Epistemic Status: Endorsed
Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, Evocation Infohazard, World War I
Recommended Prior Reading: Blueprint for Armageddon Part I
Part of the Series: Truth

“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”

In any real look into the past, you realize pretty quickly that things don’t have neat beginnings or simple origins in the vast majority of cases. Historical events are the result of billiard ball interactions among a chaotic conflux of actors and forces, themselves all built out of past impacts and collisions stretching back into the mists of antiquity.

Thus when trying to tell the origin story of the modern rationality community, it can be very tempting to just keep extrapolating backwards. How far back should we look? Do we need to rehash Plato’s Cave and Cogito Ergo Sum? Francis Bacon is credited as the grandfather of science, so maybe we should start with him? 

For the moment at least I’m writing blog posts not thousand page textbooks, and my goal here isn’t to rehash the entire history of scientific and philosophical thought (I’d like to keep this blog post under three thousand words). If you want the entire history of scientific thought, Cosmos is a great place to start and has some pretty spiffy graphics. 

But unlike history, every story and every blog post have to start somewhere, and I think the best place to start for our purposes is with polish banker and railway financier Jan Gotlib Bloch

Bloch was born a Polish Jew in Tsarist Russia in the 1800s, and would later convert to Calvinism to protect himself from antisemitism within the Tsarist government. Bloch worked as a banker and would go on to finance the building of rail lines in Russia, as well as penning a lengthy treatise on the management and operation of said rail lines in 1875, for which he: 

was awarded a medal of the first class at the geographical exhibition of Paris, and was heartily endorsed by the Imperial Russian Geographical Society.

But it was Bloch’s later work that would be remembered for. In 1870, The Northern German Confederation would go to war with the Second French Empire. Fueled by fears of the growing power of a rapidly unifying and industrializing Germany, France declared war and invaded in August of 1870. 

The war was only six months long. By September, Napoleon III was captured and the French Imperial Army had been decisively defeated. A new French government was declared and kept fighting, but by January of 1871 Paris was besieged and the war was brought to an end. The balance of power in Europe had fundamentally shifted, and while all the great powers reeled from the event, some saw it merely as a portent for things to come. 

The Franco-Prussian war was the first prototype of a modern war, one featuring the use of railroads, artillery, and all the new technology of creation and destruction that had come into existence since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Jan Bloch was fascinated by the war of 1870 and would go on to devote much of his personal time to studying the phenomenon that was modern military conflict. 

No one really knew how any of this stuff would interact with real combat, but everything seemed to point to the idea that the next major war would be unlike anything the world had seen before. Bloch looked at the state of the technology, where things seemed to be going, and penned his most famous six-volume work, originally in Russian and translated into numerous languages, popularized in English under the title Is War Now Impossible? This work would prove to be exactly as horrifying in its prescience as it was in its theories as to the nature of future conflicts. 

In Europe during the renaissance and age of royalty and exploration, war was almost something of a gentleman’s sport. The royals of all the major nations knew each other, everyone was someone’s cousin or uncle or grandmother, the armies would fight out in lines and day battles and then after one side defeated the other the leaders would sit down for tea and enter negotiations and this was for a long time considered a normal and acceptable way to conduct diplomacy between powers. The civilians of these nations would likely not even notice that they were at war a lot of the time.

However, with the french revolution, we see the beginnings of a change in this behavior. The french revolution is the first war to feature mass mobilization, a trend of throwing the entire nation into a conflict instead of merely a small mercenary army. When the European royal powers united against the upstart French republic, they were met not by a small, professional French army but by as much of the french people as could be mobilized. This enormously changed the way wars were fought and forced the rest of Europe to follow suit or be swamped by the sheer size of the French military. Napoleon is famously quoted as saying:

“You cannot stop me; I spend 30,000 lives a month.”

And this was a major change for the European powers who didn’t really want to arm their peasants, that’s how you end up with uprisings. But here were the french conquering Europe with a peasant army and the rest of the great powers were forced into a game of catch up. This is a rather textbook example of a multipolar trap at work. No one can coordinate to stop the escalation of the conflict, and anyone who doesn’t escalate will be defeated by those who do, thus wars become total and we witness the pivot to the start of the modern arms race. 

Moloch! Whose Fingers are ten armies!

Bloch looked at the state of technology, the state of war, and the state of European powers, and concluded that the era of quick and relatively bloodless conflicts as a method of diplomacy was over. War wasn’t a fun pastime of royalty anymore, war was now serious. Wars of the future would be total. They would not be quick and decisive affairs but brutal slugging matches fought until one nation collapsed socially and economically. He saw that the development of rifling, artillery, and machine guns had made cavalry and bayonet charges suicidal and obsolete. He claimed that a future war would be one of entrenchment, stalemates, massive firepower, and massive losses of life. 

Bloch’s book is considered to be partly responsible for the Hague Conference of 1899, which sought to impose limits on warfare and prevent the increasingly bloody looking conflict from playing out as Jan Bloch feared it would. Bloch was even a special guest of Tsar Nicholas at the conference. 

There was a belief, or maybe it was a hope, that because war had become so terrible and destructive, that the only choice nations would have would be to resort to peaceful negotiations. Bloch himself seemed to be something of a proponent to this theory, although he at least seemed to think that peace would still require conscious input and the wisdom of men. He didn’t believe that war was truly impossible, just that continuing to treat war as it had been treated in the past (sportingly) was an impossibility. It was a lesson that would, unfortunately, be mostly ignored by the leaders and military of the time. 

A decade after the publishing of Is War Now Impossible, British journalist Normal Angell published another work along similar lines, titled The Great Illusion. Angell was an early globalist, who looked at the same situation Bloch had and answered Bloch’s question with “Yeah, war is impossible now.” 

Angell’s thesis was that any gains made by war would be so dwarfed by the costs of waging a modern war that there would be no reason to ever fight one. A modern war would destroy the world’s economy, and maybe even end civilization itself, and peace was just so profitable. So war was just not going to happen. You would have to be stupid to fight Bloch’s Impossible War, no one would benefit, so no one would do it. 

Well, as history would come to show, while Angell was correct that a modern war would destroy whole nations and leave economies in ruins, he was wrong about that actually stopping the war from happening. 

Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

So in grade school, we’re taught that World War I happened because all the European powers had entered these complex networks of alliances that drew each other into the growing conflict like dominos falling and no one saw it coming or could stop it. 

Jan Bloch saw it coming, and he tried to stop it. It was a really solid attempt even, but we don’t live in the timeline where he succeeded, we live in the timeline where he didn’t. As the first decade of the twentieth century drew to a close, tensions continued to ramp up across Europe and Jan Bloch’s warning started looking more and more like a dire inevitability.

One of the readers of Jan Bloch’s book was Polish scholar Alfred Korzybski, who asked the very reasonable question: If this was all so inevitable, if everyone knew it was going to happen, then why couldn’t it be stopped? 

Part of the Series: Truth
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30 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:00 PM

This post’s summary of The Great Illusion gets the book's predictions backwards. Norman Angell does indeed argue that even victory in war is economically unprofitable and that offensive war is stupid, but he does not argue that this means war can’t happen. Just the opposite, in fact:

"It is evident that so long as the misconception we are dealing with is all but universal in Europe, so long as the nations believe that in some way the military and political subjugation of others will bring with it a tangible material advantage to the conqueror, we all do, in fact, stand in danger from such aggression. Not his interest, but what he deems to be his interest, will furnish the real motive of our prospective enemy’s action. And as the illusion with which we are dealing does, indeed, dominate all those minds most active in European politics, we (in England) must, while this remains the case, regard an aggression … as within the bounds of practical politics."

I’m aware that this isn’t central to the post’s point, but it’s one of the few claims in the post that I’m already familiar with, so seeing this makes me wonder if some of the other claims (especially the characterization of Renaissance warfare as “something of a gentleman’s sport”) might also be misleadingly glib.

Thank you so much for pointing this out, this is what I get for skimping on research in places, the next drafts of this post will be edited to change this.

I don't think war was a gentleman's sport, or at least not many people felt like one. In antiquity wars were already so deadly that one wondered if civilizations could rise again. The Second Punic War, for example, or even the conquest of Caesar can be seen as total wars. During the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, the Battle of Azincourt or Marignan are also examples of the violence and fierceness with which fighting took place. But while it is true that the number of deaths is not comparable, the effects on the parties involved are.

For my part, this question has to be qualified: in my opinion, the deadliest war will remain the Second World War for a very long time. The reason for this is that the war has changed shape, it is no longer a question of battlefields for contemporary wars, but of strategic points, targeted bombings, strategic assassinations. Wars are now more or less explicit cold wars, precisely because fighting on the ground has become too murderous.

This post is great! Would you be up for us setting up automatic crossposting of your posts? We can also make it dependent on a tag you apply to your posts (Scott from SSC uses the "LW" tag to crosspost). 

Sure! I'd be willing to do that.

How would I set that up, and is there anything I would need to change retroactively?

I can set it up for you, it's all done via RSS, so no action from your side necessary. 

I will set it up for all of your posts for now, but feel free to just tell me a tag that you want to apply instead, and then I can switch it towards that.

Is that something an individual user can set up for themselves or do we have to message an admin for that?

You currently have to message an admin for that. Mostly because we are too worried about people spamming things if we allow them to do this automatically.

Long posts about prescient writers of the past are some of my favorite!

Your other posts also made me realize I should just set up a google alert for new mentions of Korzybski.

The Franco-Prussian war was the first prototype of a modern war, one featuring the use of railroads, artillery, and all the new technology of creation and destruction that had come into existence since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815

Not particularly important, but doesn't the American civil war from a few years earlier also fit this description?

(Even if it does, Bloch may have been less familiar with it.)

Not particularly important, but doesn't the American civil war from a few years earlier also fit this description?

This seems right to me; my impression is that the impact of railroads was pretty one-sided in the American civil war (where the North had an extensive and connected rail network that they used a bunch, and the South didn't have as much capacity to begin with and lost it quickly), whereas both France and Prussia had significant rail networks in 1870 (tho the Prussian one was laid out a bit more effectively for war than the French one, which had Paris as the sole hub, meaning if you wanted to move things from one bit of the front line to another you had to backtrack a lot first).

That is not true; the CSA had worse railroads, but they were still important throughout the war. Some of the most important Union offensives late in the war- the Atlanta campaign and the siege of Petersburg- were intended to sever the South's railroads; and the war ended almost immediately after the Union cut off the railroad routes to the CSA capital of Richmond at the Battle of Five Forks. Both sides were heavily reliant on railroads for supply, and also used railroads to move troops (for the CSA, e.g. moving Longstreet's corps to fight at Chickamagua).

That is not true

Nitpick -- for replies like this, it's helpful if you say which part of the parent comment you're objecting to.

Obviously the reader can figure it out from the rest of your comment, but (especially since I didn't immediately recognize CSA as referring to the Confederate States of America) I wasn't sure what your first sentence was saying. A quote of the offending sentence from the parent comment would have been helpful.


I hadn't heard of Jan Bloch, and he indeed seemed both like an important figure in my memetic history, and object-level interesting for getting a sense of "who has previously attempted to anticipate major technological change, and prevent catastrophe?".

I'd be interested in posts exploring more details about what exactly he tried and why it didn't work.

Could you post your essays here too rather than just linking?

There is the sequence feature that would allow you to put them in order and keep them together.

Or, at least, include a paragraph or a few to summarize it!

My blog is about the only thing I have going for me at the moment, so I'd really prefer to keep my essays on my own site where I could theoretically make a little money off of them.

Hey, I've been thinking of curating this post. Would you be up for crossposting it's full content now that it's been out for a while, which would allow us to curate it?

As long as we can include a link back to the original blog post, sure.

I like the post a lot! And I also have a silly question: is there a good way to navigate hivewired? Ideally I'd like to browse through the blogs in chronological order, but all I can find for that is the monthly archive pages at the bottom of the site. Unfortunately those contain the full posts in anti-chronological order, making it a chore to find the links to the actual posts. Is there a full list of posts sorted by date somewhere?

There is presently no list of posts by date, however the sidebar should have all of the essays (aside from the two most recent ones I haven't added yet).

It's worth noting as well, a lot of my older posts aren't very good and a lot of them I don't fully endorse anymore. Sometime over the next few months I intend to go through and do a review of all my old content, find everything I no longer endorse and indicate that I've updated away from it. For now though, just be aware that everything from before the summer of 2018 is not going to be as good as the stuff that comes later, since that was prior to my major identity death and rebirth event.

Can you give more informative content warnings so that your readers can make an informed decision about whether to read the post?

What sort of warning do you want? It already provides more content warnings than most LW posts.

More info on the content or severity of the neuropsychological and evocation infohazards would be welcome. (The WWI warning is helpful; I didn't see that the first time.)

Examples of specific evocation hazards:

  • Images of gore
  • Graphic descriptions of violence
  • Flashing lights / epilepsy trigger

Examples of specific neuropsychological hazards:

  • Glowing descriptions of bad role models
  • Suicide baiting

I know which of these hazards I'm especially susceptible to and which I'm not.

I appreciate that Hivewired thought to put these warnings in. But I'm kind of astounded that enough readers plowed through the warnings and read the post (with the expectation that they would be harmed thereby?) to cause it to be promoted.

Ah, I think I have realized "Nisan has not currently read the post, because of vague warnings that he wasn't sure of the severity of, and is asking for more specifics so he can decide whether to read the post", as opposed to (what I originally thought you were asking), "Nisan read the post and wished he had had better warnings."

I personally didn't actually think the post required a warning and didn't notice them when I first read it. I'm not 100% sure what Hivewired intended by the either of the warnings, but I think "the sort of stuff that might come up if you were talking about World War I" was the main thing that seemed significant to me.

Ah, thank you! I have now read the post, and I didn't find it hazardous either.

In this particular case, was there a concrete warning you wish you had received that you didn’t?

The next evolutionary step of weapons – atomic bombs in particular – ensure meanwhile peace on a big scale. We never had as few war victims globally as in the last 70 years.

Whilst the cold war, a war that finally didn't come to happen, one had to conclude that the next world war is instant suicide. So ironically, the existence of mass destruction weapons foster peace.