The Great Retreat

     What follows will be rather lengthy, I fear. So if you have other obligations that mustn’t be postponed for too long, please see to them before embroiling yourself in this piece. Among other things, it will embed quite a lot of citations from other, better known writers. As I know this displeases some readers, consider yourself forewarned.


     As an opener, have a citation from a great novel of some years ago. I hope the ghost of the late Poul Anderson, one of science fiction’s foremost luminaries, will not be displeased by this snippet:

     “I’m Kyra Davis, space pilot for Fireball,” she blurted, “and I—”
     “Nay, nothing further of your mission,” he interrupted. “The tone was mild but decisive. “That is for the lord Rinndalir.”
     She gathered her wits, studied him a moment, and murmured, “Are you so firmly under his orders? I thought Lunarians were a free-wheeling breed.”
     His answer was free of resentment, almost philosophical: “In some respects that is true, granting countless individual variations and complexities. But we cannot afford anarchism. As a spacer, you know how survival depends on discipline, the maintenance and protection of life support systems, instant cooperation in emergencies.”
     “Oh yes, obviously. Within those parameters, though—in Fireball we generally have our jobs to do.” Kyra paused. She hadn’t ever thought in quite these terms before. Had the chase jolted things she always taken for granted loose in her mind? “To a certain extent, I suppose you could say we are our careers. We’re free to change jobs, teams, whatever, any time there’s a demand for our services elsewhere and we want to go. But we seldom work entirely on our own. In the nature of things, we can’t. Pilots like me are among the few exceptions. It’s different for you. Apart from your survival obligations, isn’t the Lunarian ideal to do everything, and be everything for yourself?”
     And thus the declaration of independence half a century ago. Much more brought it on than a tax revolt. A civilization had grown up here—bewilderingly fast, its evolution driven not only by unearthly conditions but unearthly genes—that was incompatible with any on the mother planet.
     “The attitude serves for much of creativity and many minor enterprises,” Arren replied. “For anything more ambitious, organization is required. Furthermore, questions of personal security, arbitration, justice, the rights of the community, are universal. Let me propose that different cultures find different instrumentalities to cope with them, and that these are viable no longer than they have the allegiance of the people. The typical Earthdweller gives his to his government; the World Federation derives its legitimacy indirectly. You give yours to Fireball Enterprises. I give mine to the lord Rinndalir. Should he perish, I would think who else of his rank pleases me best and would accept me.”

     [From Harvest of Stars]

     Anderson, a fierce proponent of freedom, made several excursions into such questions in his fiction. I’ve cited this one more than once:

     “You wanted to re-establish the centralized state, didn’t you? Did you ever stop to think that maybe feudalism is what suits Man? Some one place to call our own, and belong to, and be part of; a community with traditions and honor; a chance for the individual to make decisions that count; a bulwark for liberty against the central overlords, who’ll always want more and more power; a thousand different ways to live. We’ve always built supercountries, here on Earth, and we’ve always knocked them apart again. I think maybe the whole idea is wrong. And maybe this time we’ll try something better. Why not a world of little states, too well rooted to dissolve in a nation, too small to do much harm—slowly rising above petty jealousies and spite, but keeping their identities—a thousand separate approaches to our problems. Maybe then we can solve a few of them…for ourselves!”

     However debatable the long-term stability of a quasi-feudal political order may be, it’s an inspiring vision…and it just might be the one most relevant to what’s happening to America as we watch.


     Among the great moral insights, this one stands very high:

Right and wrong are independent of governments.

     When a man makes a moral-ethical choice, the State, however conceived, is nowhere to be found. Indeed, the State’s whole purpose is to confuse questions of right and wrong, as if the intervention of a third party of dubious nature could fog such things sufficiently to make black seem white. And indeed, the cases of successful “foggings” are innumerable, despite quite forceful proclamations that those who succumbed to them should have known better.

     Yet we keep creating and submitting to States. We repeatedly pledge our allegiance to someone or something. Sometimes the pledge is formalized, one way or another. Whether it speaks to an overarching principle of social organization, or a need deeply embedded in human nature, is fundamentally irrelevant. It happens.

     But allegiances once pledged can be withdrawn. States, being jealous entities, tend to take such events badly. They consider a pledge of allegiance to be irrevocable. They treat defectors as traitors, and often move against them in the harshest possible ways. What simpler explanation could there be for the Civil War / War Between the States / Late Unpleasantness?

     “Do you know who is behind this militia and resisting martial law? We intend to move to make an example of them quickly. This has gone way beyond criminal, it’s treasonous. Surely most of the people on the station there are still loyal to their country!”
     “Nobody ever told us there was any martial law to resist. But loyalty and to whom we owe it is what the town meeting was all about – whether to stay in the USNA or leave. Folks are discussing what they should do with each other all over the station. We agreed we’ll all have a vote later today, to decide if we want to be our own nation. The way all my friends and neighbors were talking last night, the vote doesn’t look very good for you. I expect Jon, the head of security, will be holding a press conference or something later today and making it official. They could surprise me,” Ed admitted, “but I think the most part of them will to go for it.”
     “This is ridiculous,” [President] Hadley told him. “We settled this back in the Civil War. Nobody leaves the Union. Look what happened when they tried.”

     [Mackey Chandler, April]

     People often cite the Civil War when the question of secession is raised. But that conflict only settled which of the two powers in it was the stronger. It had nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of secession from the Union, regardless of what anyone thinks were the “underlying issues:”

     In the 1860’s, Americans fought to abolish slavery once and for all. At least, that’s usually thought of as the cause of the War Between the States; and it was a just cause, except that the problem of freeing the slaves was already well on the way toward a peaceful solution. But the real issue was the matter of states’ rights versus federal domination. Among other things, this involved the tariff question, which had long been a bone of contention between the industrial states and the agricultural states. The latter had for many years been fighting against high tariffs because they violated the principle of no special privileges for anyone.
     The southern states wanted free ports; the federal government insisted on uniform tariffs at all ports – and the election of 1860 meant higher tariffs.
     Northerners fought to preserve the American revolution by preserving the Union. Southerners fought to preserve the revolution by defending the rights of the states.
     During the War Between the States, European troops moved into Mexico – thus proving that the Northerners were right. But the drifting away from the constitutional balance of power which has been going on ever since may yet prove that the Southerners were right.

     [Henry Grady Weaver, The Mainspring of Human Progress]

     States make war to assert what they deem their sovereign prerogatives; individuals take up arms to assert their rights. The gulf between the two is unbridgeable. It’s manifesting all around us today.


     There’s a great and terrible paradox built into every notion of political authority: it is essentially unenforceable. More often than not, people obey the dictates of the State that looms over them for reasons other than the probability, whatever it may be, of detection and punishment. Many people quietly ignore “laws” that appear to conflict with their objectives or their personal ethic, and “get away with it:”

     “You have or have not violated legislative compulsion programs,” stated the Sirian; and that was the most prolonged session of all. Try as he would, Forrester could not seem to get across the idea of a personal ethic—of laws that one did not violate, because they were morally right, and of laws that everyone violated if they possibly could, because they were morally irrelevant.

     In a way, that constitutes a partial withdrawal of allegiance from the State. Even should the great majority of its subject commit such a covert withdrawal of allegiance, the State will stand. States only respond to open challenges to their prerogatives.

     But a time may come – and today is beginning to look like such a time – that a great many subjects of a State will openly withdraw their allegiance, though they may do so for a variety of reasons. Should a sufficient percentage of a State’s subjects openly withdraw their allegiance, that State will fall. In the very nature of things, no State can marshal enough power to enforce its will against a sufficiently large rebellion. How large that rebellion must be to topple the State depends on many factors, but there is no question that a threshold exists.

     But what follows the fall of a State – what should follow such an event – must be contemplated in the light of that seeming proclivity of Man to form and submit to political authorities. The insights of Poul Anderson cited above are applicable.


     It’s time for an observation from another great, pro-freedom writer:

     One female (most were men, but women made up for it in silliness) had a long list she wanted made permanent laws—about private matters. No more plural marriage of any sort. No divorces. No “fornication”—had to look that one up. No drinks stronger than 4% beer. Church services only on Saturdays and all else to stop that day. (Air and temperature and pressure engineering, lady? Phones and capsules?) A long list of drugs to be prohibited and a shorter list dispensed only by licensed physicians. (What is a “licensed physician”? Healer I go to has a sign reading “practical doctor”—makes book on side, which is why I go to him. Look, lady, aren’t any medical schools in Luna!) (Then, I mean.) She even wanted to make gambling illegal. If a Loonie couldn’t roll double or nothing, he would go to a shop that would, even if dice were loaded.
     Thing that got me was not her list of things she hated, since she was obviously crazy as a Cyborg, but fact that always somebody agreed with her prohibitions. Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please. Rules, laws—always for other fellow. A murky part of us, something we had before we came down out of trees, and failed to shuck when we stood up. Because not one of those people said: “Please pass this so that I won’t be able to do something I know I should stop.” Nyet, tovarishchee, was always something they hated to see neighbors doing. Stop them “for their own good”—not because speaker claimed to be harmed by it.

     [Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

     (This is among the reasons that anarchic societies that are geographically well insulated from governmental systems eventually birth States, but that’s a topic for later.)

     When the “sufficient degree of rebellion” is reached and a State falls, the “variety of reasons” for people’s withdrawal of allegiance from the State will persist into what follows. Each separate reason can function as a nucleus of condensation, sufficient to pull a group together around the “need for enforcement.” The pull is especially strong when it’s coupled to geography, or to religious, cultural, or linguistic commonality.

     Thus anarchy gives way to proto-States: satrapies usually centered on an individual seen as strong enough and / or well-respected enough to hold things together in a particular locale. Sometimes the period of anarchy is infinitesimal. Consider that the American Revolution was followed almost instantaneously by the assertion of a federal structure, defined by the Articles of Confederation. Most of the newly freed states ignored the provisions of the Articles. The state governments were uniformly weak, such that they could be ignored in the great majority of cases. Yet there were local figures, whether county magistrates, or town mayors, or great families, around whom the colonists rallied. Though in the usual case they possessed no more enforcement power than you or I, they could keep a tolerable degree of order simply by the respect others felt for them. There was “anarchy” in a technical sense, yet there was order…and freedom.

     Those who believed, for their variety of reasons, that a federal government with broader powers was “necessary,” found the situation intolerable. Benjamin Franklin’s acerbic observation was a warning to the Constitutional Conventioneers that if they desired that the people consider their efforts important and worthy of respect, they had better not dawdle. But that’s a story for another day.


     I could summarize the above in a single sentence: When big things come apart, smaller, more coherent things will become more visible. In such a scenario, individual freedom under “bossmen” such as those alluded to in No Truce With Kings, or under the “Selenarchs” of Harvest of Stars, could be far better defended than it is in America today. Yet an Andersonian “world of little states” would not be beyond perturbation, especially given the existence of very large States whose masters have exhibited great voracity.

     Sometimes in a constellation of little states, a wealthy and greatly respected family, such as the Borgias or the Medicis of Medieval Italy, will arise with the power to impose itself on lesser satrapies. Such power, once felt, is seldom restrained for long. And so the march back toward consolidation and bigness resumes.

     Yet for a while, we would be largely free once more. I’d prefer complete anarchy, regardless of the connotations of the word:

     I shan’t attempt to deceive or misdirect you: I’m horrified by politics and all its fruits. I consider the use of coercive force against innocent men the greatest of all the evils we know. But I try, most sincerely, to be realistic about the world around us. In that world, peopled by men such as ourselves, anarchism—the complete abjuration and avoidance of the State—is unstable. In time, it will always give way to politics. Hammer it to the earth as many times as you may, you will never succeed in killing it permanently. The State will rise again.

     …but in this universe – and don’t bother trying to emigrate to another! – everything is unstable. We must take what we can get, when we can get it, and give thanks. If America is about to begin a Great Retreat from superstate status, as I begin to think likely, perhaps we can have a few decades to enjoy the freedom that will temporarily follow:

     “I have a faint desire to take the pistol from my desk and shoot you both. I have a nervous feeling that you’re about to embark on a crusade to awaken Syndic Territory to its perils. You think the fate of civilization hinges on you. You’re right, of course. The fate of civilization hinges on every one of us at any given moment. We are all components in the two-billion-body problem. Somehow for a century we’ve achieved in Syndic Territory for almost everybody the civil liberties, peace of mind and living standards that were enjoyed by the middle classes before 1914—plus longer life, better health, a more generous morality, increased command over nature; minus the servant problem and certain superstitions. A handful of wonderfully pleasant decades. When you look back over history you wonder who in his right mind could ask for more. And you wonder who would dare to presume to tamper with it.”

     [C.M. Kornbluth, The Syndic ]

     Our forebears had that for about a century and a quarter, if the Late Unpleasantness may be discounted. Perhaps we, or our posterity, can have it again for a while.

     Peace, freedom, and the love of God be with you all.


    • Mike in Canada on June 27, 2023 at 9:46 AM


    That was lovely, thought-provoking, and inestimably well-written… the very things that make your blog a go-to.

    Your varied conundra (sp?) are challenging.

    Thank you for this gift.

    • Butch DuCote on June 27, 2023 at 11:50 AM

    The country I swore allegiance to and fought for many times since the mid 1960’s is not the country I reside in today. It no longer has my values nor does it still represent a republic invested with upholding our Constitution. The conundrum is do I still owe my allegiance to it. Thanks for a great article. We all will have to make decisions soon.

      • Mike in Canada on June 28, 2023 at 9:35 AM

      You raise several points here that deserve amplification.
      To begin, the idea that we must vote because others before us gave their lives so that we would have this right unto the present day is a seeming misnomer. What if the world those fine people fought for no longer exists? What if the values that drove their sacrifices have been since subsumed?
      What if we’ve been lied to for all the time since those noble deeds?
      Equally, I suspect that all our choices are about to become difficult, rather more than we had feared would be the eventual case.
      The crises are really converging, now, in a way that is creating a literal perfect storm of hardship, confusion, and misery, and that’s just for openers.

      It would appear, sir, that your oaths shall be tested once more.

      Be well.


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