A Blog by Ugo Bardi

Collapses are the way the universe gets rid of the old to leave space for the new. It was noted for the first time by the Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) and it is called today the "Seneca Effect."

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Italy: Giorgia Meloni as a Scapegoat for the Incoming Disaster

 


My blog titled "Chimeras" explores mainly mythological and literary themes, but the world we call "real" is often intertwined and affected by the world of our ancestral beliefs and fantasies. So, I published this week an interpretation of Giorgia Meloni's success in the recent Italian election in terms of ancient human sacrifices that all human societies practice when under heavy stress. Ms. Meloni is facing an enormously difficult task and she risks to be playing the role of the victim in a new sacrificial rite. Hopefully, it will be just a virtual sacrifice, but we can't exclude a real one. Below, I reproduce the text from the "Chimeras" blog. I recognize that it is a bit esoteric, but do not forget that it comes from a blog that deals extensively with human sacrifices.

 Reproduced from "Chimeras" 


The victory of Giorgia Meloni's party in the recent Italian election has generated a wave of hate on social media, with many people showing on their social accounts pictures of the dead body of Benito Mussolini hanged upside-down in a square. A clear message to Ms. Meloni, and a reminder for all of us of how nasty people can be. It is a characteristic of all human societies that, in periods of heavy stress, the removal of a high-rank leader may take the shape of a human sacrifice. The most common victims are men, but in the direst situations, women may take the role of sacrificial victims. Ms. Meloni is at risk of becoming a sacrificial victim, the scapegoat that Italians will search for when, this winter, they'll find themselves freezing in the dark.


In the Iliad, we read about the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the daughter of King Agamemnon, performed to propitiate the travel of the Achaean fleet toward Troy. After having destroyed Troy, the Achaeans repeated the ritual, this time with a Trojan girl, Polixena, daughter of King Priam. Both were high-rank women for whom we could use the term "princesses."

In "The Golden Bough," (1890), James Frazer noted how a high-rank victim makes the sacrifice more valuable and more effective to appease the dark deities to which it is dedicated. So, the victim may be raised to the role of "king" just before being killed: groomed, exalted, showered with gifts, and made to access the best goods available. The typical victims are men, probably because young males can be considered expendable, whereas the reproductive value of a young woman cannot be replaced. When things are truly dire, though, "queens" may be sacrificed, too, as especially valuable victims. 

Human sacrifices are often not explicitly recognized as such by those who perform them. For instance, the ancient Romans strongly condemned human sacrifices but they performed them abundantly in the form of bloody and cruel executions. Think of the killing of the Jewish leader named Yeshua bin Yusuf by the Roman government in Palestine, ca. 30 AD. On the cross on which he was nailed, there were the words in Latin "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum." It was supposed to be a mockery, but it is also true that Yeshua was of a noble Jewish family, so he was a king or, at least, a prince. 

Moving to our times, we, like the Romans, strongly condemn human sacrifices. But, like the Romans, we may indulge in bloody sacrifices much more often than we are willing to admit. The Christian roots of our view of the world originate from the slaughter of the Christian martyrs, starting from the 1st century AD. In more modern times, we can see World War One as a ritual slaughter of millions of young men, sacrificed to obscure and malevolent deities called "states." The most difficult moments of WWI also implied the sacrifice of Queens. One of them was Mata Hari, a famous actress and dancer, ritually sacrificed in 1917 in France. The same destiny befell the wife and the daughters of the Czar of Russia in 1918. 

World War Two had similar threads of ritual killing. The Japanese "kamikaze" fighters are a good example of how a society under heavy stress may punish its young men in a ritual of death. On the other side of Eurasia, the German government embarked on an elaborate mass murder program that involved the elimination of people considered inferior ("Untermenschen"), Jews, Gypsies, and even German citizens. Not for nothing, the term "holocaust" is used for these mass exterminations. 

Another ritual killing of WWII was that of the Italian leader Benito Mussolini, in 1945, together with his lover, Claretta Petacci (in the image). Their bodies were hung upside down in a public square after a cruel ritual of beating and mangling them. They were the sacrificial victims designated to atone for the defeat that had nearly destroyed Italy and killed hundreds of thousands of Italians. Claretta Petacci was not responsible for the disaster, but she was killed, too. As it often happens in history, a young woman may be the ideal victim for the atonement that the sacrifice is about. 

And now, let's take a look at our times. If there ever was a society under stress, it is ours. We passed all the limits of survival: destroyed the old-growth forests, killed off large numbers of species, poisoned the atmosphere, depleted our mineral resources, eroded the fertile soil, polluted water and the atmosphere, set the planet on a path to irreversible warming, and a few more little things, including having deployed a sufficient number of nuclear warheads to wreck the ecosystem and, most likely, kill everybody. And we haven't renounced our beloved habit of making war against each other. 

Would you be surprised if we were to indulge in large-scale human sacrifices? We are not yet there, but the path seems to be traced. Have you noted how popular are "Zombie" movies? Take a look at them in light of what I have been saying here: don't you see them as a blueprint for the mass extermination of suburbanites? Truly, the fascination with this idea casts much light on what our society has in mind for the near future. We are not yet to the point of seeing the elites booking zombie-killing safaris in the suburbs of our cities. But other possible large-scale sacrifices are possible. I already mentioned how, during WWII, the German government hired the country's doctors to cull the undesirables. They complied, happily. That could be easily done in our times, too.

Human sacrifices, though, are not so much about numbers, but about the visible high status of the victim. Now, after the electoral victory of Giorgia Meloni in Italy, many people commented by publishing on their social accounts the images of Mussolini's dead body and of his lover Claretta Petacci. A clear message to Ms. Meloni.  For sure, Italy is going toward a difficult period. With the supplies of natural gas cut, this winter Italians are going to find themselves freezing in the dark, and without a job. Whoever will be leading the country at that moment, risks being deemed responsible for the disaster. And it is also true that people can be extremely nasty when they are in a dire situation. 

Look at this image with Giorgia Meloni's face upside down. It is reported to have been taken in Torino during the electoral campaign of 2022 in Italy. "Fasci Appesi" means "hang the fascists." Giorgia Meloni seriously risks becoming a new sacrificial victim, perhaps not just a virtual one,  to appease the dark Gods that humans have themselves created. I mentioned how the victims were exalted and turned into kings before killing them and we might even imagine that Meloni was chosen as "queen" for exactly this purpose by the subconscious societal mindsphere. 

Several commentators, in Italy, have expressed the same idea, although not in terms of human sacrifices, but simply in terms of political expedience. In this interpretation, the hastily organized election of September had exactly the purpose of placing at the top a figure that will act as a target for the ire of the population, when Italians will actually realize what it means to be without electric power. The term "scapegoat" has been correctly used. It doesn't mean that Ms. Meloni will be shot and hanged by the feet. Simply, that her rapid demise as a leader will lead the way to an authoritarian government that will impose draconian (a word charged with meanings) measures on the Italian population. On the other hand, Meloni may also do better than expected and succeed in spite of everything. Who knows? Good luck, Giorgia, because you'll need a lot of it.  


____________________________________________________

From the blog of Alfio Krancic: il Governo Meloni, an interpretation similar to mine. The author does not say what will be the destiny of Giorgia Meloni, accused of genocide, but we may imagine it


Early November 2022, the Meloni government takes office

New government oath in the hands of President Mattarella;

5 November: 1st Council of Ministers;

November 7; Spread at 275 points;

November 10: Increase in food prices by 30%;

November 12: 100% gas price increase; 90% gasoline and diesel;

November 16: A wave of frost hits Italy;

November 18: The government decides that indoor temperatures must not exceed 17 °C;

November 19: First demonstrations with clashes in the squares. Interior Minister Salvini accuses social centers of stirring up the mob;

November 20: Clashes with victims in Rome. Barricades and urban warfare. Salvini accuses the black bloc;

November 21: The government allocates 10 billion euros to Ukraine;

November 24: Demonstrations against living costs end with clashes in the streets, with several victims. Brawl in Parliament when Salvini takes the floor;

November 25: The headquarters of the right-wing parties, Fratelli d'Italia (FdI), Forza Italia (FI) and Lega are stormed by angry crowds;

November 26: Stern warning from President Mattarella to the Government;

November 27 Spread at 380 points;

November 29: Food prices increase even more;

November 30: 3 million people protesting in the streets. Violent clashes in many cities;

December 2: The grip of frost does not leave Italy and Europe;

December 5: Gas emergency: reserves can't last more than 2 weeks;

December 6: Salvini criticizes the Meloni government in a speech at the Papeete beach. Meanwhile, the polls give FdI at 6%, FI at 5% and the League at 4%.

December 7: The Italian Institute of Statistics (Istat) claims that since the birth of the center-right government, 100,000 people, mostly elderly, have died of hunger and cold in 6 weeks. The news provokes violent demonstrations with deaths, injuries, and looting.

December 8: President Mattarella sends an ultimatum to the government.

December 9: To mitigate the lack of food, the government markets insect meal and dried grasshoppers.

December 10: Spread at 590 points. There is talk of bankruptcy of the Italian state. First demonstrations of the left in favor of a return of Draghi.

December 12: Salvini and Berlusconi withdraw from the government. 

December 13: Prime Minister Meloni resigns. Demonstrations of jubilation throughout the country.

December 15: Defections in FdI, FI and Lega. Half of the deputies form a group in favor of Draghi's return. Mattarella appoints Draghi as Prime Minister. He immediately forms a new government.

Warranties sent to Meloni, Berlusconi and Salvini for genocide, treason, and more.

December 18: The Covid 22 epidemic breaks out. Tens of thousands of infected. The new Minister of Health Roberto Speranza recommends a very tight lockdown. The government approves. Curfew from 4 pm to 12 am the next morning. The army appears in the streets with tanks and armored vehicles. Draghi in a dramatic appeal to unified networks says that the measures have been taken for the good of the Italian people because of the disasters of the "fascist" CDX government and because of the new pandemic. People stop taking to the streets and hide in houses. On the balconies and windows appear sheets with rainbows and slogans: "Everything will be fine!", "We'll do it!" The ventennio of Draghistan begins.

(h/t Miguel Martinez)

Monday, September 26, 2022

The Italian Election: the Right Wins, but don't Expect big Changes

 


The data are now almost definitive and, as you probably already know, it was a historical triumph for the right-wing parties, and in particular for the "Fratelli d'Italia" coalition led by Giorgia Meloni. 

The triumph of the right may make people outside Italy worried, but there is no reason. Elections in the West are now mainly for show. The Italian government has almost zero power, it is all in the hands of the European Commission, in turn controlled by the global powers. To say nothing about the pervasive corruption that affects the West as a whole. No decision can be taken without satisfying the various lobbies and mafias engaged in the feeding frenzy on what is left of the Italian economy. 

In any case, the left-wing parties in power up to now have made such strongly right-wing choices that I doubt that the "real" right can be more rightish than them! 

So, don't worry too much about who is the theoretical leader of the Italian government. Ms. Meloni is, in my opinion, not a bad person, but she can't do much more than rubber-stamp decisions taken elsewhere. Changes are going to come, but not as a result of elections. Right now, it is difficult to divine what's going to happen in the difficult winter that's coming, but something is going to happen. Something big.


Incidentally, the left played the game hard by using the "Putin card," that is, telling Italians not to vote for Putin's friends. Instead, Italians flocked to vote exactly for them. I leave to you the task of interpreting this interesting fact. 



"Do not vote for Putin's friends." La Repubblica, Sep 23, 2022


    



Thursday, September 22, 2022

Who Controls Those who Control Us? Why a Lone man at the top is the Most Dangerous Thing in the World

In the game of chess, you win when you eliminate your opponent's king. In the real world, instead, killing the enemy leader is a much less effective strategy in comparison to being able to influence his choices in ways that harm his side. Here, I am examining the case of Benito Mussolini in Italy. Could it be that Mussolini was influenced, if not controlled, by the British secret services? It may have been one of the first cases of "one-man psyops" designed with the purpose of taking control of the mind of an enemy leader. Maybe something similar can explain some of the horribly bad decisions that our leaders are taking nowadays.


It never was a secret that Benito Mussolini started his political career as a shill for the British secret services. His task was pushing Italy to join the allies in World War One. Recent data show that, in 1917, he was still being paid by the British M15 to the tune of 100 pounds per week, a respectable sum at that time. 

We don't know what role the British Services had in Italy in the events after the end of WW1, but it is likely that they continued to support Mussolini, directly or indirectly. The British wanted a stable Italy that they saw as a staunch ally and a barrier against the ambitions of rival powers in the Mediterranean sea. Italy had played that role from when it had been created as a unified state, in 1861, with the help and financing of the British.

Italy was friendly to Britain, yes, but not a disinterested friend. Italians wanted something in exchange for their friendship, and they had it in the form of coal. Italy had no significant coal reserves, it was fully dependent on imports. It was British coal that had created the Italian industrial economy, from the early 1800s onward. That created a relationship between the two countries that many defined as a true brotherhood (fratellanza). But things changed in 1913, when Britain went through its "peak coal." Production stopped increasing and was disrupted by strikes and social unrest. 


Britain still had enough coal for its internal needs, but exports were affected. This was especially bad for Italy, which saw a precipitous drop in coal imports after the end of WWI. At that time, the change of mood toward the British in Italy was palpable. D. H. Lawrence reports in his "Sea and Sardinia," published in 1921, how insulting the "English" was a common subject of conversation among Italians. 

Now, put yourself in the shoes of someone who managed the British secret services in the early 1930s. It must have been clear to them that there was a problem with Italy. An enormous problem. Germany's coal production was still increasing and Germany could easily supply 100% of Italy's needs. Then, Italy and Germany were natural allies. Germany had no direct strategic interests in the Mediterranean sea, while Italy could use Germany's support to become the leading Mediterranean power. By taking control of the Suez Canal, Italy could effectively kick Britain out of the Mediterranean: truly a disaster for the British Empire. (Italy actually tried to do exactly that in 1940).

And then, Mussolini himself: another headache for the British who were discovering that they had created a golem they couldn't control. In 1933-34 two more things happened that made the situation critical. First, in 1933 Adolf Hitler took power in Germany. Then, in 1934, Mussolini held a referendum that gave him a majority of 99.84% percent of the votes. The two dictators shared views and methods, and the road was now open to the Rome-Berlin "Axis." It would be formalized in 1936.

Again, let's see the situation from the viewpoint of the British. Facing a confrontation with Germany, it was vital for them to do something to remove Italy from the game or, at least, to weaken it considerably. But how? Directly toppling Mussolini was unthinkable. But it may well be that the British still had some direct communication channels with him (and, by the way, Mussolini could speak English). So, when you have to deal with someone who is too powerful to attack directly, you use indirect means. Find his weak spot, and set up a trap. And Mussolini did have a weak spot: his dream of rebuilding the Roman Empire. 

Up to 1934, the Imperial dreams of Mussolini had been mostly for show: people dressed like ancient Romans parading in the streets, the ubiquitous "fascio" symbol, and the outstretched arm in the "Roman Salute," even though the Romans had never saluted each other in that way. And then, suddenly, there came the idea that, by attacking Ethiopia, Italy would recreate the Roman Empire. It had a certain perverse logic: since the King of Ethiopia had the title of Negusa Nagast (king of kings) he could be defined as an "emperor," Then, by defeating him, the King of Italy could take his title and become emperor. Never mind that the ancient Romans never had Ethiopia as a colony, they barely knew it existed. It was a recipe for an "instant empire."  

Italy had two colonies on the border with Ethiopia, and also an old grudge against Ethiopia, having been defeated by the Ethiopians at the battle of Adwa in 1896. But, up to 1934, nothing in the propaganda arsenal of the Fascist regime had identified Ethiopia as an important enemy or a target to be attacked. I went to examine the archives of one of the national newspapers, "La Stampa." I found that, before 1934, there was basically nothing about Ethiopia, except a few articles about local folklore. I also re-read D.H. Lawrence's "Etruscan Places" (written in the late 20s). It was, in many ways, a strong accusation against the Fascist regime, but Lawrence never mentions that Italy had Imperial dreams in Ethiopia. 

Then, on 5 December 1934, there came the "Walwal incident." Italian and Ethiopian troops clashed at the border of Ethiopia and Somaliland, with losses on both sides. From that moment, the Italian press started a campaign of accusations against the Ethiopians said to be attacking the Italian possessions in Eritrea. There started to appear the idea of the "civilizing" mission of Italy in that barbarous country and, finally, the whole soup was sparkled with references to the glory of the Roman Empire that Fascist Italy was going to recreate. And, yes, also young Ethiopian women were part of the deal for the conquerors. 



Less than one year after the Walwal incident, Italy invaded Ethiopia with a force of nearly 700,000 men, an enormous effort for a relatively poor country like Italy. After about 8 months of fighting, Ethiopia surrendered and the King of Italy happily (presumably) took upon himself the title of "Emperor of Ethiopia." The enthusiasm in Italy was beyond what anyone could have imagined: true enthusiasm, not just propaganda. How this mad idea could be swallowed so easily by most Italians is one of the greatest mysteries I encountered in my life. Apart from raping Ethiopian women (which was surely done on a large scale) what did they think exactly to accomplish? But let me not harp on that. 

Just consider the story from the viewpoint of the British. For them, it was an incredible success. First of all, they had been able to deflect the Italian strategic effort toward an objective that, for the British, had little importance. Second, they were forcing Italy to keep a large military force in a region where they had no direct connection with the mainland: it could be resupplied by sea, and only as long as the British allowed it. More than that, the costs of the military campaign and of maintaining the occupation of a land that remained hostile were a tremendous burden. The British then proceeded to further cripple the Italian economy by imposing economic sanctions and zeroing coal exports to Italy. The reaction in Italy was expressed with the slogan "noi tireremo diritto" ("we'll keep going onward"). But it was a devastating blow. Remarkably, the Italians had inflicted all the damage on themselves by themselves. 

A few years later, when World War Two started, the Italians were woefully unprepared. Their military equipment was obsolete, their economy weak, their troops insufficient. At the start of the war, the British proceeded to mop up the Italian forces in Ethiopia: an easy task since the Italians rapidly ran out of supplies. In the meantime, the Italian attempt to march on Suez in 1940 was a major catastrophe. But imagine that they had been able to deploy in Egypt the 120,000 fully equipped troops stranded in Ethiopia. Then, maybe history would have been different. But so it goes. 

Now, the big question: how did the British accomplish this miracle of deception? It may not have been so difficult. The secret of propaganda is no secret at all: just repeat the same thing over and over, letting no contrasting voices appear. Then, you can dominate minds. You saw how well it worked during the past two years with so many good people swayed just because they heard the same things over and over on TV, and they had no contrasting sources of information.

Dictators are not necessarily better than ordinary people at eschewing the destructive action of propaganda. They may, actually, be an even easier target, being often isolated in a knowledge bubble that admits no contrasting voice. We know that, by the 1930s, Mussolini was a lone man at the top, surrounded by yes-men, sycophants, and profiteers. He had no friends who could tell him things that he was not happy to hear, so he was the perfect target for a one-man psyop (using a modern term). Already in 1925, Britain had agreed to sign a treaty known as the "Anglo-Italian Agreement" that said, essentially, "if you want to invade Ethiopia, go ahead, we won't move a finger to stop you." Mussolini may have thought that the British were afraid of him and that they were trying to appease him with concessions. In any case, he waited to be strong enough before acting on this treaty, but eventually he acted the way the British probably were expecting he would. Perhaps, there were other factors (*), but we'll never know for sure. 

The story of Mussolini's attack on Ethiopia is an example of a deception technology that consists in convincing an enemy leader to engage in an attack that he believes will be a cakewalk. Then, sitting back and enjoying the fireworks before intervening for the killing blow. It may have been used against Iraq at the time of Saddam Hussein. And it may have been used in recent times. Note that I don't mean that a leader who squanders his country's resources in a senseless military campaign shares the evil qualities of Benito Mussolini (a racist, bloodthirsty psychopath). It is just that all strong leaders are potential victims of this kind of "one-man psyops." As you know, history rhymes and one of these rhymes goes, "a lone man at the top is one of the most dangerous things in the world."



I already examined the fateful years when Benito Mussolini led Italy to utter defeat in World War 2. My previous posts can be found at these links

https://www.senecaeffect.com/2022/04/when-country-is-destroyed-by-its-own.html

https://www.senecaeffect.com/2022/03/the-world-is-chess-game-is-it-being.html

https://www.senecaeffect.com/2022/05/the-world-as-chess-game-winning-by.html


(*) We may speculate about the role of a specific person in convincing Mussolini that attacking Ethiopia was a good idea. Margherita Sarfatti (1880-1961) was his lover, confident, and mentor from when they met in Milano in 1911. Sarfatti was a Jewish intellectual, an artist, and a writer, sometimes credited with having "created" Mussolini's public image. But she was three years older than him and, with time, her influence on him started to fade. In that fateful year, 1933, Mussolini took another woman as mistress, Claretta Petacci, 28 years younger than him. In the same year, Sarfatti also saw the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, and she couldn't have missed what it meant for her and for the European Jews in general. It was only in 1938 that Sarfatti was forced into exile, but we may imagine that in 1933 she still had a chance to influence Mussolini and deal a deadly blow to him. Did she titillate his vanity by telling him that he could really become the Emperor of a newly created Roman Empire? Was she influenced by the British secret services in order to do that? We shall never know, but one thing is sure: Sarfatti understood perfectly the mechanisms of political power and she was a master propagandist. As an example, here is a piece she wrote -- it seems -- while the Ethiopian invasion was ongoing. I do not hesitate in classing it as one of the best pieces of propaganda ever written. Read and savor it in all its details: it is truly a masterpiece if you remember that propaganda is aimed at simple minds using simple concepts. 

A MAN AND AN EMPIRE

XIV

ACCOUNTS TO BE SETTLED

When the Abyssinians came upon us treacherously at Uol-Uol, the Duce curbed his anger and said: "in Geneva in Switzerland, there is the league of nations that we Italians also founded, so that justice and good agreement between the peoples may be created. Let's hear what they think to do in Geneva to give us satisfaction "

Instead, Geneva washed her hands in her lake: "I don't know anything, the rifles may have fired by themselves". "Oh yes?" said The Duce. "Is this your way of understanding justice? It is no longer the time to make fun of Italy, now we are in the 15th year of the Fascist era".

And he called all the generals of land and air, and the men of the sea, and said, "We must settle old and new accounts with that land of wild slaves. This is the coast of Africa, march down from the North and up from the South, and go and get me all of Ethiopia, with the capital Addis Abeba. I will take care to provide you with men, weapons, ships, orders, and food".

"All right," said the admirals and the land and air generals. "It will be done. Long Live The Duce! Long Live The King!" And all the young men of Italy ran under the tricolor flag with the insignia of the Fascio Littorio, to volunteer in Africa for Italy.

Margherita Sarfatti


UN UOMO E UN IMPERO

xiv

I CONTI DA REGOLARE

Quando gli abissini ci vennero addosso a tradimento a Uol-Uol, i Duce frenò la collera e disse: «A Ginevra nella Svizzera, vi è la Società delle Nazioni che abbiamo fondato anche noi italiani, perchè metta la giustizia e il buon accordo fra i popoli. Sentiamo cosa pensano di fare a Ginevra per darci soddisfazione »

Invece Ginevra si lavò le mani nel suo lago: «lo non so niente, i fucili avranno magari sparato da soli». «Ah si?» disse il Duce. «È questa la maniera vostra di intendere la giustizia? Non è più il tempo di prendere in giro l'ltalia, adesso siamo nell'anno XV dell'era fascista». 

E chiamò tutti i generali di terra e d'aria, e gli ammiragli del mare, e disse: «Bisogna regolare i conti vecchi e nuovi con quel paese di schiavi selvaggi. Questa è la costa dell'Africa, Marciate in giù dal nord e in su dal sud, e andate a prendermi tutta l'Etiopia, con la capitale Addis Abeba. A darvi gli uomini, le armi, le navi, gi ordini e i viveri penso io».

«Va bene», dissero gli ammiragli e i generali di terra e d'aria. «Sarà fatto. Viva il Duce! Viva il Re!» E tutta lo gioventù d'Italia correva sotto la bandiera tricolore con l'insegna del Fascio Littorio, a battersi volontaria in Africa per l'Italia.

Margherita Sarfatti

 


Saturday, September 17, 2022

Why do we Always Choose the Decisional Systems that do the Most Damage? A Plea for the way of the Holobiont

 


Captain Ahab, played by Gregory Peck in the 1956 film version of "Moby Dick." Ahab is a fictional character, but there are plenty of real-world cases when handing all the decisional power to a single person led to catastrophe. The problem is not just about ships, it is general for many kinds of organizations, including states and empires, Why, then, this governance system is so common? It is one of the many mysteries of the behavior of human beings who tend to find comfort, and often their doom, in the "strong man" at the top. A much better way to organize complex systems would be to use the concept of "holobiont," taken from biology. 


In "Moby Dick," Ahab’s madness ultimately causes the sinking of the Pequod and the death of the entire crew. It is a fictional story, but there are plenty of real-world cases where mistakes by the captain led a ship to disaster. One recent case is the sinking of the "El Faro" container ship, in 2015. It was, first of all, a human tragedy: none of the 33 members of the crew survived. The records of the ship's black box were recovered, and we can still hear what they were telling each other in the hours before the disaster. It is impressive to hear how, up to nearly the last moment, they didn't realize the mortal danger they were facing in the form of a category 4 hurricane. An especially poignant moment is when, on the morning of the last day of the ship, the second mate, Danielle Randolph, prepares coffee on the bridge, and one of the members of the crew asks for artificial sweetener. He didn't need to worry about his waistline. One hour later, he would be dead, just like everyone else on board.  

What went wrong with the "El Faro"? It would be too easy to fault the captain, Michael Davidson. He surely made mistakes: he underestimated the threat, and -- probably -- acted emotionally, thinking he could show his bravery by sailing straight into what he believed was just a tropical storm. It is normal: everyone makes mistakes, and human males are especially prone to making the kind of mistakes that derive from a macho attitude. The point is to detect the mistakes and correct them before they create disastrous damage. And, here, the ship's command system failed completely. It is typical for ships to be managed by a "vertical" organization that pivots around a single man (rarely a woman) at the top. It is the captain, whose orders cannot be questioned. You may remember the quarrel between Starbuck and Ahab described in Melville's "Moby Dick," where Ahab cuts short Starbuck by saying that "There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod". Again, this fictional episode is not unlike what happens in the real world. 

The kind of vertical command structure nearly guarantees disaster when the man at the top turns out to be mad, drunk, or simply not up to the task. And then disasters happen. Not all of them are as spectacular as the sinking of the "El Faro," but if you consult Wikipedia's entry on "shipwrecks," you'll be surprised by how long it is, even for recent years. The same kind of disasters happen with planes, working teams, and, often, with the military, where the list of incompetent, stupid, and evil commanders is long and detailed (the charge of the 300 at Balaklava is just one of the many examples, even going on right now in the world). 

It may be that rigid hierarchical structures have their origin in the overstretching of the role of the "alpha male," typical of many social creatures. Indeed, in human society, these structures are typical of all-male environments. In the case of the El Faro, the second mate, Danielle Randolph, was the only woman on the command deck. Women are known to be more flexible and less obsessed with rank than men (of course, with plenty of exceptions!), and it may be for this reason that she was the only one who explicitly proposed to steer the ship toward safety. Other members of the command deck seem to have had doubts, too, but they didn't discuss the captain's decision. So, the second mate was overruled by the captain who, in doing that, was signing his (and everybody's on board) death sentence. Another poignant element of the story is the last message that Randolph sent to her mother. It ended with "love to you all" -- which was not her usual way to end her messages. She understood what was going to happen, but was powerless to avoid it. 

In nature, alpha males have no power to give orders to other members of the group. The concept of "orders" is purely human and also relatively recent in our evolutionary history.  From what we know, rigid pyramidal hierarchies started to appear only with the development of city-states, some 5,000 years ago, when there also appeared kings and God-kings. Apparently, people were fascinated by these larger-than-life figures, to the point that they put their trust in them. So much that they even invented imaginary overlords, truly out-of-this-world alpha males, to be obeyed and worshiped.

Democracy doesn't change things so much. Imagine that the captain of the "El Faro" had been elected by the crew. That would have changed little or nothing about his power to give orders to everybody. Then, if the second mate had been a member of the opposition, it is even more certain that she would have been overruled when she proposed to change course. That's how democracy works: the opposition is always wrong.

So, where can we find better ideas on how to manage complex systems? Maybe there are ways. Let me report a paragraph from Prigogine's "The End of Certainty" (1996), where he cites Bierbacher, Nicolis, and Shuster:

The maintenance of organization in nature is not -- and cannot be -- achieved by central management. Order can only be maintained by self-organization. Self-organizing systems allow adaptation to the prevailing environment, i.e. they react to changes in the the environment with a thermodynamic response which makes the system extraordinarily flexible and robust against perturbations from outside conditions. We want to point out the superiority of self-organizing systems over conventional human technology which carefully avoids complexity and hierarchically manages nearly all technical processes. 

The authors, here, are actually describing the concept of "holobiont," even though they do not use the term. The holobiont is the most common and efficient way for complex systems to organize themselves in nature. The elements of a holobionts interact with each other horizontally, not hierarchically. It is what gives the system its extraordinary flexibility and adaptability. If the command system of the El Faro had been organized as a holobiont, the captain couldn't (and wouldn't) have ignored or overruled the suggestion of the second mate.

Would it be possible to organize human society in this way? Yes, we know plenty of examples of societies that self-organize into forms that mimic the holobiont structure. Elinor Ostrom reported how several of these structures can manage natural resources at the local level, much better than heavy top-down hierarchies. So, it may well be that God-kings are an evolutionary dead-end and that, as we march into the future, we'll learn to behave more like the natural way of behaving is, it is the wisdom of holobionts. On the other hand, for the time being, this idea looks a little difficult to put into practice, considering how much people seem to love the idea of kneeling down and receiving orders from the Great Man at the top. And I don't have to tell you about the unending string of disasters that this attitude has caused, and is still causing. But you never know: in the end, all humans are holobionts. And holobionts can learn!

These concepts and more are discussed in "The Proud Holobionts" blog




(you can find here a dramatized version of the sinking of the El Faro aired on the Discovery Channel in 2020. The trailer of the fantastic 1956 movie, "Moby Dick" is here

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Elegy for a Disappearing Empire: was the US Domination of Europe a Good Thing?

 

An interpretation of Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes, Celts who lived in Britain at the time of the Roman invasion (Image by Kate Spitzmiller). She lived at the same time as the more commonly remembered Queen Boudica, who fought the Romans. Cartimandua, instead, was what we would call today a "collaborationist". You might also call her a traitoress of her people, but so goes history. Can we learn something from the way the Romans subdued the Britons and incorporated them into their empire? As usual, history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes a lot. 


Martys' Mac argues in a recent post that the American Empire had some special characteristics that make it different from other empires, especially the Soviet one. According to him, the US has been more benign, more open, more willing to let its client states develop independently, both economically and culturally.

Marty's Mac is a sharp observer but, in this case, I think he missed some basic points. Empires (and states, as well) are all very similar to each other, and the US and the USSR are not exceptions, as noted for instance by Dmitry Orlov. Not that I pretend to know more than anyone else about the old Soviet Union, but I suggest caution when discussing such wide-ranging issues. The Soviet Union was a complex reality that, in the West, remained largely unknown, shadowed by a barrier of language and propaganda. And we must be careful about falling into the trap of thinking that anything real looks in any significant way like the portrait that propaganda paints of it. 

This said, let's discuss Marty Mac's position. He starts with: 

A traditional empire does not seek to enter into mutually beneficial economic arrangements with its neighbors, but to suck up neighboring resources for its own benefit.

Which is, by all means, true. But it describes not just empires, but also states and kingdoms. There is a general law called "the rich get richer" that creates a centralization phenomenon. In all states, resources move from the periphery to the center. Think about France, which is not an Empire, but where the size of the capital, Paris, is so much larger than any other French city that it is outside the normally used statistical models. To the point that a specific term has been invented for it, "The Dragon King."

The argument Marty Mac's makes is mostly based on a comparison between the Marshall plan that the US enacted after WW2 was over, with the equivalent for the Soviet Union, the less well-known Molotov plan. 
The Soviet Union imposed severe reparations on its conquered territories. Romania was obligated to pay $300 million (in 1938 dollars, i.e., prior to war inflation) to its new Soviet masters; Hungary was also obligated to pay $300 million (200 to the USSR and 100 to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia). The on-paper equivalent of the Marshall Plan within the Soviet sphere was the Molotov Plan, which officially offered aid to conquered Eastern European nations. However, this assistance was meager at best (nations like Romania and Hungary still suffered under their war debts), and could reasonably be understood as a public relations effort at countering the Marshall Plan.

It is true that the Soviet Union was considerably more stingy toward its client states than the United States with theirs. But why did the two empires behave so differently? We could argue that it was because of some ideological differences, but also, more simply, structural ones. The Soviet Union was a rival of the American Empire, but it was also smaller and poorer. The population of the Warsaw Pact countries (Soviet Union+allies) was around 400 million, that of the NATO alliance (US+allies) was over 600 million. Then, in terms of GDP and expenses, I wrote in a previous post that

...in order to survive, the Soviet Empire had to match the rival Western Empire in military terms. But the Soviet economy was much smaller: we can roughly estimate that it always was no more than about 40% of the US economy, alone. To match the huge Western economic and military machine, the Soviet Union needed to dedicate a large fraction of its economic output into the military system. Measuring this fraction has never been easy, but we can say that in absolute terms the Soviet military expenses nearly matched those of the US, although still remaining well below those of the NATO block. Another rough estimate is that during the cold war the Soviet Union spent about 20% of its gross domestic product on its military. Compare with the US: after WW2, military spending went gradually down from about 10% to the current value of about 2.4%. In relative terms, during the cold war, the USSR would normally spend at least four times more than the US for its military. 
In short, the Soviet Union just could not afford costs equivalent to the Marshall plan. So, the behavior of the US empire was, and remains, dictated by practical factors rather than ideological ones. When the US had a considerable surplus, it could afford an extravaganza such as the Marshall plan. Not just an extravaganza, though. It was also a good investment since the European states were a much better barrier against a possible Soviet attack if they were economically strong. Note also that the economic aid of the Marshall plan didn't come without strings attached. To have the money, the Western European states had to cut all ties with the Soviet Union and with the states of the Warsaw Pact. And the local communist parties, at that time still relatively strong, were to be kept outside government coalitions. 

Now, of course, things have changed a lot. In the grip of a terrible crisis, probably in its last gasps, the US empire can't even remotely conceive a new Marshall plan. On the contrary, it is behaving like the old Soviet Empire. The whole West is turning into a police state, where the government controls all the media and criminalizes dissent. Then, it is not surprising that the imperial center is extracting resources from its client states in Western Europe to the point of beggaring them. 

The discussion could be long and detailed, and Marty's Mac post is much more detailed than the few concepts I have reported here. But I think that, as usual, we can find much food for thought in the behavior of past empires. In particular, I think that a good illustration of the behavior of empires is given by how the Romans dealt with the Britons during the period that goes from the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD. We see how the annexation of the Britons was only in part obtained by a military invasion. Mostly, it was a question of assimilation. The Romans "romanized" the Britons, making them appreciate such things as Roman money and the luxury items that money could buy. Then, they tricked them into borrowing money from Rome and, finally, when they could not repay the debt, they used that as an excuse to seize their assets and their lands. The similarities between the behavior of the US empire with Western Europe are evident. First, they offered money to the Europeans to rebuild their economy, and now they are squeezing Europe dry. 

It is the typical way of Empires: they work like pushers. First, they offer you cheap drugs, then if you don't pay for more doses, they may beat the pants off you, or kill you. In this, they are helped by the traitors that they can place at the top of the states they want to incorporate. Also here, we have an example in the story of Britannia, with Queen Cartimandua as a symmetric equivalent of Queen Boudicca. Whereas Boudicca is seen as a heroine who rebelled against the Romans, Cartimandua allied herself with them. History, as usual, rhymes. A modern incarnation of the collaborationist (or traitoress) Queen Cartimandua could be found in Ursula Von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. 

Below, a post that I published about Queen Boudica that illustrates the mechanism of corruption and assimilation that the Romans used to incorporate Britannia into their Empire.


The Queen and the Philosopher: War, Money, and Metals in Roman Britain


We know very little about Queen Boudica of the Iceni (20 AD (?) - 61 AD) and most of what we know is probably deformed by Roman propaganda. But we may still be able to put together the main elements of her story and how it was that she almost threw the mighty Roman Legions out of Britain. Above, a fantasy interpretation of the Celtic Queen from "galleryhip.com" (This post was inspired by a note from Mireille Martini)


You probably know the story of Queen Boudica. Tall, strong, and terrible, she was the embodiment of the fierce warrioress who fought - bravely but unsuccessfully - to defend her people from the oppression of an evil empire, that the Romans. It all happened during the reign of Emperor Nero, 1st century AD. 
 
The passage of time has turned these events into legends, deformed by the lens of propaganda. But maybe we can still discern the reasons for Boudica's rebellion and learn something relevant for our times. As it often happens in history, to understand why something happens, you only need to follow the money.  In this particular case, it is curious that the money that triggered the war may have been provided by no one else than Lucius Annaeus Seneca, yes, the Stoic philosopher. But it is a story that needs to be told from the beginning.

First of all, why were the Romans in Britain at the time of Queen Boudica? Simple: because of the British mineral resources. Britain had a long story of mining that went back to the Bronze Age and to even earlier times. The British mines could provide copper, tin, iron, lead, and even precious metals: gold and silver. These were all vital resources for the Roman Empire which used precious metals for coinage and all sort of metals for its various technologies.

The Romans already set foot in Britain at the time of Julius Caesar, in 55 BC. They set up a full-fledged invasion only in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius. But even before invading, according to  Strabo's Geography, there was a brisk commercial network that connected Rome to Britain. The Britons exported metals and imported luxury goods of all sorts, silk, olive oil, food, slaves, and more.

It was all part of the way the Romans managed their empire. Their expansion was not simply a question of a blitzkrieg war machine. Invading a foreign kingdom was preceded by a long period of cultural and commercial assimilation and it was attempted only when it could provide a financial return. That required a certain degree of economic development of the regions being assimilated. It didn't work with the Germans, who had no mines and only a relatively primitive economy. And they were also a tough military force, able to defeat even the mighty Roman war machine - they did that at Teutoburg, in 9 AD. So, the Romans shifted their attention to the wealthier and metal-rich Britain. It worked: the invasion of 43 AD was relatively easy in military terms. Afterward, the mines increased their production by means of Roman technology, commerce boomed, new Roman settlements were built, and Britain started being romanized.

But something went badly wrong in 60 AD, when the Romans suddenly faced a major rebellion of the Iceni people living in Eastern England, led by their redoubtable queen, Boudica. At the end of this post, you can read the details of the story as we know it, told by Jason Porath in a light-hearted style. Summarizing, when Boudica's husband, King Prasotagus, died, the Romans intervened, seized his lands, had his widow flogged, and his daughters raped. The queen was not amused and the rebellion started with all the associated atrocities. Eventually, the Romans managed to get the upper hand and Boudica killed herself.

But what made the Romans behave in a way that was nearly sure to spark a rebellion? Maybe it was just their lust for power, but there is a detail told by Dio Cassius (vol VIII, Cassius Dio, Roman History, 62.2) that can help us understand what happened. Cassius says that Seneca (yes, he was a philosopher, but also a rich man) had lent to the Iceni a large sum of money and that the Iceni were unable to return it. That suggests that the key to the story was money.

According to Dio Cassius, we are talking of 40 million sesterces. What kind of money is that? It is not so easy for us to visualize this sum, but we know that in those times a Roman legionary was paid nine hundred sestertii per annum. So, 40 million sesterces could pay some 50 thousand troops for a year - a large military force for the time. From this and other data, we could say - very roughly - that the value of a sesterce was of the order of 50 dollars. So, 40 million sesterces could be compared to some two billion dollars today. Clearly, we are discussing of a large sum for a small economy such as that of the Iceni tribe had to be.

We don't know what King Prasotagus had in mind to do with that money, but we know that something went wrong. Dio Cassius faults Seneca himself for having precipitated the rebellion by insisting to have his money back. That Seneca did that out of personal greed seems to be unlikely, as discussed by Grimal. Cassius was writing more than a century after the events and he may have wanted to cast Seneca in a bad light for ideological reasons. But that's just a detail,  what matters is that the Iceni (or, better said, the Iceni elite) defaulted on a large debt they had with the Romans.

In ancient times, defaulting on one's debt was a serious crime, so much that the early Roman laws punished it by having the debtor drawn and quartered. In Imperial times, there were considerably more lenient laws - but these laws very valid only for Roman citizens and Boudica was not one. In this light, flogging doesn't sound like an exaggerated punishment for defaulting on a large debt (2 billion dollars!). Even the rape of her daughters was not something unusual as a punishment for non-Roman citizens in those times. In any case, it is likely that the Romans didn't do what they did because they enjoyed torturing and raping women -- they used the default as an excuse to seize the Iceni kingdom. We can't even exclude that the loan was engineered from the beginning with the idea of annexing the kingdom to the Roman Empire.

Be it as it may, at this point, the Iceni elite had little choice: either lose everything or rebel against the largest military power of their time. Neither looked like a good choice, but they chose the one that turned out to be truly disastrous.

All that happened afterward was already written in the book of destiny - the archeological records tell us of cities burned to the ground, confirming the reports of initial Iceni victories told to us by Roman historians. Standard propaganda techniques probably caused the Romans to exaggerate the atrocities performed by the Iceni, just as the number of their fighters in order to highlight their own military prowess. Even Boudica herself was portrayed as a larger-than-life warrioress, but we can't even be completely sure that she actually existed. In any case, the revolt was bound to fail, and it did. In a few centuries, Boudica was forgotten by her own people: we have no mentions of her in the records from Celtic Britain. The Roman Empire faded, but the Roman influence on British customs and language remains visible to this day (and the ghost of the old queen may be pleased by the Brexit!).

What's most interesting in this story is the light it sheds on the inner workings of Empires. We tend to think that Empires exist because of their mighty armies - which is true, in part - but armies are not everything and in any case, the soldiers must be paid. Empires exist because they can control money, (or capital if you prefer). That's the real tool that builds empires: No money - no empire! 

And that takes us to the current empire, the one we call the "American Empire" or "the "Western Empire." It does have mighty armies but, really, the grip it has on the world is all based on money. Without the mighty dollar, it is hard to think that the large military and commercial network we call "globalization" could exist.

So, can we think of a modern equivalent of the Iceni rebellion? Surely we can: think of the end of the Soviet Union. It was brought down in 1991 not by military means but by financial ones. The debt the Soviet Union had with the West is estimated at US$ 70 billion, in relative terms probably not far from the 40 million sesterces the Iceni owed to the Romans. Unable to repay this debt, the Soviet elites had only two choices: dissolve or fight. They made an attempt to fight with the "August Putsch" in 1991, but it rapidly fizzled out. There was no chance for the Soviet Communists to make a mistake similar to the one Queen Boudica made, that is starting a full-fledged military rebellion against a much more powerful enemy. That was good for everybody on this planet since the Soviet Union had nuclear warheads which might have been used in desperation. Fortunately, history doesn't always repeat itself!

But, if history doesn't repeat itself, at least it rhymes and the ability of the Western Empire to use financial means to bring countries into submission is well documented. Another, more recent, case, is that of Greece: again a nation that couldn't give back the money it owed to the imperial powers. For a short moment, in 2015, it looked like the Greeks had decided to rebel against the empire but, in the end, the Greek elites chose to submit. The punishment for the Greek citizens has been harsh but, at least, their country was not bombed and destroyed, as it happens rather often nowadays when the Imperial Powers that Be become angry.

But for how long will the Western Empire remain powerful? Just like for the Roman Empire, its destiny seems to be a cycle of growth and decline - and the decline may have already started as shown by the failure of the attempt of bankrupting the heir of the Soviet Union, Russia (again, fortunately for everybody, because Russia has nuclear weapons). The globalized empire seems to be getting weaker and weaker every day. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, only time will tell.



Friday, September 9, 2022

A Quick Note About Ukraine: when propaganda rhymes with itself

 

The above is from a previous post of mine, where I laid down some rules to evaluate the wartime propaganda of the media. If you have been following the situation in Ukraine, you noted how for a week, the Russian news had been reporting how the enemy attacks had been repulsed with heavy losses. Then, today, it seems that the Ukrainian army broke through the Russian lines: a perfect confirmation of rule #2, 

Nothing is definitive, of course, and the war is still ongoing. And that doesn't mean taking sides: it is just to note that propaganda is like history, it rhymes with itself (on all sides). It also shows how unreliable and silly are the military pundits who comment on the situation. Take a tour of them on the Web, and you'll see that rule #7 is valid, too. See more on "Moon of Alabama."



Sunday, September 4, 2022

The Rise of the Key Opinion Leaders: the End of Politics as we Know it?

 

In ancient Japan, a "kagemusha" (shadow warrior) was an impersonator who took the aspect and the role of the actual leader. It was simply a decoy to be used in battle but, in our times, the problem for leaders is not so much to avoid bullets but to avoid the much more powerful propaganda techniques that may destroy them. The result is the rise of a new kind of kagemusha, the KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders). The KOLs do not impersonate the true leaders, but express their ideas and plans in public, taking the blame for the failures and the mistakes that may result. The real leaders, instead, remain in the shadows. The KOLs operate in many fields, not just in politics. For instance, they are popular in science. But, their presence in politics is becoming more and more evident. 


I met a top-level KOL (key opinion leader) for the first time in 2005 when I was organizing a conference on energy. The Tuscan Regional Government was sponsoring the conference, and they wanted a high-profile speaker. So, they insisted on inviting Jeremy Rifkin, the author of "The Hydrogen Based Economy" (2001). I disagreed, but they were those who paid for the conference, so we had to invite him. Rifkin wanted $10,000 as a fee, a first-class plane ticket, and VIP treatment. He got all that in exchange for a talk of about 45 minutes, in which he said nothing new or especially interesting. He took no more than a few questions, giving vague answers, then he disappeared, leaving for another conference. He didn't even stay for the speakers' dinner.   

That was at a time when the KOLs were still relatively rare -- I think the acronym didn't even exist. But, over the years, the term is becoming common, even though the term "influencer" remains more frequent. Normally, the term KOL is applied to fashion and performing arts. You see in the image a typical example.



There also exists a line of KOLs operating in science. Carl Sagan (1934–1996) was an early incarnation of the KOL scientist. He started his career as a first-class scientist, but he was among the first to suffer from what was later called the "Sagan Effect." It describes how scientists who move into popularization soon become "celebrity scientists" and tend to neglect or abandon real scientific research. Emil Kirkegaard calls them "the Kardashians of Science." Another example is Neil deGrasse Tyson.  (*) 

Both Sagan and Tyson did a good service to science with their popularization efforts, but that is not always the case. The KOLs may well distort or falsify the results of scientific research, depending on who are their sponsors. It is, simply, corruption. The scientist who takes a few steps into the media, soon discovers that there is good money to be made there. Much more money than what an average scientist can even dream of. Then, they discover that the more time they can dedicate to the media, the more money they can make. Soon, the (former) scientist starts to operate in the "pieceworker mode." They move from one conference to another, from an interview to another, trying to cram as many of them per day as possible. 

How much are the KOLs of science paid? Of course, that depends on rank. I already told you about the fee that Jeremy Rifkin mustered in 2005, today it must be much more for top-level KOLs. I could give you the names of scientists who ask fees of the order of Eur 20,000-30,000 for participating in a conference, and they are not the top stars in their fields. In Italy, the fee of a middle-level virologist during the pandemic, Ilaria Capua, was reported to be $2000 for ten minutes of a TV interview. More famous virologists surely make more. But of course, much of the money provided by the industry for the KOLs is shrouded in consultancies, teaching fees, honoraria, and various perks (conferences in fashionable resort places, for instance). There are also plain salaries that can be very high. As an example, for years, Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was the highest-paid government employee in the United States with more than $400,000 per year. And he surely had additional sources of income. 

As you can imagine, the corruption problem is especially bad in medicine, where a lot of money can be made by promoting specific products. On this, you may read the book by Peter C. Goetsche "Deadly Medicine and Organized Crimes." (2013). Goetsche is a somewhat controversial figure for his radical stance on several subjects, but his description of the behavior of the KOLs in medicine is both stunning and realistic. Formerly, they may have been good scientists but, at some moment, they switched to the dark side, being paid to promote the products that the industry sells. They are in for the money, there is little else that matters to them.

Now, stop for a moment and think of what all this means. Imagine yourself interviewed on TV: you are paid $200 per minute (could be much more) for just a few minutes. What are you going to say? Chances are that what you'll say will be a concise, clear, and unequivocal version of what you are expected to say by those who pay you. No time for subtleties, no time for describing alternatives, and no time for mentioning uncertainties. If you have more time, say, you give a talk at a scientific meeting, you are also paid much more. Then, will you want to say anything that displeases your sponsors?

All that is bad enough by itself. But science is not independent of politics, as you know, and that may well make things worse. During the COVID crisis that started in 2020, the public was suddenly exposed to a complex and difficult topic that they had never seen before: they were told about statistical data, such things as mortality, lethality, herd immunity, and much more. In the great confusion, they tended to rely on familiar figures that looked trustworthy. Tony Fauci was by far the most visible of them in the US, followed at some distance by figures such as Rochelle Walensky and Francis Collins. They justified and promoted whatever the government thought was a good idea to do. The government, in turn, acted following the advice of these and other KOLs, who were promoting the products of the pharmaceutical industry. Science, KOLs, and money became an unholy mix that created immense damage. But so goes the world. 

The KOLs may now be spilling into politics. The first actor to become a high-rank politician was Ronald Reagan, but he was far from being a "puppet president", although he profited from his experience as an actor to manage his public image. In recent times, though, we are seeing actors becoming frontmen for figures who remain backstage. A good example is Vladimir Zelensky, president of Ukraine. Independently of what you think of what's happening in Ukraine, Zelensky is clearly a modern kagemusha: an actor playing the role of the president. The way he dresses, the short beard, the posture, all are part of a character that could have starred in a movie, except that the war in Ukraine is all too real. Because of the dangers involved in the current situation, it is understandable that the Ukrainian powers that be much prefer a kagemusha as president rather than to appear themselves on stage. In the picture, you see also the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who may have tried to copy Zelensky's warlike style. 


So far, Zelensky remains a relatively isolated case. But it is possible that the KOL fashion will spread to other countries and other leaders. As an example, I can cite Mr. Matteo Salvini in Italy. As the leader of the League, he became deputy prime minister in 2018, and he is still a member of parliament. Salvini is popularly known in Italy as "Captain Nutella," owing to his penchant to present a public image of himself while eating junk food. He was never an actor, but he started his career as a participant in a TV game show, and he does not have much more than that in his professional CV (**). Incidentally, I have the impression that Zelensky took Salvini as a model; the same beard, the same style of dressing in sweatshirts, the same populist rhetoric. Not the Nutella, though. 

I would not be surprised if Salvini, or some other equally shallow kagemusha-style character, will soon take the job of the prime minister of Italy. This winter we are going to see a serious crisis in which many Italians will find themselves without heating at home and with no fuel, no electric power, and no jobs. At that point, the Nutella will hit the fan, as they say. I don't envy the person who will find him or herself in the role of the prime minister at that moment. The job could become as dangerous in Italy as it is in Ukraine now and, as you know, in Italy we already had a case of a prime minister hanged upside-down. Surely, during the coming hard times, the really powerful people will prefer to take a low-profile role. 

So, are we going to have KOLs as leaders everywhere?  The trend is surely visible. But, if you are worried about the end of politics, I can reassure you. In my personal experience, and I have personally known several high-ranking politicians in Italy, they are not actors playing the role of the evil character. They are really evil! And, KOLs or no KOLs, they'll continue ruling us. 


 

(*) On a personal note, my career as KOL was nipped in the bud when I was invited to speak about nuclear energy in a debate on a national channel in 2010. It was a time when the Italian government had big plans for new nuclear plants. The people who had invited me had noted that I was involved in peak oil studies and, from that, they must have deduced that, since I was against fossil fuels, I had to be favorable to nuclear energy. During the debate, I mentioned the problems of the availability of mineral uranium, and I mentioned the "uranium peak." Immediately, they cut me off. Just like that: I disappeared from the screen and the debate went on without me. And they never invited me again. Had I been a little smarter, I could have made some money by becoming a nuclear KOL, but so it goes.

(**) The populist image that Salvini proposes to his constituency doesn't mean that he is dumb. Not at all. On the contrary, he is a smart guy, perfectly able to catch opportunities when they appear. I think he would be better than many others as Prime Minister in Italy.