“Sustaining” your Way to Serfdom as a Grand Strategy

Originally posted at Zenpundit.com

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

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

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

A New U.S. Grand Strategy 

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

Incidentally, all of this argument from assertion is unsupported rubbish keyed to a preexisting anti-suburban agenda the Obama administration brought with them into office in 2009. As Joel Kotkin explained:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This part is literally nonsensical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 thoughts on ““Sustaining” your Way to Serfdom as a Grand Strategy”

  1. This is related, I am certain, to the vision of single women and non-child “families.” Nobody raising children today wants to live in large urban centers, especially with the breakdown of civil society since 1960.

    I grew up in Chicago on the south side in a near idyllic area. It was close to the lake, which moderated the temperature and offered recreation in summer. Jackson Park was close enough for us to ride our bikes. The neighborhood had commercial streets with small stores every four blocks going north to south. 71st street, 75th street and 79th street were lined with small shops and bakeries and food stores. The elevated train, the “EL,” offered commuter travel to downtown and to other attractions on weekends.

    Many families did not use their cars during the week and the epithet “Sunday driver !” was more common than the related “Woman driver !”

    What has happened since 1960 ? Drive down the South Shore Drive to 71st street but don’t do it at night. My sister told me there were murders at 71st and 75th this weekend. The small stores are gone, many boarded up. I don’t know how many still ride that train. She lives in Beverly, an even more upscale neighborhood in 1956. She hears gunfire most weeks. There are still shops and restaurants but everyone drives to them.

    No, I don’t think this will get very far, except among the Obama supporters who don’t have children.

  2. In your first quote, the link he points to supporting his claim that Americans seek walkable communities, it says this:

    61% choose larger lots and needing to drive over smaller lots and being able towalk to schools, stores, and restaurants (37%)

    You think there’s pushback on gun control? Watch as the Obama administration try to corral people into urban environments.

  3. “work, school, transit, doctors, dining, playgrounds, entertainment all within a five-minute walk of the front door”

    Works better for lawyers, professors, investment bankers, etc than for people who work in factories and warehouses that need lots of space, rail facilities, etc.

  4. “On one point the American is determined: He will not live near his work. You shall see him in the morning, one of sixty people in a car built for twenty-four, reading his paper, clinging to a strap, trodden, jostled, smirched, thrown into harrowing relations with men who drink whiskey, chew tobacco, eat raw onions, and incontinently breathe…The problems of his homeward journey in the evening will be still more difficult, because, in addition to the workers, the cars must carry the multitude of demoiselles who shop and go to matinees. To many men and women of business a seat is an undreamed luxury. Yet, they would be insulted if one were to ask why they did not live over their shops, as Frenchmen do, or in back of them, like Englishmen It is this uneasy instinct of Americans, this desire of their families to separate industrial and social life, that makes the use of the trolley car imperative, and the street railway in this manner widens the life and dominion of the people; it enables them to distribute themselves over wider spaces and unwittingly to symbolize the expansiveness of the nation.”

    From a 1902 article about the social impact of the electric trolley:


  5. An interesting contrast has developed in southern California. I live in Orange County, disdained by my older son as “behind the Orange Curtain.” Crime is low, auto insurance is half the cost of the same coverage in Los Angeles County, even Santa Monica where my daughter lives.

    When I moved here in 1972, the area was a “bedroom community” for Los Angeles. Commuters drove to the city to work and returned at night to their families. Since about 1980, the commuting pattern has reversed and light industry, much of it high tech, has developed around UC, Irvine and south. Many workers, especially those in lower paying jobs, cannot afford to live near their work. We now, or before the 2008 collapse, see workers commuting from the eastern suburbs to Orange County. The 91 freeway, which connects Orange County to Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, is heavily traveled with westbound morning traffic and eastbound in the afternoon.

    A similar pattern is seen north of Los Angeles. The city, itself, except for downtown and the west side, is a slum. There are islands of gentrification but crime is a serious problem. There is no evidence, even among west side lefties, of a desire for walkable neighborhoods.

  6. I may be merely re-stating an obvious implication of the original post, but I think it is worth emphasizing…

    Among the many evils of high population density is that it provides a legitimate reason to curtail individual liberties. I’m not saying that everyone who is advocating it has that specifically in mind, but some probably do and others are simply indifferent or even frightened of liberty.

    I think many urban dwellers have a kind of agoraphobia which causes them to feel very uncomfortable with low population density, open spaces, and the liberties which are reasonable in those circumstances. Frequently if they do move to a less dense area you will see those who are habituated to urban spaces cluster together, spend their free time back in the urban areas, and agitate for expanding the restrictions to which they are accustomed into areas where they make no sense.

    I lived for a while in a place where I could have played my stereo as loud as i cared to, fire a rifle in any direction I pleased without concern for hitting anyone or any thing which didn’t belong to me, or sit on the porch naked without offending anyone. (Not that I did any of those things… well, maybe the stereo… ) At the other extreme, if ten people lived in an elevator, what your neighbors ate, listened to, wore, or who they had sex with and when, would be legitimate concerns for “the community”.

    Elevators for all is the end game here, whether it is intended or not.

    I also think there is some pretty good real research to back up the anecdotal observation that high population densities result in psychological and sociological pathologies…. crime and insanity basically.

    Since the 21st century paradigm seems to be unlimited government, and a disregard for the constitution, I’d support federal legislation mandating maximum population densities. As a starting point I’d suggest no single square mile, no matter how drawn, may contain more than 640 people. (I’m only kidding a little bit…)

  7. What factories? I’m from the Rust Belt, those are called “prisons.”

    There’s a name for these walkable communities, and it’s MEGACITY ONE.

    As to our choices..

    “The good news is that none of this can come to pass without our consent. The U.S. Constitution is both sword and shield, if you are willing to pick it up.”

    Sure. Along with that M1903 Springfield Rifle, which was the issue weapon when we last had Constitutional Government.

    We are being grossly mismanaged now because we are under the boot of the generation of 68, that is to say brats who seized power from their parents. Their parents governed wisely and loved their country and their people. However they were indeed the ones who put us under this “New Deal”. APA 1946, Hithcocks Executors, and the rest of the “New Deal” were implemented by Patriots.

    68 and their even less attractive diaper spawn aren’t Patriotic, disdain Patriotism and putting it gently disdain their subjects. The 1789 document is not Sirs how we are governed. We are ruled. This is how we are so “Constituted”. Concern yourselves with what IS, not WAS.

    The people do not rule. We are not sovereign Sirs. We are ruled. By madmen it seems. Certainly the scheme above would indicate ignorant bliss of our finances, never mind the capability of the dysfunctional ship of state they preside over. It’s a shoaled hulk in terms of accomplishing such matters. We may thank God this was not the vision of the vigorous men of 1932. That ended in Detroit once the new management took what it felt was it’s due. Many Detroits, and that’s what this would be…

  8. Meanwhile…someone’s been talking to my former peeps…

    Military People: News Flash: He’s from Chicago, and he’s got your balls. That’s why your check is threatened. This is the economic part of Regulatory capture, and the Chicago Way. When they control your money they squeeze you. It’s to get you screaming at the Congress, and it’s a proven formula. Since the government is usually the military service members only source of income and you don’t have a private economy to fall back on, he does have your balls. This will happen every time he wants more Power, which means it’s never going to stop.

  9. The only good news I can give you is that we have the worst ruling class ever. They are completely cut off from the people they rule, but whom they are contemptuous of. They avoid interacting with the great unwashed the way Medieval peasants avoided lepers. They have shunned two key institutions, the military and the ministry, that would legitimate and mediate their power. They are planning to gut the military, which will then be incapable of protecting them from the consequences of their own folly.

    The bad news is that they are as foolish as they are arrogant. Their attempts to build the new Jerusalem will founder just like all such attempts have. Unfortunately it will also lead to the financial crisis that will collapse the regime. It won’t be fun for anyone.

  10. }}} around eight or nine economic blocs,

    Three of which will be named Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia? And it’ll eventually be reduced to those three… S:-/

  11. }}} There’s a name for these walkable communities, and it’s MEGACITY ONE.

    …Don’t you mean “Airstrip One”?

  12. MEGACITY ONE -I was referring to the world of Judge Dredd.

    Dysfunctional, a giant Sao Paulo, corrupt, fascistic.

    I also don’t think it will happen.

    Not happen may require user interface.

    Now stop crying and get to work.

  13. You think there’s pushback on gun control? Watch as the Obama administration try to corral people into urban environments.

    The way of the first-generation urban planner was to bulldoze neighborhoods, force people to move, and build big public projects. The way of the second-generation planner was to impose artificial constraints — land use restrictions, taxes, speed bumps on streets, etc. — to encourage people to live in ways favored by planners. The third-gen urban planner uses the methods of the second-gen planner, framed in the jargon of markets and incentives to make it appear the planners respect individuals’ preferences, when in fact everything the planners do is intended to limit choice. The same points apply to green energy subsidies and carbon taxes, which distort markets in extremely costly ways but are justified by central planners as being voluntary and market-driven because the behavior changes are accomplished by imposing arbitrary costs to change incentives rather by fiat.

    Unfortunately, these rhetorical sleights-of-hand are politically successful because few people know enough about basic economics to understand how costly to everyone social engineering by elite policymakers is, and how little difference there is between social engineering by taxes and regulations and social engineering by diktat.

  14. How do you get a central planner to admit they don’t know what the hell they are doing ?

    Answer: You don’t. Ask the Soviet generals who were trying to hold off the Germans in 1941.

  15. Mike K:

    Or the German generals in 1939 who had a pretty good idea how thing were going to turn out.

  16. John, the irony is that, after France fell, they changed their minds and thought him a genius. They were right the first time.

    I’m reading the third volume of Manchester’s biography of Churchill. Churchill made a great error in sending troops from Africa to Greece in 1941 but Hitler took the bait and invaded Yugoslavia and Greece. That held up the invasion of the Soviet Union until June. Maybe, if they had gone in in May, as planned, they would have won. Churchill had great luck, something the German generals didn’t understand.

  17. [A version of this article appeared January 19, 2013, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Notable & Quotable. Subscribers only: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323482504578229290681975514.html?KEYWORDS=quotable%5D

    Political philosopher John N. Gray on liberals’ totalitarian temptation.

    John Gray, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Jan. 2:

    One of the features that distinguished Bolshevism from Tsarism was the insistence of Lenin and his followers on the need for a complete overhaul of society. Old-fashioned despots may modernize in piecemeal fashion if doing so seems necessary to maintain their power, but they do not aim at remaking society on a new model, still less at fashioning a new type of humanity. Communist regimes engaged in mass killing in order to achieve these transformations, and paradoxically it is this essentially totalitarian ambition that has appealed to liberals. Here as elsewhere, the commonplace distinction between utopianism and meliorism is less than fundamental. In its predominant forms, liberalism has been in recent times a version of the religion of humanity, and with rare exceptions— [Bertrand] Russell is one of the few that come to mind—liberals have seen the Communist experiment as a hyperbolic expression of their own project of improvement; if the experiment failed, its casualties were incurred for the sake of a progressive cause. To think otherwise—to admit the possibility that the millions who were judged to be less than fully human suffered and died for nothing—would be to question the idea that history is a story of continuing human advance, which for liberals today is an article of faith. That is why, despite all evidence to the contrary, so many of them continue to deny Communism’s clear affinities with Fascism. Blindness to the true nature of Communism is an inability to accept that radical evil can come from the pursuit of progress.

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