The Winter King of the Internet

On May 23, 1618, in Prague, three Catholics, named Slavata, Borzita, and Fabricius, got themselves thrown out of a window by a bunch of Protestants. That marked the beginning of the Thirty Years War. About eight million died in what was the bloodiest — and arguably most pointless and unnecessary — religious war in European history. It was also, unfortunately, a war that was triggered by a set of conditions that are uncannily similar to those that prevail today, 400 years later, in the Western world of 2017.

Defenestration of Prague, Public Domain photograph from period woodcut.

Curiously, the Thirty Years War, and the events leading up to it, are discussed far less today than the event that ended it: the Peace of Westphalia. Over the last decade, the “Westphalian nation-state” has become the official spherical cow of Internet futurism. To murmur ominously about how the the rise of the internet and the blockchain presage the impending “death of the Westphalian nation-state” is to establish credibility in certain internet thought-leadership circles. In these circles, the Peace of Westphalia has become a notional origin-myth for an equally notional mental model of the modern nation-state.

Yet, it is the Thirty Years War that is the more interesting story for today. In the immediate aftermath of the Defenestration of Prague, for a brief period, an obscure minor noble, Frederick V of the Palatinate, known in the history books as the “Winter King” of Bohemia (and therefore, ex officio, of the Reformation), played a brief but pivotal role in triggering the Thirty Years War. His role bears a remarkable resemblance, with features not captured by other analogies, to the one being currently played in our own time by Donald Trump: The Winter King of the Internet.

Frederick V made it into the history books by virtue of being elected by the Protestant rebels as King of Bohemia, in defiance of the Habsburg Emperor and the Roman Catholic church. Wikipedia describes his brief reign thusly:

In Prague, Frederick soon came to be alienated from a portion of the nobility and the clergy. Neither Frederick nor his wife spoke Czech, so court offices were staffed primarily with foreigners, while the administration of the localities was left to the local nobles. This made an alliance of the royal family with the corporate bodies of the realm difficult.

Further alienation was caused by Frederick V’s court preacher, Abraham Scultetus, who was determined to use his new post to advance the cause of Calvinism in Bohemia…Scultetus’ iconoclasm was deeply unpopular, and Frederick attempted to distance himself from it, claiming that his orders were not being carried out by his followers.

The nickname “The Winter King” appeared shortly after the beginning of Frederick’s reign…. Frederick’s propagandists attempted to respond to the phrase by arguing that Frederick was in fact a “Winter Lion” who defended the crown of Bohemia against troublemakers and liars, and that he would also be a “Summer Lion.”

Frederick V lasted less than a year, his ambitions ultimately undermined by the withdrawal of support from the Protestant Union, which for a variety of reasons did not want to go up against the Catholic church.

But that was long enough.

The brief reign of the Winter King was enough to commit Germany and Central Europe to thirty years of war. The choice being made across Europe at the time was between moderate and radical paths to the post-Gutenberg future, and central Europe chose the latter: a technological deployment era powered by a religious war.

Whether Donald Trump lasts a year or eight, his role is structurally similar: a path to the future powered by a religious war.  The theological matters du jour are different — we merely debate healthcare rather than sacraments, and climate change instead of predestination. And of course, the war is likely to be an economic rather than military one.

But the choice is the same: damaging conflict and radical deconstructionism versus pragmatic moderation and messy evolutionary change.

Rhymes and Bends in the Arc of History

The path represented by Frederick V and Donald Trump is also one powered by new technology. Uncomfortable though the idea might be to Silicon Valley, and despite the reactionary elements in his politics, Donald Trump’s election is part of software eating the world, as I argued in a recent newsletter. Much as early Protestantism was shaped in part by a desire to return to an earlier, purer church, but also in part by the message of a new medium: the Gutenberg press.

As I said, chances are, the religious wars of our future — and it seems fairly clear healthcare and climate are the big ones — will be fought primarily on economic rather than military battlefields. But it is the same sort of choice, a path chosen by radical purists who have lost faith in the too-slow incrementalism (and seemingly irredeemable corruption) of pragmatic moderates. A path marked by belligerent postures all around and bare-faced as opposed to hypocritically masked corruption. One whose leaders are, in the scheme proposed by Vilfredo Pareto, lions rather than foxes (so Frederick’s nickname resonates on more than one level). A path marked by far worse outcomes and long recessions of historical power for those who choose it.

History, as the saying goes,  does not repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes, and the rhyming between the early 17th century and the early 21st century is a powerful one.

It is not the only rhyme of course, but if you want to understand the deep, ongoing restructuring of the world order, whether that leads to the future imagined in Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age or a postapocalyptic hellscape, the 90 year period between the Peace of Augsburg and the Peace of Westphalia is the period you want to study.

Instead of the computer, that era absorbed the impact of the printing press. Instead of the internet, it had the fragmented network of Protestant territories spreading across Western Christendom. Instead of software eating the world, pamphlets and early indie publishing ate the world.

Instead of economic middlemen being disintermediated by digital platforms, spiritual middlemen — Catholic priests in an intercessionary role between Christians and their heaven — were being disintermediated by a more direct religiosity. One that was textual, vernacular (Luther produced a German translation of the Bible), and mostly private rather than social.

Instead of the World Economic Forum meetings at Davos consolidating the neoliberal, cosmopolitan global order, the era witnessed the Council of Trent consolidating the Roman Catholic world order.

Then, as now, the long arc of the moral universe was bending not towards justice, but towards greater pluralism. Between 1517 and 1648, Protestants, Catholics, and Ottoman Muslims learned to live together in Europe, first as people of The Book, then as people of books, plural, the product of movable type.

It was a long, messy process of institutional innovation, hybridization, compromise, lines in the sand, doctrinal ambiguities and jurisdictional conflicts. Much of the change that took hold and endured was in the form of incremental, creeping developments driven by moderates on all sides arguing with each other.

Then as now, the messiness and necessarily slow pace proved to be too much for ideological purists and political radicals on all sides to endure. And so they chose what they thought was a more direct, clean path to the future: going backwards.

As we know now, it was less direct by about two centuries, and far dirtier.

Big Men and Great Events

Frederick V did not bestride the events of his time like a colossus, or shape events through the sheer force of his personality. That honor goes to others among the dramatis personae of the Thirty Years War: Ferdinand II, Pope Urban VIII, Albrecht von Wallenstein, Gustavus Adolphus, and of course, the indefatigable Cardinal Richelieu.

Unlike these historical figures, Frederick V was more a political mediocrity chosen by Great Events rather than a Big Man instrumental in shaping them.  He managed to position himself in the right place at the right time to serve as the messenger of a radical minority against a moderate majority. A pawn promoted to queen by circumstances.

The point of the analogy is not to argue that we are on the brink of a war comparable to the Thirty Years War. Or even to cut Trump down to the size of a small pawn on a large chessboard (that latter implication is what you might call a delicious unexpected bonus; the study of history offers little schadenfreude treats).

The point of the analogy is that the Thirty Years war helps investigate the most important question of our times: when change is inevitable, how painful must it necessarily be, and what does the choice between moderation and radicalism have to do with it?

We are in the midst of a reshaping of the global political order, one that will replace the Westphalian nation-state within a century or so. That much is not in doubt. Internet futurists have been making that argument for approximately two decades now. We don’t know what beast will replace the Westphalian spherical cow (I’m betting on a spiral snek), but we do know that there are too many deep contradictions within the current world order for it to withstand the full onslaught of digital technology.

If the timeline leading up to Westphalia is even an approximate indication, the question of what the new world will look like is for people just being born today to explore. The Hobbes and Rousseaus of the internet era are still in diapers. The adults of today can at best provide live commentary for them to study in 2048.

What is worth actually debating for us today is whether a subplot comparable to the Thirty Years War is a necessary part of this transition.

The Necessity of Historic Necessity

The importance of The Thirty Years War as an important object lesson for 2017 lies in the proposition that it was neither necessary, nor inevitable. As Peter H. Wilson argues in The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy:

…the war was not inevitable. The link between seventeenth-century European strife with wider environmental and economic problems is circumstantial at best. The entire continent was not convulsed by a general wave of violence. Despite sharing similar underlying problems with the war zone, much of the Empire remained at peace after 1618, until the conflict escalated in 1631-2.

The Thirty Years war followed in the wake of just over sixty years (1555-1618) of uneasy but relatively peaceful times in the Habsburg Empire, after the 1558 Peace of Augsburg, which granted rulers within the empire the right to choose either Protestantism or Catholicism for their territories. So even as religious civil wars raged in France (about 4 million dead) and the Netherlands (2 million), the Empire congratulated itself on having navigated the tension between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation better. Much as Americans congratulated themselves as they witnessed tumultuous global events unfold, from the Arab Spring to the Greek debt crisis.

Across the channel from the continent, England did even better in actuality than the Holy Roman Empire thought it was doing in theory.

England managed the transition to a more pluralist Christianity with not much more than the Tudor soap opera, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, in the costs column. When the war of political modernity did arrive on England’s shores in 1642, in the form of the English Civil War, it eventually cost less than a 100,000 lives. About a 100x lower human cost than the continent paid for its wars of modernity.

This was largely because England had already finessed an unnecessary religious aspect, which could have been part of the civil war, during the Tudor era (setting aside the Irish chapter which would persist into the twentieth century, and was arguably never as much about religion as the continental wars, and also setting aside the fact that England offered an easier exit from religious persecution via emigration to America).

The Thirty Years war was not just unnecessary, it was almost pointless, because the peace that emerged at the end of it — the famous 1648 Peace of Westphalia — did not significantly improve upon the equilibrium achieved at the  1558 Peace of Augsburg. It merely reinforced, at the cost of 8 million lives, the conclusion that the Peace of Augsburg had gotten the solution roughly right: live and let live, gradually separate church and state, constrain the king by secular law. Certainly, many ambiguities were clarified, details filled in, and new concepts added.

But overall, Augsburg got it right. Westphalia was a very expensive incremental update.

As the cool kids on Twitter might put it:

Tired: Peace of Westphalia
Wired: Peace of Augsburg

Between wired and tired, eight million lives were lost, and not a whole lot was learned. Then, as now, the arc of history was bending inevitably towards greater pluralism. The conclusion was foregone (even to most of those alive then, I suspect, not just us 400 years later). The only choice was between seeing it early and going along willingly, or being dragged to it in a willfully ignorant orgy of kicking and screaming.

As the experience of England showed, the transition to a pluralistic balance of power between Protestants and Catholics could be achieved in relatively bloodless ways, at least compared to the Thirty Years War.

But the case becomes even stronger if you look at the benefits column.

England did not just pay a lower cost: she reaped far bigger benefits from the emergence of religious pluralism and political modernity. The reign of Elizabeth I, of course, marked the beginning of England’s rise to the status of the first true superpower. It included the career of Shakespeare as a bonus, during the same period that the Holy Roman Empire careened clumsily towards the Thirty Year War. It included the early, successful years of the East India Company and the English colonization of America.

The Thirty Years was on the other hand, only led Central Europe and Germany to write themselves out of world history for nearly two centuries. Not until the era of Bismarck would Germany begin to truly matter again.

In the immortal words of the Edwin Starr song,

War, what is it good for
Absolutely nothin’!

Well, almost nothing.

The pacifist argument for the non-necessity of the Thirty Years War is not quite that strong. There is a general case to be made (which Francis Fukuyama makes well in his comparison of political development in Europe and Latin America) that the centuries of “unnecessary” war actually helped Europe develop faster politically. But that is a general argument, and much of the power of Fukuyama’s argument is lost when you consider the Thirty Years War in all its messy specificity.

So there is a strong circumstantial case at least, that The Thirty Years War was a hugely tragic and unnecessary path chosen by the Holy Roman Empire to the post-Gutenberg era. One that led to the region losing much of its power for two centuries, as nations that had achieved less bloody transitions surged ahead.

Technological Stimuli, Ideological Responses

If you treat Westphalia as merely a notional historical precedent in a story of abstract political evolution, rather than an actual case study of a deep technology-driven transition in the social order, you will miss almost everything important about it.

And the most important thing about it is that it was incredibly messy.

It is tempting to ignore the messiness and focus on the clean and legible headlines. The headline is this: between  1558 and 1648, the archetype of the above-the-law monarch ruling by religious authority was displaced by the archetype of the bound-by-law monarch ruling by consent of the governed.

That headline conveys almost nothing of practical importance; it is a headline about one spherical cow replacing another.

But going beyond it is not easy. Particularly diligent commentators today manage to take one step further, and note that the spread of Protestantism relied on the printing press the way digital political philosophies have relied on the Internet. But even that just scratches the surface.

In this limited analogy, Martin Luther (possibly) nailing his 95 theses to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg in 1517 seems analogous to the Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace being posted by John Perry Barlow on the door of the Internet, (from Davos, ironically enough) in 1996.

Yet, even this analogy, while better than the bald spherical-cow headline, misses the complexities of both transitions. As Wilson notes, the role of the printing press (which certainly played a major role in the dissemination of Luther’s ideas via early pamphlet wars) has been overstated in the long prelude to Westphalia. Arguably, an equally more significant role was played by the energetic oral culture of Protestantism:

Each [Protestant] priest was expected to deliver at least two hundred sermons a year, including two each Sunday. Drafts had to be sent to the consistory for approval and hour glasses were set up in churches to ensure parishioners were not short changed.

That’s almost four a week.

The role played by the on-the-ground Protestant priests during the early decades of the institutionalization of the Reformation was much closer to that played by talk radio in the American election. The role of the printing press, arguably, was similar to that played by the 4chan meme factories and diligent Macedonian shitposters.

Neither talk radio, nor 4chan, particularly represents the spirit of Barlow’s high-minded declaration, any more than the defenestration of Prague or the general blood-letting that followed represented the spirit of Luther’s lofty theological points.

On the other side of the equation, the picture was equally complex. To the modern imagination, the Roman Catholic church of the period is a cartoon evil empire, run by Bond villains in vestments. Among other things, it managed to convict Galileo for heresy in 1633, and supported the predatory early colonial empires of Spain and Portugal. But the Protestants were no saints either, if you’ll excuse the bad joke:

African slaves toiled in Brazil for Dutch sugar planters whose profits helped finance their republic’s struggle with Spain, along with money from the Baltic grain trade and North Sea fisheries.

And then, there is the complicating presence of ambiguous forces in the story, in particular the Jesuits, whose structural role in the story then was something like a cross between those played today by social justice warriors on university campuses and McKinsey consultants in corporations.  As Wilson recounts:

The Jesuits had a clear mission to extirpate Protestantism, which their founder called ‘an epidemic of the soul’. They would first remove the causes of the ‘infection’ by displacing Protestants, and those Catholics who would not cooperate, from positions of influence, and then restore ‘health’ by promoting the vitality of Catholic life and doctrine

Acting on Loyola’s orders, a Jesuit accepted the post of confessor to the king of Portugal in 1552, commencing a policy of actively seeking such positions

There were 22 Jesuit colleges in the Rhineland by the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, as well as another 20 in south Germany and 23 more in Austria and Bohemia by 1630

This expansion was due to a range of teaching methods that seem obvious today, but were cutting-edge at the time. All Jesuits were university graduates and applied a common curriculum throughout the colleges, combining the existing humanist model of the grammar school with the deeper, systematic study of theology and philosophy.

The impact of the Jesuits in the crafting of the global Westphalian order is arguably understated, just as that of the printing press was probably overstated. In the imagination of Protestant Europe, the Jesuits were scheming, equivocating, power-hungry institutional careerists. The perception is eerily close to the one internet “free speechers” seem to have of university-based “elites” today. In the latter case, expertise of various sorts being bundled together with authoritarian Left radicalism and high finance into the generally demonized pile of confused establishment villainy variously labeled the ‘Deep State’, ‘Cathedral’ or ‘DC Swamp’.

Yet it was the Jesuits, stewards of the original cathedral, who spread modern educational culture and the benefits of post-Gutenberg political and cultural modernity through the world. I am, for instance, primarily a product of a Jesuit high school, not a Lutheran or Calvinist school (or for that matter, a Hindu matha or Muslim madrassa).

There is good reason for the asymmetry. As Wilson notes, while there was a good deal of educational evolution and institution building on the Protestant side as well, the Lutherans were definitely not globalists or leading-edge educators, and were more susceptible to cultures of baser forms of ignorance:

Lutherans could draw on the humanist national tradition that associated truth and honesty as true German ( Teutsch ) characteristics, in contrast with the deviousness of foreigners (Welsch), especially those south of the Alps. The Danes and Swedes shared much of this cultural tradition, and like their German co-religionists, could relate their new Lutheran churches with national defiance of Rome. By contrast, Calvinism took root in individual cities and princely homes, denying it an obvious centre.

The Gnesio Lutherans purged their more extreme members, generally known as Flacians after the Croatian Matthias Flacius, who was convinced by such things as deformed babies that mankind was physically degrading, portending the end of the world.

The Habsburgs and German Catholics adopted the new Gregorian calendar by 1584, but while Protestant scientists like Johannes Kepler favoured reform, their clergy rejected anything from Rome and the credulous believed the papists were trying to steal ten days of their lives.

For all its flaws, it was Jesuits who trained the European upper classes through a tumultuous transitional century, and in the centuries after, helped instill a pluralist, scientific ethos into the heart of modernity. The Catholic inquisition of Galileo notwithstanding, on balance, 17th century Catholicism harmonized better with the ethos of early modern science than Protestantism, much as universities today, rather than bro-science subcultures, remain the best places to find good science.

By the eighteenth century, that had been flipped around of course, and Protestant science began pulling ahead. We can expect the same for education in our times, going forward. Some day, bro-science culture will become the universal scientific culture. But today is not that day.

So it was Jesuits who provided the intellectual underpinnings of the second major age of globalism (the first being the one sustained by the Abbasid Caliphate between the eighth and thirteenth centuries).

From Bologna to Davos

The Catholic church was to the sixteenth century what the neoliberal globalist establishment is today, with the 28-year long Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563 (the last one before the first Vatican council in 1869-70) serving as the equivalent of the Davos meetings of the World Economic Forum.

Right in the middle of it, we find the Peace of Augsburg, in 1558, just as in the middle of the the recent history of the Davos meetings (which began in 1971), we find the end of the Cold War.

This is important to understand — like the Catholic church, Davos and the cosmopolitan liberalism it stands for, is part of the past — while reactionary ethno-nationalism is very much a product of the Internet and the future, as is Californian liberal-tarianism. For all his willfully ignorant theatrics, championing low-tech manufacturing and coal, Trump represents the emerging future rather than the resurgent past.

On the flip side, history has judged the counter-reformation to be part of the “reaction” to Protestantism, and associates the Reformation with progressive ideals. But non-spherical-cow reality of course, was much messier. A good deal of post-Gutenberg civilizational progress actually happened under the auspices of the Catholic church. And a good deal of the regression happened under the auspices of the Reformation.

We are misled because it is much easier to view the conditions before the Thirty Years War as representing primarily a religious divide (between progressive Protestants and reactionary Catholics) or an institutional one (between the elites of institutionalized religion and establishment politics and the non-elites of evangelical religion and grassroots politics). Yet, as the spatio-temporally shifted alternative historical path of England shows, neither distinction was central to how things unfolded.

In the run-up to Westphalia, there were theological progressives and reactionaries on both sides, and elites and commoners on both sides.

The problem is that terms like progressive, reactionary, elite, and commoner make little sense in relation to purely ideological differences that are not grounded in historic time by events with direct ideological import. The Gutenberg press was simply too neutral a force to be a variable on only one side of the conflict.

Historic watersheds created by important technologies do not cleave the ideological or socioeconomic landscape in any simple way, along existing clear lines. Protestantism came later than Catholicism, but there is no basis on which to judge one superior or “more progressive” or “less reactionary” than the other, or one more “tech positive” than the other. This of course is the reason both Protestantism and Catholicism survive today, and both cheerfully make use of the printing press that precipitated their historic conflict.

Power dynamics also fail to distinguish past from future. Political machinations on both sides were equally complex, and involved equally devious elite maneuvering. Frederick V was no peasant. He was a member of the Empire’s nobility and an elector — with a voice in electing the Habsburg emperor. Though chosen by commoners to be their voice, he was no commoner himself, and neither were most of the principals on either side of the war (unlike the German Peasants War of 1524-25).

Viewed in the light of the choice between bloody and peaceful paths to the same inevitable outcome — the post-Gutenberg era — the consequential divide was the one between moderates and radicals of all varieties. Wilson again:

All were religious and we should not see moderates as necessarily more rational, reasonable or secular. The difference lay not in their religious zeal, but how they related faith and action. All were convinced their version of Christianity offered the only true path to salvation and the sole correct guide to justice, politics and daily life. Moderates, however, were more pragmatic, regarding the desired reunification of all Christians within a single church as a general, rather distant objective. Militants saw this goal as within their grasp and were not only prepared to use force rather than persuasion but also felt personally summoned by God to do so. They interpreted the Bible in providential, apocalyptical terms, relating current events directly to the text. For them, the conflict was a holy war; a cosmic showdown between good and evil in which the ends justified almost any means

As we shall see, militants remained the minority, largely experiencing the war as observers or victims of defeat and displacement. Nonetheless, then as now, militancy proves especially dangerous when combined with political power. It creates a delusional sense in those who rule of being chosen by God for a divine purpose and reward…They no longer feel obliged to treat opponents as human beings. Problems to which they might have contributed are blamed entirely on the enemy… Fundamentalists have no real knowledge of their opponents, whom they make no effort to understand.

That 400-years-later cold take ports cleanly, mutatis mutandis, to a 2017 hot take. You just need to substitute words like internet, Reaganomics, Obamacare, and climate change in the appropriate places. The mapping is not always clean or sequence-preserving. The analogy to the Peace of Augsburg might well be the Obamacare repeal-and-replace shenanigans unfolding in Congress this week, or perhaps the Paris Climate Agreement from about a year ago.

The details of the mapping are debatable. The important lesson of this particular history is less debatable: when moderates choose, you get messy, annoying paths of relatively peaceful, and perhaps painfully slow progress, the slouching towards utopia path of Brad DeLong.

When radicals and ideological purists choose, you get thirty years of unnecessary wars.

The Story We Are In

To make a historical analogy is to make an assertion about the sort of story we are living through in the present. Depending on the histories we pick, the Trumps and Putins, the Merkels and the Xi Jinpengs, and the rest of the varied cast of today’s events appear in different relationships to each other.

The analogy to the Thirty Years War suggests we are living through a particular sort of story: one in which great schisms and powerful forces create narrative turns that far exceed the steering capabilities of any single person to resist. In fact, rather perversely, the very act of resisting a future seems to help bring it about.

The Thirty Years War is obviously not the only historical rhyme available to us. The historical rhyme you pick as your primary lens on contemporary conditions depends on the question you consider most important.

If you want to anticipate the next four years of US history in narrow political-structural terms, the Carter administration (and its relationship to Johnson’s Great Society era) is probably the best rhyme to study. If you want to get a sense of the tribal and emotional tenor of the next couple few decades, Nixon is your guy. If you want a sense of how the public institutional landscape will evolve over the next next half-century, look to the Andrew Jackson era (an analogy Trump himself likes for the larger-than-life role in which it casts him, and which Steve Bannon likes for the deconstructionist precedent and racial calculus it represents).

If you want an overwrought morality tale, heavy on symbolic resonances, but light on useful structural correspondences, the rise of fascism in the 1930s is your rhyme.

But if you want to understand the deeper interplay of technology, ideology, and politics, the Thirty Years War, and the sixty years preceding it, is the era to study. The great takeaway from the The Thirty Years War is this: the post-internet future is as inevitable today as the post-Gutenberg future was in 1558 or 1619, but the choices we make about how to navigate towards that future are not.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, historical evolution is path dependent in the short term, but not in the long term.

For all its flaws and warts, Silicon Valley today represents something like Elizabethan England in the seventeenth century: the locus of a path with relatively low social costs, big gains, and de facto stewardship of the “right side” of history for at least a few decades more.

The ethnonationalist path of global trade wars, actual Dugin/Surkov “nonlinear” shooting wars in physical and cyber spaces, and Bannonite “deconstruction,” represents something like the path of the Thirty Years War.

Certainly, the two paths are coupled in complex ways, as part of a larger global story. Perhaps there are ways in which England could not have leaped ahead in relative peace without Central Europe descending into war first.

But there is a larger argument to be made that a variety of transition paths are available, representing varying degrees of violence and stupidity, and different levels of willful ignorance and compassion. So if there are gentler paths to the same outcome, it would be profoundly stupid not to choose them.

The United States happens to be the locus of analogues to both of the key subplots of 1558-1648: Elizabethan England and the Holy Roman Empire. Instead of the English Channel, the dividing line happens to be the Rockies.

But which subplot will dominate is not yet clear.

The Winter King of the internet reigns on the East Coast, but the future has not been chosen yet.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Thanks for that article. Bringing in Taleb, I would say that bro-science is Lindy resistant, while academic science is Lindy prone. Under assumption that the battlefield is healthcare, SV’s attitude of turning users into human guinea pigs is actually playing in the Valley’s favor not against, as it speeds up accumulation and approval rates for anecdotal evidence. Before FDA (ex-cathedra/Catholic church) approves bioelectronic therapeutic devices (think TDCS as the first wave), the Valley (cyberpunk/Protestants) will sell hundreds of millions of units all over the world with instructions how to heal without seeing MD.

  2. Jeremy Daw says

    I was hoping for an analysis of the Taborite community which was connected to the group which performed the infamous Defenestration. For over a century they resisted one Catholic army after the other, led by the guerrilla tactics of Jan Zizka and others.

    In my opinion, the lesson is that radicalism requires a certain withdrawal from mainstream dialectical discourses. Faced with the unsavory prospect of constructive conversation with ideological opponents, the Taborites found it easier to circle the wagons and fire the cannons.

    On the left side of the internet, the ammunition of choice is an accusation of bigotry. On the right, Bible-thumping. Two timeless themes, updated for the information age.

  3. I really enjoyed this post.

    I’m reading a survey of the Near/Middle East c200-800 AD. It has some good rhymes with the Reformation in Europe. There were no printing presses yet, so the media technologies were religious architecture, rituals, stories, and icons on coins.

    If there is an England in this story, I guess it’s the Arab tribes. They invented a pan-monotheism, Islam. Then they used it to unite the warring Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Buddhist empires.

  4. Nicely written and presented argument, but Im afraid there is a flaw in the basic premises. The author claims that he knows already the general form of how history will end up a hundred years from today, a very bold statement or better a metaphysical belief if you ask me.

    And the argument goes that -knowing the general form of the world a 100 years from now- there is no reason to fight against the ruling elites of today, because they have chosen a -more or less- correct path, or maybe the only path..

    To put it into the 30year war historical context, the author believes that he hold the TRUTH about the future, which is a very metaphysical argument. And he wants this belief (about the only truth of how history will evolve in 100 years) to be shared by everybody, without the needless bloodletting.

    I would argue that was also the basic belief by many of those who took part in the original 30year war.

  5. A well thought out piece, thanks.

    Crane Brinton wrote cogently about all this in Anatomy of Revolution back in the 60s. One point of his was that moderates always lose out in revolutions. Ruthlessness is as important as anything in these matters, and that’s what radicals possess. Another point is that the resulting change a decade or so down the road is always far less than the radicals hope or expect. Compare the sweeping change in society that the French revolutionaries planned in the 1790s versus the return of monarchy in the 19th century.

    I would contest the idea that the English Civil War was relatively bloodless. England lost one out of every ten adult men in that war and about 2.5% of the general population, a toll unmatched in any other conflict involving that country.

  6. Eugine Nier says

    I find this essay more interesting for what it leaves out than for what it says. The modern issues you focus on are global warming and healthcare. No mention of the increasingly unsustainable amounts of debt being accumulated at all levels of the economy and government in particular. No mention of the biggest stated complaint of the European populists, the Islamic invasion of Europe and the refutable by the powers that be to even admit it is a problem, much less take steps to solve it.

  7. 2^11 nice.