Monday, March 06, 2017

Mandatory Fun: Saint Petersburg and Its Despot

In opposing the “Great Man Theory” of historical causation, Leo Tolstoy also challenged one of the most obvious features of his own nation’s history: the prominent role played by autocratic, strong-willed monarchs in shaping Russia’s politics and institutions. One thinks of Catherine II, enlightened despot with countless paramours; Alexander I, statesman-mystic and defier of Napoleon; Alexander II, liberator and reformer; and Nicholas II, outstanding both in weakness and misfortune - not to mention the communist tsars of the twentieth century, Lenin and Stalin. Vladimir Putin, with his show-biz antics, dictatorial governing style and foreign adventures, follows the example of the Romanovs and the Bolshevik autocrats. As yet, though, he has not attempted to secure his fame by building a permanent monument in the form chosen by many of his predecessors: a city bearing his own name. Putin has not, in short, emulated the most outsized of Russian monarchs, Peter I, founder of Saint Petersburg.

Peter (1672-1725) identified more with western Europe than with his homeland. As tsar he sought to remake Russia into a Western state and society. There were limits to how far anyone, even an autocrat, could transform Russia’s vast peasantry, its ancient Church, or its social institutions. Peter could and did impose changes on the nation’s aristocracy (e.g. cutting off their beards) and its capital city. Rather than rebuild Moscow, the Romanov tsar decided to build a new capital, a city-sized model of the Russia he wanted to inhabit. Saint Petersburg, whose construction began in the spring of 1703, quickly grew into a center of power, commerce, and refinement. Peter invited French and Italian architects to design his city’s broad boulevards and cascading fountains. He encouraged foreign ships to call by offering favorable trading terms and bounties. Foreigners the tsar had to cajole and entice, but Russians he could simply command. Peter ordered a thousand noble families to build residences in Saint Petersburg, and directed 2,500 artisans and merchants to join them. In 1710 he moved the royal court there as well. Saint Petersburg remained Russia’s capital until the Revolution, and one of its largest cities thereafter.

Peter’s city combined grandeur with cruelty, incompetence, and farce. The tsar conscripted several hundred thousand peasant laborers to build his capital, but did not make adequate plans to feed or house them. Exposure, illness, and overwork killed workers by the thousands; 30,000 left their bones beside the Neva River. Russian nobles’ need to build new homes in the city, meanwhile, caused them to build in haste, and, as one historian observed “their new palaces were crumbling before they were completed,” their walls sagging and sinking into the marshy ground (Blanning, 231). Once the aristocrats arrived in Petersburg, Tsar Peter’s determination to turn the city into a center of culture caused him to place additional, absurd burdens on them. He obliged the resident nobles to learn yachting, organized mandatory sailing reviews and regattas, and obliged the high-born to attend a long series of balls and soirees - and, presumably, to pretend they were having a wonderful time. Enforced gaiety, “mandatory fun” as Weird Al calls it, signals quite clearly that one is living under a despot. In his demand that his aristos not only move to Saint Petersburg but publicly pretend they were happy, Peter resembled (to me at least) no-one so much as Ming the Merciless, villain of the film Flash Gordon (1980), who on the occasion of his wedding ordered “All will make merry on pain of death.” However romantic a monarchy seems in retrospect, actually living in one must have resembled life in Pyongyang more than Camelot.* 

Sources: Blanning, The Pursuit of Glory (Penguin, 2007), 231, 238; Stanley Elkins and Eric McKittrick, The Age of Federalism (Oxford UP, 1993), 185-186. 

*As Charles Stross has pointed out several times.

(Image above: The Palace Embankment from the Peter and Paul Palace, by Fyodor Alekseev)

Monday, February 13, 2017

Our Non-Crapsack Future

Adam Rakunas, author of two of my favorite new sci-fi novels (Windswept and Like a Boss), suggested recently on Twitter that the dystopian trend in modern science fiction comes from authors’ following the path of least resistance. It's easy to imagine the world falling apart, cities burned down, coastlines drowned, civilization replaced with anarchy or worse, because that's just entropy in action. It takes more effort to imagine the world becoming a better place, our current troubles yielding to what Rakunas calls "a non-crapsack future." Predicting social change isn't easy, and it is harder still for intelligent people, raised in a conservative era, to imagine social change that won't cause more problems than it solves. Add in the very recent history of the developed world, notably Brexit, the American election, and the likelihood of fascist electoral victories in France and Holland, and one finds it even harder to imagine the world won't simply get worse and worse. 

Charles Stross, another of my favorite SF writers, has recently yielded to this temptation. He projects a hellish near-future in which a new Fascist International revives the declining hydrocarbon industry, pours millions more tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, and uses militarized national borders to bar out refugees from countries ravaged by flooding and “black-flag weather.”* With nowhere else to go, equatorial refugees will have to stay home and die, by the hundreds of millions. Presto! Global genocide, without the need for expensive armies and death camps. 

I like Stross’s work a lot, but in this essay I think he commits a graver error than simply elevating entropy above human agency. In his famous essay on the alarmist author James Burnham, George Orwell observed that a common problem among intellectuals was their rock-solid faith in historical inertia. Burnham always assumed that the great events taking place in the world right now (i.e. 1940) would continue in the future, that trends visible in the present would necessarily and always come to fruition. Stross, I think, feels the same way about the nascent White Fascist International aborning in Europe, North America, and perhaps Australia. He fears and despises our new political leaders, but sees them as shapers and beneficiaries of trends that non-fascists can only resist with great difficulty and peril.

I won’t assume that the struggle against modern fascism will be one we can win through complacency. Complacency in the face of suffering (by working-class whites who voted for DJT and demoralized minority voters who stayed home on Election Day) helped give Americans our current Gropenfuhrer. Viewing fascists as an awesome threat powered by historic inevitability will paralyze us just as thoroughly, however. Let me offer some contrary, and I hope reassuring facts.

Our nightmare future.
First, modern authoritarian or totalitarian states tend more toward fragility than stability. Their leaders cannot draw upon the talents of all or even most of their citizens, and must privilege the survival of the regime above policies (economic or educational) that might strengthen the nation. Soviet Russia, the colossus that James Burnham so feared, faced severe food shortages by the 1960s and only survived by virtue of giant oil and gas discoveries. Even so, by the 1980s its regime had become an economic dependency of West German bankers. Maoist China suffered an inter-factional civil war (the Cultural Revolution) in the 1960s, followed by a near-total collapse of the centralized economy. The regime survived, barely, at the cost of radical economic liberalization. Fascist Spain lasted for 35 years, but by the end of Franco’s life the country suffered from chronic terrorism and regional separatism. His successor, Juan Carlos, chose democratization and regional devolution as the alternative to regime collapse. Fascism and its left-wing equivalents are dangerous ideologies, as their millions of victims can attest. One still cannot build an enduring polity upon them. Entropy affects all human systems, especially, it seems, the evil ones.

Second, the pages of both futurological non-fiction and science fiction are littered with imminent disasters that never quite materialized. For nearly half of the twentieth century Westerners anticipated a Third World War which would involve nuclear weapons, the wreckage of world civilization, and possibly the extinction of humanity. The number of sci-fi stories, novels, and movies with this theme ranges into the high hundreds. The nukes themselves stayed in their silos, as the Soviet Union and the United States found other outlets for their Great-Power aggression that did not entail regime suicide. In the 1960s and ‘70s, overpopulation and famine stalked the pages of non-fiction bestsellers like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and sf novels like Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (basis for the film Soylent Green). The Green Revolution and artificial fertilizers largely solved the food (or at least calorie) shortage, and economic development in the former Third World slowed the rise in fertility rates that so worried Ehrlich and his contemporaries. More recently, authors like James Kunstler and Robert Wilson raised a hue and cry over Peak Oil and the forthcoming collapse of industrial civilization. New technology, in the form of hydraulic fracturing and inexpensive solar panels, gave us instead a surplus of cheap oil and a dying coal industry.

This future won't happen either.
Human beings have faced the possibility of self-induced extinction for over seventy years, and speculating on it makes for some dramatic fiction. In real life, the sky rarely falls on us quite so heavily and finally as it does on the page. Change, whether in demographics or economics or warfare, almost always happens slowly enough for us to find an alternative (especially if it involves financial profit) to an unsustainable course. The alternatives carry with them their own costs. The proxy wars and post-colonial conflicts that we got in place of World War Three killed about forty million people,** the agricultural revolution that saved billions from famine also produced enough nitrate runoff to kill billions of fish, and hydraulic fracturing threatens water supplies throughout the United States. The alternatives that humans find to destroying the world’s climate – and we will find them, because a hydrocarbon future no longer benefits elites in some of the world’s most powerful nations (China, India, Germany) – will create externalities and chaos of their own. So will the collapse of the Neo-Fascist International that Vladimir Putin and his Western stooges want to create. I never said the future was going to be boring.

* A meteorological term employed by Frank Landis in his excellent Hot Earth Dreams (2015), referring to days when heat and humidity reach fatal levels for humans without air conditioning.

** Piero Scaruffi includes in his list 11 million fatalities during the Cultural Revolution - Frank Dikotter revises that down to 3 million - and the deaths to famine during the Great Leap Forward, which I don't include because it was less a deliberate atrocity and more a giant, ideologically-driven SNAFU.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Queen Anne, Last M.C. of the Stuart Dynasty

While I doubt I would have personally enjoyed living in her era (or at any time before modern medicine, really), I must confess to finding the reign of Queen Anne, last Stuart monarch of England, curiously appealing. Anne had become an anachronism even before her coronation. Parliament had by statute excluded the Catholic members of her family from the succession, making her by 1702 the only Stuart eligible to wear the crown. More tragically, Anne’s eighteen (!) pregnancies ended either in stillbirths or childhood deaths, so by her accession she knew she would have no successors of her body or blood. From the very beginning of her reign Anne knew that her dynasty had reached the end of the line.

During Anne’s regime Parliament and the various ministries busied themselves with the War of the Spanish Succession, a conflict known in Her Majesty’s colonies as Queen Anne’s War. Anne herself played no direct role in managing the conflict, other than leaving much of the fighting to one of her favorites, John Churchill (a competent general), and vetoing a Scottish militia bill in 1708. Anne became the last British monarch to disallow an Act of Parliament; her successors, all German, preferred to stay clear of lawmaking.* She otherwise devoted herself to the ceremonies and rituals that sacralized and legitimated her rule. Anne committed the details of court ceremony to her prodigious memory, criticized her courtiers for trivial lapses in protocol and minor flaws in costume, and publicly advertised her divine right by “curing” commoners of scrofula, the “king’s evil.” The queen in this respect resembled other end-of-the-line monarchs, like Charles X of France and Franz Joseph of Austria, substituting atmospherics for the actual exercise of power. 

Queen Anne later acquired a reputation as a sickly and unpleasant person. A contemporary described her as “ugly, corpulent, gouty, sluggish, a glutton, and a tippler." These features, if accurately described, one may attribute to Anne’s profound health problems. In addition to gout, the queen almost certainly suffered from lupus or an illness very like it. Her chronic joint pain made exercise difficult and doubtless gave her a short temper, alleviated by the liberal consumption of alcohol. Lupus also caused Anne’s numerous late-term miscarriages, which blighted her adult life and undermined her political standing (the production of a living heir being a monarch’s chief duty). Despite her disabilities, however, Anne displayed in her short life (1665-1714) a variety of personal talents. She spoke French fluently, committed poetry to memory, supported art and architecture**, and, when her hands were up to it, played the guitar like an expert. We err, perhaps, in viewing Anne simply as an obscure monarch, and do better to consider her a disabled woman who strove, in spite of her illnesses, to fulfill her professional duties: master of ceremonies for a constitutional monarchy and patroness of the arts. 

Source: Cedric Reverand, ed., Queen Anne and the Arts (Lewisburg, Pen., 2015), 7, 207-208.

* With some indirect exceptions: William IV and George V both threatened to enlarge the House of Lords to secure its assent to popular legislation, namely the 1832 Reform Act and Irish Home Rule.

** Saint Paul’s Cathedral was completed during Anne’s reign, and her statue now stands outside its main doors, where her crowned head provides a welcome perch for pigeons.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Performative Sovereignty and DAPL

Since 2013 I've been developing a book project on the relationship between Indian treaties and Native American sovereignty. It hasn't led to many publications yet, but last year Origins magazine asked me to write an essay on treaties, tribal sovereignty, and the NODAPL protests in North Dakota. I'm pleased to say the article is now live at this address, and I trust my readers will find it edifying.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Anti-Presidents Day: Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland persists in our popular memory as a bundle of colorful details. He became president in spite of a sex scandal, winning as the candidate of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” (a slogan that hurt his Republican opponent worse than Cleveland); served two non-consecutive terms as president, losing the office in 1888 despite winning the popular vote; and in his final term survived a secret operation to remove a mouth tumor. It would be nice to say that Cleveland, like his predecessor Chester Arthur, left behind a record of presidential accomplishments that merited his recovery from obscurity. Alas, in office the 22nd/24th president displayed the narrowness of vision and lack of creativity so typical of the White House’s denizens. Seeing himself as the heir of Jefferson and Jackson, he favored a small and inactive national government. President Grover opposed higher tariffs, Civil War veterans’ pensions, and federal disaster relief, which he claimed would “weaken the sturdiness of our national character,” and he blocked federal monitoring of Southern elections (which would have benefited black voters). He also supported Big Business in most of its forms. He favored the deflationary gold standard, even during the depression following the Panic of 1893; used federal troops to help crush the Pullman Strike of 1894; and hobnobbed with bankers and other princes of the Gilded Age. Essentially, he governed as a Democratic-Republican, simultaneously promulgating an outdated Jeffersonian vision of governance and quasi-Hamiltonian policies that favored the rich. We could say that he typified an era in which the American electorate evenly divided their votes between Republicans and Democrats. Cleveland tried to appeal to voters from both parties. A trimmer is not a leader, however, nor someone whose presidency benefits large numbers of people. The best one can say about Cleveland is that he wasn’t a total disaster.

Democrats probably wouldn’t even agree with that assessment. GC’s weak response to the Panic of 1893 helped Republicans take control of Congress and recover the presidency. They would not relinquish the White House to a Democrat for another sixteen years.

That Cleveland’s untidy personal life had little bearing on his subsequent political career does bear consideration. In Your Humble Narrator’s youth, politicos and the press believed that one sex scandal or unseemly divorce sufficed to ruin a person’s political ambitions, with Gary Hart and Nelson Rockefeller as Exhibit A. I doubt this was ever really true, and certainly Reagan (divorced) and Clinton (obvious horndog) demonstrated its irrelevance by the last quarter of the twentieth century. What voters dislike far more than an adulterer is a liar, as James Blaine (“Continental Liar from the State of Maine”) discovered in 1884. Cleveland at least acknowledged that he’d fathered a child out of wedlock and paid child support. Good enough, said the voters.

I imagine more Puritanical standards apply to female candidates for high office, American society being what it is. Whether these have any bearing on the election of a female president we will not know for at least another four years.