King Canute and the Waves; the inevitable death of Empire

The legend: King Canute and the waves.

Canute set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the incoming tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes. Yet "continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: 'Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name

This legend, which may be true, tells a story of a wise man, who, although powerful, recognized the limitations of power. This valuable lesson, first told almost 1000 years ago, has still not been learned. The subject of this legend, King Canute, was an Emperor of England, Denmark, and much of Scandinavia. He had accrued much power through his wars and diplomacy, yet died at age 40, leaving his young empire to crumble in only another 40 years when William the Conqueror destroyed his successors. This ended one empire and begat another. The subsequent empire was, to say the least, tumultuous entailing numerous wars between the English (now no longer simply Angle-Saxons)
and the Norman-French. Who won that contest is a lesson yet unlearned by modern Emperors and their courtiers.

Who lost in those struggles for transient power, money, and "glory" of course were the people who bore the brunt of the fighting, taxation and various forms of repression. Has that changed? For those not enamored by exceptionalist jingoism, this is a rhetorical question. This situation has not changed. It predates Canute by millennia (e.g., Rameses III) and continues to this day.

The root of this illusory quest for ultimate power and riches is buried deep within the human psyche. Humans are both Devils and Angels, sometimes interchangeably. There is good and evil in every person, although the proportions vary widely.

A fact, so well illustrated in human history certainly cannot be unknown to those transient claimants for wealth and fame. Why then do these events recur, ceaselessly, in many outwardly varying but inwardly similar events?

To answer this question involves both neuroscience and metaphysics, two disciplines which cannot be fully merged, if at all. The conundrum is this: humans, as a species, are incapable of modifying this fatal flaw although knowing about it quite well. Given time, in any organization, group, society, company, nation WILL eventually evolve into aggregation of power and "legitimacy" to the few at the expense of the many.

Historical examples abound in almost every culture on every content at all recorded times. This, then, sets the agenda of Reformers (of any sort, of any era) in what is ultimately a vain quest. Corruption and repression are inevitable accompaniments of human existence. To fully halt this will require something upon which we are already on the brink: the destruction of humanity (and the planet) by thermonuclear weapons (rapidly) or environmental poisoning (more slowly but just as certainly)

To those currently engaged in building or preserving Empire, the response is always: "this time it will be different". No it won't. It cannot be. We are "hardwired" to behave irrationally despite cognition of the destructive nature of our own actions. Emotion always outweighs reason. Let me repeat: emotion always outweighs reason.

Humans cannot, as a whole be re-programmed. MK Ultra is no exception. Propaganda must be continually reinforced and or the institution physical/mental constraint employed. 1984 is no fantasy. It is real. Winston Smith is everyman.

Being conscious of his own mortality, Louis XIV is reported to have said "apres moi, l'deluge". He knew his temporal greatness would not outlast his own life--he didn't care; he enjoyed his status, exalted above his fellow men. He, like Canute, had the wisdom to know that his power and glory was ultimately limited.

The question is now whether the suicidal NeoConservatives are capable of realizing this innate flaw of human behavior as well as the ultimate demise of any (and all) empires? The American empire will disintegrate. In fact it is disintegrating. Our society, as presently constituted, has institutionalized its ultimate failure. Only a few examples are necessary to illustrate this expected collapse: the failure to subsidize education for the betterment of all seeking it, the meat grinders of people and resources in wars of empire, the deprivation of human services in favor of human slaughter AND elite enrichment. Need I continue?

Pessimism? No, realism.
Curable? No.
Containable? Maybe.

How does one alter the human genome to eliminate these curses of seeking power and glory? Please, someone tell me. Revolution? Bloody, painful and only sometimes effective. As said above:

We are "hardwired" to behave irrationally despite cognition of the destructive nature of our own actions. Emotion always outweighs reason. Let me repeat: emotion always outweighs reason.

Inevitably, in a dog-eat-dog world, the tougher and more devious dogs gain power. A dog's conception of power is more limited than man's but not so much different. Bigger bones, more meat, pick of mates.

Know then that the recession of the tides is always transient. High tide always comes and with it the destruction of our castles in the sand.

Let us learn from Katrina and the Waves:

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Comments

mhagle's picture

The power of arrogance, greed, and presumption are strong. But love is stronger.

You predict that the former will win, because in the past it has always won.

I predict that this time, love will win.

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Marilyn

Let's save the planet for our kids. Tree Hugger to the end.

Alligator Ed's picture

@mhagle It's at the end of this essay for that very reason.

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mhagle's picture

@Alligator Ed

I will listen to the song now. Sorry.

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Marilyn

Let's save the planet for our kids. Tree Hugger to the end.

mhagle's picture

@mhagle

Thank you!

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Marilyn

Let's save the planet for our kids. Tree Hugger to the end.

Lookout's picture

"Marx's moral critique of capitalism and his keen insights into its inner workings and historical context are still worth paying attention to."
http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/marx-was-right-five-surprising-wa...

"...capitalism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction"
http://www.marxist.com/karl-marx-130-years.htm

Of course Marx lived in the 1800's. Your story of King Canute is much much older. Both however are in agreement that this empire will fall.

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Alligator Ed's picture

@Lookout Now, in this century of pillage, the term Marxism is almost totally thought to be a promotion of Communism. Actually, as the Rolling Stone article clearly explains, most of Marx's writing concerned the flaws of capitalism. His formulation for a "better" system lacked the wisdom of his critique. My essay concerns the circadian nature of human knowledge and stupidity, each trait co-existing with the other, one predominating over the other in a cyclic fashion. We humans are on a Ferris wheel which no one remembers how to stop.

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The collapse of the empire may be the one enduring, if unintended, accomplishment of the Trump presidency. He's already thrown a wrench into the Bush/Clinton plan to consolidate nation-state centric oligarchies into a single global oligarchy.

The framers were aware of the tendency toward concentrated power. (They also worried more than I think was necessary about the power of large numbers of ordinary people.) Their attempted solution was to create offsetting power centers. There are many times when power has been concentrated. Today seems the most dangerous to me because of the ability of the oligarchs to track everything we do and create customized messages to communicate with us. They don't have to persuade us to agree with them. Keeping us divided over identity politics and standing during the national anthem will do just fine.

Teddy Roosevelt weakened the concentration of power with his attack on the trusts. FDR created an environment in which working people could balance the power of their corporate employers that endured for two generations. The oligarchs began preparing for the destruction of the New Deal virtually the day he was elected.

We can offset the tendency you describe when power is offset by countervailing power. We've done it before. The challenge is without doubt greater this time. But the shedding of empire is an excellent first step.

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Alligator Ed's picture

@FuturePassed Computerization has been a mixed blessing as have all technological "advancements. As you correctly observed:

Today seems the most dangerous to me because of the ability of the oligarchs to track everything we do and create customized messages to communicate with us. They don't have to persuade us to agree with them. Keeping us divided over identity politics and standing during the national anthem will do just fine.

Never before, even with Russian Commissars on every block or Gestapo agents in every district, the ability to track, detect, coerce, detain, or kill recalcitrants and unbelievers has never been greater. On the contrary, the new openness provided by the same computerization via the internet provides effective counter propaganda and more accurate information than allowed by authoritarian regimes, which sadly includes ours.

This is not a zero sum game, meaning no change, preservation of status quo. Eventually the autocrats or the populists will win. Will money suffice to be the deciding factor? I don't know. If I could read the future, then I would be either Josef Stalin or Mahatma Ghandi. My personal choice is for the latter--but do we really have the ability to enforce such a choice?

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Lily O Lady's picture

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"The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" ~Orwell, "1984"

Alligator Ed's picture

@Lily O Lady He is a bit older a curmudgeon than I but only by a few years. We, if I may speak for Don, are representatives of the "older but wiser" persuasion. What avails our wisdom other than passing along our experience and our acquired views? I've "been there, done that" and haven't much liked what is being done now. So I take comparisons to Don as flattering. I like his opinions, obviously because they are largely concordant with mine.

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Lily O Lady's picture

@Alligator Ed

unmistakable. I am on Social Security and Medicare, so I’m no spring chicken. It had occurred to me that civilizations have risen and fallen regionally for thousands of years. Now that we have globalization, we can do it on a worldwide scale. I’d like to opt out, but my existence and that of my family and friends are inextricably tied to the world we live in. Maybe the preppers have it right after all. Wink

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"The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" ~Orwell, "1984"