Your Stupid Questions Have No Answers: Martin van Creveld vs. the Chimera of Equality

April 27, 2015

By Ann Sterzinger

“I’m not optimistic enough to be a socialist or a libertarian, but I do have fantasies about the government and big business killing each other in a knife fight.” —Me

“Looking back, it appears that all the participants in the debate were wrong.” —Martin van Creveld


Ah, the passion, the guilt, the fake visceral fear of an ideological FITE! on the Internet. Everyone picks a team, the red or the blue—it reminds me of Roman chariot racing, except the drivers are all crawling cowards—and pumps themselves up with rationalizations for the full slate of their comrades’ true beliefs.

But the reason they’re so worked up is because both are laboring from the same melodramatic assumption: that all problems have a solution, that all questions have an answer, and that the right answer will save us.

Why, in the name of all the gods, do even the most righteous of the self-appointed “edgies” glibly accept this glittering axiom? Some of you swallow it so deep you feel soul-justified in sending death threats to the infidels. You are keeping us from the right answer! Heaven beckons, it’s only YOUR stupid team that’s standing in our way!

What an absurd assumption. Why must there be a morally decent way to order a society of creatures who evolved through nature red in tooth and claw? Liberal blue-teamers who mock those who believe in intelligent design will argue for their answers with all the certainty of faith in a world that must somehow make sense. And libertarian atheists do just the same.

“There is an answer! There must be sense and meaning! And once I find an ideology that fits my feels I will fight myself into a foaming caricature!”

I know a lot of smart cookies, people far better informed and more clever than I, on both teams, who power their big forebrains and their yaps all day long on the hot steam of this assumption.

But bear in mind: some very intelligent people will also persist in believing their lovers still love them back, years after love has died.

That big brain cannot kill your pesky emotions, cannot leaven your leaden desires; the Buddha’s sneer makes you want to throat-punch him, but he certainly has a point. Oh, how I would love to heal the world with you team players. I would also love to be Zeus. The gods, unfortunately, seem to be more interested in rape than in justice.

Which is why intimidating scholar Martin van Creveld’s fantastic new monograph on the history of equality will probably be ignobly ignored.

The idiot Twitter armies will keep pumping out their miasma of fightin’ words, while the voice of research, as it ever has been, goes unheard, at least by the loudest of the webnoscenti. But I’m putting my two cents in for van Creveld, and fuck you morons.

Equality: The Impossible Quest is—by the by—one of a spate of solid but genuinely daring recent releases from Castalia House, a small press led by Vox Day.

If you haven’t spent all your money on my publisher, Nine-Banded Books, do yourself a favor and give Castalia House a look.

Day is, at the moment, my favorite fantasy novelist, despite the gulf between his version of theology—from reading his blog he seems pretty sure that in this reality there’s a single, just God up there—and mine, if you can call mine such.

Or likely my enjoyment grows from that gulf. Yeah, I know, you’ve blocked everybody you disagree with from your Facebubble, and the wrong cat meme triggers your cis-clawed stress syndrome. You poor, chicken-shit things; in fearing you might become what you detest, have you forgotten what a pleasure it is to escape the cage of your own brainham once in a while? Stretch your legs, fella!

(Cough.) Anyhow, Day’s work, both on his own writing and in co-curating Castalia House, is a beacon in the dull word blizzard. (I’ve written about Riding the Red Horse, a unique collection of military essays and military science fiction that Day and Kratman put out in December, but I can’t keep up. They’re killin’ it.)

And van Creveld’s Equality is one of Castalia’s most absorbing releases, if you’re interested in history anyway—past history, not the historical destiny of your marching-drum ideology—the sort of history that’s not only full of holes where the victors and the monks wrote over chunks of the evidence, but the sort of history that, as far as we can tell, indeed has been repeating itself rather drearily.

As van Creveld says in his preface, the histories of our other two unattainable ideals, liberty and justice, have been written before—or, rather, attempted; there’s too much to read on all three of these subjects for one guy to do it at a go. But van Creveld does his best to describe all our tragic, failed attempts at equality.

When we’ve bothered to make an attempt, that is.

Through most of human history, and apparently prehistory as well (the noble savage reverently collects his chief’s toenail clippings as though they were a rock star’s guitar picks), no one has bothered trying to upset the hierarchy because, well, we’re animals. And we often prefer not to fight with stronger animals. Peace is, however unrealistic, a more realistic goal than equality.

Attempting to convey what we know of the Greeks during Iliad times (a few hundred years before Athens’ fabled democracy), van Creveld claims: 

An orderly life was only made possible by the fact that some had precedence over, and greater rights than, others.

He quotes our main, admittedly fictional spyhole, the works of Homer:

In the Iliad, Odysseus is shown beating Thersites, a man with no lineage … for daring to speak up in the assembly. The assembly itself roared its approval; never mind that there was much truth in what Thersites, an eloquent if exceptionally ugly man, had to say.

When was the last time you led a strike at work because your boss mistreated a coworker, or kept you late with no overtime? It’s easier to grumble and cash your paycheck and, most of the time, it’s also more profitable for you in the long term. Someday, if you don’t die of a heart attack, you can sit back on that 401K, like an old Roman soldier finally claiming his piece of farmland.

I admit, I tend to conflate equality with justice—not because I wish for equal outcomes, but because I resent unequal starting lines. By which I mean not IQ or character, but private schools and cronyism. Gods damn it, we should all start out in the same Skinner box! I’m trying to think of something more infuriating than watching one’s inferiors in merit waddling high overhead along the fast track of nepotism, but my brain keeps making this popping noise.

But unfair starting lines are the norm throughout history, and people will fight to keep them unfair—even the people they’re unfair to. It’s too easy to dress things up in ritual and social norms and oooh, don’t say bad stuff. Van Creveld even hints that the hereditary winners aren’t wronging anyone consciously—that these behavior patterns have been used to keep the peace as long as the mammalian brain has been evolving. In fact, the more primitive the society, the more inequality is based on merit. Dogs and shepherds don’t hoard, so they occasionally get the chance to spar for dominance. But as soon as wealth can be piled up, you can pass it on to your retarded, lazy son, who can pay retainers to maintain his unearned position.

 Do you feel like you didn’t get a decent chance in life? Tell it to a clever medieval serf. Hell, tell it to the finest of the sans-culottes who blackened their souls in the name of the French Revolution, only to find out too late that it was all for the benefit of the bourgeoisie. Even during times of great and heady theoretical equality, the practical reality is that fate can be weighted down or buoyed up by the social position of one’s forebears—regression to the IQ mean be damned.

 Van Crevald takes, as a dizzyingly paradoxical example, the reign of the Roman emperors, who styled themselves “princeps,” the first among equals. When Julius Caesar arrogated power from the Roman Republic’s storied Senate, he ironically drew much of his backing from his image as a “man of the people.”

 Despite all the democratic cozies we Americans attach to the word “republic,” the traditional Roman republican government was—like most attempts at evading the more primitive power of kings and chiefdoms—the plaything of the upper classes. Although members of the  senatorial classes were more or less each other’s equals at birth, able to move up through the ranks according to their merit, the larger class structure was pretty much set in stone. You could buy your way out of slavery, but even the common freeman, though he got to vote in the assembly for certain offices, might as well have stayed at home and played tesserae.

 When the emperor set himself apart as one man towering above the Senate, he made the rest of society below him more equal: “The social pyramid had changed. In theory, it reached the point where, instead of tapering towards the top, it consisted of a mighty pillar on which … stood a single man. All around him stretched a social terrain that was increasingly flat.”

But this was theory, rhetoric, and only tenuously linked to reality. After some initial excitement, and aside from military opportunities or the social climbing of the very smart and lucky, life for the average Roman loser went unchanged and unchangeable. Van Creveld puts it more eloquently: “Countless others owned nothing, worked the fields like so many beasts of burden, and died almost as if they had never existed.” 

Van Creveld also dwells on one of my all-time favorite tear-jerkers: the tragic failure of the classical fifth-century democracy at Athens. This was history’s most famous attempt at “one man, one vote on every issue,” and the resulting polis served as the cradle of the greatest explosion of civilized thought and art in our history. The glory lasted all of about a generation and a half, during which time the Athenian mob destroyed themselves by repeatedly voting to attack their neighbors at Sparta.

The Spartan attempt at equality, by the way, is more thoroughly given its due by van Creveld than I’ve seen in any other historical text. He also includes fresh perspectives on the interesting mishmash that was feudalism (a derogatory name invented by snooty post-feudalists); Locke vs. Rousseau vs. Montesquieu; the fitful, failed, and often bloody attempts of Hellenic city-states to achieve equality after Alexander; the ironically “vicious inequalities” of communism; the ever-miserable war of the sexes; and the medieval revolt of the French jacquerie. The book is as rich in historical detail and perspective as it is thick with bitter disappointment.

Over and over again, van Creveld is forced toward the same conclusion: there are hardly ever two individuals who are equal, much less entire social classes. And as lovely as it may be to enjoy citizenship (if you can get it) in a relatively egalitarian city-state, it’s only a matter of time before your polis gets swallowed up by the greater driving power—a power which may actually be the result of greater inequality and therefore organization—of a nearby empire. Take, for instance, the way the squabbling Greek city-states were swallowed by the burgeoning Macedonians’ power-lust. Alexander the Great actually managed to co-opt the Greek cultural prestige while stripping the Greeks of their political sovereignty and moving on to bulldoze the Middle East.

Oh, and capitalism never helped much. It may have used the traders and urban islands—which, clinging to the margins of feudalism, added a dash of meritocracy to the stupid-son mix—to get its momentum going. But then, says van Creveld, “The shift towards capitalism and absolutism did not mean that inequality grew less pronounced. On the contrary, the growing power of the modern state, which in many ways was based on a firm partnership between the kings and their nobilities, caused it to be accentuated even more.”

Sorry, Stefan Molyneux. Your libertarian paradise on earth would be great if it could ever exist without a state clinging to it like a giant drooling parasite. Kinda like Marx’s paradise, actually.

“It is true that the early modern state was based less on fealty and the distribution of land and more on money and service,” van Creveld specifies. Yet, alas: “[P]rivilege, much of it hereditary, played no less a role in 1776 AD than it had in 476 BC.”

“But America!” you cry.

Sorry again: Although Americans started out with a clean slate (well, if you ignore slaves and indentured servants) and no feudal history, “already in 1773 socio-economic gaps among the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies were extremely wide … the top quintile held 95 percent of wealth, whereas the next four only owned 5 percent.” And over the following centuries the needle barely budged: “In 2008 the top quintile owned 89 percent of the country’s wealth. The other four made do with 11 percent. The Constitution itself can be interpreted, and often has been interpreted, as a document deliberately designed to enable the rich to retain their property while keeping the poor firmly in their place.”

For every Bill Gates we have nine Paris Hiltons. Van Creveld’s descriptions of the loopholes in the feudal system almost make the medieval economy—with its church, jongleur, gargoyle-carving, military, and trade options—sound like more fun. (But let me go back and read about Agincourt again lest I get too optimistic about that military option. War is always a deadly gamble. And oh yeah, bubonic plague.)

And yet it “speaks volumes in favor of the system that the vast majority of people would not exchange their U.S. citizenship for any other,” van Creveld says. Even for those bottom four quintiles, it seems the very desire for equality is trumped by even relative gains in liberty. We would choose to be free to dispose of our hovels as we like rather than getting a room in the palace next door at the expense of our individualism. (Unfortunately, extreme economic inequality can result in an imbalance in liberty as well, which may involve armed representatives of the state kicking down your hovel door at inconvenient intervals.)

And now that we’re moving toward a one-world economy, it often seems that more equality in one spot just makes extra inequality pop up in another: a middle class arises in China as it’s destroyed in America. Is “equality” a zero-sum game, or something like it? My neoliberal friends reassure me that it will all balance out in the end, and everyone on the globalized globe will reap the fruits of the etc., etc., etc., but I remain skeptical. Perhaps the Chinese will enjoy a middle-class golden age similar to the American 1950s; or perhaps they’ll continue to be ass-reamed by the same global hyper-plutocracy as the rest of us. Either way, it doesn’t do jack for Motown. Economics isn’t my forte, but history says we’re more evil chimpanzee than hippie bonobo. We are not a happy animal.

But as a philosophical animal, we don’t like to leave it at that. So: What does an impossible equality look like to you?

Do you want to shoot for equal outcomes, enforced perhaps through affirmative action—remember, these policies are enforced by the state, whose agents are more equal than you—or victory based on merit rather than parentage? Perhaps a meritocracy could be encouraged by social pressure and a gentleman’s agreement; we could stop turning a benevolent eye on nepotism and, for the love of all the gods, quit celebrating coddled pissbags with celebrity parents as “strong women.”

Do a little research, and equal outcome as a hopeless goal looks slightly the sillier, even if merit itself is unfairly distributed; as my dad used to intone whenever I complained: “Life’s not fair.” He made me turn red in the face when he said it, but he was right.