Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly is one of my favorite history books. Her thesis is that folly, defined as a systematic policy which works against one’s own interest, has played a significant role in history.
The iconic ur-instance from mythology is the Trojan Horse. Clearly, taking the Horse inside the walls of Troy was against the interests of the Trojans. This incident also exemplifies the three criteria Tuchman requires for something to qualify as historical folly:
1. The policy has to be the policy of a broad spectrum of decision-makers, not just the capricious dictate of an autocrat. In this case the near-hysterical will to bring in the Horse was almost unanimous.
2. At the same time, there has to have been a vocal, articulate dissent from the policy, identifying it as folly at that time (it can’t have been recognized as folly only in hindsight). Among the Trojans, both Laocoon and Cassandra warned that it was a trick, but were disregarded.
3. There has to have been a viable alternative. Here the alternative was obvious: don’t bring the Horse in! Or at least open it up first. Indeed at one point Cassandra grabs a hammer or something and runs toward it meaning to break it open, only to be restrained.
I think Tuchman’s treatment of this theme offers a perspective on our current predicament, and the policies our “leaders” have embarked upon.
First let’s look at how she treats the sequence of events nearest our own time, and most redolent of it: the Vietnam war. It’s clear that the escalation of the war in Vietnam was against America’s “interest”. The premises upon which the war was fought were both false and pernicious. The domino theory and the specter of a monolithic world communist conspiracy of aggression were both quickly disproven by events. The notion that “signaling” was an effective war-fighting tactic also quickly came to grief, while the notion that the calculus of attrition, counting body bags, favored America was always idiotic on its face even before events disproved it.
So the alleged interests at stake were fictive, while the operational concept could not work. And what did America lose? Domestically, it lost any sense of national faith, in government, “country”, that America is a “good” place (what has passed for such faith since then has just been loutish pseudo-patriotism, the worst kind of flat earth flag-waving, and cynical manipulation of it by rich right wing elites). Internationally it lost face, it lost the perception that America was a prudent, reasonable player, it lost the sense of military awe, it lost the “credibility” which by the 70s was the only rump objective left for the war.
And the entire Vietnam involvement had been undertaken in the first place for the sake of colonialism and probably racism, and was therefore a direct betrayal of America’s alleged founding principles.
Fulfilling Tuchman’s criteria, these events spanned a broad elite: two administrations (actually going back way beyond that, but I’ll just stick with Johnson’s escalation) and the congressional delegations of both parties; the foreign policy, press, and business elites; at first a significant majority of public opinion.
But the policy also quickly faced growing dissent. First the anti-war movement, then gradually congressmen, press luminaries, and eventually top insiders, and then Democratic primary challengers, turned against the war, all during the Johnson administration.
The alternative should have been clear from the start: Do not bolster French colonialism, do not blithely believe in the worst fantasies of Neanderthal Cold Warriors, do not seek to impose a foreign system by force on an unwilling people, and especially don’t continue to try to do all this when all the evidence contradicts both your premises and your practices.
Beyond these basics of folly, Tuchman identifies four areas of foolish action:
1. overreacting (the belief that “losing” Vietnam would directly lead to a red invasion of the California coast, in one of the more dire scenarios);
2. delusions of omnipotence (seeming to contradict paranoid overreaction, yet in practice easily coexisting with it, this was the notion that America could easily impose its will on a silly little non-white peasant country);
3. “wooden-headedness”, or going with ideology and prejudice over evidence-based reasoning (thus the interminable fetishizing of discredited concepts like the domino theory, signaling, attrition, Vietnamization, “credibility”; also Johnson’s delusion that domestic politics required him to be tough in Vietnam even after the 1964 election, which had been the entire political rationale going back to Kennedy at least as far as spring 1963 – even after Johnson had ended up running as the peace candidate, which completely invalidated the political rationale even prior to the election);
4. “working the levers” – mechanical activity rather than creative thought (thus once the Vietnam policy, as alleged domestic political necessity, as alleged foreign policy necessity, as well as the actual tactics used, was set in motion, its inertia became inviolable, and no amount of contrary evidence could cause any fundamental rethinking of the assumptions and dogmas).
So where today do we see parallel examples of historical folly? On the broadest level, that man believed he could forever expand this “growth” civilization of exponential debt and ever higher impacts, all the while depleting non-renewable resources and destroying the environment, has to be history’s greatest folly ever.
For now I’d like to analyze as historical folly two specific policy manifestations which have followed from the overarching insanity: the Bailout War and the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Let’s consider each from the point of view of folly.
The basic truth today is clear: civilization based on cheap, plentiful fossil fuels and exponential debt is finished. At most TPTB may be able to waste whatever wealth and what little time we have left to zombify it for awhile, prop it up and ambulate it, have it stagger around and wreak more destruction in its death throes. For anyone who is not either terminally psychologically committed to this ideology or seeking to profit from disaster, our interest is clear: we must to a large extent relocalize food production, energy, transportation, health care, education, government, and culture. Therefore we should dedicate most of our resources to activity and policy which heads in this direction, little to that which does not, and nothing to that which heads in the wrong direction. Yet the American administration has chosen with precision to try to throw away all resources and time chasing what’s a pipe dream at best.
Peak Oilers, relocalizers, and in varying ways many among the food, energy, environmental, and labor activist communities are the voices protesting this self-destructive insanity and identifying this alternative.
Yet the administration insists on squandering trillions of dollars waging an imperialist war and maintaining a far-flung imperialist presence America cannot afford, to try to somehow keep the oil magically flowing, while at the same time it throws away more trillions, by now tens of trillions, trying to prop up the zombie banks which are to somehow magically blow up more bubbles to keep the exponential debt magically flowing.
Even in the details the parallels are there. We have overreaction: “the banks are Too Big To Fail”. This is an ideological construct first of all: TBTF from an ideological point of view. And even from that point of view, it’s still an assumption, not a fact, and therefore perhaps not worth blowing over $10 trillion.
“Terrorism is an existential threat to America”. This, like the Vietnam attrition imbecility, is patent crap. The only way terrorists could be anything more than a nuisance would be if they got hold of some superbug. The threat of this is far greater coming out of a corporate lab, yet you don’t see the terror warriors all that worried about the likes of Monsanto, do you?
(There is one exception to this. Terrorism poses an existential threat to American liberty, as homegrown totalitarians and panicky moderates collaborate to strip away all civil liberties and barriers to tyranny. Of course the real threat to Americans has always come from within, not without. Here we see the real “threat”, and the real way terrorists have won: they’ve provided an assist to our domestic terrorists.)
We have delusions of omnipotence: American debt and growth are infinite. This is god-given. So obviously any economic disaster is purely accidental and temporary. Certainly we can, must, and will restore the banks. They’ll be bigger and better than ever. They’ll fire up the infinite growth machine again, and we’ll party harder than ever. Oh yeah, I almost forgot – we’ll never run low on oil. And if we do, god will provide. “Technology will save us”.
Similarly we have the classical imperial overreach delusion: America’s infinite military might can maintain a far-flung empire, hundreds of bases, as many theater wars as we want, keep the sea lanes open to infinite trade, and we can accomplish our will, any will, anywhere we want, anytime we want. Oh yeah, we can sure afford it all. We’ll just print money. (The “dollar” is another delusion altogether, though of course entangled with these.)
Never mind that the evidence contradicts all of this. Never mind that America can’t even keep a handful of ragtag pirates from grabbing one of its ships. The “higher truth” is that America is omnipotent.
These delusions stem from American wooden-headedness. The bailouts and the terror war provide lots of such notions. American debt is infinite and sustainable. Same for “growth”. There’s no such thing as Peak Oil or resource limitations, or the climate crisis. Private concentrated mega-banks must forever be the core structures of our civilization. (In official circles, no post-TBTF can even be envisioned.)
9/11 was unprovoked. They hate our “freedom”. They’re jealous of our “prosperity”. All people want to replace their society with an American-style Sodom. In Iraq they’ll greet us with flowers. Torture is useful and moral, while habeas corpus is useless and immoral. And today we can have paradise forever if we just seal the Pakistan border.
Never mind that many have tried this and all failed. You keep forgetting, this is the omnipotent America.
Wooden-headedness also shows in Obama’s politics. Just as Johnson hypnotized himself into believing he needed a war platform to compete in 1964, and continued in this delusion even as he ran as the peace candidate vs. the (allegedly worse) warmonger Goldwater, and even after he won in a landslide, at which point he definitely should have felt politically free, so Obama has come into office laboring under a welter of dubious political propositions which seem completely self-imposed. That appeasement and phony “bipartisanship” are politically necessary; that the bank bailouts are politically necessary; that the GWOT is politically necessary; that the people won’t stand for nationalization of the banks. (Yet a new poll shows, if nothing else, that the people aren’t so hostile to the dread word “socialism”. I’ve long argued, on this blog and elsewhere, that even leaving aside the practical and moral superiority of nationalization as a policy, it can also play better politically than bailouts, which the people have intuitively understood right from the start as looting.)
Obama’s appeasement politics become all the more baffling when you consider how he ran as the Change candidate and came into office with a tremendous mandate to effect real change. (For purposes of this post I’m giving Obama the benefit of the doubt and assuming he’s sincerely trying to do the best thing for the people. But as I’ve indicated in other posts, the evidence for this is not looking so good. If he is a dedicated corporatist himself, then he is in fact acting in the interest of his masters, and the folly thesis would be invalid. My point is, by now we are certainly dealing with either betrayal or folly. At any rate, beyond the administration itself there is a large policy constituency for the bailouts, most of whom probably are thinking in deluded good faith. So America as a whole would still be plunged in folly.)
Finally, we have working the levers, thoughtless mechanical activity. The government’s monetary and fiscal policies have been ad hoc, following the same textbooks and adhering to the same old politics that got us into this mess. The stimulus was just cobbled together with little guiding thought, again all the same political logrolling, backscratching, and pork. If you rule out intentional plunder then neither the bailouts nor the bailout mission creep (life insurers seem to be on deck) make much sense. Nothing has any underlying principle except propping up the status quo, and this “principle” itself is simply flat earth dogma, mechanically believed in.
Things are similar with the GWOT. The imperialist program is unquestioned in principle. (Though they now say they want to rename it. Yippie, it’s “change”! – why don’t they hold a contest?) What the point of it is, no one knows. What is the objective in Afghanistan? They’ve belatedly said it’s to go after al Qaeda. And why is that so important by now? No one can say. It’s just religious dogma by now, and all that’s left is to work the levers and try to carry out the policy, no matter how much effort and wealth is thrown down the rathole.
By now the GWOT is simply taken for granted, and if it were physically and economically possible we perhaps would see a new Hundred Years’ War as McCain offered.
I imagine both the bailouts just like the GWOT will simply be enshrined as a permanent feature of the American existence, for as long as they can be sustained.
All this can accomplish is to further wage class war from above while destroying our last chance for a constructive devolution toward a more beautiful, rational, human world.
So we have the insane policies counter to national and indeed human interest. We have a clear, practicable alternative. We have dissent pointing the way toward that alternative.
Now, since there’s little to no hope of seeing any sanity or reason from the top down anytime soon, all we can do is try to organize from the bottom up, do what we can for our own families and communities, and try to create a larger public space for the truth and ideas and action stemming from it.