Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Nazi Supermen Are Our Superiors

One of the peculiarities of the modern European pursuit of empire, was the attention given to racial differences between the conqueror and the conquered. The Latin-speakers of ancient Italy were entirely indifferent to the racial background of the many peoples they subjugated. Very quickly, the Romans would incorporate the elites of the conquered into their own upper class as part of the "divide-and-rule" strategy. Many Roman emperors were descendants of those whom the Romans had conquered, decades or centuries earlier. The Greeks had little respect for anyone not Hellenic, dismissing them all as "barbarians." But this wasn't based upon racial hatred. They believed those not using the Greek tongue were culturally, not biologically, deficient. Alexander the Great quickly adopted the customs of the many cultures he conquered. Similarly, many Latin-speakers of the Roman empire incorporated many traditions of the eastern dominions (including the Christian God). Similarly, the Latins of Roman Britain were strongly influenced by the Celtic society that had existed there previously.

This pattern held for eastern civilizations as well. The Mughal empire, established upon the Indian subcontinent by Persianized Mongol-Turks in the sixteenth century, had imposed Islam upon there (with Hindus and other religious groups reduced to second-class status). However, by the time of the accession of the British raj in the 1850s, the Mughals themselves, and the Indian Muslim population generally, were indistinguishable racially from Hindu India. Chinese civilization, meanwhile, has been repeatedly overcome by barbarian invasions, since long before the birth of Christ (including a Mongol invasion). Again and again, however, the invaders adopted the Han culture that existed previously, and became "racially" Chinese as well.

This pattern held during the European Middle Ages, and afterward as well. The Franks were a Germanic tribe that conquered post-Roman Gaul in the seventh century, and which placed the ancestors of Charlemagne upon the throne of the land that came to be known as France. As with previous conquerors, though, it wasn't long before the Germanic Franks became Latinized, giving their name to the novel language that developed from the merger of their dialect with that of Latin-speakers of Gaul. A couple of centuries earlier, different Germanic tribes, led by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, had invaded post-Roman Britain. Unlike the Franks, the Anglo-Saxon-Jutes completely displaced the Romano-Celtic culture that had existed beforehand. But DNA analysis of the present-day British population has revealed that its genetic profile is more consistent not with Germans, French or Norse, but residents of the present-day Basque lands in Spain. Evidently, the Anglo-Saxons at least, displaced the culture of the Romano-Celts, but merged genetically with the native population.

The Nazis took much of their inspiration for the Aryan myth, from Norse legends, as they were retold in the operas of Richard Wagner. But the idea of the "purebred" Norseman is itself contradicted by the pagan religion known to the Scandinavians, before they converted to Christianity. According to Gwyn Jones, in his history of the Vikings, Norse creation tells of the mother-goddess giving birth to twins, whence all Norsewomen and men were descended. One twin had blonde hair and blue eyes; the other was swarthy, with dark hair and brown eyes. This indicates better than anything that the Norse, far from being pure anything, had their origins in at least two separate races.

The practice of conquerors merging racially with the conquered, continued well into modernity. The trans-Atlantic African slave-trade originated among the Portugese in the fifteenth century. The word "nigger" comes from the Portugese word for "black", but it doesn't appear as though African slavery at this time was justified on the grounds that black Africans were of a separate race or a kind of sub-human. Instead, it was acceptable to enslave Africans because they were heathens and not Christians. European involvement in the slave trade, beginning in the Middle Ages, was not originally race-specific at all. The term "slave" is, in fact, an eponym, named after the Slavs who, at first, consisted of the vast majority of the Mediterranean slave trade. It was considered acceptable, after the turn of the second millennium, to enslave Orthodox Christians (as most Slavic people were) because the Catholic Church had excommunicated all Orthodox believers. Only when Catholicism and Orthodoxy patched up their relations, following the Crusades, did European slave-traders turn elsewhere — to Africa — for slaves.

The Portugese and Spanish empires were accomplished, in Asia, Africa and in especially in South America, with great violence and cruelty directed at the native populations. Such was always the case, though. What was absent in the formation of these empires, was a sense that the native populations were in some way biologically inferior to the Hispanic Europeans. They were, to the conquerors, heathens who (like the Africans) deserved to be enslaved in order that they brought the light of Christianity to them. Yet, once subjugation had been completed, the Latin European overlords entered into the time-tested pattern of mixing with the conquered. Today, virtually all Latin American countries have a majority people from mixed-race — or mestizo — background (or at least, a significant minority thereof). One country
even named itself in honour of this race-mixing: Mexico [correction: see comment below]. The French empire in North America was, too, characterized by a high amount of race-mixing, creating the metis (French and Indians) and the creole (Africans and French).

As for the African slave-trade itself, there is a paradox in relation to this. The height of the trans-Atlantic trade, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, occurred before Africa was actually conquered by the European powers. During this period, slaves were acquired not through the conquest of native societies by Europeans. Instead, the losers of conflicts between rival African kingdoms, and between black Africans and (largely) Arab Muslims, would be sold to Europeans at trading outposts on the west coast of the continent. The beginning of the end of African slavery, came when Europe began to take formal control of the "dark continent." Thus, in 1804, the British empire banned the slave trade: it used the Royal Navy to enforce the ban, which was strenuously opposed by the African and Islamic potentates that profited so handsomely from it.

By 1834, as British colonization of Africa progressed even further, the British outlawed slavery entirely, in all of its territories. Later, when the Europeans had taken complete control of Africa, slavery had been eliminated there for the first time in centuries, if ever.

What's more, African slavery in the United States was accompanied by at least some degree of miscegenation. Genetic analysis of the descendants of Sally Hemmings, a slave to Thomas Jefferson, showed that they shared a family link with those of the legitimate Jefferson lineage. The conclusion drawn from this was that Hemmings and Jefferson had children together (although this is disputed; some believe instead that Hemmings was descended from an illicit union between her ancestor and a relative of Jefferson's — it is in fact irrelevant for our purposes what was actually the case). Julian Bond, the civil rights leader who, in spite of his dark complexion has very European facial features, recounted a story he'd been told about his grandfather, who was named James Bond. Years after the abolition of slavery in 1863, James Bond had travelled to visit the white plantation family that had owned him and his parents. There, he was greeted as an honoured guest, according to Julian Bond. After being given dinner and evening's company, James Bond was conducted by the former slaveholder to the train station for the journey home. As the older white man parted from his former slave at the station, James Bond turned to him and said, "Thank you, father."

The miscegenation between conquered and conqueror, continued with the early years of British rule in India. Until the Sepoy rebellion in 1857, the subcontinent was ruled by the East India company, under charter from the British Crown. Commencing in earnest during the eighteenth century, East India company officials, largely men, became increasingly comfortable with adopting the customs, traditions, even the dress, of the Indian native population — this included marrying women from the subcontinent. One such official, Sir William Jones, a philologist who was appointed a magistrate to oversee company business in Indian in the 1780s, studied the ancient linguistic ancestor of Hindi, called Sanskrit. Jones proposed that Sanskrit and all its derivates, were part of the same linguistic group that included all the European languages. Encompassing about one-third of humanity, this family of languages was later to be known as the Indo-European linguistic group.

After the British government took direct control of India, this race mixing came to an abrupt end. No longer were British officials to mate with Indians. Instead, the new raj governed as a class of race overlords, living and working completely separately from the Indian population, excepting those fortunate enough to be servants and minor administrators in the homes and businesses of the white rulers. Not coincidentally, this change occurred as racial ideas began to take serious hold on the European educated imagination. Thereafter, European empires dismissed the time-honoured practice of mixing racially with their conquered peoples in order to create a novel sort of civilization (as occurred in, for example, Latin American). Instead, the European imperial rulers were, by law and by custom, to keep aloof of the native population, who were officially considered of a race inferior to the whites.

The scholarly work of William Jones, uncovering the common roots of English and Hindi as Indo-European languages, also provided the foundation for a less helpful set of ideas that were, by the twentieth century, to prove disastrous to Europe and to much of the rest of humanity, too. Translations of Sanskrit writings revealed that, some time around 1700 before the Christian calendar, an Indo-European nomadic people known as the Aryans, had invaded the Indian subcontinent, subduing the Indus valley civilization that existed there. The term "Aryan" demonstrates, incidentally, how Sanskrit is part of the same language family as the European languages. The term means, "greater" or "noble", and is a cognate of "aristocracy."

There is no information as to how the Aryans appeared, whether they were light-skinned in contrast to the dark-skinned Indus valley peoples. Regardless, we know they conformed to the historical pattern of conquered mixing racially with the conquered. But a German pioneer in the field of archaeology, Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931), argued that the Aryans were the predecessors of the Nordic race of Europe, which included the Germans, Scandinavians, Dutch, English and so on. The Aryan theory, so essential to Nazi ideology, was in fact widely believed among Germans from the late nineteenth century to the end of the Nazi regime in 1945 (and probably by many thereafter, too). Indeed, it seems that scientific-racist theories were the more popular in Germany than France or Britain, and in this, there is yet another paradox.

In contrast to both Britain and France, Germany never had much of a colonial overseas empire (they didn't have one at all until the late nineteenth century). There were no (to use an anachronistic term) "visible" minorities in Germany; Germans were not involved very much in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. As for Germany's overseas colonies, they were restricted to windswept South West Africa (present-day Namibia) and a couple of other barren places here and there (the lack of an overseas empire was one of the beefs that the German empire had with France and Britain, and fuelled calls for an European-based lebensraum, or "living space", by Hitler and many other German politicians of the Weimar republic). The focus of pre-Nazi German racial obsession and hostility was not on skin colour, but ethnicity: that is, upon Jewish Europeans primarily, and secondarily upon Slavic peoples. Both of these were considered races different from the Aryan, although of course European Jews and Slavic nations were "Caucasian" in background (ie., they had white skin too).

German hostility toward Jews goes back a long way, centuries before Hitler, to one of the first truly pan-German figures, Martin Luther, who denounced Jews and directed his followers to aggress against them. But the term "anti-Semitism" is a misnomer when applied to Luther and other Jew-haters prior to the nineteenth century. For the Jew-hatred that was manifested by Luther and many other Germans of the time, as well other Christian Europeans during late-medieval and early-modern times, had its roots in the schism between Christianity and Judaism over the divinity of Jesus. Christians then weren't focussed on a biological disparity between themselves and Jews: if members of the latter group chose to convert to Christianity, then they would thereby be safe from the threat of pogrom. This was what was different from Jew-hatred of the old type, and that which emerged among Germans (and other Europeans) the nineteenth century: to that latter, there was nothing redeemable about the Jews.

Their badness wasn't due to disbelief in the divine status of Jesus; even if the Jew converted to Christianity, he was, to the modern anti-Semite, bad because he was racially inferior. It didn't matter, either, if the Jew gave up his religion and behaved like a "real" German: he was essentially, biologically a menace and thus shouldn't mix with Germans of the Aryan race at all.

When, during the Nazi era, the Germans invaded most of Europe, they behaved according to their racist beliefs. The Slavic countries to the east of Third Reich, were far more brutally subjugated than were the western European countries such as Holland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and so on, the people of which the Nazis believed were part of the same race as themselves. Poland, for example, suffered more than two million civilian deaths during the Nazi occupation. Denmark lost 1,000 civilians because of the Nazi invasion. In Scandinavia and the other Western European countries, the Nazis sought collaborators among the vanquished elite — and found very many who were willing to collaborate with them. There were collaborators in the Slavic countries as well. But the Nazis had no intention of sharing power with — or even allowing to survive — a vast mongrel population. On the other hand, if Nazi Germany had won the war, there is no reason to believe that the ruling elites of Western Europe would not have been wholly or partially Nazified or even Germanized.

The genocidal actions of the Nazis were the logical conclusion of the race-based policies pursued, with more moderate tools, in the empires of all the other European countries. Far from being a throwback to ancient or tribal passions, racism is an ultra-modern theory. Its defiance of time-honoured methods of subjugation (wherein the conquered and conqueror ultimately merge culturally and socially) occurred because of the progress of science, in particular because of the new understanding of mechanics of life itself. By the mid-nineteenth century, virtually all educated Europeans accepted that life came about because of natural, and not miraculous, processes. Life was, moreover, understood to have evolved, or changed from one state to another. This simply had to be the case, given the newly-emergent fossil record showed evidence of life that existed once, long ago, and no longer did (or no longer did so in a present form). Scientists remained uncertain as to how exactly this occurred (until the publication in 1859 of Darwin's theory of natural selection upon variation).

Long before the Origin of Species, however, systematic principles for animal and plant domestication and breeding had been established. And, decades prior to eugenics being formalized into a scientific discipline (by Charles Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton) near the close of the nineteenth century, theories of plant and animal breeding were being applied to the social sciences. Two of the most popular nineteenth-century race theorists in Germany (ironically enough) were a Frenchman, Count de Gobineau, and an Englishman, Houston Stewart Chamberlain (the latter was ultimately Germanized, marrying the daughter of the late composer Richard Wagner). Both authors exalted the Aryans or German as the superior race to all others, and asserted that nothing great occurred without Aryan input.

As for eugenics, the Nazis also took its principles to their logical conclusion — the active culling of inferior humans to ensure the purebred vitality of the herd. The necessity of such culling was the consensus view of most educated adults decades before the Nazis came to power, though. Eugenics advocates such as Winston Churchill and Maynard Keynes had no intention to be so extreme; they would only countenance forced sterilization, if and when voluntary sterilization of defectives could not be achieved. In any case, eugenics in particular, and racism generally, were by-products of scientific knowledge. The fact that they are now widely discredited, makes them no less examples of scientific research, than other theories once widely accepted, but thereafter abandoned as empirically without foundation.

It was the Nazi commitment to racism which, above all, rendered German fascism so different in kind from the true reactionary views and politics of the Prussian elite. The Polish scholar on the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman, observed (in Modernity and the Holocaust, Cornell University Press, 1989, p. 44), "Modern culture is a garden culture. It defines itself as the design for an ideal life and a perfect arrangement of human conditions. It constructs its own identity out of distrust of nature. In fact, it defines itself and nature, and the distinction between them, through its endemic distrust of spontaneity and its longing for a better, and necessarily artificial, order. Apart from the overall plan, the artificial order of the garden needs tools and raw materials. It also needs defence - against the unrelenting danger of what is obviously, a disorder

Monday, April 19, 2010

Who cares about Tea Parties?

I haven’t commented on the “tea party” protests that cropped up during the first year of Barack Obama’s reign as U.S. president in 2009. The tea-party people are united in their opposition to the president’s social democratic agenda, mostly. But I don’t believe in protests, not in a democracy at least.

Certainly, in states where censorship, police repression and other forms of authoritarianism are the rule, mass protests are a legitimate tool of dissent. In democratic polities, however, protest demonstrations are contrary to the democratic spirit. For example, those tea-party people who are presently demonstrating against the statist agenda of their government (a cross-country protest was held April 15, the deadline for filing annual tax returns in the U.S.), have the ability to persuade their fellow citizens of the probity of their views, by means other than protest demonstrations. They do not suffer from censorship, repression or any other arbitrary impediments to political action.

The fact is, the small-government agenda pursued by the tea party folks was repudiated at the ballot-box in the general election of 2008, which saw not only the leftist Obama voted in as president, but Democratic-party majorities in the Congress strengthened, too. Perhaps the Democrats will lose both houses of Congress in the mid-term elections of 2010. But that’s the way democracy works, isn’t it? Elections invest power in a certain candidate or party for a certain period, during which they will attempt to enact an agenda or programme. Those who are opposed to that programme have the opportunity to run them out of office when an election is held next time, and thereafter pursue their own agenda.

How do protest demonstrations fit into this? They don’t. At best, protests are simply irrelevant; they are orgies of mass self-congratulation, which the participants carry signs that say (as in the Buffalo Springfield hit, For What It’s Worth) “hooray for our side!” If legislators and governors believed that the protests represented majority sentiment, they would adjust their policies at least somewhat to jibe with this.

But a protest demonstration consisting of tens, or even hundred of thousands of people (the latter being exceedingly rare in any case), is still only the fraction of the total number of voters in even the smallest democratic polity of the present day. Why should any politician even bother with them, when they know by public opinion polling whether or not the protestors have majority opinion with them? The fact that a protest movement focuses on demonstrations as it main activity, is substantial proof that it certainly doesn’t have majoritarian backing at all. They protest because they cannot convince others of the legitimacy of their views.

But it isn’t any better when protests are not irrelevant — that is, when they actually do have a real effect on a democratic state. It is by now a platitude that “people have the right to protest”, but I find this sentiment a bit sophistic. After all, who seriously argues that no one has the right to participate in mass protests? The maxim, in a free society, is that an individual may do what she wants, so long as she doesn’t violate the rights and freedoms of others. Yet, the attitude of those involved in protest movements is that their right to demonstrate is triumphal over the right to freedom of movement enjoyed by the vast majority who are not protestors. This is true even where a particular protest is genuinely non-violent and non-coercive. Assuming the latter to be true, non-protestors have to deal with the disruptions in traffic and convenience that inevitably go along with street protests.

And yet, many mass demonstrations are not simply marches or rallies at all. The specific intent of their organizers is to get the government to change a policy on a particular issue — based on nothing other than the size of the demonstration itself. But to emphasize, even the largest mass demonstrations consist of no more than a small percentage of even the total electorate (to say nothing of the total population). Just who are the leaders of a protest movements to demand a change in any policy? Again, it demonstrates the democratic impotence of protest demonstrators, that they feel the need to demonstrate, instead of organizing to persuade voters to support their agenda. This is where, of course, protest leaders are not contemptuous of democratic government entirely.

I’m addressing the anti-government tea-party protestors, just because they are most conspicuous type of demonstrator at the present time. But this is even more pertinent to protest-demonstrators with a decidedly anti-tea party agenda that were commonplace in the decade prior to the election of Obama in 2008. These latter protests began as an “anti-globalization” movement (although this was a severe misnomer), which then morphed into an “anti-war” movement following the attacks of September 11, 2001. And, in contrast to the tea party movement, this group of protestors were explicitly coercive in their aims. This was evidenced at one of the early such mass demonstrations of the “anti-globalization” movement, which occurred at meeting of the World Trade Organization at Seattle, Washington, in December 1999.

The first day of the meetings between leaders of most of the world’s governments had to be cancelled when the protests blocked access to the facility at which the conference was to be held. When, the next day, police prevented the protestors from blockading the conference again, there came the inevitable cries of “police brutality!” The “anti-globalization” movement’s rationale for taking to the streets, in Seattle and in many places thereafter (including Ottawa and Quebec city) must be more flimsy than those of the tea-party protests. The “anti-globalizers” were not censored or repressed in expressing or articulating their views: on the contrary, many parts of the establishment — including most academics, many in the news media, as well as in the government itself — are sympathetic to these views, and much of the “anti-globalization” / “anti-war” protests’ coverage was extremely sympathetic to the cause.

This is not the case, however, for the tea party protests. Initially, in 2009, most major news media simply ignored the demonstrations. This is odd in itself, given how news services generally find protest-demonstrations irresistible to cover. However, when the tea-party movement became too big to be ignored, most news media chose to cover the events in, at best, a condescending way; and at the worst, reporters and commentators were outright hostile toward it.

At least some referred to them as “tea bag” protests (a term, which means, according to the online Urban Dictionary, to place one’s testicles into the mouth of a sexual partner, whilst the latter is lying down). There isn’t even any wit or cleverness about that; it is just to substitute a vulgar term for the real one, because the latter sounds like the former. The other tack taken by the news media is to portray the tea-party demonstrations as something akin to Hitler or KKK rallies. This bore fruit when, last month, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to extend health-care coverage to all American citizens, by forcing them essentially to buy medical insurance.

Tea-party demonstrators were present near Capitol hill when the vote was taking place. At one point, several black legislators were passing near the demonstrations, and at least a couple of them alleged that they heard at least some of the tea-party protestors shout “nigger” in their direction. There were also allegations that one or more of these legislators were spit upon. Accounts of this event vary. Initial reports quoted one of the legislators as saying much or even the whole crowd were chanting this insult. Later, this was “clarified” to state that only one or two of the demonstrators had made this remark.

These allegations quickly were reported around the world. My wife told me as to how she was “disgusted” with the racist comments made by the anti-heath care bill demonstrators, a report that she heard on the car radio on one of the local station’s hourly news updates. This is what is meant when it is said that an untruth goes halfway around the world before the truth has time to put on its hat. Since this alleged incident took place, no independent corroboration of tea-party demonstrators using racist language against the Congress members, or anyone else, has been revealed. This is in spite of the fact that the demonstrations — and the legislators’ walk through the crowd — was attended by many television reporters and freelance videographers. There is, even so, no audio or visual record of this event. The only people who claim to have heard it, are those making the allegations.

Somehow, though, the onus has been placed upon the tea party movement and their supporters, to prove that the incident didn’t happen. One conservative activist, who’s offered $100,000 to anyone who can produce audio-visual proof of the incident, was recently taken to task in an Associated Press report for publishing footage showing the Congress members passing through the tea-party demonstrations, apparently without being harassed or abused, racially or otherwise. Except that, AP claimed, this particular tour through the crowds took place some time after the alleged racist language was used. This, in itself seems odd. If the tea-party crowds were so threatening the first time through — one legislator initially claimed that the crowds reminded her of Klan rallies — why would they return to be abused again?

In the AP article just noted, independent corroboration did seem to come from a “blue-dog” (that is, more conservative) Democratic-party member of the Congress, who said he also heard the racist taunts. The Associated reporter took care to mention that this particular legislature was white, as though that fact alone would verify the accusation. However, speaking to a different reporter later, this same Congress member said he was misquoted, and did not hear the abuse at all. Nevertheless, Joan Walsh, editor of the online journal Salon, after touting the blue-dog’s testimony, just went ahead and took the word of the offended black Congress members that the incident took place. No proof needed, so long as the accuser is on “our” side.

There is a larger point being lost here: what if one or two of the demonstrators actually had said these words? Should this reflect upon the entire group of demonstrators? I think anyone — even Joan Walsh of Salon — would be hard-pressed to argue this point, by logic or by example. Just as any protest-demonstration in itself, no matter how large, necessarily represents majoritarian sentiments, no single member of any crowd can be said to speak for all of those present. This is especially so, given the fact that anyone at all can join a crowd of demonstrators. I don’t recall Salon or any other news service making a big deal out of “anti-globalization” or “anti-war” protestors of past years, carrying banners that depicted the former U.S. secretary of state and national security chief (both black Americans) as gorillas, or in other instances, signs that read “Death to Jews” or “Kill the Jews.” Unlike the tea-party people, the anti-war and anti-Israel crowd can rely on the news media keeping their backs.

Update 20 Apr 10: Roland Martin, a commentator at the CNN web site, has this to say to those who would criticize the tea party demonstrators:

First, let's deal with the Tea Party haters. Please, shut up. How can any liberal, progressive, moderate or conservative be mad about a group of Americans taking to the streets to protest the actions of the country? What they are engaged in is constitutional. The freedom to assemble, march, walk, scream and yell is right there in the document we all abide by.

How true.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Engineering and Athletics

In spite of my utter scepticism about the Olympics, and about nationalism, I had to admit that I was very proud that Canadian athletes had done so well at the recent winter Games in "Vancouver" (although most events were held in Whistler) — really for the first time ever at an Olympic games.

An article I read the other day about the Cuban Olympic boxing team, and its success at summer-Olympic games, reminded me as to how during the Cold War, the former Communist regimes of eastern Europe, were so successful at both the winter and summer games.

The figures (these from Wikipedia) are undeniable. At the 1924 summer Olympics, hosted by Paris, the top five countries by medal rank were (in order): the United States (which won ninety-nine bronze, silver and gold medals), followed by France at 38, Finland with one less than France, and then Great Britain (34) and Italy (sixteen in total). At the 1928 summer games in Amsterdam, the top five were: the U.S., Germany, Finland, Sweden and Italy. In 1932 in L.A., it was the U.S., Italy, France, Sweden and Japan.

The last summer Olympic games held before World War II (when the Olympic games were suspended) was in Berlin. Not surprisingly, Germany won the most medals (at 89), followed by the United States, Hungary, Italy and Finland. After the war, the composition of the top-ranked Olympic nations began to shift rapidly. At the 1948 summer games, held in London, the top five ranking countries were the U.S., Sweden, France, Hungary and Italy. Much the same as in previous games, but notable was the eighth-ranked country: Czechoslovakia, which just that year had seen the Communist party take power in a putsch.

By 1952, when the summer Olympics were held in Helsinki, Czechoslovakia had jumped to sixth-place. For the first time in ‘52, as well, the Soviet Union sent an Olympic team. The U.S.S.R.’s medal rank came second that year behind the U.S., with 71 versus 76. But for the 1956 Melbourne, Australia games, the Soviet Union won 99 medals (thirty-seven gold) as against only 74 for the U.S. Four years later in Rome, they did even better, getting 103 versus 71 for the Americans. Eastern bloc countries Czechoslovakia and Poland came tenth and ninth, respectively.

Again in Tokyo in 1964, the U.S. was beaten by the U.S.S.R. in total medals (though it won more gold than the Soviet Union), while Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia were also in the top ten. In 1968, when the summer Olympics were held in Mexico city, the U.S. beat out the Soviet Union for most medals; Hungary and Czechoslovakia were also in the top ten, but a new Olympic team, representing East Germany (or the German Democratic Republic) came in with 25 medals, almost tying West Germany with 26 (although the East did win more gold medals than the West; prior to ‘68, the two nations had competed on a single “united Germany” team). By 1972, when the summer games were held in Munich, the Soviets were back on top, with the U.S. in second, the GDR in third, handily beating out fourth-place West Germany. Meanwhile, the last three places in the top ten were held by Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. During the Montreal Olympics in 1976, the Eastern bloc was clearly winning the field: seven out of the top ten were Communist states, with the U.S.S.R. and East Germany coming first and second, winning 215 medals between them, including 89 gold trophies.

During the Cold War, Communist authorities were clearly interested in using the Olympic games as propaganda vehicles, to show off the superiority of Leninist socialism. What is interesting is that the success of Communist-state Olympic athletes was ramped up, even as these same countries encountered both relative and absolute economic decline. I think this parallels how command economies — and the state-controlled sectors of competitive economies — are able to more successfully develop engineered technology than are firms that operate under competitive conditions.

For a decade or more, I’ve pondered as to why this is the case, even though the cash sector is able to more effectively organize a technology-based economy better than where no competition exists. My tentative conclusion on this point has been that, in regard to research and development of applied forms of engineering, financing by governmental means is not a detriment that it obviously with other forms of investment; private financing of R&D is not as successful as it is in virtually all others forms of endeavour. But why?

There are several reasons. Motivation, for instance. Perhaps more than anyone, experts looking to bring scientific theory into engineering practice, have intrinsic incentives, regardless of the profitable end that may come from their work. This is as true of researchers working under a competitive, cash economy, as under command socialism. But, quite unlike with for-profit firms, participants in research projects financed by the state, are not usually delimited in their activities, by the necessity of creating a product or service that can sell in the marketplace. The need to make a profit is what brings discipline to the activities of companies working under competitive conditions. But it appears detrimental to research and development in the field of engineering. The need for an immediate, or at least certain, return on investment, which inspires efficiency under a cash-economy as a generality, is not at all efficacious when dealing with the technological basis of a modern economy.

Research and development under command-economy conditions (or even when investments are provided by the state which presides over a “free market” economy) does frequently lead to practical results because it such work lends itself to relatively limited ends, and measurable benchmarks. This is, of course, different from the more mundane types of production, such as clothing, housing and feeding people. As is well-known, the command economies of the former Soviet bloc were notoriously inept at these basic tasks, even as they developed satellites or jet-fighter craft that were far superior technologically to their counterparts being created in Western countries.

What does this have to do with the undeniable success that Soviet bloc athletes encountered during the Cold War? The same set of conditions are in place for athletic as for technological supremacy. Like research scientists, athletes are intrinsically motivated: their desire to win has to do with the activity itself, rather than any outside incentive, such as money. And, this intrinsic motivation is evident not only for the athletes themselves, but for those who assist them — coaches, trainers, even those who cheer them on. Certainly, athletes can make a great deal of money, both from professional salaries and from endorsements of commercial products. But this doesn’t really apply to Olympic athletes, at least not so much. Being “amateur”, athletes are not paid directly for their services. Multiple gold-medalists can make a great deal of cash from commercial endorsements, but usually this doesn’t last very long. The vast bulk of Olympic athletes have no endorsement prospects at all.

In Western countries, this has meant that athletes had to be independently wealthy (as was often the case during the first few meetings of the modern Olympics), work for a living while training part-time, or else live very modestly on stipends provided by foundations, universities or government in order to have enough training-time to compete at an international level. In the Soviet bloc during the Cold War, however, authorities were so interested in beating the West — and especially the United States — on the Olympic field, that any student showing promise in athletics was whisked into special programmes to build up her competitive potential. As such, Olympic hopefuls from the Soviet bloc were granted privileges not available to the average “citizen” in Communist countries: access to Western consumer goods, relative freedom from censorship, and most of all, travel outside the country in order to compete at the Olympics and other international athletic events. Most of all, though, they were given the free time to train without worry of having to make a living at a non-athletic job. Given this, it would be surprising if Communist-bloc athletes during the Cold War were not able to beat out Western competitors with every Olympiad.

In essence, then, what Communist Olympic programmes set out to do was to engineer the superior athlete. And, like with the successful attempts by government agencies at engineered technology, state-directed athletics (and this is as true of Western countries as of former and present Communist states), shows superior results compared to “laissez-faire”, because athletics and engineered both lend themselves to accurate metrics, and thereby to higher command-and-control.