Jan 3·edited Jan 3

Learn well The Iron Law Of Oligarchy and its corollary, The Iron Law Of Institutions.

Much of the dynamism of the West stemmed from its institutional ability to prevent oligarchs from capturing state institutions and using them for purposes of self-aggrandizement. Being able to do this and sustain it on an institutional level over any length of time was a major breakthrough. Much of the military, technological economic and other advantages of the West stemmed from this.

What we are seeing in the ongoing decline of the West is but the reversion to the historical mean.

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re; "The way to do that is not competence—you can always hire competence—but through ideological purity."

The PMC will find it harder and harder to find competent people in the regions they dominate. Consider, for example, the comparative performance of the weapons systems in the Ukraine and their replenishment rates. Die Baerbock can turn 360 degrees all she wants. Her efforts, or her orders, will not produce a single extra artillery shell.

IMO the PMC is turning into a Cargo Cult. They have taken charge of controls constructed by previous generations. Some of these controls are now defunct. The PMC and their tame "scientists" cannot fix them. Some levers still engender some control, but the PMC working these have no idea of the overall system, and, thus, cannot course corrrect when something unexpected occurs. Thus, they keep on working these controls while chanting incantations in the hope that one day the planes will arrive again.

Very interesting times

Ishmael Zechariah

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This problem with reality translates a level or two down in the government hierarchy from where you likely worked and are discussing. Prestige and money go to the new initiatives, or those "modernizing" existing ones. Even money earmarked for maintenance is frequently skimmed and re-programmed to support some new thing.

Why is this?

1. No one wants to be assigned to a program in "maintenance mode". ("Maintaining" is what blue collar people do, after all). PMC folks avoid the stink of "maintenance" like the plague, but also, the future is where glorious "progress" always lives.

2. This allows the team to live in the undefined future - write papers, develop fancy prototypes of the newest technology, etc. This is the "fun" work, free from accountability. Maintenance and operations involves much more contact with reality. (I think this is one subtle reason programs delay and overrun - actual deployment is where contact with reality can no longer be avoided, and that's hard and no fun)

3. Tying into your essay, most business/management education and energy is either in building new initiatives, or if it touches operations and maintenance, talks about how the current model really needs to look in spreadsheets, which of course will never map to the reality of existing operations (and therefore require a new initiative)

This contact with reality seems the main dividing line (as pointed out by NS Lyons 'virtual vs the real" construct here: https://theupheaval.substack.com/p/reality-honks-back)

As an aside, I've been around government enough and intersected in a few topics to know that you really know your stuff. I've had the privilege to work with a few folks of your generation and level of competence and it was always worth it (even if they were typically ignored by the brass). I appreciate you sharing your wisdom. Don't get too comfortable in retirement as your level of competence and knowledge is pretty rare, and may come into high demand as reality reasserts itself.

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Oh, this is a column to read, re-read and to make a concerted effort towards making it widely read.

I've spent my productive life teaching mathematics at an undergraduate level. This requires teaching in college what should have been learned in a decent secondary education. I among others (avoiding the admonished we) attributed these lack of student skills to the unspoken c-word, the calculator. I really feel that relieving students of rote memorization and its accompanied pages of exercises in elementary school truly short changed them. Too, to do mathematics, even applying arithmetic to real world situations requires a high level of reading comprehension. Now what is heartening is that it really is never too late to learn. I had students in basic algebra take later courses from me in calculus and perform well. But this remedial work should not have been necessary.

I had to chuckle at how mundane situations engender the most vituperative behavior. Our staff meetings could have truly heated exchanges which would finally extinguish themselves over the realization that the stakes were very low indeed.

My last years of teaching were trying. The performative dictates of the ever expanding roster of administrative functionaries were incessant. It is sad that young graduates get acclimated to these artificial and in my view, very damaging perspectives in how to ignore causes and cures for the woes our present world presents to us.

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Thank you Aurelien🙏

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If we compare Chinese state capacity to Western state capacity over time, it is clear that we have always focused on war, politics, rhetoric and political ambition.

Only dire threats like WWII, and Sputnik – combined with massive overspending and corruption – rouse our governments to exercise their meagre governance abilities.

Chinese governments have always focused entirely on governance and state capacity as the foundation for their legitimacy.

It's no contest.

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I don't know if you'd consider it entirely related, but I have noticed amongst arts and humanities graduates a disinclination to attempt analytical thought themselves, much preferring to defer to authority and consensus. Trying to show people analysis that leads anywhere other than the consensus opinion is usually angrily dismissed.

I don't know if it's because attention spans have shrunk or because we're so acclimatised to seeing heterodoxy punished immediately and harshly, but I have seen the same patterns repeating in many different situations.

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While I agree with Aurelian's outstanding analysis, I think the problem has become most pronounced in the last few decades. The notions of "being over doing," leading to pressures to conform to an orthodoxy--all have been features of Western Civilization at least since Constantine, certainly since the Reformation as Aurelian points out so well. But why is this such a big problem now?

I'd like to suggest that poor leadership is a manifestation of complexity overload and information overload, not to weaknesses of character, wrong beliefs, or other defects. We still have a dominant class--the "Uniparty"--but there is no consensus, no orthodoxy, not clear path forward. I'd contend that's not due to the poor leadership class itself (when have we ever had good ones except in crises?) but uncertainty. It used to be the future was pretty clear: "make more cars!" "drill baby drill!" "Expand NATO!" "more trade with China!" "Support Israel!" We now realize we live in a world of complexity and constraints. Complexity means, not just that the landscape is poorly mapped and full of hazards, but its peaks and chasms are morphing unpredictably, and we don't understand how.

There is no orthodoxy with respect to advancing the general welfare (i.e. beyond identity politics), because the "world-slate" is so full of chaotic chalk marks that it communicates nothing to us. Only briefly, after an election, when the political slate is wiped "clean," and a "mandate", do politicians have much confidence they can "do something". In the USA, the rule is that only a NEW President can DO anything domestically in the first year or two of his first term. Then, believe me, he's under tremendous pressure to "DO" something. After that rather brief window, the chalk board is so marked up by demands and new realities that "deer in the headlights" paralysis sets in. Paralysis overtakes other pressures to "do something" because, in the cloud of unknowing, the status quo (the devil you know) is always the default.

Even with all the money and special interest lobbying, there is now SO MUCH money and SO MANY lobbyists buffeting our leaders from so many different directions that they just can't thread the needle. There are a few exceptions--e.g. in the USA there is so much lobbying muscle in support of Israel that the way is clear even if it's genocide, but even then, complexity overload takes over. Apparently, Biden didn't fully realize that supporting Israel meant losing the blacks and young in his coalition (they don't like genocide!). With Ukraine, he didn't seem to realize that this war would drag on this long and affect his re-election chances. So, now poor Genocide Joe has only a 40% approval rating (four points less than Trump at this point in the election cycle) and it's deer in the headlights again.

In the USA, mere virtue signaling is absolutely not enough to retain support. But with our last four Presidents it's been mostly failure after failure. The one near-constant is the voters who elect them. Maybe the constant oscillation between Republicans and Democrats is the voters' way of exhibiting "deer in the headlights" paralysis.

In short, maybe "poor leaders" is simply a reflection of Western angst over its decline in a world too complex to comprehend. If true, more training by our future leaders in the discipline of decision making under conditions of great uncertainty (yes it exists!). Of course, more "training" and "expertise" is a typical PMC "solution." Does that leave us with needing AI to govern?

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For the Western economy to be able to face booming economies, clearly China, it needs a downward social transformation, at least at a level so low that it is competitive with them. That requires fewer social benefits, lower salaries, desperate people willing to accept them, and greater insecurity that allows police surveillance to prevent massive expressions of discontent. One way to create and maintain this situation is to appear to be doing nothing, but not doing is a way of letting chaos happen. Making it almost impossible to have children or a house or a decent job, not allowing young people to be educated well, not fighting the war in Ukraine but grossly financing it, etc. means imposing very strict and persistent barriers to what society naturally requests. A lot of work needs to be done to establish and maintain these barriers. 25 hours a day of full-time work may be required

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You say that "The creation of an amorphous, unitary political system, that I call The Party, with its vicious internal feuds but ultimately the same broad set of beliefs, has pretty much monopolised the political space. " This has been the case in the United States since WW2, and what about the Communist Party of China that has monopolized the political space.

Once again you are missing the political-economic wood for the cultural trees. From the 1970s the US capitalist elite decided to turn their extractive gaze upon the home front, destroying it with decades of neoliberalism, financialization and rentiership while shipping the "doing" jobs offshore. Management was now all about finance, marketing, legal, consolidation to create monopolies/oligopolies, and corruption. That's how individuals that actually understood how to organize and build things fell by the wayside, along with so many of the worker skills learnt over decades.

Then we add the identitarian wars launched by the elite in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, that have now metastasized into the heart of the educational systems and HR departments, undermining the actual doers even more.

In contrast the centralized Chinese Party-state has focused on developing leaders who know how to make things and make things happen, and implemented policies designed to increase the productive forces of the economy as well as raise living standards.

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Good article. Describing the ideological underpinnings of the PMC as a twisted form of secular Protestantism (well, a certain kind of Protestantism) is an interesting line of thought. I’m reminded of the line from the Bible in the Letter of St. James: “Faith without works is dead.”

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"And trainee managers are taught today about how to manage their image, how to attract patronage and how to achieve advancement..." These trainees are training to be courtiers. Before I began to refer to Washington as the DC Bubble and Echo Chamber in my private writing, I called in Versailles on the Potomac. What is a Versailles without courtiers? And what is the "job" of a courtier? Why to be noticed by important persons, to be close to important persons, to be spoken to by an important person, to be tasked by an important person, no matter how trivial the task might be. . As the essay emphasizes, it is about performance. Louis XIV had a good reason to keep the nobility at Versailles. If there, they were not plotting in the provinces. Did they realize how demeaned they were by the empty and boring lives they were forced to led?. Do the courtiers, the entourage, the assistant to he the assistant to the third vice president realize it today? Focused on the shiny object? Dreaming of admission to the "Inner Party?" I think not.

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I keep thinking that this is really an epistemic problem: we can't evaluate things on "factual merits" because we don't know what the "facts" are.

Erastothenes did not learn the circumference of the Earth because he read it in some book. He started from some premises, e.g. Earth is round, the distance from Alexandria and Syene, and the relationship between the angle of light and the length of shadow, etc., then he went about taking some measurements at different places and put them together. I wonder how many of us today can do these, on a whole assortment of things. So if book X says this (not necessarily literal books, but a "source of information" defined broadly), it must be right and to question it is to be wrong (morally as well as factually).

Of course, this is literally baked into Christianity: we literally do have a book that's supposed to be the "the source of all knowledge" so the West, through its Christian traditions, has gotten more accustomed to this sort of thinking, regardless of what one believes.

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This SO totally hits the nail on the head - endlessly thanking you may seem a trifle repetitive, but Thank You again, Aurelien! The parallels with decadent artistocracies just prior to revolution or conquest seem pretty clear, but not having yet lived through such a cataclysm it's hard to assess the differences this time. Scale will be an issue, obviously. The very success of the systems for widespread education has made the collapse of quality and rigor within those systems that much more damaging. Rhetorical certainty dominates and persuades, where it has not the slightest excuse for being. One can do something practical oneself, and learn a great deal in the process, or one can march and yell and wave placards for someone else to do something - more endorphins in the short term, but achieving less than nothing. Thank you for your last piece too. Somehow we need to pick our way through the coming years of devolution. Your sharing your experience and personal, brick by brick learning and observations, is a huge gift.

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Great piece.

Struck me while reading that this helps to explain the deep resentment and outright hatred for the few prominent people in the west that publicly and successfully “do” things. Take Musk as prime example - but also explain one of the core reasons why we’re less effective at doing things than previous generations.

Their core attribute tends to be that they openly flout the managerialist orthodoxy - and even when right, and their methods have delivered spectacularly - criticised heavily. They cut supposedly “important” corners, err on the side of doing, and also are happy to have failures along the way.

Now look at government and large business. A reliable predictor of bad ability to deliver is simply whether you must comply with the full weight of bureaucratic overhead, and work based on planning/spreadsheet/forecast basis. Take HS2 in UK which has been biblically over budget and has now been cut in length. The actual thing that mattered (a functioning high speed railway) has been an utter embarrassment. However the red tape reports have all been a massive success - environmental, ecological, diversity, impact, etc. 1000s of pages of the stuff has been produced. When the leaders of a project wake up ever morning and don’t worry about the most essential thing, but petty side issues You. Are. F****d.

If you were to simply hold the UK government to the same bureaucratic standards as the Chinese, I bet you the gap between ability to deliver would narrow hugely.

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Jan 4·edited Jan 4

"But one sure way to establish yourself as a pundit, or just as a well-known commenter on an internet site, is to sing the “only questioning the conventional wisdom” song, whether it’s about the Holocaust, the assassination of JFK, the Apollo Moon landings, the destruction of the Twin Towers, the latest contested election somewhere, or anything else you like."

There is plenty of deep scholarship around these topics and some cases (9/11, 10/7, JFK assassination) are pretty hard to dispute if you take a close look at the totality of undisputed facts around the cases. Furthermore, the individuals arguing against the MSM line that masquerade as"conventional wisdom" tends to have a more coherent world view (usually not ones I agree with, but "DC is a hotbed of pedophiles and Satan worshippers intent on one-world government" has more evidentiary support than the "conventional wisdom" on Russiagate or Lee Harvey Oswald is the lone gun man nutter immediately killed by Jack Ruby to spare Mrs. Kennedy the pain of a trial", even if the first group read that evidence in a scattered and incoherent manner) and more answers (yes, often bad answers, but then again DPRK and Iran still seems a lot better than Gaza or Libya today) than conventional liberal ideology can offer.

Understanding Western conventional wisdom is important as a step to moved beyond it and not make the same mistake again. To wallow in the understanding of a failed and hollow system is wasting the little time left and avoiding confronting the icebergs straight ahead. Having detailed discussions about the Titanic's deck chair arrangement and orchestra playing may lend some color to the discussion and maybe matter for a few people as they decide whether to go down with the ship or scramble for a lifeboat, but the point is that we are going to hit that iceberg and Western liberalism is not going to save us.

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