friedan, Steinem, Robin Morgan, Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Cynthia Ozick, as well as Broyard and the poets Gregory Corso and John Hollander. What followed was a raucous piece of performance art that gave the audience its money’s worth. According to Greer, in an essay for the September 1971 issue of Esquire entitled “My Norman Mailer Problem,” the Town Bloody Hall rushes became the subject of a legal dispute between Mailer and Greer over whether Pennebaker had the right to use them. In any event, the reels languished on Pennebaker’s shelves for several years until Hegedus, newly hired by Pennebaker, viewed them, decided to edit them, and proved that a panel of five talking heads sitting at a table on a stage can make for rip-roaring entertainment. (The title of the documentary came from Greer’s exasperated cry that she was being “heckled” by Mailer at the “Town bloody Hall.”)
From the beginning, it was a contest between the outsize personalities of Greer and Mailer over who was to own the evening. Greer, six feet tall, with a mane of brunette hair and inch-long eyelashes, had attired herself in a fur stole and a long black sleeveless dress that showed off her arms and shoulders. Around her neck she wore an enormous silver pendant: a Venus’s mirror with a raised fist inside. At 32, she was at the peak of her good looks, which coincided with the peak of her readerly popularity (none of the 16 books she published after The Female Eunuch sold so well). It wasn’t hard for her to upstage Ceballos and Trilling in their ladylike suits and Johnston in her blue jeans and denim jacket. She sat herself down next to Mailer, the latter looking natty in a pinstripe suit and a frizz of graying corkscrew curls. Pennebaker’s hand-held cameras feasted on the electricity generated by the physical proximity of the two. “There was just so much sexual tension between Norman and Germaine, and I knew I wanted to keep that element in the film,” Hegedus recalled in a 2004 video interview accompanying the release of the film on Blu-ray. “But also I wanted to keep the humor, because it was very funny,” Hegedus said. “Norman was witty and funny, and Germaine was. And Jill was hysterical.”
L–R: Ceballos, Greer, Mailer, and Trilling
Still, except for a list of NOW demands (wages for housework, pensions for retired housewives) read by Ceballos that received only polite applause, the evening was essentially a spectacle of Mailer as Prometheus chained to the rock, with the eagle, or in this case, a convocation of feminist eagles, pecking at his liver. Only occasionally was there applause for him, or for his half-hearted defender on the panel, Diana Trilling. Greer, for example, who was next up after Ceballos, used her time at the microphone to blowpipe lethal darts at Mailer and his turbulent marital life: the “masculine artist, the pinnacle of the masculine elite… more killer than creator.” “The masculine artist’s path,” she said, was “strewn with the husks of people worn out and dried out by his ego,” Greer continued. To masculine artists, “we were either low, sloppy creatures or menials, or we were goddesses. Or worst of all we were meant to be both, which meant that we broke our hearts trying to keep our aprons clean.” There was the obligatory reference to Sylvia Plath. She got a sustained ovation. Come the feminist “revolution,” Greer declared, art “will be the prerogative of all of us and we will do it as those artists did… who made the cathedral of Chartres or the mosaics of Byzantium, the artists who had no ego and no name.” Another sustained ovation. Mailer shot back that this flight of romantic historicism, from women’s liberation to utopian collectivism, was “a species of social instrumentality that I call diaper Marxism.” Boos for Mailer.
Next on was Johnston, who (she later revealed) had spent the afternoon drinking at the Algonquin Hotel. She was indeed, as Hegedus recalled, hysterical. “All women are lesbians,” she began. Then, in a slurry monotone, she read a rhythmic monologue that was essentially an early version of slam poetry: “He said, ‘I want your body,’ and she said, ‘You can have it when I’m through with it.’” The audience laughed and cheered. After she had gone on for a while, Mailer informed her that she had exceeded the assigned 10-minute limit for speeches and ought to wrap it up. Boos. Mailer took an audience vote on how many wanted to hear more from Johnston. She lost by a hair—so she left the podium to roll on the floor in a dry-humping session with two female admirers. “Either play with the team,” Mailer suggested, “or pick up your marbles and get lost.” She appealed for additional time. “Come on, Jill, act like a lady,” he said. An attendee called out, “What’s the matter Mailer? You feel threatened because you found a woman you can’t fuck?” “Hey cunty,” Mailer replied. “I’ve been threatened all my life, so take it easy.” Johnston stomped off-stage. The audience loved it.
Trilling, an old-school liberal, tried to split the difference. She said that while she found Mailer’s insistence on the primacy of biology in relations between the sexes, especially his rejection of birth control, prone to go to “dangerous poetic excesses,” she “would take Mailer’s poeticized biology in preference to the no biology at all of my spirited sisters.” She could not resist criticizing “Miss Greer,” declaring that she was not impressed by her theory of the “Oedipal” nuclear family that “rejects children.” “One of the characteristics of oppressed people is that they always fight among themselves,” Greer retorted during a subsequent disagreement. “I don’t feel as oppressed as you do, and I’m not fighting with you,” said Trilling. “I have a great deal of loyalty to my sex and I’ve had it for a very long time. But that doesn’t mean I can be indiscriminate about the positions that I subscribe to just because they’re put forward by other women.”
Mailer began his own contribution to the discussion by telling his “dear old friend” Diana Trilling that she had, as usual, misread him. “What I was trying to say in my usual incoherent fashion in The Prisoner of Sex,” he went on, “was that biology—or physiology, if you will—is not destiny, but it is half of it. And if you try to ignore that fact, you then get into the most awful totalitarianism of them all—because it’s a Left totalitarianism… If we get a left-wing totalitarianism, that will mean the end of all of us, because we will have nothing but scrambled minds trying to overcome the incredible shock that the destruction of human liberty came from the Left and not the Right. And there is an element of women’s liberation that terrifies me. It terrifies me because it is humorless, because, with the exception of Germaine Greer’s book on The Female Eunuch, there’s been almost no recognition that the life of a man is also difficult, and that of all the horrors that women go through, some of them absolutely determined by men, even more of them, I suspect, determined by themselves.”
After that, it was question time and a rout. The heavyweights in the audience had been seated ringside in order to prime them, and the taunts poured in. Betty Friedan accused Mailer of defining women in essentialist fashion as “the eternal face of Eve.” “Women have the right to define our agency,” Friedan said. With a wave of his hand, Mailer responded: “I simply don’t know what you’re talking about.” Boos. “Betty, you’re just making speeches.” More boos. Susan Sontag called Mailer “patronizing” for introducing Trilling as a “foremost lady literary critic.” “I will never use the word ‘lady’ again in public,” Mailer promised sardonically. (His half-hearted attempt to provide a serious answer didn’t go down any better.) Feminist writer Lucy Komisar accused Mailer of writing novels that promoted male sexual violence, to which Mailer replied, “I look forward very much to the advance of women’s liberation because women are finally going to have to come into contact with the best aspect of the male brain which is its modest accuracy.” His explanation of the difference between a character’s viewpoint and that of the author segued into a discussion about the militaristic nicknames Mailer may or may not have given to his own penis. Some additional levity was provided by the following exchange with Cynthia Ozick, who had just described Mailer (with apparent sincerity) as “a sacerdotal, sexual transcendentalist priest”:
OZICK: Mr. Mailer, in Advertisements for Myself, you said—quote—”a good novelist can do without everything except the remnant of his balls.” For years and years I’ve been wondering, Mr Mailer, when you dip your balls in ink, what color ink is it? [laughter]
MAILER: Miss Ozick, if I don’t find an answer quickly, we’re gonna have to agree that the answer is yellow. [more laughter] I will cede the round to you. I don’t pretend that I’ve never written an idiotic or stupid sentence in my life, and that’s one of ’em. [laugher and applause]
But the Q&A was a mostly fraught and bad-tempered affair. Anatole Broyard asked Greer what women were asking for. “You may as well relax,” she snapped, “because whatever it is they’re asking for, honey, it’s not for you.” She scoffed that Mailer’s domestic arrangement in Maine had been “four nurturing women and three boys: Norman and his two sons.” Mailer’s response: “Did you come all the way from Australia to land a cheap shot like that?” He said that women’s liberation had “lesbian overtones… a detestation of men.” Then a member of the audience named Ruth Mandel rose to announce that she had no need for children. “Biologically,” she explained, “I don’t find myself tied down to my body so that it limits the definitions of me… Is [Mr. Mailer] tied down so much to his body that he can’t define himself outside of it?” Here Mailer tried to put a fine point on what was bothering him:
MAILER: What I was trying to say in The Prisoner of Sex over and over again is that there’s nothing in Women’s Liberation… that deals with what I think is the heart of the problem… [which] is that human nature strives in the way it works against painful, torturing paradoxes. And I’m quite aware that many women—perhaps most of the women on Earth by now—don’t want to have children; don’t want to be in that sexual organic biological game. And maybe they’re right! I don’t know. And I’m not saying “stop them!”; I’m not saying they’re evil; I’m not saying they’re wrong; I’m saying we’re gonna have to find out. Human history has got to the point where the majority of women are essentially rebelling. But we could save a lot of time if we cut out the crap and the name-calling. Because the one thing that is really gonna close off the ranks of men against the power of this movement is precisely the fact that men have had to deal with the abysmal lack of a sense of justice that women have for their point of view. Now you may counter by saying, “Yes, but that’s just a male sense of justice.” Alright and maybe it is. But in the dialogue, you’ve got to allow us our terms as well… Let me point out to you where the paradox of male and female violence takes place.
The mention of male violence seemed to inflame the audience (there was already nearly inaudible heckling), but Mailer plunged ahead:
MAILER: You’re asking for a dialogue, well, here it is! This is my half of the dialogue and you can counter it—
HECKLER: We want to teach you!
MAILER: I’ll teach you and you teach me! Fuck you! I wanna teach you too! I mean, fuck you, y’know? I’m not gonna sit here and listen to you harridans harangue me and say “Yes’m! Yes’m!” [smattered applause] Let me aim the point. If a man has sworn that he will not strike a woman and the woman knows that uses that and uses it and uses it, then she comes to a point where she is literally killing that man because the amount of violence being aroused in him is flooding his system and slowly killing him. So she’s engaged at that point in an act of violence and murder even though no blows are exchanged. Now all I’m getting at is that this is the simple existential difficulty of the moment. The argument about the justice in this human relation is where is that point? Because that is where there is absolutely never any agreement—whether it is the man or the woman who is playing with that point. If you women are not willing to recognize that life is profoundly complex, and that women as well as men bugger the living juices out of it, then we have nothing to talk about. Again.
Mailer might have been summarizing his own wedded life. With Beverly Bentley, especially, as she recounted in Joseph Mantegna’s 2010 documentary, Norman Mailer: American, it had been a roller-coaster lurch between tenderness and screaming matches that at least on one occasion ended with his beating her. (Paradoxically, perhaps, he remained on affectionate terms with some of his ex-wives; his third, Jeanne Campbell, starred in his tumultuous 1971 movie Maidstone along with Bentley, and Adele Morales hovered on the set.) But the point that he was trying to make—about the different ways in which men and women express aggression—was lost on the Town Hall audience.
The months that followed produced further controversy. Greer’s Esquire article appeared, and there she averred that her “masculine artist” jabs had been aimed specifically at Mailer’s stabbing of Morales and his inability to live with Bentley. She implied that the Town Hall event had been a façade for Mailer’s efforts to pre-empt her book tour in order to promote his own career, and that he had hired Pennebaker to do the filming, which was supposed to be the exclusive province of the BBC, trailing her on the tour. The legal conflicts to which she alluded apparently petered out, and indeed, Trilling, in her own memoir of the event, said she had seen Greer and Mailer posing together with a copy of The Female Eunuch just before the panel began. Rumors persisted that either the two had slept together or that Greer had hoped they would. Greer denied both rumors, although she told Hegedus in 2004 that she had wanted Mailer’s “approval. I wanted him to find me interesting, intelligent, and attractive.” (One of the paradoxes of the Mailer-Greer fallout is that the two actually had much in common in their anti-modern stances—but it was a commonality that neither ever explored. Their writing styles—hyperbole, self-dramatization, and a tendency to dump every thought that crossed their minds into their prose—were also surprisingly similar.)
Gore Vidal entered the fray in July 1971, writing a 4,900-word article for the New York Review of Books that was ostensibly a review of Patriarchal Attitudes: Women and Society, by the novelist Eva Figes. Vidal paid only perfunctory attention, however, to Figes’s complaints about capitalism and sexual taboos and devoted most of the article to an attack on The Prisoner of Sex. “There has been,” he wrote, “from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression. The Miller-Mailer-Manson man (or M3 for short) has been conditioned to think of women as at best, breeders of sons; at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated, killed.” Five months later, Vidal and Miller were guests on the Dick Cavett show, along with Janet Flanner, the Paris correspondent for the New Yorker; her prim suit, pumps, and white gloves looked oddly discordant with her enormous physical frame. It was another audience debacle for Mailer.
Waving a copy of Vidal’s article, Mailer proclaimed that Vidal’s writing was “no more interesting than the contents of the stomach of an intellectual cow.” The audience booed. “Gore Vidal,” remarked Flanner, “is the cow on the program.” To which Vidal added: “And Norman Mailer is the veal.” Mailer had good reason to be outraged at Vidal’s insinuation that “the next reincarnation for me is going to be Charles Manson,” as he put it, but he could not get his point across. (The fact that he seemed to be sloshed, lurching across the vast brown 1970s shag rug on the television stage to take his seat, didn’t help.) Neither Flanner nor Cavett (who later said he felt “twinges of guilt about not having treated [Mailer] nicer”) showed much sympathy for his agoniste’s performance. Flanner said she was “bored” by the display, and Cavett told Mailer he could “fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine.” Mailer looked out at his hostile audience: “This joint is loaded with libbers.” And yet, as at the Town Hall, he had a way of sucking the air off the stage. It was impossible for the viewer not to be riveted by his performance.
Mailer was never to return to the subject of The Prisoner of Sex, at least in print. He went on to win a second Pulitzer Prize in 1979, for fiction, for The Executioner’s Song, a novelized but extensively reported account of the Utah murderer Gary Gilmore’s violent life and death by firing squad in 1977. He wrote several more novels and works of nonfiction that received the usual mixed reviews. He had not only lost his battle against the “libbers”; he had lost the war of feminist opinion. When Mailer died in 2007, the novelist Joan Smith, writing in the Guardian, called him “an arch-conservative who pulled off a stunning confidence trick” and a “faux-radical who used the taboo-breaking atmosphere of the ’60s as cover for a career of lifelong self-promotion.” In the Nation, Katha Pollitt wrote: “What a failure of imagination and humanity there is in his ravings about the evils of birth control and women’s liberation, his cult of hatred and domination and violence, his fatuous pronouncements about what women should be (goddesses, whores, mothers of as many children as a man could stuff into them), his pronouncements of doom on a culture that let them get out of their cage.” Rebecca Mead wrote in her 2017 New Yorker article: “What is most shocking about revisiting Town Bloody Hall today—either in the form the Wooster Group presents it, or without their commentary—is the raw misogyny of the language Mailer feels comfortable in using in the public forum that has been provided to him.” It seems that all that can be remembered today about Mailer and women is that he said they belong in cages.
Mailer certainly had his faults, personal and writerly. His marital life invariably included strings of infidelities, even during his last and happiest marriage to the former model Norris Church. His stabbing of Morales might have been mostly owing to drink and the excesses of Greenwich Village bohemian culture, but he did have a genuinely alarming tendency to romanticize lethal violence as a rite of male passage into masculinity. It was a rite that he himself seemed compelled to perform, although non-lethally, in any number of brawls and fistfights with other men, including Vidal, whom he punched with a liquor glass at a 1977 party in another spat over The Prisoner of Sex. In what was surely the most embarrassing episode of his life he used his reputation to help parole the convicted killer Jack Henry Abbott out of a federal prison in 1981. Mailer giving him a job as his assistant and landed him two articles about his prison experiences in the New York Review of Books. Six weeks after his release, Abbott stabbed to death a young waiter in a restaurant who had denied him the use of an employees-only restroom.
The Prisoner of Sex suffers from hasty writing and Mailer’s penchant for indulging in verbal gymnastics at the expense of clarity and argument-construction. Mailer managed to misspell the surname of Valerie Solanas, Andy Warhol’s would-be assassin, whose 1967 SCUM Manifesto (“destroy the male sex”) was one of the books he covered. He overrated as literary figures both Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence. Miller, at least in the excerpts Mailer provided from Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and Sexus, basically wrote pornography. His authorial style consisted of jackhammer prose lacking even rudimentary efforts at either characterization or color; it’s all Miller’s first-person narrator shoving various things into the private parts of women who love it. And it is hard not to laugh out loud at the overripe Chatterley sex scenes, with gamekeeper Mellors painstakingly teaching Her Ladyship how to say four-letter words in Nottinghamshire dialect. Mailer’s extended quasi-mystical romanticization of women and their wombs, aligning them with the forces of the universe just because they bear babies, seems over the top even if one agrees with Mailer about the profound biological differences between the sexes.
Nonetheless, it is a brave and important book. Mailer understood that sex isn’t merely about pleasure: obtaining an orgasm from some frictional source or other. Human beings endow sex with meaning. A man wants to know that the woman he is with experiences pleasure from him, and a woman that she is particularly desired. (The absence of these elements is at the root of the sourness and disappointment accompanying today’s hookup culture: the abrupt and crude coitus, the unwanted moves, the nagging suspicion that your partner might have found you revolting—or worse, nondescript—instead of lovely.) The fact that meaning is integral to the human sexual act derives from the fact that the act itself is full of meaning; it is the act that makes life. Mailer had a point in decrying its technological manipulation and the relentless effort to sever the connection between sex and reproduction.
One of the astonishing things about reading The Prisoner of Sex a half-century after its publication is the realization that many of the radical-sounding future phenomena that Kate Millett and Ti-Grace Atkinson demanded and Mailer denounced as dystopian have not only come to pass but are an integral, even humdrum part of everyday life. Even when Mailer was writing in 1971, his distaste for birth control seemed laughably retrograde to everyone but fringe religious traditionalists. Now, of course, we have government-mandated, government-subsidized free contraception, and we seem to be on our way to government-subsidized free abortion as well. We have fairly succeeded in obliterating those supposedly non-essential differences between the sexes; the very word “sex” to denote biological self-identification has been replaced by “gender identity,” a fluid and entirely subjective concept that includes picking one’s own personal pronouns. Indeed, so thorough has been the revolution in this department that Germaine Greer has met the fate of Danton; in 2015, transgender activists tried to push her off the university lecture circuit for refusing to go along with the now-de rigueur proposition that transwomen are really women. There is something ironic about the fact that a long-term consequence of women’s liberation has been the erasure of “woman” as a definable category.
And if we don’t have artificial wombs quite yet, we do have the “surrogate” wombs of Second- and Third-World women hired to gestate fertilized eggs that may or may not have been produced by the people whom the law deems their parents. We do not have children who “raise themselves,” as Greer had hoped, but we have millions of children who might as well be doing so, with fathers and sometimes mothers who have long since disposed of their parenting responsibilities, and millions of other children parked in day care or with nannies. Far from burdening women with housewifery and babies at the expense of career advancement, we have a record low marriage rate and a birthrate that has collapsed to the point of alarm among demographers. We also have a record number of single people—15 percent, double that of 50 years ago—living alone, especially in cities, isolated in rabbit-warren, “high-density” apartment buildings where, during this time of coronavirus, they can neither meet nor mate. All this to the tune of survey after survey indicating that women are actually less happy than they were during the early 1970s.
Mailer was remarkably prescient. In The Prisoner of Sex he wrote about the liberated woman of the future: “She was a way of life for young singles, a species of city-technique. She gave intimation by her presence that the final form of the city was nearer to the dormitory cube with ten million units and the perfect absence of children or dogs.” He was wrong about the dogs. At the Town Hall panel Diana Trilling said “in 50 years we’ll find out” what radical feminism might do to those it would affect. Those 50 years are now up.
Charlotte Allen has a PhD in medieval studies from the Catholic University of America. She has written frequently for the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and First Things. You can follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte.
“The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” examines the role of Seattle’s City Council in allowing the situation to reach what many experts consider epidemic levels under the guise of a compassionate approach to people who suffer from substance addiction and who commit crimes to feed their habit.
It documents the heartbreaking condition of people on the streets, and the crushing decisions Seattle entrepreneurs are forced to contemplate as their life savings and dreams are destroyed by theft, vandalism and a dwindling customer base. This documentary also explores potential bold solutions to treat those living on the streets and pair them with agencies and assistance that can provide a clear path away from the endless circle of addiction and crime.
00:03:20 - Seattle eBike store, Brian Nordwell
00:07:20 - Mark Sidran, Former Seattle City Attorney
00:12:16 - Scott Lindsey, Former Public Safety for Mayor Ed Murray
00:14:35 - Ginny Burton
00:17:30 - Tom Wolf
00:20:50 - Seattle PD difficult job
00:29:00 - CHOP, Lorenzo Anderson
00:32:00 - East precinct taken back
00:33:21 - Court house protection
00:37:00 - Former Judge Ed Mckenna
00:49:07 - Seattle City Council, defund police
00:52:20 - Business fighting for survival
00:58:00 - Mental health issues, support
01:06:28 - Drug and homeless epidemic reform
01:13:30 - Travis Berge, repeat offenders
01:20:00 - Kevan Carter Jr.'s mental illness
01:26:40 - What can be done? What's the plan?
Hear me out and you will understand the title.
There is a difference between a rebellion and a revolution. A rebellion is what occurred in the thirteen colonies in the late 18th century. A revolution is what occurred in Russia in 1917.
A rebellion occurred in the colonies, because the subjects of the king in the colonies were treated differently constitutionally and in law from subjects of the king in England. The colonists had no representation in Parliament and no voice in how they were ruled.
The rebellion resulted in political independence but not in a change in the belief system. The colonists held to belief in the rule of law to which government is held accountable and to Blackstonian legal principles. The legal and political principles that the English had fought for from the Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which established the people’s power to govern themselves through representatives in Parliament, were enshrined in the Constitution. The United States is the Constitution. If the Constitution is set aside and not followed, the United States is a different entity.
For the United States to break from the Constitution is a revolutionary act in comparison to the 18th century rebellion demanding equal treatment for English colonists.
The essence of a revolution is a collapse in the system of beliefs that hold a country together.
A revolution is what occurred in Russia in February, 1917. Most people think that the Czar was overthrown by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but this is not the case. The Czar was overthrown by the collapse in the belief system that defined Czarist Russia. The collapse in the belief system resulted in the February Revolution. The Czar’s military forced him to abdicate in March. A Socialist Revolutionary, Alexander Kerensky became Prime Minister of a provisional government.
The Bolsheviks’ October Revolution was directed against this provisional government. It was not a revolution, because the revolution had already occurred. It was an unseating. The Bolsheviks’ question to the provisional government was: “Who chose you?” The obvious answer was that they had chosen themselves.
If asked the same question, the American Establishment’s answer is the same as the Russian provisional government’s answer.
The structure of belief that defined Czarist Russia was destroyed by the Russian liberals who used the Czar’s need of their support for World War I against Germany to agitate for a Constitutional Monarchy, as existed in England, where the monarch retained some power, but legislation was in the hands of a parliament. Rather than the source of law, the monarch was accountable to law.
The Russian liberals placed a high value on their agenda. In their pursuit of their agenda, they became increasingly aggressive in their condemnations of the Czar’s resistance. Unaware or dismissive of the Czar’s promise to his father not to alter Russia by relinquishing power, the liberals’ denunciations became unsettling to the mass of the Russian people, who kept expecting retaliation from the Czar against those committing sedition against him.
But the Czar could not retaliate, because without the liberals and their organizations the war effort would be impaired. The Czar did not realize the impact on the population of unanswered accusations. Russians concluded that the accusations must be true as the Czar failed to act against his accusers.
I have given you a brief explanation. You can get the complete story if you can find a copy of Russia 1917, The February Revolution by George Katkov.
As a post-graduate at Oxford University, I got to know George Katkov and benefitted from many conversations with him. Katklov was a don at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. It was St. Antony’s that arranged for me to give a Special University Lecture at Oxford on January 20, 1969, a special treat for a graduate student. Even then truth had to struggle its way. Now it has little chance.
This brings us to America’s First Revolution now unfolding. How did it come about? It came about because decades of liberal assaults in the name of one “progressive cause” or another destroyed the structure of beliefs that define the United States. Today we can see with our own eyes, if we open them, that there is no longer any such thing as academic freedom, free speech, freedom of association, privacy, due process. People are fired from their jobs and sentenced to economic peril for merely expressing their opinions or attending the wrong rally or using disapproved pronouns. Those who insist on electoral integrity, the basis of democracy, are demonized as “enemies of democracy.” Legislation is pending that will be used to define any dissent from controlled Establishment explanations as subversion.
You can add to the list. But a long list is unnecessary to show that no important institution in America any longer believes in the liberties and protections guaranteed by the US Constitution or in democracy itself. Not the universities, the bar associations, the media, the courts, the political parties or the Congress.
It is this destruction of belief that constitutes the First American Revolution. The consequences are yet to be fully felt.
Dr. D today from an entirely unexpected angle: cattle farming from a engineer’s point of view. His interest here stems from the increasing numbers of people wanting to move “back to the land” in COVID time, who have very little idea what that entails. Well, here it is, here’s your manual:
Dr. D: Since the idea of 1840 has come up, let’s do something useful and work out math on 1840’s factory-food system. That is to say, cows.
In 1840 the Victorian age had started, and the world was moving away from the post-medieval 18th century in important ways. Far from the millennia-long tradition of shepherds and commons punctuated by manor houses, life was moving towards distributed farmsteads integrated with modest small businesses in the nearest town. From centuries-old regional breeds, active breeding had developed powerful new plants and animals with new niche purposes overnight. And likewise, active management of pastures led to a revolution in hay and fodder unimagined a few years previously.
Although railroads and canals radically transformed nations overnight, permitting that specialization of labor and radically reduced costs that expertise and infrastructure bring – that is to say, “Capital” – nevertheless, life remained solidly local by our standards. A farm might have been cleared last year or 200 years previous. It might be attached to a railroad or be in the Alps. It might be under the eye of the Feudal Lord or might be a colony of Anabaptists. But the general structure was now one of single family ownership, large or small, with a central house and barn, with fields moving back from the house and road into ever-wilder, less human territory, eventually becoming impassible forest in the great beyond.
While there was a human transformation happening, daily items were more historic than we might credit: a farm might have few iron nails and hinges, few window panes, with turf cellars and wood box granaries that a Viking would recognize. Spinning and weaving existed on site or in the cots nearby. Although an explosion in factory goods was beginning, there was still little to buy, and few stores to buy things from. At the same time, the new availability of iron, of steel for blacksmiths, but also for saws and new wood mills made materials unimaginably cheap, as material science opened the world to new inventions. The revolution of Jethro Wood’s steel plow opened up soil to production unimaginable a few years before, and Jethro Tull’s grain drill was finally becoming common instead of simply tossing seeds by the handful for the birds on ox-harrowed ground.
American corn, maize, was transforming from Indian-flint grown in hills and hung on poles to endless fields of food, cattle feed even for cities and feedlots far away. And with it, the opening of the north, of feeding chickens, pigs, and horses in a newly-sawn Dutch barns all winter. And cows. Cows have a different place in human life. Unlike sheep, who need little and can stay faraway much of the year, or chickens which require daily tending, cows live in the middle place. They can stay in the field, but essentially must be fenced. They may not need humans, but when used for milk they require human attention twice daily all year.
They can be an expensive breakeven, but with the right support and infrastructure, they are highly profitable in diverse ways: Milk, butter, cheese, which may be too much for one farm without a nearby market. Meat, leather, bones, which again tie into the butchers, markets, prices, tanners and railroads. And oxen, the slow tractor of the small, as well as calves for sale, and the milk they cause, starting the year over again. So a cow is not a cow: it’s a system. The system has parts, and the parts are not only breeds, traditions, methods, but expensive standing infrastructure – barns, fences, wells, dairies, markets — Capital — or else they are put afield, Roman-style, and wild, near-subsistence living returns again.
Of course all methods, all areas, all answers are local, but let’s take your British/French/U.S. areas as an example. In these wet, temperate areas, land requirements are ~1 acre/cow. In addition, in the north, but also in the new scientific methods of Victorian Britain, they were no longer leaving cows to destroy winter pasture in the cold and rain, but haying and sheltering them in barns at the expense of a building, the fields…and the enormous time of mucking and haying. But still it was a well-paying improvement.
A 1,200lb cow eats 10,000lbs a year. At this time, the high-tech cow would be left to field 9 months of the year. So let’s say 3 months or 3,300lbs of hay per cow. You need more rare and expensive Capital of troughs, sheds, and stanchions to feed carefully at this time, so much is wasted. Estimate 5,000lbs dry hay per cow. Cows are not “cows”; they live in herds. To milk, you need calves. To calve you need bulls. Bulls are generally overhead as they are quickly too tough for the butcher, and too tough for the farmer without a very strong fence and strong britches.
You can’t have a herd of 500 cows either: they are too many and will trample the soil to powder anywhere within walk of the house and barn. So you’re set with 5, 10, 20 cows for a family stead, and not many more on a manor, when for the same reasons they will break off and sublet to a new barn and pasture. 10 cows x 5,000lbs = 50,000lbs of hay. 25 tons. They used the new haystacks, cranes, hay elevators, but let’s visualize in hay bales, a technology common 70 years later. At 50lbs/bale, it’s 1,000 bales. 10 high, 10 deep, 10 wide. That’s 30ft x 16 feet x 14 feet.
A modest 1-story house. Picture 2 semis packed tight, +4 semis loose hay. For only three months. Weather and yield vary wildly by area and year but let’s say hay fields produce 3 tons per acre, so10 acres guarded hay in addition to 10 acres fenced summer pasture. What do we get for it? Hard to figure exactly but +2 gal/day/cow for these hardier breeds which varies wildly with shelter, season, and diet. 2 gallons milk = 2 pounds of cheese. It takes 1 year to raise beef, so 7,500lbs of hay = 1,200lb cow = 750lb beef.
While you need 20 acres for the feed alone, you’ll also need crop rotation, a barn, a springhouse, a dairy, an implement shed, a repair garage, a human house and cellar, and because of humans on site to support the cows: a chicken coop, pigs to eat the leftover dairy, a smokehouse, a garden and orchard, as well as wood for heat. That’s 1 acre / face cord, so let’s say 20 acres for cows, 10 acres for crop rotation, 10 acres for wood, and 10 acres for the homestead, garden, and buildings. What is the common size of American farms from Cape Cod to Iowa? 50 acres. 20 hectares. How many people? 4-10/farm. 1-2 humans/acre.
Why do I bring this up? It gives you a rough sense of transforming a suburban housing development back into the farm it came from. First: there’s no longer any forest. That means no boards, no firewood. We have new materials and oil too, so let’s not dwell on this. There is an enormous surplus of existing buildings. How many acres per house? Presently, it’s 1/5 acre. How many people per house? There are unimaginable difficulties answering this, but let’s say 2 people/house. That’s 10 people per acre.
Pablo Picasso Bull – Plate 4 1945
Starting to see the problem? At merely the cow-size, even ignoring the existing buildings, using McMansions for hay, ignoring firewood, even using solar or (insert fantasy here) you have to displace 20 acres, or 200 people. But you only have 10 cows feeding those 200 people, or 1/20th of 20 gallons = 1 gal, or 1 quart of milk + 12 oz of cheese per day. No grains, no veg. You could halve the population density and it’s not much better. This is your 1840s reality.
They might say this explains why we must have no cows and become vegetarians. But aside from land that cannot be gardened – the entire U.S. cattle plains, for instance, or the Swiss Alps – this is just more false science. Howso? There are 30 calories per cup of kale, 200 calories/pound. There are 1,500 calories per beef pound – 1,900cal/lb dry (jerky). So you need to eat 7x more kale than meat. All you’re doing is concentrating vegetables into meat with a small efficiency loss. So you can EAT more as a vegetarian, but you also HAVE to eat much more to break even. So when they say they can create more food by outlawing meat, be careful of what they’re saying. They’re not creating more calories, more life stuff. They will also calculate the maintenance of a cow from birth on corn feed, which is foolhardy. High-cost, high-input corn or grain feed is only used – or should be – in the last weeks if at all.
Comparing your 1840 yields (i.e. without petroleum fertilizer), that’s 800lbs field corn/acre – a very productive crop. But we just said we have 750lbs/acre in grass-fed beef. The calories are 1,600cal dry corn vs 1,900cal dry beef. Where’s the savings? Where’s the rennet, the suet, the soap, the fertilizer, the leather that could greatly increase the use, the “profit”, the value? Where’s the diversity? Where’s the life?
Here’s the engineering reality: only 442BTUs of sunlight fall per square foot. It may fall evenly or more in summer and less in winter. It may fall on trees, grass, or houses. You can eat it as beef, sugar or kale. You can burn it in the stove. But that’s the energy input of a non-carbon world. And since photovoltaic is at 12% efficiency, solar may be the single least efficient way to capture and store these BTUs – and that’s beyond the rare-earths, glass smelting, world-wide transportation, back-end space-age infrastructure, transmission loss, and replacement problems. Trees, grass, and cows may be the best way. It depends on your goal.
Now can I increase yields from 1840 levels? Yes. A lot. And they did too – I’m describing only one food stream of many overlapping. And although the soil is ruined and the present structures are practically useless in what Kunstler calls “the largest misallocation of resources in world history,” we can still leverage perfect roads, electric, ditches, water lines and structures. But to do so we would need to un-misallocate them, completely convert them out of centralization and suburbia, out of consumption and back into production, and all that takes time, energy, and materials.
And to think I started this discussion calculating how many people and how many scythes to take in those 10 acres of hay. 2 acres per man per day x 5 men, 2 pounds of steel per scythe per man. 10 pounds of finest steel per hay barn. 9 million barns, 90 million pounds of fine scythe steel for this one tool alone. 35 million blades, 1 blade smithed per man per day, 35 million days…on and on and on.
So if you plan to adjust to a new rural world, might want to start early and beat the rush.
Mike Powers, for many years a close friend with the author Jan Myrdal, who just passsed a way, writes an obituary for our englishspeaking friends.
"Even as many cultural figures in Sweden after his death were quick to witness to his importance, they pissed on his memory by pointing out the many issues they disagreed with him. Their problem was often that they never read what he said correctly".
The Swedish writer Jan Myrdal, a giant among European intellectuals, has passed away after a 75 year career as a political writer of thousands of articles and more than 100 books. Above all he was a political activist who in the spirit of Karl Marx believed it was more important to change the world than only to understand it. But he was best known for his encyclopedic knowledge of social history and discourse and his constant encouragement to readers to “Go to the sources!” to be able to speak truth to those in power. In his youth he was an organized communist but later chose to describe himself as an independent socialist thinker who could contribute more to popular struggles in his role as a disciplined and factually unchallengeable political writer.
An avid reader as a youngster he credits the influence of a school year in NY as a child with his early exposure to the debates of class struggle and mass politics in the era of the New Deal and his appreciation of freedom of speech as well as American writers.
One of his first books, The Careerist, exposed the corruption and degeneration afflicting the reformist social democratic movement whose ideals had begun to transform Sweden into a modern welfare state. In the sixties he began producing his travel books which examined societies he stayed long periods in, such as Turkmenistan and Afghanistan and Angkor Wat as well as the first of a series on Life in a Chinese Village during the Cultural Revolution which was followed by many return visits.
But it was his book Confessions of a Disloyal European that was to have an enormous impact on anti-imperialists and leftists in many countries with its third world perspective. His wife of more than 50 years, the painter and photographer Gun Kessle worked with him in documenting these travels. He returned to Sweden after these travels and became a leading Vietnam activist and supporter of national liberation struggles.
During these years he also finished his monumental work India Waiting. His anti-imperialism led him to visit the Khmer Rouge held areas during the Vietnamese invasio and the liberated Naxalite controlled areas of India in his 80´s. He participated in the World Tribunal on Iraq in Istanbul in 2005 where he compared the war propaganda used by the imperialists in the two world wars which he had explored in his Selling war like margarine with the false language used by the US in the Iraq invasion and occupation. Al Intiqad, the magazine of Hezbollah, described him as one of Europe´s leading intellectuals and published a long interview with him in which he discussed the historical role of religion and war.
But he was also an important figure in Swedish literature, like the Swedish writer August Strindberg, who he considered his inspiration. His writing had a distinct, direct style, often using spoken and understood language and moving comfortably and without difficulty between tenses so that the past became the present for the reader. His texts were often long, logical reasoning with countless references or asides for further insights. He was as challengeable to read as a Chomsky who did not use commas.
Myrdal was famous for his texts on Balzac, Twain and Dickens, all of whose work he explored and cited in his own writings. He became famous as a prose writer with his I-stories. The first three, The Childhood Trilogy used the perspective of growing awareness of a child growing up to young adulthood. This resulted in his victory in a court case for libel from his Nobel Prize winning parents.
The series continued with Tomorrows, where as a young teenage radical he commits himself to the political and personal discipline that the struggle demanded. of a revolutionary committed to making a better world. His last work in this genre used the perspective of old-age to relook at the recollections of his part. Even that became a bestseller in Sweden.
A true historical materialist all his writings were characterized by an underclass perspective against the superstructure of capitalist politics and culture. He was one of the founders of Folket i Bild/Kulturfront (People in Pictures/the Cultural Front) a broad based movement and magazine to defend People´s culture, freedom of speech and anti-imperialism, in which he continued to have a regular column for almost half a century.
Myrdal was a controversial figure, admired greatly or hated by his detractors. He had no regrets for the positions he took. Even as many cultural figures in Sweden after his death were quick to witness to his importance, they pissed on his memory by pointing out the many issues they disagreed with him. Their problem was often that they never read what he said correctly. For those of us who followed his writings for half a century, he provided inspiration and pointed out a way to understand our world and to act to change it.
The ritual was to arrive at work half an hour early, so I could gradually wake up in the car listening to the radio, drinking coffee, and eating doughnuts. I’d park my Honda Fit beside the site foreman’s pick-up truck. His morning pre-shift was like mine, except that his breakfast was vodka-soda with painkillers. Another two labourers usually arrived after I did: an irritable six-foot-three indigenous guy called by everyone, including himself, the “BFI,” which stood for “Big F-cking Indian”; and a cocaine-addled Italian who split “a gram or two with the wife” nightly, pairing it with a three-litre bottle of red wine. He claimed to sleep only two hours, which I never doubted, since he had to commute an hour to get on site at 6am. Of my colleagues, only the BFI always worked sober, having survived years of alcoholism (not to mention some prison time).
At age 20, I’d started my first week in construction, excavating a commercial space for a liquor store. The dark pits of freshly-dug soil gave the air a musty sweetness that stuck in the back of the throat. We’d spend 12-hour days digging trenches in the subterranean dark, and then fill them up with concrete. The ready mix splashed onto my skin and made my eyes burn, while men yelled monosyllabic instructions over the din of engines. The air smelled of diesel, with notes of liquid metal thanks to the welders. On break, we made our way outside, the only time we saw the sun, to immediately contaminate the fresh air with a round of cigarettes. True to stereotype, not one woman escaped our gaze. They were something to look at that wasn’t steel, dirt, dust, or rock.
This is how some men spend the majority of their lives.
I say “men” because, in my chosen subspecialty of concrete (whose ranks include those formally designated in the United States under the category of “cement masons, concrete finishers, and terrazzo workers”), the work force is 98.9 percent male. According to 2018 data (collected well before the COVID-19 pandemic), the average annual salary is about $42,000, significantly less than the national average of $54,000. In this industry, 50 is considered old. And working past 60 is almost unheard of. Most of the men I worked with had little formal education. Many had a criminal record. Men working in construction and extraction have the highest suicide rate of any industry, as well as the highest rate of opioid addiction, and (predictably) [overdoses](https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/10/191030082825.htm#:~:text=The%20researchers%20found%20that%2C%20compared,cocaine%20use%20(1.8%20percent%20vs.). Alcoholism rates are second only to the mining industry. It’s a rough crowd doing hard work. So you can see why employers might have difficulty addressing their gender imbalance.
Men work construction jobs because they need the money. But they also take pride in their daily work product, and the more general fact that they build and fix the concrete world that we all need. There’s usually a strong work ethic on display, too, even if it doesn’t always manifest itself as what many of us would describe as professionalism per se.
To the extent construction workers are discussed at all in the media or popular culture, it’s usually by reference to stereotypically negative attributes, such as sexist leering, foul language, and substance abuse. Unless you are embedded in this world, you’ll miss the offsetting positive aspects, including the unspoken code that exists among most crews: (1) Do the best work you can, without creating more work for others; (2) don’t shirk the dirtiest or hardest task; (3) obey your direct boss, but remain suspicious of authority more generally, especially when it walks on to the site with clean hands and nice shoes. (Young engineers tend to be particular objects of scorn); (4) never rat. If someone’s alcohol or drug problem is out of hand, let the supervisor address it. If your colleague gets fired because you blew the whistle, you may lose something more precious than a job.
While doing interviews for this article, two unionized municipal construction workers told me, off the record, “There are only two rules with Percocet: One, never talk about perkies. Two, do you have any?” The high level of opioid use among construction workers arises from the need to alleviate pain. Many workers freely offer stories about past accidents and the ensuing surgeries. In other cases, it’s a case of repetitive stress and bodily wear and tear, including slipped disks and rotator-cuff issues. Opioids are especially helpful for contract labourers who don’t have union protection or job benefits. Without work, they have no money, so they rely on pills to stay on site.
Eventually, of course, avoidance of withdrawal symptoms becomes the dominant priority. And one friend of mine fell off the workforce when he could no longer find a steady supply of pills. The symptoms of sudden abstinence, which often start with vomiting and diarrhoea, can sometimes be life-threatening. To save a colleague from unemployment, and possibly from falling into a deadly spiral, a few men relinquished some of their own pills as an act of charity, knowing the roles could be reversed one day.
On the sites I worked, Percocet went for between $3 and $5 per 5mg dose. The more potent 80 mg OxyContins went for $80. (The active ingredient in both is oxycodone.) Labourers are rarely prescribed enough by their doctors to feed their addictions, and so they buy or trade amongst one another. Some spend upward of $500 per week, and have to enter into informal buy-and-sell agreements, somewhat comparable to stock options. One supervisor habitually secured a high volume of Percocets through his monthly prescription, and would sell a portion at the beginning of the month, with the understanding that he’d buy some back at an agreed upon price when his supply ran out. He did this to prevent himself from doing all his pills at once.
During my first four years of occasional construction work, from 2014 to 2018, almost 5,000 workers in this field died on the job in the United States. But those figures include only private-sector construction work, and exclude associated suicides, accidental overdoses, as well as traffic accidents while commuting to and from work. Even according to the lowest figures, the on-the-job fatal injury count for hardhats is higher than for any other occupation, mostly because of what’s sometimes referred to by the US Labor Department as the “fatal four”: falling, getting struck by an object, electrocutions, and “getting caught in (or in between) things.”
America’s most revered professions include emergency responders: police officers, firefighters, and paramedics. During the COVID-19 pandemic, health workers of all kinds have been properly showered with gratitude as well. In 2019, however, workers in these areas lost a combined 150 lives, about one-seventh the total deaths in construction in a typical year. Even America’s soldiers have suffered fewer absolute losses than construction workers in recent years.
Soldiers and first responders enjoy an elevated status because they work to protect us from obvious threats—foreign attack, terrorism, disease. If construction is done successfully, on the other hand, there is no threat (unless you count nature, which few do, since most of us now simply take protection from the elements for granted). In addition, it is assumed that soldiers and first responders choose their jobs, whereas labourers have merely accepted theirs with resignation, because they couldn’t find anything better.
Construction workers lack the aesthetic of heroes. George Orwell observed in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) that the main reason the working classes, coal miners, in particular, were looked down upon was not because of some abstract quality such as mind or character, but because of the way they struck the senses of more refined observers:
It may not greatly matter if the average middle-class person is brought up to believe that the working classes are ignorant, lazy, drunken, boorish, and dishonest; it is when he is brought up to believe that they are dirty that the harm is done… And in my childhood, we were brought up to believe that they were dirty. Very early in life, you acquired the idea that there was something subtly repulsive about a working-class body; you would not get nearer to it than you could help.
Orwell’s view is somewhat dated, of course. Mines and other industrial facilities now require fewer workers, and are more dependent on highly skilled technicians to operate the machines that do most of the work. In our post-industrial world, moreover, hipsters now have become enamored with certain kinds of blue-collar work. But these infatuations tend to focus on artisanal subcultures, such as fine woodworking, custom-made bicycles, or craft cideries. Day-to-day construction work doesn’t qualify: I’ve yet to encounter an ambitious student who dreams of tying rebar or pouring concrete. In fact, the lifestyle is sometimes similar to one that Orwell might recognize. There were some weeks when, after dawn-to-dusk shifts, I would climb into bed without showering, in my dirty and smelly workwear, from sheer exhaustion, and for the convenience of not having to change in the morning.
Scene from Total Recall
In fiction, labourers have been featured prominently in niches such as communist proletariat literature and gay romance. Though neither present any kind of realistic image of working life. On television, arguably the most popular show with a blue-collar construction theme is the children’s cartoon, Bob the Builder (which portrays the life of a building contractor with the same level of accuracy as an anthropologist might find in a plotline from Dora the Explorer). On the silver screen, similarly, we got Emmet from The Lego Movie in 2014. One of the few memorable construction-worker heroes in a Hollywood movie aimed at adults was Douglas Quaid, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall. The 1990 movie had been adapted from Philip K Dick’s novel, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (1966), whose protagonist was an office clerk. It was only because of Schwarzenegger’s physique that a blue-collar back story was substituted.
In music, there was once a fashion for socialist propaganda songs, including those produced by the Wobblies, short-hand for the International Workers of the World Union. Perhaps the most famous was Joe Hill’s The Preacher and The Slave (1911). As consolation for their meager rations and impoverished lives, a preacher assures workers, they’ll get food in heaven—which is how we got the expression “pie in the sky”:
Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
But when asked about something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet
You will eat, you will eat, by and by
In that glorious land in the sky, way up high
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die, that’s a lie
(In Animal Farm, Orwell borrowed a similar concept, with Moses the crow encouraging farm animals to ignore their agonies on Earth and instead imagine the pleasures to be enjoyed in the great beyond, a land that he promised was real, and which he called “Sugarcandy Mountain.”)
The revival of Zionism in the 19th century provides one notable cultural genre in which the common labourer received heroic treatment in a way that transcended merely socialist tropes. This included the so-called Muscular Judaism movement presented by Zionist leader Max Nordau as an answer to caricature of Jews as meek and cowardly parasites who got by on guile instead of effort. Long before the rise of the Nazi menace, he argued in a 1903 article (Muskeljudentum, “Jewry of Muscle”) that physical strength was essential to enable Jews both to combat anti-Semitic prejudice and develop a revived national identity. He called on the diaspora to “let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”
A second influence was Avoda Ivrit, or “Hebrew Labour,” which had a mystical element. Championed by Zionist ideologue A. D. Gordon, this movement held that Jewish immersion in the holy land could be properly achieved only through manual work. Of course, these labourers were not like the modern wage-earners I’ve written about here. These were self-sustaining agrarians who channeled their efforts into an explicitly nationalistic, collective project. However, Israel’s founding fathers did at least give workers their proper due alongside other callings.
A few years ago, while walking with a friend who had worked alongside me at the same construction company, we saw a car veer off the road and smash through the wall of a convenience store. Working a few blocks away, members of a construction crew heard the accident and sprinted over. They pulled the female driver out of her smoking car and laid her out on the sidewalk. These were the only people to help before the ambulance arrived, while the other, more “respectable,” bystanders held up their phones to record everything. My friend reflected, “It makes me proud to have worked construction.”
This sentimental bit of camaraderie stuck with me, but only until the next day. Back on site, a co-worker noticed a girl across the street while we were on break. He shouted my way, “I’d f–ck the hole off of her.” If anyone had been filming him, it’s a scene that would have gone viral among those with clean hands and nice shoes. In Orwell’s day, the privileged set had to get up close and personal to develop their disdain for the working class. These days, thanks to Twitter, they can do it without getting out of bed.
Michael Humeniuk is a former construction worker.
A considerable amount of baggage has become attached to the word “European” over the half-millennium that Europe has dominated the world. There’s the geographical meaning – from the Atlantic to the Urals – but, because Europe is a peninsula on the western end of Asia, the frontier is subject to debate. Diplomats sometimes use the word to mean members of the European Union. But the most important meaning is the value-laden one – to be “European” is to be modern, civilised, rational, to hold “values”, to be successful. To be powerful. Not to be “European” is to be none of these things, perhaps even their opposites. Europeans are rulers and exemplars; the others are subjects and inferiors. Throughout the period of European domination, to be considered “European” was favoured and to adopt European habits, dress styles, education and appearance was desirable. Not to be “European”, on the other hand, was an insult: your culture didn’t make the grade. This meaning is commonly found today, especially in the smug phrase “European values“.
I have been considering writing this essay for some years but have put off doing so because I know that for many readers “Europe” means “best” and to say Russia is not European is to say that it’s not good enough. But at last President Putin has given me the opening: “Россия – это не просто страна, это действительно отдельная цивилизация“. “Russia, it’s not simply a country it is certainly a separate civilisation”. And who would dare disagree with him?
I have always regarded Russia, to quote Macron’s term, as a civilisation-state. It is its own thing – not European not Asiatic, it’s Russian. If we use Toynbee’s nomenclature it, like Western Christendom, is a daughter society of the Hellenic society.
To make my argument I will use Toynbee’s methodology in his Study of History to determine what he calls a “society” – a distinct, self-contained entity about which history in the largest scale can be studied. Is Britain one of these? is it, as many Britons thought in his day, a stand-alone culture? His argument was to imagine a history of Britain in a series of chapters. Let us start the book with a first chapter: Celtic Britain. Immediately there is a problem because a huge footnote has to be inserted to explain who the Celts were and where they came from because they didn’t originate in Britain; they arrived there fully-formed, so to speak. Then Chapter 2 might be Roman Britain. Again a huge footnote to explain their non-British origins and history. Then Chapter 3 about the Saxons and again a big footnote. Chapter 4 The Normans and so on. In short each chapter of British history leads one to huge digressions outside of Britain; therefore, Toynbee argued, Britain must be a part of some other society which has a more-or-less self-contained story – Celts, Romans, Saxons and Normans all originate in Europe; no footnotes are needed. This seems to me to be a powerful argument.
Let us apply it to Russia and Europe. We’ll start our European history – you have to start somewhere – with Chapter 1 The Roman Empire. We’d speak about its origin, its conquests, its decay, its legacy. There’s no similar chapter in our Russian book: Russia wasn’t part of the Roman Empire and, in fact, there isn’t much history of Russia up until the 800s. Chapter 2 of our Europe history book would probably be Christianity; Russia and Europe share that but again there’s a big difference. The Roman Empire became officially Christian in the early 300s and the religion spread throughout the Empire. Missionaries from Europe spread the word out to and past the limits of the Empire to Germany and Ireland. The Russian experience is both later and different: Grand Duke Vladimir made a conscious, top-down decision to Christianise and adopted the Christianity of Byzantium; European Christianity was Rome-centred from the start. Chapter 3 of our European history book would cover Charlemagne and the re-creation – independently of Constantinople – of a Christian Roman Empire centred on the formerly pagan and barbarian invaders; nothing like that in Russia which still has two centuries to go before it’s Christianised. Chapter 4 might be the Empire-Papacy struggle – nothing like that in Russia. Chapter 5 is The Renaissance and again there no equivalent in Russia. In fact, you could write most of the European history book without ever mentioning the word “Russia” up until the 1700s.
What of the Russian history book? Its Chapter 1 would probably be about the Varangians and the creation of a region of loosely connected city states at least nominally Orthodox; much of this story would be somewhat mythical or archaeological. Chapter 2 would cover the development of what is now called Kievan Rus, the trade with Byzantium and the many contacts with Europe – a Russian became Queen of France. At this point one could argue (leaving aside the growing importance of the difference of religion particularly after the Great Schism of 1054) that Russia and Europe might have become so entwined as to become one. But our Russian Chapter 3 brings the difference that is all the difference: The Mongols. In a series of lightning campaigns the Mongol forces overran the Russias, destroyed Kiev and forced all the Russian principalities to submit to Mongol rule and to give tribute. Nothing like this happened in Europe, although it might have: the Mongol forces retreated from Hungary in 1242 and never returned. This is another Great If of history; had the Mongols continued to the Atlantic, a second possible entwining of Russia and Europe might have happened. But they departed Europe and remained in Russia.
Much has been written about the effect of Mongol rule on Russia’s development but all agree that it shaped its future very strongly. The two and a half centuries of what the Russians call the “Tatar yoke” cover a time in contemporary Europe that begins when Thomas Aquinas is a boy and ends when Columbus is a young man – a period of enormous change in European civilisation. But in Russia they are years of compliance, endurance and resistance. The recovery of the “Russian Lands” was led by Muscovy, formerly a not very important part of Russia. The textbook date for the end of the “Tatar yoke” was the withdrawal of Mongol forces in the face of a Russian army at the Ugra River in 1480 but it was actually only with Catherine’s regathering of Crimea and “New Russia” in the late 1700s that the very last Mongol ruler of Russian Lands was displaced.
So, our hypothetical European and Russian history books have quite different chapters and that means that they have quite different histories; we’re talking about two things, not one thing.
Europe became immensely powerful in the 1500s, conquered the rest of the world and minor European players like Belgium snatched a pierce for themselves. Even mighty China was subjugated – its “century of humiliation”. Russia was one of the very few exceptions; despite several tries, Europe never conquered it. Peter the Great Europeanised Russia, built a navy, founded the gun factories at Tula, shaved beards, eliminated caftans and required the upper classes to dress like French dancing masters. He did it in order to better prepare Russia to fight Sweden, at that time the dominant power in the area. When Charles XII was defeated by Peter at Poltava in 1709 Russia arrived on the European scene as a great power that had to be taken into account. A century later, Emperor Alexander was one of the five people who redesigned Europe.
Europeans underestimate the importance of their skill at war, preferring to think that it was their values or their political skills or their modernity or their science that made them pre-eminent for five centuries. But their killing power (and their killing diseases) were mighty allies: “Whatever happens we have got The Maxim Gun, and they have not“. Peter, facing attack from Europe, learned European killing ways and so Russia remained independent. Many resisted Western aggression and failed – Tecumseh, Túpac Amaru, Cetshwayo, the Rani of Jhansi – but Peter succeeded. In short, Russia’s (and Japan’s) voluntary Europeanisation was motivated by the desire to learn the European way of war so as to keep independence. At Poltava in 1709, at Vienna in 1814, at Berlin in 1945, an independent Russia became a major force in Europe.
The realities that Europe was never able to conquer it, that Russians look and sound like Europeans on the surface, that in the European constellation Russia is a Great Power have caused no little confusion. Many people have come to believe that Russia is a part of European civilisation but a defective part: a European country, but a bad one. But, once one realises that Russia is not a European country and has a quite different history that moved in parallel with little contact for centuries, one can see past these illusions. Different forces shaped it and different results happened.
Not inferior, not “Asiatic”, not uncivilised, not uncultured; different. A “civilisation state”. As is China.
Restoration of the automatons of Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz, the Writer, the Draughtsman and the Musician, by Thierry and Grégory Amstutz, Auvernier, Switzerland