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Lessons of the Twentieth Century

Jerry Pournelle

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


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 The following was published in the web magazine Intellectual Capital in April of 2000.


Jerry Pournelle

Intellectual Capital April 12, 2000


The Twentieth Century was/is instructive, and we will be examining lessons learned for a good part of this ambiguous year that is not quite part of the last Millennium nor yet part of the next. Some of the lessons were foreseen, although like Cassandra our prophets spoke truth but were not believed. Other lessons are only now emerging.

You can characterize the Twentieth Century in many ways, which is to say there are many lenses through which we can look at history. Choosing one and only one is always as great a mistake as to ignore an important view. Any one view is certainly wrong in some to many particulars, but we can learn from all of them. Marx and Freud had much to teach, but choosing either as one's master is folly.

One observer not much remembered now is the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, whose best remembered book, The Revolt of the Masses, is still very much worth reading, although it is seldom read. The title is as good a one-line summary of the Twentieth Century as any: a century in which the XVIIIth Century notion of individualism - the notion, as Ortega puts it that "every human being, by the mere fact of birth, and without requiring any special qualification whatsoever, possessed certain fundamental political rights … and these rights, common to all, are the only ones that exist." These notions kicked around in the XIXth century, but it was only in the last half of the XXth that they came into their own. Now everyone believes this or purports to. The consequences are grave. Some would say terrible.

A few are obvious. When I was young, it was uncommon to put citizens accused but not convicted of crimes in chains. Only if an accused proved to be unruly was he handcuffed, and only if especially unruly was he put in full chains. Now we see elderly ladies led into the courtroom in handcuffs, leg irons, waist chains, looking for all the world like Jean Valjean being led to the galleys. When the absurdity is pointed out, we are told that because some people are unruly and violent and cannot be controlled even with handcuffs, equality demands that we do it with all. Even traffic stops often result in citizens with no criminal record and accused of no more than unpaid traffic tickets being taken to the stationhouse in handcuffs. We have learned the lesson: if you treat everyone equally, then you must treat everyone as the worst possible villain. To retain civilized equality we must give up civilization, or at least civility.

Ortega thought the fundamental danger of the Century was the supremacy of the State over Society. Mussolini's Fascism was a mere extension of the notion of liberal democracy that all social problems are amenable to action by the State, with the result that "Can we help feeling that under the rule of the masses the State will endeavor to crush the independence of the individual and the group, and thus definitely spoil the harvest of the future?" Certainly David Koresh and his followers in Waco would have understood that.

On the other hand, Ortega was wrong in one particular. He believed that the old fashioned kind of dictatorship was impossible: one could not rule by Janissaries or Mamelukes if only because the dictator needed the approval of his security apparatus: if you will rule through a gang of thugs you must retain the loyalty of the thugs. That has been proven wrong again and again. After Stalin died there was not a Stalinist left in the leadership of the USSR (although there were plenty among the faculty of American universities). Modern methods of social control are quite efficient. Rome endured centuries of civil war as Legion after Legion revolted to raise their commander to the purple. Nothing like that happened in the USSR so long as it endured: and nothing like that has happened in Cuba. Castro rules supreme and can still make mischief as he will, the suffering and privation of his people notwithstanding.

And that is another important lesson for dictators taught by the last Century: if you are a dictator, never let go. Hang on to the last. Contrast the declining years of Augustin Pinochet and Fidel Castro if you want a dramatic illustration.

Of course that advice may be easier to give than to take. Talleyrand once stood with Napoleon at a troop review. Napoleon said "See the bayonets of my men!" To which Talleyrand replied "You can do anything with bayonets, sire, except sit upon them." Ruling is a matter of the firm seat as well as the iron hand. Once again the Twentieth Century teaches a stark lesson for dictators: If you want to remain in power, get nuclear weapons. You do not need many, but you must have some. It used to be that you didn't need any of your own: a firm alliance with a power that had them would do. Both the US and the USSR protected unsavory regimes with their nuclear umbrellas. Now the USSR's umbrella does not extend so far (although quite far enough to give them a free hand in Chechnya and the various Russian Turkestans). Now you need your own nukes to be safe.

There are other ways. The rulers of Haiti have managed without nukes, largely because they threaten the US with their own total collapse: without some kind of regime in Haiti the seas would be filled with leaky boats as the people of Haiti flee toward the United States. At the cost of American Janissaries to prop up the failing regime, we avoid all that. One suspects there are those who wish we could do the same with Mexico: install and prop up a regime that would close the border from the other side.

But while one may remain in power through Janissaries and the ability to annoy the United States, this is not anywhere near as safe as having nuclear weapons. Milosovich learned that the hard way: if he had nukes we would never have bombed his country. Pakistan and India may practice ethnic cleansing all they wish: they have nukes. We've already mentioned Chechnya. And Saddam Hussein knows this lesson well. One suspects it's pretty clear to everyone in the Middle East, and after the Kossovo Bombardment (hardly worth dignifying it as a war), it should be clear to everyone.

And on the Home Front

Our final lesson for today is domestic, and it too grows out of principles Ortega expounded: you must not ignore the State in a mass society. Individual rights are not real unless bought with hard coin. Bill Gates has found that out.

Gates once served as a Congressional page. He was from a family long associated with the Democratic Party. His mother was appointed to the University of Washington Board of Regents by a Democratic governor, and Gates always made (modest) donations to that party. His view of the world was made in a very different time: he thought politics irrelevant to building a business. Now he knows better.

Does anyone imagine that the US government would have gone through the machinations it did, transferring jurisdiction and files from the Federal Trade Commission to the Department of Justice, recruiting Microsoft's commercial rivals as participants in a government case against Microsoft, if Gates had donated a billion dollars to the current regime? If he had bought his nights in the Lincoln Bedroom? Had made his large Washington office not a sales office, but a "public relations" office, complete with "information sessions" with free food and liquor for Congressional and White House Staff? Had, in a word, paid the bribes to become part of Gore-Tech? In fact we all know it wouldn't have taken a billion. A hundred million would have been enough, and look what that investment would have returned! Gates personally lost billions in an hour after Penfield Jackson's decision. So did most of America through decline in the value of their pension funds as the NASDAQ nosedived.

So, as the politicians prattle about "campaign reform", the government has made it very clear: Ignore Imperial Washington at your peril. If you do, we will punish you.

Ortega y Gasset would not have been surprised. Neither would the historians of the Roman Empire. After Marcus Aurelius came Septimius Severus, whose advice to his children on how to remain in power was "Stay together, pay the soldiers, and take no heed for the rest." In our case the soldiers wear three piece suits and carry briefcases, but they command armed troops. For details look up "Waco".

There are many more lessons to be learned from the Twentieth Century, but those will do for a start.

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