Pluralistic: Underground Empire; The Lost Cause prologue part IV (10 Oct 2023)

Today's links

The cover of the Macmillan edition of Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman's 'Underground Empire.'

Underground Empire (permalink)

At the end of Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman's new book Underground Empire, they cite the work of John Lewis Gaddis, "preeminent historian of the Cold War," who dubbed that perilous period "The Long Peace":

Despite several harrowing near-misses, neither of the two hair-trigger nuclear-tipped arsenals were ever loosed. When the Cold War ended, the world breathed a sigh of relief and set about refashioning itself, braiding together economic and social interdependencies that were supposed to make future war unthinkable. Nations that depend on one another couldn't afford to go to war, because they couldn't hurt the other without hurting themselves.

The standard account of the Cold War's "Long Peace" is that the game theorists who invented Mutually Assured Destruction set up a game where "the only way to win was not to play" (to quote the Matthew Broderick documentary War Games). The interdependency strategy of the post-Cold War, neoliberal, "flat" world was built on the same fundamentals: make war more costly than peace, victory worse than the status quo, and war would be over – if we wanted it.

But Gaddis has a different idea. Any effect Mutually Assured Destruction had on keeping fingers from pushing the buttons was downstream of a much more important factor: independence. For the most part, the US and the USSR had nonintersecting spheres of influence. Each of these spheres was self-sufficient. That meant that they didn't compete with one another for the use of the same resource or territory, and neither could put the other in check by seizing some asset they both relied on. The exceptions to this – proxy wars in Latin America and Southeast Asia – were the disastrous exceptions that proved the rule.

But the past forty years rejected this theory. From Thomas Friedman's "World Is Flat" to Fukuyama's "End of History," the modern road to peace is paved with networks whose nodes can be found in every country. These networks – shipping routes, money-clearing systems, supply chains, the internet itself – weave together nearly every nation on Earth into a single web of interdependencies that make war impossible.

War, you may have noticed, has become very, very possible. Even countries with their own McDonald's franchises are willing to take up arms against one another.

That's where Farrell and Newman's book comes in. The two political scientists tell the story of how these global networks were built through accidents of history, mostly by American corporations and/or the American state. The web was built by accident, but the spider at its center was always the USA.

At various junctures since the Cold War, American presidents, spies and military leaders have noticed this web and tugged at it. A tariff here, a sanction there, then an embargo. The NSA turns the internet into a surveillance grid and a weapon of war. The SWIFT system is turned into a way to project American political goals around the world – first by blocking transactions for things the US government disfavors, then to cut off access for people who do business with people who do things that the US wants stopped.

Networks tend to centralization, to hubs. These central points are efficient, but (as we learned during the covid lockdown) brittle. One factory fails and an entire category of goods can no longer be made – anywhere. When it comes to global resiliency, these bottlenecks are are a bug; but when it comes to US foreign policy, these chokepoints are a feature.

Farrell and Newman skillfully weave a tale of individuals, powers, circumstances and forces, showing how the rise and rise of world-is-flat rah-rah globalism created a series of irresistable opportunities for "weaponized interdependence." Some players of the game wield these weapons like a scalpel; others (like Trump) use them like a club.

This is a chronicle of the dawning realization – among US power-players and their foreign adversaries, particularly in China – that the US lured its trading partners into entrusting it with financial clearing, IP enforcement, fiber landings, and other chokepoints, on the grounds that American wouldn't risk the wealth these systems generated by turning them into engines of coercion.

But then, of course, that's exactly what America did, from the War on Terror to economic sanctions on Iran, from seizing Argentinian reserves to freezing Russia's cash. Sometimes, the US did this for reasons that I sympathize with, other times, for reasons I am aghast at. But they did it, and did it, and did it.

America's adversaries (and frenemies, like the EU) have tried to build alternative "underground empires" to offset the risk of having their interdependencies weaponized (or to escape from an ongoing situation). But therein lies a conundrum: world-is-flat-ism has ended the age of independence. Countries really do need each other – for energy, materials, and finished goods. Independence is a long way off.

To create new interdependency networks, it's not enough for countries to agree that they don't trust America as neutral maintainer of their strategic chokepoints. They also have to agree to trust one of their own to operate those chokepoints. Lots of countries have come to mistrust US dollar-clearing and the SWIFT system – but few are willing to allow, say, China to run an alternative system that carries out settlements in Renminbi. The EU might be able to suck in some "friendly" countries for a Euro-clearing system, but would China trust them? How about Iran?

Farrell and Newman make a good case that the US's position at the center of the web is a historical accident, and possibly a one-off, contingent on the ascendant post-Cold War ideology that said that markets and the interdependencies they create would neutralize the threat of handing a rival nation that much power.

Which leaves us in a world of interdependency in conflict. If Gaddis is right and the Long Peace was the result of independence, then this bodes very ill. The only thing worse than a world where no one can depend on anyone is a world where we must depend on entities that are hostile to us, and vice-versa. That way lies a widening gyre of conflict that felt eerily palpable as world events unfolded while I read this excellent, incisive book.

Political science, done right, has the power to reframe your whole understanding of events around you. Farrell and Newman set out a compelling thesis, defend it well, and tell a fascinating tale. And when they finish, they leave you with a way to make sense of things that seem senseless and terrible. This may not make those things less terrible, but at least they're comprehensible.

A mockup of the hardcover for the Tor books edition of The Lost Cause.

The Lost Cause prologue part IV (permalink)

My next novel is The Lost Cause, a rollicking solarpunk adventure about defending the Green New Deal from seagoing anarcho-capitalist wreckers and white nationalist militias; Bill McKibben called it "a chronicle of mutual aid that is politically perceptive, scientifically sound, and extraordinarily hopeful":

The book comes out on Nov 14 from Tor Books and Head of Zeus, and I'm running a Kickstarter campaign to pre-sell the ebook, hardcover and (especially) the audiobook (Amazon refuses to carry my audiobooks, so this is the only way to get them into readers' hands); you can back it now:

To whet your appetite, I'm serializing the book's prologue, which really kicks things off:

Here's part one:

And part two:

And part three:

And now, part four:

* * *

A couple of my friends were working on an AP science project—­they’d made an enzyme they thought would break down polyethylene at room temperature—­and I’d promised that I’d help them after school. Walking home past Verdugo Park, I ran into some more friends sitting in the grass and chatting, so I sat with them, watching the kids on the playground and the dog-­walkers and the swordfighting class boffing each other with foam swords, and hours slipped by.

By the time I headed home, the sun was low and the day was finally starting to cool off. I remembered that I’d forgotten to pull the blinds before going out and imagined how hot and stuffy the house would be. Maybe Gramps had gotten back early enough to lower them. Otherwise, I could lie in the backyard in my hammock and do some reading while I waited for the house to air out some.

The blinds were drawn. I went in through the back door and dropped my bag on my bed, stripped off my tee and pulled on a fresh one, and headed to the kitchen for a snack.


He didn’t answer, which I figured meant that he was playing his podcasts through his hearing aids. They were supposed to be smart enough to pass speech through, but they struggled with people shouting from other rooms. I grabbed some more iced coffee and went into the living room.

Gramps was sitting in his spot on the old sofa, staring out the window. “Gramps?”

He didn’t look around. I moved into his line of sight and then drew back. His face was set in a mask of rage I hadn’t seen since I was a kid and came to live with him, the face he’d make before he’d hit me. He hadn’t hit me in a long time, not since he’d raised a bruise where one of my middle-­school teachers could see it and she’d called CPS on him. They’d made him do a month of mandatory anger-­management classes.

“Gramps?” I reached for him but didn’t touch him. He was quivering.

He fixed his gaze on me. Glared.

“What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

He stood up. He was shorter than me now, and couldn’t quite straighten up, but it still felt like he was towering over me. “Kid, you know exactly what’s wrong, and don’t pretend otherwise.”


“Gramps, he could have killed me. I saved his life. I know he’s a friend of yours—­”

“Shut the fuck up about that, kid. Don’t talk about my friends. Don’t talk about who I know and who I don’t know. You know what that dumb asshole Mike Kennedy is up against? Forty years. Seven felony counts. Most of ’em to do with you: kidnapping, assault, attempted murder. Death penalty shit. Don’t think that the DA isn’t going to use that, the feds have got a hard-­on for anyone who doesn’t toe the line on their Green New Deal bullshit. They’re gonna tell him that either he testifies against his friends or he’ll get a lethal injection. Kennedy’s no genius, either. He’ll cave. You just watch.”


“Shut up, I said. You think saying my name on your viral video is gonna help anything. Shit, kid, why didn’t you just turn me in yourself?”

“Come on, Gramps. I didn’t plan this, Mike did.” I wanted so badly to leave, but Gramps was between me and the door. “Tell you what, let’s go visit him. They’ll let him have visitors in lockup, right?”

Gramps sagged back down into his chair. “Kennedy’s not in lockup. They let him go an hour ago.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, that sounds good, right?”

He shook his head and gave me a disgusted look. “No, kid, that doesn’t sound good. That sounds like he ratted everyone out already. In which case he’s a fucking dead man.”

I took a deep breath. Gramps was clearly on the brink of losing it altogether and telling him he was being overly dramatic would definitely push him right over the edge. “If that’s true, then maybe you should talk to your other friends, or maybe him—­”

“Just shut up, okay? Don’t talk about shit you don’t and can’t understand. Look, if Kennedy sold out his friends then he’s got what’s coming to him and besides, there isn’t a damned thing in the world I could do to stop it. But what’s more likely is that he didn’t say a word, but they’ve put him on the street so that people get the impression that maybe he did, and now he’s in fear for his life and the only way to save his skin is to run back to the station house and start talking. It wouldn’t be the first time they tried that stunt. And the fact is, it doesn’t matter which one it is because he’s gonna get shut up before he can do that, because everyone understands what’s going on here and what’s at stake. So me calling that sad sack now would just make me the last person who spoke to the victim before he turned up dead.”

“That’s terrible.”

“No, kid, that’s life. What’s terrible is that my own grandson is involved in this ugly stupid mess, and that every dumbass on the internet is trading clips with my name in them, doxing me, associating me with this ridiculous garbage.”

Now I was starting to get mad. “I didn’t do it on purpose, you know. Your friend threatened to kill me. I didn’t tell him to get up on that roof or fill his Super Soaker with hydrochloric acid.”

“Yeah, you didn’t, that’s true.” He picked up a beer from the table next to him, finished the last swallow, set it down. “You didn’t. But you were and you did and now—­” He shook his empty beer. “Ah, shit. Brooks, listen, you know that my friends are okay, but some of their friends . . .”

I knew. I’d sometimes spot Gramps’s friends marching with the Maga Club groups, carrying ugly signs, conspiracies and racism and “demographics are destiny.” Or set up with a table on Magnolia on Food Truck Friday, showing videos about “the great replacement” and “socialist tyranny.”

“I know who you mean.”

“None of ’em ever liked you. They didn’t like your father even before he went to Canada with that woman. When he did, well, that sealed it for ’em. To leave America and go work for the socialists? Kid, it’s a good thing he never tried to come back here, I’ll tell you that much. Far as they’re concerned, the only good thing that rabbit flu did was kill a bunch of foreign commies, agitators, traitors, and climate bed wetters. By which they mean your father and mother. And by extension, that means you. Your sex thing doesn’t help either—­”

My head filled with that buzzing sound I heard whenever Gramps tried to talk to me about sexuality. The fact that I wouldn’t call myself straight made him crazy. The fact that I wouldn’t say “gay” or “bi” or any of those old-­fashioned terms made him absolutely bugfuck. “Queer” was okay with me, or “pan,” but honestly, who the fuck cared? Why would my grandfather need to know which people I wanted to fuck and which people I did fuck? I’d explained this to him calmly and I’d had shouting matches with him about it. My other friends had problems with this stuff, sure, but their parents were able to at least pretend to understand. Gramps was a generation older and not only didn’t he understand, he didn’t want to. “Just pick one, kid,” is what he’d say, and then I’d overhear him saying worse to his friends when they took over the kitchen to play poker or the living room to watch a game.

“Jesus, Gramps”—­that buzzing sound was blood, of course, coursing in my ears as my rage built and built—­“would you just shut up about that bullshit? I don’t care what your asshole friends want. In case you didn’t notice, one of them nearly murdered me last night—­”

Shut. Up.” Loud, in that boss voice he used when he was getting everyone else to listen to him, whether it was on a jobsite or during an argument over cards. “Yeah, one of my friends just about murdered you last night, but he didn’t, did he? You know why? Because of me. Because of who I am in this community. Our name, Palazzo, it goes back a long way in this town. We’re Lockheed originals, thanks to my own dad. That counts for something. You’re safe because you’re my grandson, that’s what I’m trying to explain to you. But it’s not a get-­out-­of-­jail-­free card. You’re not untouchable.”

“Thanks for letting me know.” I hated it when Gramps acted like he was in the Mafia because he and his friends were the kinds of assholes who periodically got drunk or disturbed enough to commit some act of idiotic vandalism.

“Kid—­” he started. I left.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago SF writers on Schwarzenegger

#20yrsago eMusic turns into a steaming pile

#15yrsago WalMart now says they’ll keep the DRM servers on forever

#15yrsago New Zealand’s copyright minister starts screaming when asked whether it’s fair to cut people off from the Internet on the basis of three unsubstantiated accusations of copyright infringement

#15yrsago Kids need to agree to 120+ pages of EULAs in order to watch BluRay Sleeping Beauty

#10yrsago Lauren Beukes and her daughter explain Gaiman’s Fortunately the Milk

#10yrsago EFF’s guide to the NSA’s official malware

#5yrsago Facebook’s new product: every-room cameras for your home

#5yrsago Victory! Google will not bid on $10B Pentagon cloud computing contract

#5yrsago Facebook’s top lobbyist threw Kavanaugh a victory celebration in his home

#1yrago $100 billion later, autonomous vehicles are still a car-wreck

Colophon (permalink)

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