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The Great Decentralization, Part II
Tolstoy's theory of history, Heraclitus' opposing forces and Napoleon's dinghy...
Joel Bowman, appraising the situation from Buenos Aires, Argentina...
Welcome to another Sunday Session, dear reader... that time of the week when we step away from the Monday-Friday war of attrition and take a moment to contemplate the bigger picture, such as we can... all with the animating assistance of a glass of two of high-altitude Malbec...
When we left you this time last week, we were ruminating over a theory of cycles, large and small. This is not a novel musing. In fact, greater thinkers have been puzzling over the subject for millennia, at least as far back as the ancient Greeks.
It was that clever ol’ Ephesian, Heraclitus, who believed in the universal concept of enantiodromia (later taken up by Nietzsche and Jung) – the idea that everything is at all times in the process of becoming its opposite; hot things cool, wet things dry, etc. One might consider this with regards to centralization vs. decentralization, top down control by the few vs. bottom up “spontaneous order” of the many, growth vs. value, life giving way to death...
The pendulum swings from one extreme to another, the emergent membrane between the two akin to that undefinable moment where one thing morphs into the other, when an edgy band becomes mainstream, when the politics of liberation becomes the politics of oppression, or when a young man looks in the mirror one day and sees an old man staring back at him.
In political terms, we think of peace giving way to war... then, once the parched earth is soaked in the blood of young men, yielding to peace once again.
“Great armies rise,” as Bill observed during the week, “and then – under the weight of their own booty, bureaucracy and brass – they fall.”
Today we continue our series on the nature of cycles with a look at how we view history itself. Please enjoy...
The Great Decentralization, Part II
By Joel Bowman
“History would be a wonderful thing – if it were only true.”
~ Leo Tolstoy
In some ways, all history is fiction.
We don't mean to suggest that the past did not happen (how could we know?)... only that the retelling of it is, necessarily, flawed. We're interested in this point because we're trying to reckon out a theory about cycles, both great and small, and how they shape the world around us over time.
Dear readers will recall from our last musing a pithy, inexhaustive list of historical undulations... from the minute, barely perceptible news and fashion cycles... through to the slightly longer election and stock market cycles... to the longer still natural resource and bond market super-cycles...
And, standing back from our cracked lens a little further, the vast rhythms showing the centralization and decentralization of political power over the ages.
To put these cycles in some kind of context, we first need to take a quick look at history itself... and how we've come to understand it.
The primary problem with history, it seems to us, is the storyteller. Humans recount events selectively. Which is to say, at least with regard to objective reality, poorly. We do so with an eye - whether consciously or not - to our own personal biases.
Politics... love... family... money... religion... our own puny egos, yearning for something more; many and varied are the compromising, corrupting influences on our ability to recall the past. And that's just our day-to-day recollections.
Whether trawling through primary sources or scouring dusty, hand-me-down secondary documents, most historians come to "misimagine" history. At least, that's how Leo Tolstoy saw it. The Russian-born writer set out to explain his thinking in the second epilogue to his momentous work War and Peace, itself an impressionistic, largely fictionalized retelling of the Napoleonic Wars.
Instead of grappling with the nature of cycles within our immediate focus, Tolstoy complained, academics tend instead to ascribe meaning where there is none, to conflate cause and effect and to generally make a mess of things. Historians give credit where it is not due, he argued, endowing certain actors - Napoleon, for example - with near Godlike powers to impact the course of history.
This is hardly surprising. Humans are, after all, painfully self-aware creatures; creatures that have fashioned many gods in their own image. It should be little wonder then that we would, looking back over our own sordid affair, imbue our kin with history-altering omnipotence... to deify, glorify and vilify our ancestors... and, by extension, ourselves.
Tolstoy, a self-described "spiritual anarchist," explained the arc of history as similar to the course of a giant ship, stretching out across an enormous ocean of time. Whereas most historians favored placing human actors – again we'll take Napoleon as our example – in the mighty tugboat up front, pulling the hulking ship through the swells, Tolstoy had the Little Corsican in the lifeboat behind, tossed about by forces both beyond his control and indifferent to his rapidly worsening circumstances.
Replacing the ship with the Grande Armée itself, the genius of Tolstoy's observation starts to take shape. When Napoleon first crossed the Niémen on his eastward march, he did so with 422,000 troops under his command. By the time he returned, lurching homeward from the opposite direction, his number had dwindled to barely 12,000...
Everything that could go wrong, seemed to do just that. But how?
Tolstoy understood that no army this size could possibly fall under the direction of one man. Even if every last troop wanted to obey his general's orders (doubtful, given the practice of "levée en masse" – mass conscription – popular at the time), the sheer logistical undertaking of command from on high rendered uniform obedience next to impossible.
The problem with top-down organization, Tolstoy realized, was not only behavioral... but also informational.
Let us imagine for a moment that Napoleon has issued a directive for his cavalry to move into a position he considered, for whatever reason, advantageous. (This is a wildly oversimplified order, a fiction conscripted in service of a point that should soon become obvious.)
At first blush, this might appear a reasonably basic request, especially given Napoleon's famed brilliance for military strategy and the Grande Armeé's (shall we posit?) unwavering discipline and dedication to its fearless leader.
Alas, even this small order proves to be no easy task. To begin with, the cavalry is composed of both heavy and light divisions. In turn, each division may be further split into three subunits - the Carabiniers-à-Cheval (Horse Carabiniers), Dragoons (Mounted Infantry) and Cuirassiers in the former and the Hussars (Hussards), Chasseurs-à-Cheval (Mounted Hunters) and Lanciers (Lancers) in the latter.
That's a lot of moving parts, both human and equine, allowing plenty of room for error. Moreover, each of these divisions consists of numerous individual regiments... often made up of soldiers from different national and cultural backgrounds, including those from conquered lands who don't always share a common language. The Chasseurs-à-Cheval, for example, had 32 different regiments in 1811, six of which were composed of non-French-speaking Belgians, Swiss, Italians and Germans.
Further complicating matters, each has its own chain of command... internal squabbles... politicking... alliances and petty jealousies.
Dispatches, such as our comically rudimentary "Cavalry proceed from A to B" example, were conveyed via horseback, usually by one of the brave Hussars. Provided our young individual is not wounded or captured en route... assuming he does not lose his nerve along the way... supposing his message is not in some other way compromised or corrupted... allowing that the intended recipient is still in one piece when he arrives... imagining a million other possible – perhaps even probable? – outcomes do not eventuate, the young fellow might be able to deliver his message...
Just in time for the spontaneous order of events already in motion to have materially changed... along with his capricious general's all-too-human frame of mind...
If Napoleon, arguably one of history's greatest generals, cannot even get a timely message to his own front line... what then do we make of his supposedly pivotal role in the wars that bear his name?
And yet, believing their research accurate, their knowledge beyond doubt or question and their understanding of events long since transpired unassailable, historians assign lynchpin importance to the directives of one mere mortal or another.
A supposition stacked on an assumption built on a guess tied up in an imaginary fantasy... thus is history, as we "know" it, authored.
(The Grande Armeé also made use of homing pigeons and observation balloons. The reader is invited to imagine the manifold and unknowable variables that must have arisen using such communication technologies...)
Suffice to say, society is complex. Information – both its dissemination and reception – is often nonlinear. Perfect knowledge, and therefore central planning, is untenable.
Why is it important to understand these points? And what does it have to do with the theory at hand?
For one thing, it helps disabuse us of the misapprehension that any one man or woman or governing committee is truly capable of directing the grand cycles of history. It relieves us of the strange but common urge to over-assign historical agency to an Obama or a Trump or a Biden or, worse still, some mysterious man behind the curtain, pulling the levers and pushing the buttons.
For another, it hints at the flailing impotence of top-down command systems...
And critically, it dovetails neatly with a point we'll revisit later in this little series: that of distributed systems and their indispensable role in the Great Decentralization.
More, next week...
And now for some more Fatal Conceits...
Last week we also underscored the turning of another tide... that of the money supply, as measured by M2. That’s the Fed's estimate of the total money supply, including all of the cash people have on hand plus all of the money deposited in checking accounts, savings accounts, and other short-term saving vehicles such as certificates of deposit.
When the tide goes out, as Warren Buffett likes to say, you get to see who’s been swimming naked.
“In the meantime,” we joked, “keep a pair of shorts handy!”
Edwin Dorsey is a man who knows all about the importance of shorts. He writes the popular Bear Cave newsletter here on Substack, which provides analysis, commentary, and curated links on the short world.
We caught up with Edwin on the Fatal Conceits Podcast to talk about corporate misconduct, how fraud in the crypto world could impact the traditional banking system and what he’s looking at for 2023 and beyond.
You can watch the whole thing on our YouTube channel, right here...
Make sure to sign up for our channel, too, so you never miss another episode of our growing podcast. Here’s a link that’ll ensure you stay up to date.
And that will do us for another week. Markets are closed on Monday in observance of Martin Luther King Day. We’re passing the long weekend out in the campo with friends, enjoying one of Argentina’s great gifts to the world... the blessed asado.
As always, feel free to dive into the comments section below with your thoughts and insights, and don’t forget to like and share our modest missives.
Whatever you’re up to this long weekend, we hope you’re spending it in good company and great spirits.
Until next time...