At the crossroads


Thomas Pynchon’s 2006 novel Against the Day is set in a typically fantastic version of the period 1890-1915.

In his pre-release synopsis, Pynchon joked: ‘With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.’

This Gilded Age is also (like our own) an era of intense Great Power rivalry. Each character seems to have his or her own Lewisian counterpart, a spectral double working for the enemy.

This is the case, for example, with the novel’s two geographers, British and German, modelled on the real-world figures H.J. Mackinder and Karl Haushofer:

[A] pair of rival University professors, Renfrew at Cambridge and Werfner at Göttingen, not only eminent in their academic settings but also would-be powers in the greater world.

Years before, in the wake of the Berlin Conference of 1878, their shared interest in the Eastern Question had evolved from simple bickering-at-a-distance by way of professional journals to true mutual loathing, implacable and obsessive, with a swiftness that surprised them both. Soon enough each had come to find himself regarded as a leading specialist, consulted by the Foreign Office and Intelligence Services of his respective country, not to mention others who preferred to remain unnamed. With the years their rivalry had continued to grow well beyond the Balkans, beyond the ever-shifting borders of the Ottoman Empire, to the single vast Eurasian landmass and that ongoing global engagement, with all its English, Russian, Turkish, German, Austrian, Chinese, Japanese – not to mention indigenous – components, styled by Mr. Kipling, in a simpler day, “The Great Game.”

[…Over] their cloistering walls and into the map of the megacosm, the two professors continued to launch their cadres of spellbound familiars and enslaved disciples. Some of these found employment with the Foreign Services, others in international trade or as irregular adventurers assigned temporarily to their nations’ armies and navies – all sworn to loyalties in whose service they were to pass through the greater world like spirit presences, unsensed by all but the adept.

Later one of the protagonists visits Renfrew at Cambridge, allowing the professor to rehearse his/Mackinder’s Heartland Theory. This strategic outlook was distilled by the actual Mackinder into the dictum ‘who rules the World-Island commands the World’.

In Pynchon’s fictional version:

[Renfrew] motioned Lew to a smaller room, where a globe of the Earth hung gleaming, at slightly below eye-level, from a slender steel chain anchored overhead, surrounded by an ether of tobacco smoke, house-dust, ancient paper and book bindings, human breath…. Renfrew took up the orb in both hands like a brandy snifter, and rotated it with deliberation, as if weighing the argument he wished to make. Outside the windows, the luminous rain swept the grounds. “Here then – keeping the North Pole in the middle, imagining for purposes of demonstration the area roundabout to be solid, some unknown element one can not only walk on but even run heavy machinery across – Arctic ice, frozen tundra – you can see that it all makes one great mass, doesn’t it? Eurasia, Africa, America. With Inner Asia at its heart. Control Inner Asia, thefore, and you control the planet.”

“How about that other, well, actually, hemisphere?”

“Oh, this?” He flipped the globe over and gave it a contemptuous tap. “South America? Hardly more than an appendage of North America, is it? Or of the Bank of England, if you like. Australia? Kangaroos, one or two cricketers of some discernible talent, what else?” His small features quivering in the dark afternoon light.

“Werfner, damn him, keen-witted but unheimlich, is obsessed with railway lines, history emerges from geography of course, but for him the primary geography of the planet is the rails, obeying their own necessity, interconnections, places chosen and bypassed, centers and radiations therefrom, grades possible and impossible, how linked by canals, crossed by tunnels and bridges either in place or someday to be, capital made material – and flows of power as well, expressed, for example, in massive troop movements, now and in the futurity…”

The Chums of Chance, meanwhile, are a group of young balloonists. They are employed or contracted by a shady organization that accepts missions from various governments and private detective agencies.

The Chums are commanded to set out for Bukhara, on the Silk Road. Ostensibly in search of Shambhala, the balloonists learn that their true mission has to do with Great-Power rivalry between Britain, Russia, Japan, China and Germany.

The historical reference here is to covert expeditions, across central Asia and into northwest China, made by imperial envoys such as the Tsar’s military-intelligence offiicer Mannerheim (who set off in 1906).

Soon the Chums are visited by a mysterious figure from the future:

“We are here among you as seekers of refuge from our present – your future – a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty – the end of the capitalistic experiment. Once we came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that Earth’s resources are limited, in fact soon to run out, the whole capitalist illusion fell to pieces. Those of us who spoke this truth aloud were denounced as heretics, as enemies of the prevailing economic faith. Like religious Dissenters of an earlier day, we were forced to migrate… We might ask you to accept a commission from us now and then – though, regrettably, with no more detailed explanation than you currently receive from your own Hierarchy.”


“So this is supposed to be like Squanto and the Pilgrims,” Chick reported to the plenary session called hurriedly next morning. “We help them through their first winter, sort of thing.”

“And suppose it isn’t like that,” said Randolph. “Suppose they’re not pilgrims but raiders, and there’s some particular resource here, that they’ve run out of and want to seize from us, and take back with them?”

Confused but unwilling to turn back, the Chums see prophetic visions of the terrible events due to take place, soon, in the grasslands, deserts and tundra of central Eurasia:

“Whatever is to happen,” [the visionary] reported upon his return, “will begin out here, with an engagement of cavalry on a scale no one living has ever seen, and perhaps no one dead either, an inundation of horse, spanning these horizons, their flanks struck an unearthly green, stormlit, relentless, undwindling, arisen boiling from the very substance of desert and steppe. And all that incarnation and slaughter will transpire in silence, all across this great planetary killing-floor, absorbing wind, stell, hooves upon and against earth, massed clamor of horses, cries of men. Millions of souls will arrive and depart. Perhaps news of it will take years to reach anyone who might understand what it meant…”

…”Who are they?”

“German or Austrian, would be likely, though one mustn’t rule out the Standard Oil… Make your way to the surface, get back to England at all cost. They must be told in Whitehall that the balloon is up… Go! find someone in the F.O. intelligence section. It is our only hope!”


Meanwhile, for days, weeks in some places, the battles of the Taklamakan War were raging. The earth trembled. Now and then a subdesertine craft would suddenly break the surface with no warning, damaged mortally, its crew dead or dying… petroleum deposits far underground were attacked, lakes of the stuff would appear overnight and great pillars of fire would ascend to the sky. From Kashgar to Urumchi, the bazaars were full of weapons, breathing units, ship fittings, hardware nobody could identify… which all the Powers had deployed. These now fell into the hands of goat-herders, falconers, shamans, to be taken out into the emptiness, disassembled, studied, converted to uses religious and practical, and eventually to change the history of the World-Island beyond even the unsound projections of those Powers who imagined themselves somehow, at this late date, still competing for it.

Here  with the description of an apocalyptic military engagement in Central Asian Turkestan, as the contending imperial powers nurture and suppress various local ethnic separatists  the book’s reference to contemporary realities is obvious.

China’s northwestern frontier (bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan) is a gateway for locally-owned firms (and a bridgehead for Beijing’s armed forces) to the energy resources of the Caspian basin and southwest Asia.

On the far side of the Central Asian republics, along China’s western flank, sit deepwater oil and gas fields off Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, and the giant Tengiz, Karachaganak and Kashagan fields in Kazakhstan.

Slightly to the south is the greatest prize of all: the vast bounty of the Persian Gulf, along with access to Indian Ocean ports like Karachi.

From the 1990s an increasingly dense supply network of railways, roads and pipelines has been laced across the central Eurasian steppe. As ever, commercial trade routes do double duty as military lines of communication. They are available, if needed, to provide logistic support linking combat units with bases of supply.

Xinjiang itself contains uranium and coal reserves, and its Tarim Basin apparently has non-trivial hydrocarbon deposits.

Since the 1960s Lop Nur in Xinjiang has been the site of a nuclear weapons test range, missile storage facility, production complex and an air base with launch facility.

As discussed on this blog many times before, one key plank of US grand strategy, over the past few decades, has been to establish client governments and military protectorates in parts of the world where large deposits of energy and raw materials are found.

Washington has pursued this agenda through various violent means: ‘preventive’ regime change, humanitarian intervention and so forth.

The US state leadership no longer enjoys the clear-cut strategic primacy granted to it, as in decades past, by the competitive ascendancy of US-owned firms; nor is it able to prevent rivals with strong balance-of-payments positions from gradually gaining international influence through outward flows of investment and cheap loans. Therefore it has been forced to rely on the one dimension in which its supremacy remains unchallenged: military power, in which the international gradient is steep.

But, as well as planting garrisons near the world’s largest oilfields themselves (in southwest Asia, the Caucasus and Caspian basin in Central Asia), Washington has also sought to achieve military control over the energy supply corridors and transit routes that link them to China, Russia, Europe, Japan and India.

This ability to interrupt the flow of oil and gas, and thus to cut off the supply of fuel available to competitive rivals for use in industrial activity and for military purposes, is of the utmost strategic worth.

As Churchill, Hitler and Stalin insisted to their generals (who listened with varying degrees of buy-in and obtuseness) sequestering and controlling energy supplies is decisive during war. The ability to disrupt supplies is also useful during peacetime as a means of gaining leverage during commercial and diplomatic negotiations. (Among other things, it now sustains demand for US Treasury securities and thus underpins the liquidity of the world’s deepest financial markets.)

Since 1945, Washington’s naval pre-eminence has granted it control of the world’s sealanes and made the US state the ultimate guarantor of global maritime trade (and sea lines of communication). If necessary, these shipping channels may be closed and the maritime commerce (including energy supplies) of rivals interdicted.

But the ability to deny its rivals’ land-based transit (and military logistics) has been another matter, one inherently more difficult. Advancing its position there, at the centre of the Eurasian landmass, has been the chief goal of US militarism since the end of the Cold War.

Thus the oft-stated focus from US policy strategists on bringing Poland and Ukraine into NATO. During the 1990s, Zbigniew Brzezinski, RAND’s Stephen Larrabee and Sherman Garnett from the Carnegie Endowment stressed that Ukraine was the ‘keystone in the arch’ of Washington’s Drang nach Osten.

NATO’s eastward expansion would not only create a cordon sanitaire between Germany and Russia, and allow US missiles to be placed up against Russia’s western border. It would also secure Washington’s military-strategic position in the Black Sea (Moscow retains a naval base in Sevastopol). And with this the US ruling elite would completely dominate the Caucasus and energy-rich Caspian basin.

Meanwhile, from the south, Washington has sought strategic control over the Transcaucasus transport corridor for oil and gas products  (which the EU-funded TRACECA styles as ‘the Silk Road of the 21st century’). In a bid to destroy Moscow’s influence over this southern export route, the US State Department has struck security ‘partnerships’ and helped to foment a sequence of ‘revolutions’ in the GUAM countries (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova). The Kremlin has attempted to stall Washington’s advance by encouraging separatism in Moldova (Transnistria), Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Azerbaijan (Karabakh).

Most obviously, the invasion and decade-long military occupation of Afghanistan has created a Central Asian buffer that separates the Persian Gulf from the US’s competitive rivals.

And, over the past decade, Turkey’s status as Washington’s energy broker between the Caspian and Europe has been elevated. This has assumed particular importance lately during Syria’s slow-motion regime change.

The overall result fulfils what Brzezinski in The Grand Chessboard (1997) presented as the basic desiderata of Washington’s Eurasian geostrategy:

To put it in a terminology that hearkens back to the more brutal age of ancient empires, the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.

This means (1) preventing the European ‘vassal’ states from developing any autonomous capacity, outside the NATO security umbrella, for projecting military-strategic power (and similarly for Japan); and (2) obstructing those potential peer competitors that are not integrated into Washington’s set of hub-and-spokes military ‘partnerships’, namely Russia and China, from striking alliances with each other and with energy producers and regional powers such as Iran.

(An identical outlook, from a different wing of Washington’s policymaking elite, was laid out in the Pentagon’s 1992 Defense Planning Guidance. This document decreed that post-Cold War ‘strategy must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor’ and ‘preventing the domination of key regions by a hostile power.)

To help resist this agenda, Moscow and Beijing have formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with Central Asian republics. The two imperial powers have managed to build a few bilateral and regional instances of diplomatic, commercial and military cooperation. But within the ‘strategic partnership’ the conflicting interests of the parties are insurmountable. And even the slightest move towards a regional military-political bloc is enough to induce hysteria in US security-policy circles. In 2010 an alarmist article written by Robert Kaplan for the CFR magazine Foreign Affairs featured the following map. It purported to display the geographic scope of Beijing’s strategic influence.

The tendencies described above  and above all the belligerence of the US state elite  presage another terrible global conflagration between imperial rivals.

I therefore want to conclude this post by returning to the period written about in Pynchon’s long novel.

I wrote an earlier post here regarding the lead-up to the First World War. It described the decades of self-delusion and obliviousness before general war arrived abruptly, like ‘a clap of thunder in the summer sky’. Yet the plot of Against the Day, over the course of 1000 pages, reveals the slow accretion of countless minatory signs, clear evidence pointing to the coming catastrophe. It is not merely in fiction or in retrospect that these clues appear: contemporary observers, properly equipped, were indeed alert to a looming showdown between the contending powers.

What then accounted for the mass confusion and unpreparedness that was revealed when war eventually arrived?

Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the Second International’s Basel Congress. This extraordinary congress was called following the outbreak of hostilities on the Balkan peninsula. The manifesto agreed upon by social-democratic delegates in Basel declared the ‘complete unanimity of the Socialist parties and of the trade unions of all countries in the war against war’:

[Each] section of the international has mobilized the public opinion of its nation against all bellicose desires. Thus there resulted the grandiose cooperation of the workers of all countries which has already contributed a great deal toward saving the threatened peace of the world. The fear of the ruling class of a proletarian revolution as a result of a world war has proved to be an essential guarantee of peace…

The Congress records that the entire Socialist International is unanimous upon these principles of foreign policy. It calls upon the workers of all countries to oppose the power of the international solidarity of the proletariat to capitalist imperialism… Let the governments remember that with the present condition of Europe and the mood of the working class, they cannot unleash a war without danger to themselves… It would be insanity for the governments not to realize that the very idea of the monstrosity of a world war would inevitably call forth the indignation and the revolt of the working class…

The Congress therefore appeals to you, proletarians and Socialists of all countries, to make your voices heard in this decisive hour! Proclaim your will in every form and in all places; raise your protest in the parliaments with all your force; unite in great mass demonstrations; use every means that the organization and the strength of the proletariat place at your disposal! See to it that the governments are constantly kept aware of the vigilance and passionate will for peace on the part of the proletariat!

Mainstream historians have compared this resolution from November 1912 to the social democrats’ spectacular embrace of the national cause in August 1914. In these scholarly examinations, the later treachery is presented as an abrupt reversal of the earlier position. But these events, and the history of subsequent antiwar and ‘pacifist’ movements, hold another great lesson for today:

It is not possible to prevent war by ‘mobilizing the public opinion’ of a nation against the ‘bellicose desires’ of its leaders. Neither the strengthening of trade unions, nor the placement of social-democratic representatives in parliament, nor ‘great mass demonstrations’, not the raising of protests nor loud proclamations of the common people’s desire for peace are adequate. None of these contributes a ‘great deal toward saving the threatened peace of the world’, nor provides an ‘essential guarantee of peace.’ The ruling classes’ fear of ‘the indignation and the revolt of the working class’ will not stay the hand of capitalist imperialism  only the latter’s complete annulment will do.

Though it may be ‘insanity not to realize’ that ‘they cannot unleash a war without danger to themselves’, the governing elite of the various rival states cannot be swayed by pleas for them to see reason, any more than than they can be persuaded by appeals to their better nature.

By allowing the working population of Europe to hope for ‘the possibility of normal progress’, the social-democratic parties and the trade unions misled their class constituency, and gave advance warning of their eventual opportunism.

In 1911 Rosa Luxemburg sought to dispel the mirage of what she called ‘peace utopias’:

[The] friends of peace in bourgeois circles believe that world peace and disarmament can be realised within the frame-work of the present social order, whereas we, who base ourselves on the materialistic conception of history and on scientific socialism, are convinced that militarism can only be abolished from the world with the destruction of the capitalist class state.


To explain this to the masses, ruthlessly to scatter all illusions with regard to attempts made at peace on the part of the bourgeoisie and to declare the proletarian revolution as the first and only step toward world peace – that is the task of the Social Democrats with regard to all disarmament trickeries, whether they are invented in Petersburg, London or Berlin.

In other words, the consolations of parliamentary reformism, activism and ‘protest politics’ (as described in the previous post) are dangerous illusions. They themselves threaten ‘the annihilation of the flowers of all peoples’.


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