Cosmopolitics for the modern Leviathan

The space race has returned to public conscience. It is a symptom of the restructuring of the geopolitical arena brought about by the turn of the century. The future appearance of the new global system, however, is not entirely clear. Hand in hand with technological development and unprecedented population growth, Humanity has moved on from the mirage of a monopolar world. The years between the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016 have framed an apparent zenith of American power, and the rise of the challenge posed by the Middle Kingdom.

It is tempting to draw an analogy between the conquest of space and the European colonization of the New World across the centuries. Fiction, which is the crystallization of the collective unconscious into narratives, has made the space cowboy a recognizable type. The simile, undoubtedly of a great dramatic value, makes sense at face value: space, the last frontier, populated by asteroid miners, bounty hunters, and Native American-looking extraterrestrial civilization.

Lonesome cowboys make for good stories, as they are the actualization of the very ancient Knight Errand archetype found in Medieval tales. The historical main catalysts of Far West colonization, though, were big mining and railway corporations, which, in close collaboration to the government, incentivized the arrival of homesteaders as a way to obtain resources and allow continued operations. A good description of this relation between homesteader individualism and corporate-government collusion is found in the book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America, by Colin Woodard. Interestingly enough, space settling seems to have shifted towards a similar model of intense collaboration between private enterprises and the government, both in the US and abroad.

Nonetheless, space-steading colonies, for which the Space As Frontier narrative might make a good trope, still lay far ahead in the future. For now, Humanity is still in a phase of space exploration, and Age of Discoveries tropes might seem a more adequate frame for contemporary endeavors. The meme has been around for a while, as attested by President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 “new ocean” speech: “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people (…) only if the United States occupies a position of preeminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.” Is Space As Ocean, then, the previous exploratory stage to the exploitatory Space As Frontier, parallel to the way ocean exploration preceded land exploitation of America?

Ask any seasteading advocate, and they will answer that Space As Ocean can be not only a model for exploration, but also for settlement. It is no coincidence that both Outer Space and the sea are presented as ideal scenarios for techno-libertarian promises of Exit. After all, human habitats can and do exist in the Ocean: ships, oil platforms, artificial islands. Likewise, space can host stations, satellites, and even small bases on nearby planets. All of this infrastructure, due to the extreme hostility of the environment in which it is placed, is on some degree dependent on Earth for raw materials and basic living commodities. Any stable, self-sustaining presence in the water becomes, by definition, an incursion of Land into the Sea. To the continental geopolitical attributes of solidity, stability, and production, the Sea answers liquidity, transition and trade. Thus, water becomes geopolitically solid at the rate it transforms from explorable to exploitable.

The European powers that arrived to the New World looking for the East Indies were exploring uncharted oceans and territories of an unknown extension, in a race against their competitors. In 1494, two years after Columbus’ voyage, the monarchs of Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, brokered by Pope Alexander VI. The deal included the drawing of a line along a meridian 370 leagues west of Cape Verde; newly discovered territories to the East of it would belong to Portugal, while those to the West would be for Spain. Among other things, the Treaty is significant because it was one of the first instances in which each side’s diplomats were formally supported by a cabinet of technical advisors: geographers, philosophers and jurists. It was also an immense bet: both sides had almost no prior knowledge of the area they were distributing among themselves. Columbus’s travels only touched the South American coast by 1498. The first maps identifying it as a new continent different from Asia appeared around 1507, and the existence of the Pacific Ocean was completely ignored until Núñez de Balboa took possession of it for the Catholic Monarchs in 1513. Such gambles are unfathomable in the context of space exploration.

Modern space powers’ competition is for an immense emptiness and for the objects, more or less already known and well described, contained therein: fundamentally the Moon, Mars, and several hundred asteroids of expected mining value. Although the hidden face of the Moon is almost unknown to us, we know that there is something there; the conquerors of America had no clue about how far the continent reached when they first landed. Celestial bodies outside the Solar System are technologically unreachable, so dispute of their resources can only be speculative, in the same way the Treaty of Tordesillas was. Or, in other words, they do not exist in a geopolitical sense as of yet.

Historically, the formulation of classical geopolitics only appeared when mapping of all the globe’s seas and oceans was complete. The theories of Halford John Mackinder were formulated in the context of the Asian Great Game, which pitted the British Sea Empire against the Russian Land Empire. Figures like Alfred Thayer Mahan, and later Nicholas J. Spykman (the “godfather of containment”), transformed Mackinder’s ideas into American foreign policy doctrine, and were instrumental to the US’s rise to world power status. Naval power was the key to military influence on the continent, and diplomacy was designed to dissolve consolidation efforts on the ground by fostering balance-of-power systems. The waves always move towards the coast: the Sea is not an Exit strategy, but an Entry point.

Public and private space enterprises are well aware of the difference between potential and actual resources, and consequently direct most of their prospective efforts to attainable objects in space. Scientific curiosity may be boundless, but the geopolitical will directing and financing it is essentially competing for a “closed”, relatively well known portion of space. This portion of space is a connective compartment of Earth, the limits of which are determined by current navigability. Geopolitically, Outer Space is not the speculative, theoretical and uncharted Atlantic ocean of Columbus and Magellan. It is a liquid and navigable Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean Sea which Roman, Aragonese and Venetian thalassocracies used for communication, commerce and warfare.

In real world practice, this translates to the fact that almost all of the technological efforts of the current space race have been devoted to creating satellite constellations with geolocation, surveillance and telecommunications functions, all directed towards the ground. Both the hard and soft power of modern leviathans depends intimately on space technology for meteorology, maritime navigation, command and control of military units, surveillance networks, and dissemination of propaganda. Thus, contemporary space powers must be seen as the maritime powers of classical geopolitics taken to the third, vertical dimension of cosmopolitics. They are entities that exploit their dominance of a liminal common space –the sea/extraterrestrial space– to project their shadow on a continental Hinterland/Earth. Space is not the last frontier to be settled and tamed. It is a body of water which, precisely because of its lack of borders, can be expanded – or better, penetratedinfinitely.

Cosmopolitics arrives with the realization of the liminal and ever-expanding nature of Outer Space. As Humanity gains the ability to navigate it further and further in, it transitions from a theoretical space to a liquid, connective shell encompassing Earth. The development of Space Power is not a centrifugal vector of Exit, but a tool meant to act centripetally and exert power on the ground.

On the memetic nature of conflicts: narrative, political identity, and discipline

The framework of a conflict, the narrative in which it fits, is a memetic object: there are differences between a war of independence and a religious war. We can find many examples of both in History, each type having a set of identifiable features. This is only because they are successful memes. Memetic nature is mutable, and may not necessarily correspond to other, even more relevant dimensions of the conflict: psychological, biological, economic, etc. The Second World War is a good example of this. German participation in it is popularly understood as ideologically and racially motivated. More cultivated opinions might also mention geopolitical struggles concerning resources and heartland domination, or post-war economic humiliation. The focus, however, may be shifted: was the war rooted in a generation’s collective psychological coping mechanism against having missed the Greatest Masculinity Rite of Passage Ever (WWI)? Was it all a matter of aesthetics? Was it a dark, subconscious, animal necessity of expansion, produced by demographic growth, and then later rationalized into a search for Lebensraum?

The selection of a single, simple, official narrative for conflicts is justified by the fact that the chaos of conflict requires to be ordered and explained for humans to meaningfully partake in it. Political distinctions (in the schmittian sense), such as faithful vs. heretic, oppressor vs. liberator, or reactionary vs. revolutionary, have repeatedly proved to be able to organize conflict in a comprehensive way. In this sense, participants in any kind of conflict, armed or not, may be acting out of their own impulses, such as personal ambition, thirst for adventure, revenge, desperation… Nonetheless, they will assume political identities such as those above, like scattered iron filing adopting a specific disposition when under a magnetic field.

To put it another way: for an individual to position himself within a conflict, sides have to be politically defined first. The guerrilla fighter in a colonial war portrays himself as a freedom fighter, while his opponents identify as a counter-terrorism force. For this to be possible, a specific memetic nature has to be developed for the conflict, which will determine what camps are there to choose from. Conflict does not arise because of two existing masses of people with a feud. Individual drive for conflict precedes camp formation. The channeling of the accumulated drives of the mass allow for the establishment of a memetic scaffold around which the conflict and its sides are built. This channeling process is a main component of collective discipline, by which the individual becomes a soldier.

The memetic construct is designed to play on perception, and thus can be modulated and changed by propaganda, itself composed of memes. Etiological study of past conflicts may help in uncovering some hidden causes which escaped the memetic, propagandistic explanation given contemporaneously. On the other hand, the influence of the current cultural environment can impact retrospective interpretations currently formulated. For example, religious wars that made perfect sense in 13th century Europe are nowadays given an economic explanation. This is due to our culture’s inability to understand religion as it did in the Middle Ages, and not necessarily because economic readings correspond more truly to reality. Religious feeling of the kind that produced the Crusades is so foreign to our memetic milieu that we can only say Deus vult semi-ironically. Frankish medieval men, bored, devout, fleeing the law, looking for adventure, desiring riches, or curious about tales of the Orient, all found a reasonable common cause in the Crusades and assumed a new political identity as crusaders.

This leads us to a last point, which is the interpretation of the conflict across its whole spectrum. The course of events, in the real, material sense, is affected by discrepancies in the way a conflict is seen across the divide. When two opponents attribute a different memetic nature to their shared conflict, the consequence of operations becomes more difficult to predict. Another, totally unrelated to the real world, example: a power may see a war it is waging as a small quest within a wider contest for geopolitical control. The opposite side may see it as an existential religious or ideological struggle. When selecting targets or designing propaganda campaigns, both sides’ misconceptions about their enemy’s motives can become misleading.

In our example, the former power may believe the latter actor’s fanatical warriors are radicalized due to frustration with poor socio-economical conditions, neglecting the fact they may actually see their cause under the light of deep religious-philosophical convictions. As a consequence, a lot of resources may be spent in misdirected intelligence operations, or in trying to appease the enemy with Danegeld and misdirected propaganda. Even if the actual, main motive for an individual combatant is indeed poverty and not religious faith, his newly acquired memetico-political identity turns him into a holy warrior and hinders his enemy’s confused efforts. Know thine enemy, indeed, not only as an individual, but as a political figurant.

In summary: the memetic nature of a conflict is a narrative built to channel the drive of individuals who have their own motives for fighting, and who could, left to themselves, fall on any point of a political spectrum. The successful inoculation of such narrative on an individual looking for a fight is what turns him into a combatant for either camp, and can thus be considered integral to discipline. Being aware of the narrative each side is playing along with is essential to a successful management of operations.

Political mitosis

German jurist and philosopher Carl Schmitt, in The concept of the political, established the political as that which creates the unique distinction of Friend vs. Enemy. Thus, the political expresses the intensity of association or dissociation between two entities. Schmitt’s definition gives political differences a particular status, independent from others such as economic, ethnic or religious distinctions. Even if these can be the trigger of something political, they cannot define friendship or enmity per se. In other words, when a cultural community engages in a conflict against another, it is by definition acting as a political unit; the notion of a purely religious or economic war is nonsensical.

By virtue of the previous definition, we can trace the origin of civil conflict to the emergence of a strong political distinction within a political unit, which becomes more intense than those existing between said political unit and others external to it. The supreme degree of intensity in enmity is, according to Schmitt, war. Thus, if an internal political difference becomes strong enough, the result is civil war. The original political unit is dissolved, and a plurality of political entities of identical nature takes its place.

Civil conflict can be expressed in terms of political mitosis: out of a stem political cell, two others arise, identical to the first one, yet distinct. The original is lost and cannot be recovered, while the descendants become subjects with their own destinies. Politics is downstream from culture; civil conflict arises from cultural differences of extreme intensity. If civil conflict is a product of cultural differentiation, political mitosis is the consequence of a memetic process. At risk of taking the metaphor way too far, I propose using the model of cell reproduction to discuss the cycle of civil conflict generation.

The interphase of the cycle is defined by the continuous, natural synthesis of memetic material within a disorganized, indistinct, non-partisan cultural nucleus. This is an ideal, abstract stage outside of internal political conflict. Many kinds of stimulus can break this state and induce political mitosis: scientific or technological advances, economic conditions, and of course mitosis of nearby polities. In any case, when the necessary environmental conditions are present, political mitosis is triggered and the cycle begins.

Mitosis begins with a prophase in political discourse, during which memetic material condensates into a more defined or explicit form: the contentious topic. Culture involves vast amounts of information of almost any kind, so there are infinite possible cultural distinctions to be made: star sign, taste in music, favourite color… Nonetheless, certain cultural distinctions tend to be more significant than others, like religious behavior, spoken language or socioeconomic status. Thus, memes and memeplexes of a culture tend to organize around this contentious topics. At this stage, the contentious topic exists only as an abstraction, a just-now-discovered concept.

Once the contentious topic is defined, however, a whole discursive apparatus begins to organize spontaneously around it in the form of possible arguments for or against it. There is no will directing this organization: claims are just thrown into the pile to bend opinion on the topic one way or the other. The political discourse may appear under the guise of factual claims, but there is no such thing. Political arguments, as per our analysis, are just a set of cultural, discursive forces which can pull apart the political cell. Facts do not matter, only interpretations of facts, and this includes interpretations of imaginary facts. The build-up of political discourse around the packed memetic material corresponds to prometaphase. We can summarize it as the unfolding of everything that can be said in respect to the contentious topic, so that two cultural forces of opposite direction form.

The next stage, metaphase, is the sudden, shared realization that there are two social positions in regard to the contentious topic. Metaphase signals the transformation of the cultural into the political by the formation of two opposite camps: at this stage, opposite cultural forces become a political distinction. Culture war is unleashed, bringing forth anaphase, which is the consolidation of the political difference, marked by a chasm between the two positions on the contentious topic.

There is no way to win the culture war, in the sense that nobody convinces anyone to change sides. Two parallel political units are born and stand in the place of the original one: we are now in the telophase, the end-game of the process. It is perfectly possible that, of the two daughter polities, one of them ends up dying out because it fails to keep synthesizing its memetic material in the original form, or it evolves so much that in the process ends up resembling its former enemy.

Christianity is a good example of this kind of converging evolution. After centuries of ideological and actual warfare against heretics, many modern Catholics share the majority of their cultural values with Protestants. This is not because Protestants have progressively convinced Catholics to accept their views. The reverse is equally false, and neither has there ever been an official decision to end hostilities; animosity simply has died out between the two religious communities, and they are now mostly friendly in political terms. And how could they not be? After all, as political units, they share most environmental pressures, so they tend to evolve in a similar way.

In summary, civil conflict of a cultural nature is born when, out of the indistinct mass of cultural (memetic) material, certain elements become condensed into discursive realities. These realities become political distinctions, which imply the establishment of a relation of enmity. In later posts, specific instances of this dynamic will be discussed.

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