I agree very much with this.

All societies have rent seeking sectors but the modern day west is one giant rent seeking system across domestic politics, economics and international affairs. Makes me think very much of Michael Hudson’s critique and the rent seeking behaviour feels very associated with the “financialisation” of western economies.

At the same time, I think it fits well with other themes you have explored such as the decreasing capability of our government machine. After all, the creation of efficient government in the west was very much associated domestically with: the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century that challenged the extractive ancien regime; Enlightenment Thinking that encouraged rationality; and the interstate competition within Europe that gave a geopolitical impetus for effective government. All three of these drivers seem less relevant today as we have outsourced productive capability, are increasingly closing our minds to rationality in favour of mandated ideology and international institutional monopolies replace nation states.

My own historical reflection is usually on the Nineteenth Century: my core specialist period. When one reads texts of (for example) UK Royal Commission reports of that era one gets a genuine sense of a governing class that was genuinely seeking improvement. Clearly, they made mistakes and we castigate then today for imperialism and so forth, albeit I do not believe we are so much better. But they got things done. The debacle of the British performance in the Crimean War was met by the government having to resign and the official Roebuck Committee that reported within a year or so while the war was still in flight. It did not mince its words and castigated various parts of the administration. The issues were very much dealt with too in the interim, including even building a new railway for supplies in the Crimea. When one compares that with the lamentable inability this century of the British MoD to deal with equipment issues in Iraq and Afghanistan over the course of a decade (snatch Land Rovers come to mind) the contrast is inescapable. Today, the entire reflex seems to be to cover everything up so that the insiders can carry on extracting careers and profits from the system. Ukraine is the more recent notable example, of course. The west is clearly regressing. My suspicion is that the Chinese equivalent of Royal Commission reports and follow ups are likely to resemble UK nineteenth century ones far more than anything we produce today in most of the west.

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I didn’t expect anyone to actually get to the root of our problems in an essay. But if I had to hazard a guess at who might be able to do it I would have put you on the list. This is just sadly brilliant.

It’s not a criticism, but I think we should give more credit to those hunter-gatherers. There’s a fair amount of evidence that they practiced cultivation. Since their migration were generally seasonal, they could take advantage of tending a berry patch during the summer. There’s some fairly strong arguments that rice was domesticated in Japan and then abandoned. It’s probably a shame that our ancestors mostly worked in organic material, from what we can tell many of them were talented craftspeople.

None of this affects your essay, and those societies would still be classified as extractive.

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May 31, 2023·edited May 31, 2023

Fascinating essay. I have to confess to having had a rather strange reaction upon reading your description of extractive politics, though: how can you tell what is and isn't "extractive politics"?

One might say that the position of "Dictator" in the old Roman Republic was premised on the problem that he was tasked to handle being a tractable, solvable one, upon resolution of which the dictator would quit in relatively short order. Against this backdrop, the dictatorship of Fabius Cunctator must have seemed very strange, if not very suspicious, to the Romans: he did not, from the perspective of other Romans, make a "serious" attempt to deal with the Hannibal problem. Was he trying to "perpetuate" the Punic problem indefinitely so as to justify his hold on power far beyond the norm? Note that the claim of perpetual, unresolvable crisis did become, in essence the justification for many regimes' attempt to hold on to power indefinitely everywhere in the world. We might quibble about the fact that, in the end, Fabius did not try to hold on to power beyond the norm and all that. But that lay into the future from the times when he appeared to merely perpetuate the Punic problem, and the desire to swiftly restore the "normalcy" was what lay behind the attempt to deal with Hannibal for good quickly and that led to the disaster (for Romans, at any rate) at Cannae.

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I think that 50 or sixty years ago, perhaps around the time the Powell Memo was released, that the wealthy and corporations wanted to push back on the government and leftist, even liberal, ideas and people; it was a desire, in part, for a more socially conservative society, but maintaining and increasing wealth by ever greater amounts was more important.

It has evolved into everything’s worth only being measured by the amount of money it got. If money is the only determinant of value with morality, ethics, fairness, beauty, art, science, and so on being considered foolish or stupid, why not cheat? If the speed of this acquisition being almost as important, why plan, organize, or build for anything more than the quarterly reports? Create a sinecure by destroying part of an organization and putting in a BS position that has great pay and benefits with a magnificent sounding title. Just get rid of any fools still around blathering about ethics or quality.

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", a Liberal society can be defined as one which replaces simple and well-understood rules with highly-complex and difficult procedures that require learned specialists to interpret them"

Or ... you could define a large society, or an advanced society that way. It happens to be the case that liberal , large and advanced mostly coincide in the modern world.

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Our host is very polite. Some use "cancer" as a metaphor for such "extractors": "The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure" by John McMurtry would be an example. Analogies (or allegories) from parasitology might also be appropriate: ""Parasites are symbiotic organisms that live on or in a larger organism (host) in order to feed, develop, and/or multiply, causing harm to the host in the process. Parasitism is distinguished from commensalism, in which the symbiont benefits from the relationship without harming or benefiting the host in return, and mutualism, in which the symbiont and the host equally benefit from the relationship. "(https://www.amboss.com/us/knowledge/General_parasitology/ )".

Malignant cancers and voracious parasites must be eliminated if the host organism is to survive. The Ukraine/Taiwan gambits can be analyzed through either approach: "Extractors" are trying to find new hosts, or a new places to metastasize. Mayhap they will fail. It is much better to prevent infection or contamination or, at least, treat these in their early stages.

Interesting times.

Ishmael Zechariah

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Thanks for this. A simple dichotomy explained here with lots of explanatory power. For instance, this phrase"Issue statements about the failures of others and demands for action from a position of moral superiority which you claim, but have done nothing to earn." This explains how much of current politics in such declining mostly extractive landscape are nothing but blaming games. Politicians that understand this and play it proficiently are those with best chances.

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China appears to carry a very low parasitic burden.

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In his book “The State” (1908) Franz Oppenheimer introduced the contrast between “economic means” and “political means”. This was soon followed up and extended by others, notably Albert Jay Nock. Oppenheimer wrote:

‘There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man…is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others…I propose…to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the “economic means”…while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the “political means.”’


Actually, I think I prefer "work" and "robbery". Why not call a spade a spade?

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Jul 6, 2023·edited Jul 6, 2023

"I was actually trying to think, while I was writing this, of the last time European governments actually did something of which you could be traditionally proud"

To me it is amazing that I can use my mobile phone anywhere in Europe and someone can 'find' me if they know the number. And part of the Industrial Revolution was moving from harnessing water or wind to using energy EXTRACTED from underground. The productive model also neglected externalities such as pollution or the cost of cleaning up obsolete plant such as coal gassification installations. So the idea of trying to base livelihood on RENEWABLES seems to me to be most hope-filled. Finally in terms of each individual life, humans need a time of growth, a productive adulthood and, yes, in our declining years we all need to live off "rents" such as pensions.

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Just excellent essay and almost all of the responses are additive or constructive.

I had never really contemplated this description of "extractive" industry before. However your explanation and examples provided were very well chosen.

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Very good additional commentary Stephen!

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In public service, the comparison with China is shocking. The statistics are as staggering as the test is admirable:

"Confucius recommended filtering out sociopaths, so the PRC sends aspiring leaders to poor villages with instructions to raise local incomes fifty percent and apply for promotion when they succeed. President Xi and most of his peers have done this themselves in villages, townships, cities, counties and provinces, as did their predecessors."

Public service, not extraction.

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Wonderfully expressed! We really needed this one! Thank you!

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Spot on, sadly spot on.

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1. Pace Alexander - most of the great rulers and conquerors of history were but glorified sociopaths. Alexander a particularly nasty example.

2. I believe the term that I have heard with regard to rent-seeking behavior by governments and their branches and ministries is the "predatory state".

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