The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Saturday, September 11, 2021

9/11, the Coup that Failed. The Role of the Memesphere

Octavianus Augustus Caesar (63 BC – 14 AD). Perhaps the most successful leader in history, he didn't just become the absolute ruler of the Roman State but took over the role of the highest religious authority (the "Pontifex Maximum") and transformed himself into a living deity. He was able to turn a democracy into a dictatorship using techniques that were repeated many times in history. But the task was not always successful. It was the case of the 9/11 attacks that did not lead to an absolute dictatorship in the United States. Here, I argue that it was because of the different structure of the memesphere in the 21st century.

In 30 BC, Octavianus, later to be known as "Augustus Caesar," defeated his remaining competitors for the control of the Roman state and took the title of "Augustus," the absolute ruler of the Empire. The most fascinating element of this story is that Octavianus established the pattern of how a successful leader can take over the government and concentrate all power on himself. The recipe goes as follows:
  1. Obtain sufficient funds for the task 
  2. Enlist your supporters in a para-military or military organization. 
  3. Obtain a high-level government position using a mixture of intimidation and legal means.
  4. Exploit a dramatic event to scare everyone and obtain special emergency powers.
  5. Never relinquish your emergency powers, but always increase them. 
This is what Augustus did: his money came initially from the inheritance he obtained from his grand-uncle, Julius Caesar, but surely also from the support of high-level people who wanted tight control of the Roman State. He used the money to acquire a military force that he used to intimidate the Senate and defeat his competitors. Then, he was nominated commander ("imperator"), a title that was initially supposed to be temporary. From his power position, he exploited the disaster of the defeat of Teutoburg, in 9 AD, to scare the Romans with the "Barbarian menace" to obtain even more power. In 12 AD, he took the role of "pontifex maximum" the highest religious authority of the time. Later on, he was worshipped as a living deity. 

The pattern of turning a democracy into an absolute dictatorship was repeated many times in history. In Italy, in the 1920s Benito Mussolini built his power base with money from the Italian industrialists and landlords who were afraid of a Communist takeover. He used the money to create the Fascist party and a paramilitary organization, the blackshirts, that he used to intimidate his adversaries. After the "March on Rome" of 1922, Mussolini and his party gained a landslide electoral victory in 1924. Then, in 1926, Mussolini exploited a failed assassination attempt against him to obtain special powers from the parliament. From then on, Mussolini never relinquished his position of absolute dictator until he was dismissed in 1943, and then assassinated in 1945. 

In Germany, the military-industrial complex supported Adolf Hitler out of fear of the Communists, too. Hitler created the National socialist party and the paramilitary organization of the Brownshirts (the Sturmabteilung). In 1933, the Nazi party won a majority in parliament and Hitler was nominated as Chancellor. Just a few months later, the Nazis exploited the Reichstag Fire in 1933 to stir up a wave of anti-communism. The German parliament passed the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave wide powers to the government. That was the first step toward absolute power for Hitler and he never relinquished it until he committed suicide in 1945. 

There are many similar cases and you see that there is a thread that starts from Augustus' coup of more than 2,000 years ago and leads to the events of 20 years ago: the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center in New York. 

Seen in the light of the historical record, the 9/11 attacks look like a textbook case of a leader who exploits a dramatic event to gain special emergency powers for himself (*). A joint resolution passed by Congress a week after the terror attacks gave the executive branch of government "unchecked power" to deploy the military at will. 

Yet, the 2001 attacks didn't lead to an absolute dictatorship. President Bush used his newly obtained power to incarcerate a large number of people and to wage war worldwide, but at the end of his mandate he stepped down from his post as he was expected to do. Today, after 20 years, there is talk of not renewing the "Patriot Act" of 2001. What happened that prevented (so far) the US from falling into an absolute dictatorship, as it had happened many times to other nations?

The simplest explanation is that the American people are so deeply in love with democracy that they would never accept being ruled by a dictator. Or, it may be that George W. Bush was not the right kind of leader. He didn't have the prestige of Augustus, the eloquence of Hitler, or the cunning skill of Mussolini. And he didn't have a personal militia to support him. Donald Trump was much more like the average populist would-be dictator but, in order to take over the government, he would have needed much more than horned shamans as his personal militia.

Maybe, but I think there are deeper reasons that made it impossible to create in the 21st century the kind of dictatorship that had been common earlier on in the West. Basically, it has to do with the way communication acts in society -- the structure of the "memesphere". 

In the Western societies of the 20th century, communication was dominated by the mass media, first in the form of newspapers, then radio and TV. These communication channels could be controlled in a completely pyramidal structure. Even though there might have been hundreds of newspapers in a country, the main ones were just a few and they could be tightly controlled by the Government or by the dark powers behind. The same was true for the radio and TV channels. 

In other words, the memesphere was purely pyramidal. Communication was vertical: the government decided what memes to propagate and imposed them on people by means of obsessive repetition. It was the definition of "propaganda," a technique already known in ancient Roman times, but that was especially common in the 1920s. 

But, in 2001, the Internet had already become an important communication force, shaping the memesphere in a completely different way. Direct connections among nodes in the memesphere allowed a certain degree of horizontal communication. The Internet-based memesphere was becoming a virtual holobiont able to process information in ways that a purely vertical organization did not allow. 

These two different mechanisms of communication were examined and quantified in a paper that I and my coworkers Perissi and Falsini published on Kybernetes in 2018. We noted how two different kinds of communication can be observed to compete: the "viral" (horizontal) mode and the "fallout" (vertical) mode. 

The possibility of horizontal meme spreading caused the development of a large number of "conspiracy theories" about the 9/11 attacks spreading over the Web mainly by person-to-person communication. These memes could be demonized, ridiculed, dismissed, and contrasted in many ways, but could never be completely eliminated. 

The result was that the polls consistently showed that a significant minority of the US population believed that the attacks were a false flag (*), while a majority kept thinking that the government knew about the attack plans but chose not to stop the attackers. So the government could not obtain the kind of blanketing communication that was possible with the traditional media. It may be argued that the impossibility of obtaining a 100% consensus is the main reason that prevented the taking over of the government by a populist leader. 

Now, 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, the media are still tightly controlled by the government, but the memetic conflict has become harsher. The media are engaged in an all-out attack against the Internet communication sphere. The dissent is now branded as "fake news" and actively suppressed on social media. But the Internet is vast and there are many channels of communication that the government seems to be unable to close.

The virtual battle is raging. It could lead to a return to a pyramidal communication network if the government manages to take control of the memesphere. Or that may turn out to be impossible and the fluid nature of the memesphere may remain alive, leading to a fragmentation of the social sphere. We are already seeing that. As always, we live in interesting times (in the sense of the ancient Chinese malediction). 

(*) These considerations do not depend on whether the official government version of what happened with the 9/11 attacks is true or not. After all, the Roman legionnaires at Teutoburg were exterminated by real Germanic warriors! 


  1. The fundamental difference between Augustus Caesar and our Western Civilisation is that Augustus needed money, our Civilisation prints money, but needs finite fossil fuels - oceans of them to burn for its power to last another one extra day - even if to the last drop, batch and bucket of oil, coal and natural gas...

    I wish if anyone in the forum here is able to remember the name of an American movie, likely was in black and white, where the hero (I think he was played by Burt Lancaster), happened to go to a remote small community that worships a hard-to-mine rocks, very difficult to reach - therefore extremely rare.

    The rocks mined then put a cornerstone for the dynamics of the Social Contract.

    Lancaster introduced dynamites to accelerate and increase the amount of rocks mined, which sounded a great idea first, then turned a disaster for the community - playing havoc with their lives.

    Fossil fuels have played havoc with the life of humanity - in the hand of our only-mentally, intellectually and morally evolving Western Civilisation.

    Shame, nature has made fossil fuels so accessible for humans - they exploited fossil fuels before they matured morally-enough to understand what fossil fuels really are.

    Today, the commons are so distorted, hypnotised and pushed to talk 9/11, Taliban or Pandemics - our Civilisation thinks and executes behind scenes - a likely vicious Energy Musical Chairs Game.


  2. Ugo: I wrote a response over at my place:

  3. Hello Ugo.A quick comment without deep thought. The traditional print media in the states (FOX,CNN,CBS,ABC, and the the rest of the alphabet) is controlled day by day by their advertisers. Each page must cover it's cost by ad revenue.

    Back in the early 70s, IIRC, one of the the big ad agencies argued that their accounts should not pay for a ROP ad that ran next to any global warming stories.
    It's been a very long time since I took a journalism class, but apparently the end of the world stories didn't motivate people to buy the jewelry (or whatever ? ) their client advertised.

    The tail has wagged the dog ever since.The purpose of the stories is to draw readers to the paid ad space.

    Government control wasn't usually needed, and is quite clumsy and unprofitable by comparison.

    1. So I an replying to my own comment again. Sigh.
      You main point about the fluid nature of the memesphere is actually the important point. The "walled garden" of older media actually caused the explosion of the pre- facebook and google internet.

      The fluid nature of the memesphere seems to be coalescing (spelling?) into a series of separate "echo chambers" where only one point of view is even tolerated, much less considered. People may be only looking for confirmation of what they already believe, or looking for additional ideas that follow on from some other opinion they read on a similar site, or I may be full of it and need to get out and reacquaint myself with new people in the real world who don't care about the internet beyond Shopping sites and kitten videos. Likely True.
      But either way the same technology the prevented a coup in your example, facilitated the first armed insurrection in the US capital ever.

  4. For all we know President Cheney didn't have the right vehicle in Bush who was too soft. Cheney was too ill to pull it off but I would bet he considered and the oilers considered it.

  5. The ascention of Octavianus stemmed from a long process of struggle, which originated from the project of land reformation proposed by the Gracchi brothers which encountered strong adversion by the richest elites. There was a prologue with a long period of civil war, with Marius and Silla (Sulla?). Sulla was already had a chance of a power consolidation around his person, but he died, naturally or poisoned, who knows? Caesar himself knew that, would he not cross the river Rubicone, he would probably be squashed by the other powers of the elites. And he was squashed, in the end, by en evil plot. But in the meanwhile he was master even of the time, because the 45 bC had 445 days, because it was necessary to realign the season with the new astronomical based julian calendar. Returning to nowadays, maybe we saw only the first struggle of power consolidation and concentration. But in the meanwhile the actual president could be a Sulla, at best, certainly not a Caesar, nor an Octavianus. And the proscription lists ... a database of green pass ? Who knows?

  6. Hi there. My first here post on Ugo’s blog… Valid points about the online echo chamber. Which of course is perfectly parroted out in real life too. The most enflaming thing for the Neoliberals of the Dem variety here in the US to hear is talk about Covid outside of the microscopic Overton window of the CDC-osphere. I am vaxxed of course. I have been jabbed my whole life and recognize the “goodness” of vaccines. However, any time I bring up the fact that we will have to learn to muddle through this pandemic with less complex means and that no large OECD country including the USA has actually reached whatever moving target vaccination rate (80%?), it’s pure scorn. I’m Rush Limbaugh incarnate. I won’t continue as I know that’s a hot button topic and I don’t want to go on that tangent. But yes, I think the kind of Reichstag meta-force type of pyramidal communication still brings the majority to heel (in the sense of not being able to merely question policy), surely within the MSM silo of humanity. And plenty enough in standard deviations outside of it so we all sally forth.