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."
Showing posts with label Bill Gates. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bill Gates. Show all posts

Monday, October 11, 2021

The Age of Exterminations (IV). How to Kill the Rich

In our times, the Knight Templars have gained the fame of exceptionally good warriors. That may be more than a little exaggerated because when the time came to defend their leaders, arrested by the King of France, they vanished into thin air. Yet, the history of the Templars is interesting as a case of the periodic exterminations of the financial class in history. Could something similar happen to our modern financial tycoons, the Internet barons, Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg, etc.? We cannot say for sure, but we cannot exclude that, either. The recent "incident" that shut down Facebook for a while may well be the harbinger of a reckoning to come.

"A house filled with gold cannot be defended." Lao Tsu, the Tao Te Ching

"All political power comes from the barrel of a gun." Mao Zedong

The Monastic order of the Templars (Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Salomonici), was founded in 1119 as a military force to defend the Christian holdings in the Holy Land. In time, the order evolved into a financial structure: the Templars became bankers and they developed a sophisticated money transfer system that helped pilgrims and warriors to move to and from the Holy Land and to transfer money from Europe to Palestine and back. They have been termed "the first multinational corporation" in history. 

As you may imagine, the Templars were rich, despite the term "pauperes" (poor fellows) in their name. They had land, castles, palaces, and, of course, plenty of gold and silver. The problem was that, with the loss of the last lands controlled by the Christian crusaders in the Holy Land, at the end of the 13th century, they had become useless: no more crusades, no need of a banking system to finance them

At that point, the Templars attracted the attention of the king of France, Phillip IV, in dire need of money, as kings normally are. In 1307, he ordered the arrest of all Templars and the confiscation of their properties.  Most of the leaders were burned at the stake after that they had confessed under torture all sorts of evil misbehaviors: spit on the cross, deny Christ, engage in indecent kissing, worship the devil, and other niceties. 

As exterminations go, this one didn't involve large numbers: we read of 54 executions in France in 1310. Probably there were more in other countries, but the total cannot be higher than a few hundred. Nevertheless, it had a big impact: it is said that the fame of Friday the 13th as an unlucky day originates from the date of the arrest of the Templars: Friday, October 13, 1307.

The question is, of course, can it happen again? How about our class of hyper-rich, the "100 billion dollar club," that includes well-known names such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and a few more? They are clearly going to become trillionaires in the near future. But a house full of gold is hard to defend, as we read in the Tao Te Ching. Could our Internet barons follow the destiny that long ago befell another class of financial tycoons, the Templars?

As usual, the key to the future is in the past. Examining the destiny of the Templars, we may understand the factors that may lead to the extermination of a powerful (but not enough) financial guild. 

First of all, why were the Templars exterminated? I argued in previous posts (onetwo, and three) that certain categories of people can be exterminated and their possessions confiscated when they are 1) wealthy, 2) clearly identifiable, and 3) militarily weak, The Templars clearly satisfied the first two rules but not necessarily the third: after all, they were a military order. Yet, when the King of France descended on them, they didn't even try a military reaction. It may be that the prowess of the Templar Knights was much overrated: they were more like a private police force for a financial organization, not a real military force. But it may also be that it was exactly the presence of this force that hastened their downfall. Sometimes, a little military power may be worse than none at all, since it invites a decapitation strike. This is probably what happened to the Templars, exterminated just to make sure that they would not become a threat. 

The story of the Templars is just an example of a power struggle that has very ancient origins. One of the earliest written texts we have was written by the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna who complained with the Goddess that her temple had been desecrated by a local warlord. Enheduanna does not say if the warlord was after the temple's money, but we know that, at that time, temples were also banks, a tradition that remained unchanged for millennia. For instance, as late as during the first century AD, we have the record of a local leader who raided the temple of Jerusalem and attacked the resident bankers, most likely in order to finance an armed insurrection against the Roman governor. 

Temples and warlords remained in an uneasy relationship with each other during the Roman Empire, but a few centuries later, raiding Pagan temples became the normal way to finance the Roman armies, a tradition started by Emperor Constantine 1st ("The Great") during the early 4th century AD. Less than a century later, Emperor Theodosius 1st ("The Great") was the last emperor who still could find Pagan temples to raid for their gold and silver. Then, no more temples, and no more Roman Empire

And then, there was the time of the Catholic Church in Europe, which never officially acted as a bank, for a period even forbidding to charge interest on loans to Christians. That left the Jews as typical targets for raids and extermination, a tradition that continued for a long time. But the Church was nevertheless an economic powerhouse thriving on the donations of the faithful and on various economic activities, including owning vast swats of land, various kinds of manufacturing, and even employing prostitutes and managing brothels. It was a juicy target for the military leaders in Europe and the case of the elimination of the Templars was just the harbinger of much worse to come for the Church.  

During the 16th century, it was the turn of King Henry VIII to destroy the Catholic monasteries in England and confiscate their properties (a few monks and abbots were exterminated in the process). Later on, in France, a substantial part of the French revolution had to do with confiscating the Church's properties and beheading a substantial number of monks and priests. The wave of confiscations ended only when, in 1870, the Pope lost his last stronghold, the city of Rome, to the army of the king of Italy. This final battle, fortunately, didn't involve exterminations. 

Now, back to our times. Just like the last Roman Emperors had run out of Pagan temples to raid, our governments have run out of Churches to depredate. But some elements of the power game remain the same: if once temples were also banks, today banks are also temples. You can see that very well if you live in the US, where no respectable bank would renounce temple-like columns on the facade. 

But the question is not architectural: our society is possibly the most monetarized one that ever existed in history and the people who run our financial system yield immense power. That power, though, makes them attractive targets for another kind of power: the military one. Think of our Internet barons, Bill Gates and his ilk. By getting rid of a few tens of them, the government could cash in at least a trillion dollars in a single sweep. That is an amount of the same order of magnitude as the US military expenses in one year. Could that happen for real? 

Of course, right now, it is hard to imagine a court that sentences Mark Zuckerberg to be burned at the stake after having confessed under torture of consorting with the devil and other unholy behaviors. Yet, things that happened once in history can always appear again. 

It will all depend on a balance of factors: power, wealth, control, technology, and more. Something drastic could happen, for instance, if the US government were to find itself in truly dire financial straits. Then, the temptation of using military means to solve the crisis could become strong. After that all is said and done, as president Mao Zedong said, the origin of all political power is the barrel of the gun. Is the recent shutting down of Facebook a signal of a battle being already being fought in the ethereal "Metaverse" regions? Only time will tell.  

Monday, September 20, 2021

Why did the Taliban Win? Lessons From Ancient History


How did the Taliban manage to defeat the most powerful army in the world? One word: corruption. It is not new, it has already happened in many other cases in history. Here, I propose a comparison of the recent Taliban campaign with the case of the Numidian wars at the time of the Roman Republic.  (above: these fighters are probably Tajiki, not Taliban, but that does not affect the substance of my interpretation) 

During the 2nd century BC, the Roman Republic attempted to defeat the Numidians, a tribal population inhabiting a desertic area of North-Western Africa. Surely, the Numidian fighters were no match for the mighty Roman armies, yet the Numidian kings held on their own for decades. It was only in 105 BC that their last king, Jugurtha, was definitively defeated by the Romans.

The ups and downs of the Numidian wars left the Romans perplexed. How could it be that those unrefined Barbarians could keep at bay the Romans for so long? The opinion of the historian Sallustius was that the Numidians had used corruption to buy the Roman commanders. Sallustius reports that Jugurtha himself said about Rome, "Venal city! You would sell yourself if a buyer were to appear!".

Sallustius' interpretation is believable, even though it is not substantiated by historical data. Corruption is an unavoidable side effect of money and Rome was the most monetarized society of antiquity. The Romans had built their prosperity on the precious metal mines of Northern Spain and used their wealth to pay the large armies that they used to dominate the Mediterranean Region. But money is a double-edged weapon: it can be used to pay soldiers to fight, but also not to fight, or to fight someone they were not supposed to fight. 

Once corruption has infiltrated society, money becomes everything, and the rule of the game, at all levels, becomes enriching oneself. But what role did corruption play in the war, exactly? Sallustius diplomatically faults King Jugurtha, but the Numidian economy was small, the Numidians were mostly poor shepherds. Where would Jugurtha find the money needed to buy the rich Roman leaders? 

More likely, the Roman Army bought itself off. Setting up a military expedition implies a lot of money being spent at various levels for supplies, weapons, salaries, transportation, etc. And, at all levels, there are chances for bribery. Once the mechanism started, nobody in Rome really wanted Jugurtha defeated. As long as he was alive and fighting, there was money to be made. That's the likely reason why the war dragged for so long. 

On their side, the Numidians were not so badly affected by corruption simply because they were a tribal society. In this kind of society, interpersonal relations are governed by honor, revenge, fealty, and the like -- NOT by money. Trying to corrupt a tribal warlord is not easy: for one thing, where could he spend the money? Besides, a corrupt leader is always at risk of revenge from his own followers. The end result was that the Numidian fighters were fewer in number not as efficient as the Roman legionnaires, but more trustworthy and surely cheaper. 

The Roman surely realized what the problem was. But fighting corruption is always a difficult task, if nothing else because those who are supposed to fight it can be corrupted as well. So, how to solve the problem? There was an interesting trick that could be played. Powerful warlords were among the most corrupt of the corrupted, but with a twist. Whereas petty leaders profited from an ongoing war, rather than from a victory, the top commanders needed victories to gain prestige and money. So, they were efficient war leaders. The solution, then, was to give all the power to a warlord. 

That was already happening at the time of Gaius Marius, with the Roman Republic in a "pre-imperial" condition. In about one century, Rome would be turned into a full-fledged imperial state, ruled by a single, all-powerful emperor. Of course, the emperor could not be corrupted: he already had everything. 

Emperors could keep the empire together, at least as long as there were the resources for doing so. Then, with the exhaustion of the precious metal mines, the Roman state ceased to be a monetarized society. No more money, no more corruption. No corruption, no need for an emperor. And not even for a state. That's how history moves. 

Fast forward to our times, and we can compare the US campaign in Afghanistan with the Roman campaign in Numidia. With all their might, the Romans and the Americans were hampered by the enormous costs of their military apparatuses, in both cases amplified by corruption at all levels. In comparison, the Numidians and the Taliban fighters were much less expensive. 

It is true that the Romans did better than the Americans and eventually succeeded at subduing the Numidians. But think of just one thing: nowadays the descendants of the Berbers who fought the Romans in Numidia are still there, and still call themselves "Berbers." (more exactly ⵉⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖⵏ, ⵎⵣⵗⵏImaziɣen) And where has the Roman Empire gone? Alas...

Note also that to estimate the degree of corruption of the Roman society we need to rely on qualitative reports. But for the degree of corruption of our society, we have more data, even though uncertain: look at this image (source).

That correlates the perceived corruption with the Gini index, a measure of wealth inequality (note that a high corruption index means LOW corruption and vice versa). The US is not in this diagram, but it is more or less in the middle. 

Note the correlation between corruption and inequality: the higher the inequality, the higher the degree of corruption. The least corrupt states (e.g. Denmark) are also the most egalitarian. The opposite holds for corrupt states, say, the Dominican Republic. 

It makes a lot of sense that inequality and corruption are correlated, even though we can't say that one of the two causes the other. More likely, they go in parallel. Of course, in order to corrupt someone, you need to have much more money than they have. Could you corrupt Bill Gates? Of course not, but Bill Gates can corrupt anyone if he wants to. Conversely, in an egalitarian society, it is hard to corrupt a person, especially if you are linked to him or her by bonds involving honor and respect. 

I don't claim to be an expert in Pashtunwali, the code of honor of the Pashtun Afghans, but it looks close enough to societies that I know, such as that of the Italian peasants. It is a section of the Italian society that has mostly disappeared, but it still existed not long ago, so that we can still figure out how that world worked. If you understand that, then it is not difficult to understand how a tribal society can sometimes defeat an empire. It is a question of persistence. It has happened, it will happen again. 

Finally note that, if corruption is linked to inequality, the fact that most Western societies have become more unequal during the past decades means that also corruption has been on the increase -- and that seems to correspond to the general perception. It means that the West is less and less able to win wars, although it may well keep fighting them for the sake of those who profit from them. 

Again, this observation seems to correspond to the events of the past 2-3 decades. Despite its immense military power, the West hasn't been able to gain a definitive victory even against much weaker opponents. Does that mean we need an incorruptible Emperor? 

Ave, Gates Caesar!