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“Sustaining” your Way to Serfdom as a Grand Strategy

Friend of the blog, commenter L.C. Rees, likes to point out that one of the most important part of a grand strategy, particularly one that is maintained despite evidence of being a geopolitical failure, are the domestic political effects that work to the advantage of the faction supporting it.  In my view, grand strategy usually has a political or cultural evolutionary component and, human nature being unchanging, Rees’s cynical observation has merit.

Last year, a couple of JCS aides/field grade officers wrote a grossly overpraised paper that was pushed by Anne-Marie Slaughter, Thomas Friedman and assorted worthies, that purported to be about a new grand strategy with which America could navigate the world. Mostly it centered on a preference for an America being run by a vaguely EU-like, technocratic, regime under the rubric of “sustainment”, in which the authors wisely folded in a number of  shibboleths popular with the corporate-liberal upper class who write large donation checks to think tanks or make their living in public policy and academia.

The talk of this nature died down when the election cycle began, but the themes were recently revived by the New America Foundation’s Grand Strategy Project whose director had an op-ed in Foreign Policy to reintroduce this agenda to the chattering classes now that the pesky voters are out of the way until 2014:

A New U.S. Grand Strategy 

….Walkable communities: The first pool of demand is homegrown. American tastes have changed from the splendid isolation of the suburbs to what advocates are calling the “five-minute lifestyle” — work, school, transit, doctors, dining, playgrounds, entertainment all within a five-minute walk of the front door. From 2014 to 2029, baby boomers and their children, the millennial generation, will converge in the housing marketplace — seeking smaller homes in walkable, service-rich, transit-oriented communities. Already, 56 percent of Americans seek this lifestyle in their next housing purchase. That’s roughly three times the demand for such housing after World War II.
If only Bismarck had included some “walkable communities” for Prussia, Europe might have avoided the tragedy of World War I.
Incidentally, all of this argument from assertion is unsupported rubbish keyed to a preexisting anti-suburban agenda the Obama administration brought with them into office in 2009. As Joel Kotkin explained:

….Whenever possible, the Clintons expressed empathy with suburban and small-town voters. In contrast, the Obama administration seems almost willfully city-centric. Few top appointees have come from either red states or suburbs; the top echelons of the administration draw almost completely on big city urbanites—most notably from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. They sometimes don’t even seem to understand why people move to suburbs.

Many Obama appointees—such as at the Departments of Transportation and of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—favor a policy agenda that would drive more Americans to live in central cities. And the president himself seems to embrace this approach, declaring in February that “the days of building sprawl” were, in his words, “over.”

Not surprisingly, belief in “smart growth,” a policy that seeks to force densification of communities and returning people to core cities, animates many top administration officials. This includes both HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and Undersecretary Ron Sims, Transportation undersecretary for policy Roy Kienitz, and the EPA’s John Frece.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood revealed the new ideology when he famously declared the administration’s intention to “coerce” Americans out of their cars and into transit. In Congress, the president’s allies, including Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar, have advocated shifting a larger chunk of gas tax funds collected from drivers to rail and other transit.

In addition, the president’s stimulus—with its $8 billion allocation for high-speed rail and proposed giant increases in mass transit—offers little to anyone who lives outside a handful of large metropolitan cores. Economics writer Robert Samuelson, among others, has denounced the high-speed rail idea as “a boondoggle” not well-suited to a huge, multi-centered country like the United States. Green job schemes also seem more suited to boost employment for university researchers and inner-city residents than middle-income suburbanites.

Suburbanites may not yet be conscious of the anti-suburban stance of the Obama team, but perhaps they can read the body language. Administration officials have also started handing out $300 million stimulus-funded grants to cities that follow “smart growth principles.” Grants for cities to adopt “sustainability” oriented development will reward those communities with the proper planning orientation. There is precious little that will benefit suburbanites, such as improved roads or investment in other basic infrastructure.

Kotkin nails it. Mr. Doherty is simply trying to find some national security window dressing for an elite preference that ordinary people will be much easier to manage, monitor and fleece if they are concentrated in high-density urban housing and prevented from voting with their feet by a network of punitive, anti-development, anti-mobility, Federal  regulations. The research paper, if you can call it that, justifying this authoritarian agenda can be found here. Judge for yourself.
However, this is no idle pipe dream, it has been done before. The  Japanese pursued a similar national “grand strategy” after WWII with the blessing of Washington to reconstruct defeated Japan: the old, independent,  Japanese business empires called zaibatsu were transformed by SCAP into submissive keiretsu that would take “administrative guidance” from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Finance. In return, the keiretsu were heavily subsidized by the government, which kept Japanese “salarymen” to an artificially low “middle-class” standard of living with macroeconomic policies that forced the Japanese to have an extremely high level of savings. A docile work force penned into tiny apartments, governed by a de facto one-party autocracy of the Liberal Democratic Party that kept the rent-farming machinery in place for big business for fifty years. It isn’t a great model, it is not what Walter Lippmann would have called “a good society” but it did work.
Mexico under the PRI dictatorship was a more backward version of this paradigm, as was Chicago under Mayor Daley.
Now back to our own grand strategy of walkable communitarianism:

…..Every continental-scale economic region must embark on a decisive sustainability strategy without delay. Working within existing norms of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, America will lead the partnership of major economies to refashion the global economic system around eight or nine economic blocs, each boasting the scale necessary to support mature industrial ecosystems. This will mean promoting and strengthening regional economic blocs such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Union of South American Nations, the African Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

This part is literally nonsensical.

Say what you want about Osama bin Laden’s powers of rhetoric: he may have failed to convince his fellow Muslims to unite the ummah into a Caliphate but he evidently convinced a lot of people at The New America Foundation that Islam is an economy.

And as aside, why the hell is pushing political unification of South America or Africa under top-heavy, transnational bureaucracies in American interest? It sure isn’t in the interest of poor Africans or campesinos. For that matter, how can Africa unify if a third of their states will be in the OIC? WTF? Does Foreign Policy use editors or is it just a blog?

However, all that was simply geopolitical fantasizing over matters about which the United States has little control and would be unlikely to come off even under the best of circumstances. The next part I suspect is intended much more seriously. It certainly reflects a worldview that is pernicious and apparently more widespread among our elite than we realized, for which they are now testing the waters, to see if their fellow citizens are the herd they imagine us to be and if they can get away with it.

….Just as America would never fight a 21st-century war with Korean War-era weapons, it should not govern today with institutions devised for a bygone era. The Founding Fathers established a constitution that allows for the adaptation of the institutions of government to the knowledge, threats, and opportunities confronting each generation. Americans should make use of that foresight. Under this strategy, the country will adapt the institutions of its federal government to execute this grand strategy and invest in the American people to ensure that they receive the opportunities they need to be informed and engaged citizens. 

This is a tentative call, in milquetoast, coded, language, to find legal stratagems to gut the Bill of Rights and euthanize American democracy, or at least render it comatose, as a mere facade for a new paternalist technocracy that treats citizens as wards or children while we are rent-farmed for the benefit of a small elite. Certainly when we are all marooned in our government-regulated, high-density, housing, disarmed and without private transportation or much disposable income it will be too late for us to raise our voices in protest.  Doherty is correct about one aspect, such a society is probably “sustainable”; feudalism after all lasted more than a thousand years.

In plain English, the strategy of “sustainment” is a long term policy for postmodern serfdom with most of us intended to be walking behind the oxen when we are not wearing the yoke ourselves. Despite the nervous, thin-lipped, smiles and hasty reassurances, these people truly wish us and our children ill.

The good news is that none of this can come to pass without our consent. The U.S. Constitution is both sword and shield, if you are willing to pick it up. Speak, write, organize, litigate and vote out of office would-be authoritarians no matter what party label they wear. The best antidote for our creeping oligarchy is electing and appointing to office a large number of people outside of this exceedingly insular, geographically and intellectually narrow, social circle of graduates of  a handful of universities and last few percentage points of socioeconomic status who have in the last 15 years grabbed control of our government.

Really, we’re Americans – our talent pool is 315 million strong. We can easily do better.

25 Responses to ““Sustaining” your Way to Serfdom as a Grand Strategy”

  1. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Nice post, Zen.
    I’m still having problems placing these technocrats.  I can place the Neoconservatives…they are remnants of the New Left of the 1960s who were politically left-of-center on everything, but most of all they abhored Soviet communism.  So they made peace with the Republicans to the point of becoming a de facto Republican faction, ultimately displacing the Internationalist “Skull and Bones” wing of the Republicans (probably best represented by the likes of Eisenhower, G.H.W.Bush, and Scowcroft).
    Where do these people come from?  What strands of American history and polity?  Knowing that might be instructive in defeating them.  I don’t have the research to back me up (because I haven’t done it), but my intuition tells me that they descend from the corporatist left that hails from the Great Depression, with parallel movements across the world, and arising from the same circumstances.  Their penchant for centralized planning drives me toward that hypthesis.  Thoughts?

  2. Mr. X Says:


    ‘Creepy state’. ‘How we would fight the Tea Party’ (through not your phrase, obviously). And now ‘Serfdom’. Seems the circumstances and perhaps not so much the proposed gun law but the Kos Kidz and clearly vindicative atttitude of ‘let’s disarm the bitter clingers’ that only makes them cling more bitterly are starting to influence your prose. Just my two cents. But then again, maybe I am just paranoid seeing all this ‘Obama is the New Lincoln’, swearing on the Lincoln Bible, state of the Union on Lincoln’s Bday, and now the Kos Kidz combined with a few neocons saying hell yeah these people are ‘neo-Confederates’ and need to be disarmed (the Kos Kidz just lack the restraint of the creepster Tweeps by fantasizing about how they’ll do the disarming in the federal militia).

    Though I must admit if the conspiracy where being carried all the way through one would think the White House could’ve rigged a Golden Globe for Daniel Day Lewis. And since half of the electorate can’t place the century Lincoln lived in much less whom he fought and why, it may not matter except to those of us looking at how the bullies telegraph their mighty Corporatist punch. Which will not prove so mighty in the end.

  3. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Hi Zen –

    Although I didn’t agree with every part of it, I found that that “grand strategy” article dovetailed with a lot of what I’ve been thinking lately.

    We really do seem to be getting away from wars as the way to solve problems. Lots of lessons in the twentieth century on that.

    And the world needs some kind of monetary stimulus, like the Marshall Plan. One question is where such stimulus should be applied. We’ve got a lot of candidates here in the US – highways, communications, other infrastructure for starters. And there are lots of places around the world that might qualify. Might be a good idea for China to chip in on the contributions side. 

    A lot of the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s can be attributed to the ending of Europe’s self-destructiveness and the Marshall Plan. When we left that sort of thing up to the corporate world, nobody but their executives has done quite so well.

    There are a number of parallels in that grand strategy article to George Kennan’s long telegram and “X” article. Where are we going for the next fifty years or so? How do we get there? Kennan saw the value of avoiding wars.

    That said, you know that I share your suspicions of what appear to be the oligarchical ambitions of some of the characters you list. But I think you go too far with those suspicions in this post. And I do think that much of what looks like oligarchical ambitions have more to do with living in a privileged bubble than thirst for power or malice. A more general discussion of what’s in the grand strategy article could pull out the good ideas and leave behind the oligarchy. 

  4. morgan Says:

    The anoited one swearing in on the Lincoln Bible—Das Kapital would be more appropriate.

  5. Lexington Green Says:

    “… what looks like oligarchical ambitions have more to do with living in a privileged bubble than thirst for power or malice.” Cheryl’s point is accurate.  But, rulers who work great destruction may do so in the sincere belief that they are doing something good for people who cannot take care of themselves. James Scott’s Seeing Like a State is full of such stories, with a death toll in the millions, and all kinds of lesser devastation along the way. The subjective intent of the oligarchs or would-be oligarchs is ultimately impenetrable, anyway.  For all we know, Stalin went to his death really believing that what he did was necessary and would lead to a better world. Anyone trying to aggressively acquire unaccountable power should be opposed no matter what they claim to trying to do, or even think they are trying to do.  

  6. L. C. Rees Says:

    The Creepy State is America’s current grand strategy.

  7. L. C. Rees Says:

    And this is its bible, this is its euphemism, this is its ideology, and this is its strategic platform.

    In the U.S., Kahneman and Tversky’s work has been taken in two main directions. One, advocated by Kahneman collaborator Richard Thaler and and BHO BFF Cass Sunstein, lets the happy few “nudge” the unhappy many towards Enlightenment™ by ever so subtly tilting the political balance of power toward a “default choice” like automatic enrollment in employee 401k plans. (Wall Street prefers bailouts that are inconspicuous and automatic. In ERISA they got both.) The other, advocated by Kahneman BFF Nassim Nicholas Taleb, lets no one make society wide choices, let alone the its “enlightened” defaults, unless they are so obvious that even bullet heads can grok them in their fullness. Taleb’s premise is that the happy few are just as stupid as the unhappy many so why give them greater power than anyone else to indulge in their stupidity.

    When you read another article saying how systemically stupid everyone is, look at who benefits from the proposed remedy. You don’t even need a choice architect conspiracy to explain this advocacy position. You just need stimergy among elites.

  8. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    I won’t disagree, Lex, just would say that more general discussion might separate the wheat from the chaff. No need for blanket condemnations.

  9. Lexington Green Says:

    Blanket condemnations are the result of an environment of zero trust, which has resulted from a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evincing a design to reduce the American people under absolute despotism.  As a result, the burden of proof is on people in the government-corporate-academic complex to show how this latest proposal is not just another power grab.

  10. morgan Says:

    Agree with Lex Re: blanket condemnations and reading Rummel’s book, Death By Government, adds weight to his position.

  11. larrydunbar Says:

    I think Islam is an economy.

    Unlike America’s that is built on “surplus value” (thanks L.C. Rees), Islam’s economy is built on surplus resources. Like Capitalism’s use of surplus value to orient towards Capitalism, Islam uses surplus resources (for the lack of a better word) to orient towards a Caliphate. 

    You can say that with “Osama bin Laden’s powers of rhetoric: he may have failed to convince his fellow Muslims to unite the ummah into a Caliphate”, but I think that may have been exactly what he has done. 

    As a Muslim, do you pour gasoline on yourself and set your self on fire because you don’t believe in the economy, or because you do believe? 

  12. Critt Jarvis Says:

    Introducing Tom Barnett and Pentagon’s New Map in a Worldchanging Interiew Alex Steffen stated, “Whether or not Worldchanging readers agree with what he has to say, Prof. Barnett’s vision for the future of the U.S. military is worth knowing about.

    Therefore I will state this about Steffen’s new book Carbon Zero, whether or not ZenPundit readers agree with what he has to say, Alex Steffen’s vision for the future of cities is worth knowing about.

  13. carl Says:

    There is one problem with the superzips vision of a new feudal state/mandarinate.  The superzips won’t fight.  They haven’t shown an inclination to do so since Vietnam and maybe before.  They won’t participate in the sharp end of military endeavor nor will they let their children do so.  Their vision depends on no other country challenging us militarily.  When that happens, not if, when, they won’t be able to meet the test.  When that happens all that fancy education won’t impress anymore because they will have failed to lead effectively and all the words and obfuscations won’t hide that.

  14. zen Says:

    In reverse order…..
    Hi Carl,
    True. Very, very, few of them have the ruthlessness gene or strategic understanding of the “present at creation” generation (a good thing as they see most Americans as a problem not as fellow members of the same grouping) and no taste for personally getting their hands dirty. the problem will be if this failure comes late – their political descendents will be harder in the same sense that the gentle Menshevik social democrats of the 1890’s yielded to the Stalinists of the 1930’s
    Hi Critt,
    That was worth knowing, thanks. In physics terms, he is right about “ruggedness” of systems being a useful quality, However, what he is calling for implies enormous top-down planning and narrowing of the # of decision makers with an intentional narrowing of their possible decision parameters. Something I am sure will have a compounding probability of going badly astray for reasons of limited information flow and corrupted OODA Loops like any top-down system
     Hi Larry,
    “Islam’s economy is built on surplus resources.”
    Well said! It sure is!

     Hi Morgan,
    I had a few email exchanges with Rummel back in the day. Interesting character and he raises important topics but is not good and getting his message out to the wider public
    The response for LC-Lex-Cheryl-X-Nate is interrelated and requires a post in itself to adequately handle. yes there is definitely a bubble-lacuna operating and most of these folks (who cross party lines) are not bolsheviks or movie villains and don’t want to think of themselves as looters or robber barons but they are also demonstrating tremendous powers of rationalization for what previous generations of American leaders from the Eastern Establishment would have considered unacceptably embarrassing and crassly self-aggrandizing policies. Their mentality of how the world works is also dangerously zero sum and anti-democratic, which is typical for an oligarchy but is an emergent quality for an American elite. I would write more but I am tired

  15. Michael Robinson Says:

    “If only Bismarck had included some “walkable communities” for Prussia, Europe might have avoided the tragedy of World War I.”

    Walkalble communities  were consciously developed in Germany,as a direct consequence of Prussian diplomatic reporting. Herman Multhesius was cultural attache at the Prussian Embassy in London from 1896 studying and reporting on the ‘ways of the English’ to assist Prussia, and Germany, in making the transition from a predominantly rural to an industrial economy. One long study, published as Das Englische Haus, Berlin: Wasmuth, 1904, stresses the following:
    “For him too the English way of domestic life was a precious ideal, which he investigated in exhaustive detail and explained admiringly, despite occasional moments of puzzlement, to his German readers. England, by the end of the 19th century, was, as he pointed out, ‘the only advanced country in which the majority of the population still live in houses’. Flats were not popular, nor were town centres. No Englishman would live over a shop if he could help it. It was to the country and the suburbs that the English retreated, to houses which, Muthesius noted with approval, were ‘to live in, not to look at’, practical and unpretentious. If the nation lacked a café society and any real metropolis, that was because people entertained informally at home, and if guests came ‘with no particular culinary expectations’ (which was just as well in view of the ‘almost primitive’ level of cooking and the prevalence of Worcester sauce), they experienced a degree of genuine hospitality from which Germany might learn much. The devotion of the English to their domestic life meant that they would ‘forgo the theatre, concerts, dinner parties, the races, at-homes and much else’ in favour of their own firesides. Here, without stoves or central heating but ‘impervious to the draught’, they lived lives governed by such ‘immutable patterns’ of behaviour that they were always at ease and able ‘in all situations to do the right thing’.
    Roseamany Hill, Impervious to Drafts, LRB,  Vol. 30 No. 10 · 22 May 2008, p. 23
    One result of Multhesius  celebrated work was the conscious development of planned walkable communities of individual houses, such as Gartenstadt Hellerau (1909), now a suburb of Dresden. And, of course neither the built work of Martin Wagner, the series of modernist garden housing developments round Berlin, 1924-35, Siemensstrase etc. nor the eight walkable housing estates of Ernst May round Frankfurt constructed prior to 1930, prevented the rise of Hitler and World war II.


  16. Mr. X Says:

    Right Zen, the ‘new world order’ is less a true conspiracy (tho there may be a few folks like Soros and Turner who are obsessed with population control and imagine they run the world) then a neo-feudal/Corporatist mindset.

  17. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    The question remains, how do you stop them given the fact that they arise from the commingling of the democratic and capitalist processes set up by the founders long ago and others since–and which, incidentally, are aspects of American self-identity praised profusely high and low (however practiced or however much grumbling they also inspire.)
    Sincerely would like to see the complaining function of the Blogosphere replaced one day by something more like a problem-solving function: not only a pointing out of reasons to gripe but in its place detailed steps to take, detailed plans of action, and these tied to a detailed outline if what will be created via those steps.

  18. carl Says:

    Well pardon us all to hell there Curtis for the griping.  I am sure we will all be now inspired to not express ourselves unless we have detailed proposals with power point presentations, environmental impact statements, detailed plans of actions (complete with flow diagrams and chains of command) and finally a detailed outline of the endstate complete with a detailed view of how the history of it play out in detail over the next 100 years.

  19. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    No pardon is given.
    You afraid that your expression is threatened, by little ol’ me?  Whereas, perhaps it doesn’t need me to die.
    While the multitude bitches, the men of action keep doing what they do.  Call them geniuses, entrepreneurs, oligarchs, or superzips, they. just. keep. on. doing. it.
    Your distaste for me, or lack thereof, will make no difference. 

  20. carl Says:

    Hmm.  ‘Superzips’ and ‘men of action’ in the same thought.  Curious.

  21. carl Says:

    Supezips won’t fight, can’t fight because of a couple of things.  One of course is the don’t really believe in anything so nothing is worth fighting for.  But another one is something I read in a book, the name of which I wish I could remember but can’t.  The authors thesis is that the past several generations in the US have been so physically safe that people, and I would submit especially superzips, have forgotten that death at another man’s hands is out there.  They don’t really believe that evil exists.  It has been several generations since that threat has existed for them or theirs in a real sense.  There haven’t been any Indian raids.  The British haven’t burned Washington lately.  Their brother wasn’t killed by a Rebel sharpshooter and they weren’t wounded by a Nambu gunner.  They don’t know anybody who was.
    They grew up in elite suburbs, well policed.  Went to the best schools where there was no violence and have never been the victim of a crime or had to walk in the dark from the bus stop to the apartment in a bad neighborhood for years on end.  They have never seen a dead person except in a funeral home and have never seen somebody who was torn up and crying.  So for them all that isn’t real.
    The author contended that that will lead to a paralysis in the face of real danger, both from disbelief that it is real and from confusion in actually having to confront somebody who is actually interested in killing them and doesn’t much care where they went to school.  That is the difference between them and the people of the old days of which you spoke.  Those people had seen the elephant in the form of the czar’s police or the Japanese soldier or any number of things.  The knew they had to fight other nations and they did.  I don’t think the ‘zips will because they just won’t believe that they can’t talk their way out it.  That attitude will result in great harm for the country.  They have grabbed the mantle of leadership but I fear they will use it to bluff the country into trouble and then when the bluff is called they will fold, taking us with them.
    Of course, that won’t stop them from trying to tyrannize their countrymen, or putative countrymen.  They can see them so they will do their best to control them, for their own good naturally.  That may be a problem in the long run since they can only tell others to enforce their diktats for them and those others may not always agree.

  22. Wednesday Morning Linkage » Duck of Minerva Says:

    […] that we’ve promoted suburban growth for decades are equally authoritarian — but his comments about grand strategy are extremely […]

  23. Dave Schuler Says:

    I think there’s something missing from this discussion.  I live in a “walkable community”.  Grocery stores within two or three blocks.  Drug stores within two or three blocks.  Thirty years ago (when I moved here) physicians, dentists, lawyers, and other professionals lived in this neighborhood.  They’ve moved out.  The problem is that highly compensated individuals don’t want to live in the communities they serve.  

  24. Lexington Green Says:

    “… not only a pointing out of reasons to gripe but in its place detailed steps to take, detailed plans of action, and these tied to a detailed outline if what will be created via those steps.”

    A blog is wrong venue for that level of activity.  For that you need a think tank, or an academic department, or a consulting firm, or a paid lobbyist, or a very devoted amateur with time on his hands.  

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