It has been observed that if you want to be an emperor, it is better by far to be one at the beginning of the empire than at the end, when the whole enterprise is collapsing. If so, this is as good a season as any to start thinking about how to get there. Empires have been out of fashion for several generations, but history moves in cycles, and the day of the empire is returning.
Since you, my aspiring student, happen to be a citizen of the USA, I shall advise you in that context. Establishing the first truly modern empire in America may seem difficult, given prevailing support for a democratic form of government based on individual rights and liberty. But the task may be more feasible than it appears on the surface. Democracy in America has run its course and is suffocating from its own contradictions. Twenty or thirty years from now, if present trends continue, a strong leader should be able to win enough support to take over absolute control simply by appearing on the scene and promising to solve the many intractable problems that beset a weary nation. The key variable is whether public discontent will increase or decrease over that period. The odds, by any realistic estimate, are in your favor.
Would you like to be the Emperor of this new imperium? There will be lots of competition, but if you are really interested, read on…
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The name of the game is to develop techniques for infiltrating elite groups and securing dominance within them. There is no simple formula or strategy here, no “Dominance for Dummies” handbook, but there is one central principle that needs to be your lodestar from the outset. That is, networking. This involves more than just “getting to know” the other individuals around you as you climb the ladder of your ambitions. You will need to develop an accurate sense of which individuals matter, and why, so that you can ingratiate yourself by service and flattery with those above you while bonding with those at your own level who may prove useful later on. Those below you can be exploited opportunistically. You are like a bicycle rider, head bowed, feet pushing on that which is beneath him, while always forging ahead.
Like a mountaineer aspiring to climb Everest, you must start at a relatively low level and work your way up. The hierarchies of power are like a series of centrifuges, each level more demanding than the next one down. At the bottom level, any ambitious individual with above average talents may succeed, but at higher levels the competition gets stiffer, and eventually the aspiring power broker finds he needs truly Olympic-class capabilities even to stay in the game.
What are these capabilities? The primary requirements are unusual doses of energy, ambition, and cleverness. Any individual who excels in any one of these qualities is likely to make a mark, but it takes all three to get into the big leagues. In addition, there is the ability to remember and connect with very large numbers of people. There are a few individuals who are born with this unusual talent, which is at least as rare as absolute pitch in musicians. It is rather as though, where most of us are endowed only with a floppy drive in that part of our brains, they have a gigabyte chip. This talented minority is likely to include the most politically successful of our leaders. If you are one of them, you have a significant head start.
There are, of course, other qualities like a sense of justice, a compassion for human suffering, and an appreciation for the fine arts, that are generally regarded as admirable. However, they are spun off as the individual ascends the ladder. Not that these qualities are liabilities in themselves, they just get in the way. A person who pauses while climbing the ladder of his ambitions to feel sorry for the downtrodden or admire beautiful art or music simply loses ground, while less distracted competitors are shouldering their way ahead. In saying this, of course, I am not saying that the ambitious individual should not pay lip service to these praiseworthy qualities or interests, for success may depend on her giving the impression she has a normal quota of belief in them or respect for them. It is just that when push comes to shove, she will not let them stand in the way of her ambition.
Do you still want to become an emperor? If so, read on…
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You need to internalize the idea that you can buy power with money, while power in turn can be transformed back into money. Properly managed, applications of this principle can put you on a fast track toward the summit. This suggests that a career in business, especially high finance, may prove attractive. If you strike it very rich and have the afore-mentioned Olympic-class qualities, you could perhaps end up at Davos hobnobbing with a few score other titans of finance, who together hold much of the globe’s economic fate in their hands. But there are other choices, notably law, and politics, that offer a fairly direct route to the top. It is a little like choosing which stock to buy, or which horse to bet on, since some of the fast lanes get faster over time, and others slow down. There will always be a certain amount of luck involved, since even if you have the makings of a future emperor, you can never accurately foretell the future.
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Very well, you have passed through several levels of centrifuges that have selected out all competitors that have the least iota of compassion or morality, and you have arrived close to the top of the Washington power structure. The world is your oyster, almost. What do you do with all this power, now that you have it? What is your strategy?
There is a law governing these matters, deriving from the aforementioned centrifuge principle, that says the greater the concentration of power in any given place and time, the more unscrupulous and ruthless will be the individuals with their hands on its levers. It follows that your target, Washington, is one of the most difficult anywhere. Alliance-building and betrayal will be the order of the day. The calculated, deniable leak to domesticated journalists, the surreptitious gathering of evidence of the peccadilloes of your competitors, the mutual backscratching with selected lobbyists and other useful citizens, these are but some of the beasts that populate your jungle. But if you are equal to the task, you will succeed in becoming first among equals of perhaps the most devious and unscrupulous band of cutthroats ever to exist since the downfall of the Byzantine Empire.
You will, of course, be facing the obstacle that the USA is a democracy founded on the principle of the separation of powers, which is quite the opposite of the centralized control you want. But do not let superficial appearances deter you. There are tidal forces sweeping the country inexorably in the direction you desire. The first of these is the increased ability of the few to persuade the many, which depends mainly on control of the mass media, starting with television. That is as good a place as any to start.
Regard the situation in the middle of the twentieth century, and consider how far we have come from the information environment in which our republic was born and nurtured. Before television, politicians who wanted to broadcast their messages to a wide audience relied mainly on written or verbal messages (press or radio). But these media leave out important non-verbal cues that we all learn as children to use when we assess the reliability and importance of a message between individuals. As Marshall McLuhan noted, television restored these elements. Now, if you can select extraordinarily talented individuals as communicators and position them as anchors in leading news and entertainment programs, you can eventually persuade a very large number of people that down is up and up is down, just by telling them so over and over again, with all the gestures and intonations that we associate with reliability in the messenger. This explains why there has been a steady increase in the power of the very rich in our country during the epoch that began with the popularization of television, accompanied by a giant leap backward in maintaining our civil liberties and constitutional protections against tyranny.
If television has become the key mechanism for influencing public opinion, money is quite evidently the key factor in determining who controls television, and to what purposes. Television appeared on the scene relatively recently but has evolved rapidly. At the beginning there were a host of small and independent players, but the most rapacious of them have eaten the smaller fry, so now the competition looks more like a battle between a few titans than a free-for-all between different-sized entities. With your rapidly evolving skills, it should be possible for you to bring enough of those titans under your wing to control the opinions of a majority of the voters.
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A direct path runs between increased influence in the media and Congress. Indeed, recent history has shown that the two arenas are inseparable, with gains in the each facilitating further progress in the other. If your media clout becomes strong enough to play a kingmaker role in key congressional elections, you can use Congress to ensure a favorable legislative climate for your further takeover of the media, with the additional benefit of eventually domesticating the Supreme Court.
At present Congress is ruled by money rather than principle, but there are many cooks in the kitchen, with a large number of industries and other interests, each bidding in the congressional slave market, sometimes against each other. The situation is ripe for the entry on the scene of a godfather (to use the mafia analogy) who can whip these actors into line and get them marching to a coherent tune. This will be so obviously to their collective advantage that once you have achieved it the process will become well-nigh irreversible.
When you have achieved dominance of both Congress and the television industry, you have arrived close enough to the pinnacle of power to enjoy the view. You see in our present government an engine, designed by the founding fathers to drive a small eighteenth century society, still sputtering along under the outsized workload imposed by the behemoth that America has become. You can see the pressure points, and why the system as a whole is faltering. You then see how you can bring order out of chaos, and restore coherence and a sense of national direction and purpose to a public desperately hoping for it. You will maintain the fiction of democracy but replace its substance with autocracy.
How you will do this is quite simple, in principle: you will revert to the classic method of getting people to cooperate, fear. Fear of becoming impoverished, and fear of an external enemy.
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The folk mythology of the American nation includes a bias toward the concept of the self-made man, a rags to riches model that allows people to dream that perhaps with a bit of luck they may themselves become very rich. For centuries, that dream has provided the basis for a large gambling industry, and for economic policies that disproportionately favor the wealthy. Most of the time, the social strains this bias might generate have been mitigated by growth rapid enough to raise living standards for all. But this stabilizing factor has eroded, partly because of structural changes in the economy like the lessened clout of labor unions, and partly because the very rich, with their increasing influence over public opinion and Congress, have become very greedy. Meanwhile, the middle class has been treading water, and the ranks of the impoverished have grown.
This is a trend that cannot continue indefinitely without a serious backlash. The reality of gradual impoverishment is forcing many Americans to confront the unwelcome fact that their dream of a prosperous future is just that. The USA, despite economic ups and downs, increasingly resembles a kettle on a stove, with the water not yet boiling but beginning to simmer. The oligarchs and their agents are trying to convert the kettle to a pressure cooker so they can enjoy the good times for a while longer, but to the extent they succeed they only postpone some kind of explosion or meltdown. You should wish them well in their efforts, because they are tearing down the democratic institutions standing in their way, doing your job for you. If the end result is some kind of donnybrook, it is precisely in such a situation of chaos and confusion that you will find your opportunity to strike.
The situation regarding the need for an external threat is similar, in that the oligarchs are now doing your work for you. They realize that a land at peace argues with itself interminably and little gets accomplished, while a brisk external threat evokes the “us versus them” instincts in the public while they patriotically rally behind whatever leadership happens to be in place at the time. War has always been a favorite tool of the oligarchs, when they face internal opposition.
The war with Iraq was designed and initiated by people close to or within the centers of power and succeeded briefly in whipping up a fog of patriotism that temporarily obscured the expedient nature of the affair. Iraq’s weakness, however, was that its military collapsed too early and the evidence of its collusion with terrorists evaporated on examination. The war in Afghanistan worked somewhat better, in that at least the declared enemy has been putting up a good fight. But for your purposes neither one is entirely satisfactory. Before you move decisively to overthrow the existing democratic system, you will need a genuinely credible external threat, comparable in plausibility to the threat we saw in Nazi Germany and Japan at the beginning of World War II. Judging from present trends, that threat will most likely grow out of global terrorism and the prospect of strikes against the American heartland.
Meanwhile, you need not wait for a threat that becomes that serious. Your predatory instincts can be satisfied with lesser prey while you are consolidating your hold on the instruments of power within the USA. Any crisis that rallies the country, while also supporting the continued buildup of our military forces, is likely to work in your favor. If a collateral result is to strike down or seriously weaken actual or potential adversaries, so much the better. But consolidating your hold on the military is more important, for when the time comes to take over, you will need to be absolutely sure you control key elements of our military establishment. And after that point, the military will be your most important single instrument for consolidating your dominance domestically and pursuing your goals abroad.
The question of timing is important. Your move to assume dictatorial powers will be most likely to succeed if domestic pressures reach the boiling point at the same time that a credible external threat announces itself an some dramatic fashion. Symbolism is important here, as it was for Hitler when the Reichstag burned. There is no way to predict the right circumstances and the most effective trigger in advance, but if you have gone this far up the ladder, you have the qualities to know when the moment has come, and how to use it.
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Very good. The Republic is dying, and you are in the process of installing yourself as the supreme authority, the first of the nation’s Caesars. Your most immediate problem is how to organize the new regime at the top. Since you will probably reach the summit by becoming first among equals in a small clique of extremely influential power brokers, the model of the board of directors for a large corporation will probably prove effective. After all, you will need most of these power brokers, at least for a while, to keep on running those parts of the nation that they are already controlling. Your main problem is ensuring their loyalty, rather than picking the most competent individual for the job.
It doesn’t much matter whether you call yourself the President, or the CEO, or the Chairman, or El Supremo for that matter. That choice can be left to your marketing experts, who have prior experience with selecting brand names that sell the product. Your most urgent matter is organizing parallel networks of people of demonstrated loyalty who keep an eye on the directors, and each other. The directors may be bound to you by a combination of hope and opportunism at the moment of creation, but as things settle down afterwards their loyalty must be cemented by fear, by the certain knowledge that moves against you will be exposed at an early stage and vigorously suppressed.
Several “intelligence” organizations already exist within established branches of the government. FBI and CIA are the best known ones, and a host of others have been spawned in answer to the terrorist threat. Get the best people you can trust into positions at or near the top of as many of these networks as possible, and abolish the rest. Make sure that at least three or four of your choices have a direct channel to you. Once they have started operating, their competitive instincts will encourage them to report against each other, and if you are successful in separating the wheat from the chaff you should be able to make fairly reliable judgments about which individuals merit the most trust. Take a few of these individuals and organize a new, maximally secret group of informers, who report to you personally on everyone else. Task your best friend, your most trusted confidante, with keeping a wary eye on that group. And then, keep an eye on your best friend. Remember the centrifuge principle. You will be dealing with some of the best poker players in the country and perhaps the world.
Meanwhile, you must develop more effective ways to control the behavior of the nation’s citizens. This has long been the main weakness of the democratic system you are replacing. Your control of the media gives you a powerful lever to influence public attitudes, but there will always be malcontents, and you will have to be able to manage them through more explicit means than television messages. Those messages, however, can serve to convince most people that opposition to the regime is unpatriotic or even criminal, making it easier to incarcerate serious opponents or, when necessary, cause them to “disappear”. You won’t have to worry about old-fashioned Constitutional guarantees against this sort of control, as the oligarchy that managed the country before your takeover will already have gotten rid of them in all but name only.
Given the power of modern computers, it is remarkable that we do not yet have in place a bar-code system identifying every individual born under the nation’s jurisdiction, or admitted to our shores to visit or live. The sooner you can put such a system in place, the better. The new system will have obvious benefits in many sectors of personal and public life, such as taxation and public health; it will introduce so many efficiencies that people will wonder in retrospect how they ever got along without it. The situation will be analogous to what bar-coding objects has already done for the merchandising industry. But from your perspective, the main benefit will be your enhanced ability to monitor the lives of every citizen in detail, and spot any incipient opposition before it has a chance to evolve into a threat.
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So far, I have been advising you mainly about process, not purpose. It is time we sat back and reflected on what the product is that you have been so successful in selling. Are you pushing a specific ideology or religion? or supporting the claims of a specific economic or regional or ethnic group? or are you presenting yourself as the avatar of the whole nation, coming to its rescue in its time of greatest need? Surely the latter will best suit your needs, though you may have found it expedient to present yourself as the savior of some more specific interest group while fighting your way through to supremacy at some lower rung on the ladder. (Don’t worry about changing ideologies in midstream; consistency is not a necessary virtue in this business, indeed at times it can be a liability).
Whatever your initial coloration may be, you will want to start presenting yourself as a national savior well before you reach the summit. This need not interfere with your equally important task of presiding over the final abolition of the traditional rights the Constitution accords to the individual, provided the media are in a sufficiently cooperative state. And then, for a while after your actual takeover, and even as the honeymoon spirit drains away from the public, your continuing popularity can be assured if you can just clean up the mess your predecessors left behind (“make the trains run on time” as in Mussolini’s Italy).
Meanwhile you ought to position yourself as the most articulate supporter in the nation of the quaint American myth that there is something truly exceptional about our country, something that sets it apart from all others and gives it some kind of moral license to preach to others, and, when we consider it necessary, enforce that which we preach. This will serve two purposes. First, it will ingratiate you with a large majority of the public, and second, it will irritate most foreigners. That will render America’s friends less friendly and its adversaries more overtly hostile. You will need a fair amount of recurrent episodes of foreign hostility to rally patriotic support as you consolidate your position, and a messianic approach to the rest of the world will guarantee that you have it in sufficient supply.
The most important way of stoking the fires of foreign antipathy, of course, is to continue the militaristic and interventionist policies of the oligarchs that preceded you. You should continue to give absolute priority to the military, ensuring their pride of place at the trough of public funding, while insisting on maintaining the nation’s capability to project power any place, any time, through maintenance of the technical supremacy of our arms, and our global base network. However, you should avoid the mistakes of your predecessors, and not get into actual wars you cannot win. Grenada is a better model than Afghanistan. It goes without saying that you should avoid at all costs getting into conflicts where you might actually lose.
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Very well. You are rapidly consolidating your position as the absolute ruler of the nation by presenting yourself as the doughty battler against all its enemies, foreign and domestic, real and fabricated. Assuming that you succeed in wearing this ‘made in the USA’ version of the imperial crown for several years or more, you may begin to wonder if this is indeed the end of the trail, and whether there are no further challenges before you. You will begin to think like a global imperialist, not just a national one. This impulse to broaden your scope will be fortified when major calamities occur that can serve as plausible excuses for American intervention. It matters little whether such events are due to natural causes (including climate change) or are of human origin (like regional wars, including nuclear ones) or some combination of both (like desertification and mass population migrations). America will be expected by virtue of its wealth and power to take the lead in resolving many of these crises, and participate in the rest in one way or another. Your ultimate objective will be to supplant the UN and other international agencies with substitutes of your own making and under your control, so that Washington, not New York or Geneva or any other capital, becomes the central nexus of global power, with its tentacles reaching everywhere.
In this effort, you will find that many of the same principles that helped you to cut down the opposition and forge ahead domestically apply to foreign affairs, though the terminology may be different. Networking with other world leaders will be just as essential now as networking with domestic power brokers was before. It is as important as ever to know as much as possible about the key individuals in your expanded circle. You will want to know their individual weaknesses as well the the pressures from their constituents, the better to deploy whatever mix of flattery, bribery, economic pressure, and military threat works best. Meanwhile you need to manipulate their constituencies to your ends through black propaganda as well as overt programs of an informational or cultural nature. If you feel a need for further instruction in these arcane arts, you can profitably study the machinations of the most successful former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.
I could go on at some length to describe the powerful tools that will be at your disposal, such as black propaganda, targeted political assassinations, plain and complicated forms of bribery, and so forth, but your prior experience will doubtless have endowed you with a mastery of them all, and more. Furthermore I am constrained by the thought that it is unlikely that even a person of your talents will be able to take over America and still have time in a single lifetime to absorb the rest of an increasingly unruly and complex world. You will probably have to leave most of the latter task to your successors.
This leads me to my final piece of advice, the nature of the task you will face in turning the reins of power over to a younger individual when you feel the imminence of death. You should, of course, avoid the hereditary principle entirely. The job is too important to be based on such a capricious and unreliable mechanism. You should, rather, designate whatever individual has shown the greatest skill and enthusiasm in climbing the power ladder, and the greatest mastery of the tools I have commended to you.
Do not be in any hurry about this, for if you designate your heir too early, he or she may become impatient as time passes and you remain in good health, and consider advice from supporters as to how best to hasten the arrival of the succession. So it is reasonable to designate several possible heirs and keep everyone off balance as to your ultimate intentions, reserving your final decision to the words you pronounce on your deathbed.
And with that, my dear student, I shall close this little instruction manual. You may never get to be an emperor anyway, but it should improve your odds.
First published on Progressive Humanism.