Origins of the Modern Thieving State

June 13, 2011

 

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Putin’s brutal tactics against his billionaire political opponents (he throws them in jail and convicts them of trumped-up charges) rang a bell in my head.  The trial of Nicolas Fouquet, Finance Minister to Louis XIV came to mind.  This got me started on the whole notion of what Krugman called today, Rule by Rentiers, and the tremendous and parasitical hold over our society of the financial élite…and whence it came to be.

Fouquet has interested me for a long time, not least because he built one of Europe’s great architectural gems, the estate at Vaux-le-Vicomte.  The gardens were designed by André Le Nôtre, who went on to design the overwhelmingly magnificent landscapes at Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles.  Fouquet also came to my attention early in life because in high school, I read some letters by Madame de Sévigné, including a famous one describing the fate of Vatel, formerly cook to Fouquet.  During a grand banquet for the Prince (the Great) Conde, the fish course was threatened – the fish had not been delivered!  Vatel was so humiliated by this failure, that he threw himself on his sword.  His death was treated as a national tragedy.  But Fouquet and his ilk are the story here.

Fouquet is not mentioned much these days – all attention goes to his destroyer, Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV.  But Fouquet was Louis’ faithful servant during a time when the king was young, and just getting a firm grip on power.  (The childhood of Louis was during the civil war called The Fronde.)  He always served the interests of the king and the French state (no difference between the two!), and along the way, he enriched himself.  Well, so did everyone else, and most didn’t do such a good job as he did.  Nor were they as handsome, intelligent, charming, cultured, and imaginative.  Richelieu, Mazarin, and Colbert are not on any historian’s list of fun people.

The job of Nicolas Fouquet was to ensure that the royal treasury was full so it could pursue its endless war against the Spanish Hapsburg Empire.  The state of national finance at the time was so chaotic and desperate that it makes American budget issues look like textbook examples of perfect accounting practice.  Books were duplicated, or secret.  Huge ‘loans’ to government figures were standard.  It was not illegal to rake off a substantial sum from tax collections or financing from the merchant élite, it was how the system worked!  There was no separation of the personal interest from the state interest at the level on which these high ministers worked.  After all, if they did not have the cash to present a good front, what financier would lend to the state they represented?  Opulent show was all part of the process.

The crime of Fouquet was simply to do his job far better than anyone else, thus exciting the envy and hostility of Colbert, and to be neglectful or unaware, to a shocking degree, of how his activities might be interpreted by the young king.  Three weeks after hosting the king at a vast banquet in his brand new palace, Vaux-le-Vicomte, he was enlightened:  Louis had him arrested on charges of embezzlement and treason.  The charges were totally trumped-up, and Louis probably did not believe them a bit:  he simply wanted to get rid of a too-independent servant.

The trial was a milestone in the history of political show trials, but Fouquet did not play the docile, self-incriminating defendant that students of the USSR might expect.  He was cool, calm, and collected, and even managed to smuggle out some letters that were the basis of quickly printed pamphlets that generated tremendous popular support for him.  Louis XIV did not have the resources of the total terror-state, but he did his best.  He hanged a few people who helped Fouquet communicate with the outside world from prison, but it is a measure of the not-yet-established nature of his absolutist rule that many elements of the trial were not under his control.  He learned, and acted differently in the future.

Convicted, but not sentenced to death, the verdict of eternal banishment did not please the king.  He did not get his wish, and did not feel strong enough to impose execution, but he did change the verdict to life in prison.   Fouquet languished in a fortress in the remote alpine Piedmont region of France.

The details of the trial are recounted in some of Madame de Sévigné’s letters, which are always very readable.  This popular biographical treatment is also quite good:

A side note:  When Fouquet and his wife lost a very young daughter to disease, they were advised by a cleric “to learn to love death.”  What a tremendous gulf this reveals between our world and theirs!  Death was all around, and the death of one, or many children, was a common occurrence.  To accept and love death was the only salvation.  No “youth culture” for them!


Free and open elections

July 26, 2009

Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin – He was the author of the great anti-utopian novel, We.  Orwell admired it, and he thought Huxley had been influenced by (copied?) it.  He died in exile, after his letter to Stalin gained him permission to emigrate rather than remain in the USSR without the permission to write.  Considering the contents of his 1923 essay, On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters,  it’s a wonder he wasn’t just taken out and shot.

Heretics are the only (bitter) remedy against the entropy of human thought.

Where the flaming, seething sphere (in science, religion, social life, art) cools, the fiery magma becomes coated with dogma- a rigid, ossified, motionless crust. Dogmatisation in science, religion, social life, or art is the entropy of thought. What has become dogma no longer burns: it only gives off warmth- it is tepid, it is cool.

The novel, We, is a memoir written by a prominent engineer in the glorious future One State in which human life is totally regulated.  Mathematics has trumped all poetry.  Individuals rejoice in their state as ciphers.  Sex is proscribed to limited “private hours” regulated by the Book of Hours, and access to sex partners is free, and regulated with a system of recorded pink chits.  The book is a little heavy with literary experimentation as it seeks to evoke the mentality of the future man who revels in his routine and lack of spontaneity, but it is prescient of so many things, in culture, in politics, and especially in the entire future of science fiction, that it amazes.  It also has a very sharp and dark humor.

They say that the Ancients conducted elections in some kind of  secrecy, hiding like thieves … Why would all this mystery be necessary?  Even today it is not understood conclusively; the likeliest explanation is that elections were connected to some sort of mystical, superstitious, maybe  even criminal rites.  For us, there is nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of:  we celebrate election day in the daytime, openly and honestly.  I see everyone vote for the Benefactor; everyone sees me vote for the Benefactor – and it couldn’t be any different, since “I” and “everyone” are the unified “WE” …And if you even suggest the impossible, that is, that there could be some dissonance in the usual homophony, then the invisible Guardians are here, among our ranks:  at any momen, they can stop ciphers who are falling into error and save them from their next false step – and save the One State from them.

Need I add that the “hero” is undone by love, by sex, by a femme fatale ?  At their trysts outside the glass wall of the city, in the museum of the Ancient House, she wears a yellow silk dress.  Her teeth are like daggers.  She scorns the One State, respects nothing.  She is irrestible to him, the engineer of the great spaceship Integral, the vessel that will bring the happiness of tyranny to other planets.  She drives him crazy…makes him…human?


Soul Man

August 16, 2008

As the television world watches the Olympics in Beijing, the Party is ensuring that certain things will not be seen.  In order to stage a protest of any sort, especially during the festivities, you must get a permit and only exercise your right to speech in selected zones.  (Sounds a bit like the Republican convention in NYC, 2004, eh?)  According to this article in the NYTimes, quite a few of those who sign up for the right to voice their grievances publicly are ending up disappearing into the maw of the Chinese Communist Party security apparatus.  It reminds me of that grim old joke about Stalin and the Soviet constitution that was packed with liberal human rights.  They only published it to see who would sign on, so that then they could be dealt with.

The fellow shown here is a veteran protester, profiled briefly in the article:

Despite what seem to be the perils of applying for a permit, scores of people continue to flock to the capital seeking an opportunity to publicize their grievances. Gao Chuancai, 45, a farmer from Heilongjiang Province, evaded a police cordon in his hometown and arrived in Beijing with a handwritten poster describing a litany of abuses by local officials.

Mr. Gao said in an interview that he had no delusions about his prospects. Over the years, he said, he has been jailed a dozen times and beaten repeatedly for trying to publicize corruption in Xingyi, a village just outside Harbin in China’s northeast. Security officials from Harbin had in the past even tracked him down in Beijing and stopped him from petitioning higher authorities in the capital, he said.

Early this month, after he learned of the Olympic protest zones on television, he mailed in an application to Beijing.

On Wednesday, he worked up the nerve to visit the application office. “Whatever happens, happens. I don’t care if I die,” he said as his taxi pulled up to the building.

Just what makes a person act this way?  Some sort of glorious stubborness that might, under most circumstances, make him a rather unpleasant person?  Surely, the authorities are asking themselves the same question:  “Why won’t he just shut up!!”  Philip Pan’s engrossing new book, Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, tries to answer just this question.  He profiles several men and woman, inspiring, brave people with   tremendous grit, who won’t buckle under to the the Chinese state.  He also describes others who are cynical, rapacious, brutal, and totally unprincipled, and he sees it as an open question as to which group will carry the day in China, ruled as it is by an entrenched, corrupt, kleptocracy.  (Communist ideology dropped by the wayside long ago.)

Meanwhile, Mr. Gao…

At the reception area, a pair of officers questioned him about the nature of his protest and asked him to fill out a lengthy form that included the names and numbers of the officials who had wronged him. Mr. Gao was reluctant, but he complied.

After an hour, they smiled and told him to return in five days. As he walked out the door, he overheard one of the officers on the phone. He was calling the police station in Harbin.

I wish him luck.


Why did you resign? Who is No. 1?

June 7, 2008

I have posted on The Prisoner before, but the show continues to occupy a prominent place in my pop-cult consciousness, and it keeps coming up in odd places. The opening sequence is tremendous, combining as it does adventure, mystery, and the awful weight of obsessive nightmare, the endless replaying of the “resignation scene.” There he is – cool, angry, totally self-confident – swinging open the doors to the evil sanctum to set himself free, or so he believes.

“Why did you resign?” That one little question distills the essence of the totalitarian program. Just tell us that (and then you will tell us whatever we want to know.) And The Prisoner, now known as No. 6, replies with the obvious rejoinder, “Who is No.1?” He never breaks, and they never give up – the game goes on for about 17 episodes. We never see No. 1, not really, until the end. We never find out why The Prisoner is No. 6 - where are No.s 3, 4, and 5? .  No. 2 runs the village…

I remember when I first heard of this show – I was in elementary school, and a friend who watched a lot more TV at later hours than was permitted me told me of a very “weird show,” in which a “big blob” patrolled an island, and attacked anyone who tried to escape. When I finally saw it, I was hooked for life. This doesn’t necessarily put me in good company. I don’t believe that this show is a piece of deeply complex philosophy – I don’t think it warrants exegesis on a par with what scholars give the works of Dante, and I don’t even think most of the episodes are all that good, but the idea of it, and Patrick McGoohan, are great.

The show is cast in the mold of a standard adventure series, but it has a very large dollop of satire and sly wit thrown in, along with some sci-fi aspects, many of them pretty hokey. The quality of the episodes varies wildly from awful (The General) to absolutely exquisitely developed (A, B, & C). These two, my least and most favorite, have the odd circumstance of using the same actor to play No.2. Usually a different actor takes the role each show, indicative of the displeasure of No. 1 at their inability to break No. 6. The form of the shows varies as well – some are straightforward adventure, but often with a very clever twist (The Chimes of Big Ben), some are more satirical (Free for All, the episode in which No. 6 runs for the office of No. 2: “So, No. 6, will you run?” “Like hell, first chance I get.” Always joking…) , some are like fantasy-fables (The Girl Who Was Death)

My favorite, A, B, & C is the story of an attempt to break No. 6 by drugging him and manipulating his dreams. The three letters refer to three individuals whom No. 2 is convinced may hold the key to why No. 6 resigned. In a series of dreams, which they have the technology to project onto a large screen and into which they can inject themselves, No. 2 and his assistant try to prod No. 6 into giving something away. They fail of course – or is there nothing to give away? Did he just resign because he was sick of his job? Was he really just going on vacation?

In desparation, No. 2 gives a super dose to The Prisoner, and the dream takes on the giddy, crazy aspect of a classic 60’s hallucinatory experience, complete with a posh party a la 007, and corny pop music. It culminates in a confrontation in a dark plaza that is as great a surrealist set piece as anything Bunuel ever did, and the denoument is devilishly clever, as No. 2 watches the dream, and then watches No. 6 walk out of the dream, past him, and back to the village. Then…cut to the endless replay of the doors swinging open in that dark room in London…


Telephone, for Comarade Shtrum…

May 25, 2008

One reviewer feels that the phone call in Life and Fate that I described in my previous post is one of “the most electrifying moments in 20th century literature.” I agree!

After Stalin calls and turns his world upside down, he learns what it is like to be stroked by a hand with unlimited power, as Grossman puts it. Life is good…for a while. Then the piper must be paid.

Victor is asked to sign a letter about a former teacher of his, an innocent man who has been arrested. The British and Americans are making a fuss, saying it is unjust, trying to form a committee to save him. He must, as a loyal Soviet citizen, sign this letter telling them to bugger off – it’s all nonsense! Those westerners are playing right into the hands of the Fascists!

Victor knows his teacher is innocent, but if he doesn’t sign, then what? His security, his job, the approbation of his peers – all will disappear soon enough. This request won’t be the last, it’s only the first, and it alone is enough to make him feel utterly worthless as a human being…because he does sign it.

He tried to wiggle out of it: “What do I know of such matters?” “Please – I’m just a physicist, can I just do my work?” “Surely there are details of which I am not aware, but he was a wonderful teacher…” No – just sign. You wouldn’t want to help the Fascist Fifth Columns, would you?

This roller coaster ride of Victor’s – from despair and fear, to the giddy good fortune of being the pet scientist of the State, to the utter self-abasement of signing this letter – does have a positive conclusion. Victor resolves not to do such a thing again, and not to congratulate himself on not doing so either. He knows too well now how easily one can slide into cooperation. He wants to keep that humiliating knowledge close to his heart, to remind him, to keep himself human.


His Master’s Voice

May 24, 2008

Very nearly at the end of Grossman’s monumental novel, Life and Fate, the main character, Victor, a Jewish physicist gets a phone call.

He is a brilliant scientist, but a little too free with his thoughts and his talk. He has said things, made jokes, even about Stalin!, that a more circumspect academic would have avoided. His thoughts, well…he knows what was done to the kulaks, he knows the vast, murderous injustices of the Great Terror of 1937, he doesn’t believe in those sham trials of the old Bolsheviks…NO! But for the most part, he’s been careful, and there’s his work to keep him busy during the war.

His makes a breakthrough in his study of the properties of the atom. People are ecstatic, they hail him as a great successor to the quantum pioneers! But there is that matter of nationality…Rumors grow. Some people make criticisms of his work – too Idealistic, not properly Leninist/Marxist/Materialistic. Influenced by foreign elements. And his stated belief that physics knows no party? How can a true communist say such a thing?

He is denounced at a meeting that he refuses to attend. He will loose his position. He grows depressed as he sits at home, waiting for the knock on the door of the men who will take him away in a Black Maria to the Lubyanka, the interrogration hell of the secret police organs. After all, the former husband of his sister-in-law , a fanatical Bolshevik from the early revolution was just hauled in. Hadn’t Trotsky, long ago, praised an article he had written? He philosophizes, contemplates love – he wants them to come for him so it will at least be over!

Ah, but Grossman has other things up his sleeve as he dissects and portrays the ways the State can crush all life out of a man, and not just by killing him.

Victor gets a call from Stalin. Just a brief hello. “Your work is on a very interesting topic. I hope you have the resources you need.” The world has turned completely. From being about to topple into the abyss of the Gulag, Victor is now a privileged genius to be pampered, feted, trusted, and consulted. Why? The State has realized the importance of nuclear physics for its own ends – nothing to do with pure research. Russian scientists and policy makers are aware of the possibility of a nuclear bomb. They have their plans.

Victor need tell no one. Everyone knows of his call soon enough. They smile now, instead of looking away. They hug him, congratulate him, when before they denounced him. But there’s more…

Victor starts to get used to his new life, his freedom to work, the fast cars taking him to important meetings where everyone works cooperatively. The respect of his peers and superiors, not to mention his subordinates. Yes, he still knows what went on with the Ukraine famine, the forced collectivization, the disasterous fiasco of Stalin’s stupor when the Nazi’s invaded. He knows all that, but he is proud, elevated, to have been singled out by the great leader. He doesn’t think about those things so much…

All because he heard his master’s voice…


One, two, three, four, can we kill some thousands more…

March 23, 2005


…five, six, seven eight, Die, you counter-revolutionary scum of the Zinoviev-Trotsky Left-Right Center conspiracy!!!!

Yezhov, Stalin’s executioner in the great purges, strangles, like Hercules in his crib, the snakes of anti-bolshevik agitation.

From The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore:

The principle of ordering murder like industrial quotas in the Five-Year Plan was …natural…The regions were to receive quotas for two categories: Category One – to be shot. Category Two – to be deported.

Murder by the numbers – many regions exceeded their quotas! Some ideas are so good, they get around, so we have Hitler remarking to his cronies, nervous about his proposed ‘final solution’ to the existence of the Jews, “Who remembers the Armenian genocide?” These guys studied history! And Stalin, after Hitler slaughters his enemies to take control of the Nazi party in the Night of the Long Knives remarks,

“Did you hear what happened in Germany? Some fellow that Hitler! Splendid! That’s a deed of some skill!”

Who says these monsters didn’t study their craft and take pride in their work? So, I wonder, did Hitler watch Stalin, and learn from him about industrialized murder? His version was more focused, but it had different aims, I guess.


Goldstein Updated

December 21, 2004

The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. Goods must be produced, but they need not be distributed.

The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism
Emmanuel Goldstein

Quoted in 1984, by George Orwell

Goods are now distributed, to some of us in the world, and the wheels keep turning. . .

[Note:  6/21/11 - I recalled this old post of mine in reading this very good summary of critical views of consumer culture.]


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