The Burning Blade

Fireaxe Newsletter - edition 13.1

December 8, 2009

"The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the
United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief
economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the
finance industry has effectively captured our government -
a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging
markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market
crises. If the IMF's staff could speak freely about the U.S.,
it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation:
recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy
that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent
a true depression, we're running out of time."

- preface to an Atlantic Magazine article
written by Simon Johnson, chief economist
at the IMF from 2007 to 2008

Neo-liberal economics, the current ruling ideology of the global financial system, is an utter failure. The glorious benefits of capitalism and how it efficiently allocated wealth to where it is most needed turned from a system of self-regulating markets into a casino of get-rich-quick schemes, rent extraction, and debt burdens on tens of millions of individuals, hundreds of banks and financial institutions, scores of multinational corporations, and far too many local, state, and federal governments which are so great that without the continuous and potentially long term injection of trillions of dollars into the global economy the entire financial system would completely collapse. And yet, the wealthy few have never had it better.

Even as neo-liberalism fails it is succeeding beyond its wildest dreams at achieving its long term goals. "Starve the Beast" or so the strategy is called, the beast being the almighty government with its power to seize wealth from its citizens and distribute it how it sees fit. Neo-liberals would have you believe that resource allocation is best left to a free market system governed by as few regulations as possible, if any, despite the fact that having too few regulations has always resulted in gross inefficiencies, monopolies, and spectacular market implosions. Neo-liberal theorists sought to reduce the size of government to the point where it could be "drowned in a bathtub", a misguided notion founded during the counter-culture movement of the sixties when both the left and the right rebelled against the establishment powers. Their approach is simple: cut taxes, privatize, subsidize, deregulate, and respond to every crisis with a flood of cheap money to paper over the holes that were being made in the walls that support our economic system. As they assured us it would, money did trickle down into the pockets of the working class but that flow was dwarfed by the torrent of cash flooding into the coffers of the wealthy, especially Wall Street's "Masters of the Universe". The neo-liberal program has worked very well in Third World nations, slowly but surely bankrupting their semi- socialist governments and forcing them to sell off their country's natural resources and industries, and usually for a song to a select group of well connected insiders. Now it appears to be the First World's turn to go under the knife and watch their precious "welfare states" get whittled down to next to nothing while the government is transformed into a willing tool of the moneyed elites. Welcome to the economic endgame.

But before I start sounding like just another internet conspiracy nut I should add that this was not a plan that was hatched by a secret cabal behind closed doors one cold November evening but rather is the natural progression of a system where individuals are pursuing their own interests first and foremost with other concerns coming in a distant second. When you want more of something you tend towards doing whatever it takes to get it and if you are held back by an attack of ethics you will end up playing catch-up behind those who have no such moral dilemmas. Sure, some cheaters get caught, but when the payoff for breaking the rules and being successful outweighs the reward for catching someone in the act the best and the brightest will choose to run with the pack instead of playing the role of dogcatchers and the trend will inexorably drift towards a no-holds-barred free-for-all that will one day destroy itself by its own excesses. This has all happened before, many times and under many ideologies and economic systems, and we are seeing it happen again.

Today we are arriving at our economic system's endgame stage and rather than get deep into discussions of interest rates and comparative advantage I'll instead describe how we got here using a simply analogy that everyone understands, or at least everyone who's ever played the game Monopoly. Monopoly is one of the best games ever invented and it replicates the process of economic development rather well. In the game, everyone starts off equal and life is mostly cost free for the first few laps around the board. Players choose their strategies, buy up undeveloped properties, try to get some good luck, and even wheel and deal to achieve full blocks of properties or utilities which will serve as launching pads for their future development and wealth. During this first stage of the game the money coming in by passing "GO" and landing on the "Chance" or "Community Chest" squares is more than enough to cover a player's expenses. Soon though, as houses start to go up and the number of bank owned properties dwindles closer to zero, moving about the board becomes a more costly proposition and a run of bad luck can have you selling your properties back to the bank or handing them over to other players. At the turns go by and houses become hotels the $200 for each successful circuit of the board becomes less and less important and what matters the most is having a steady flow of income from well developed properties. If you're behind in that race only lucky dice rolling can save you, but the odds are that the player with the most property is going to win.

So how does this relate to the current economic situation? Imagine a game of Monopoly where all of the properties are owned by a single player, we'll call him Gates, save for a handful which are owned by other players. Similarly, most of the money is in Gates' hands too and little of it is in the hands of the others. At this point it is all the others players can do to stay above water, hoping that the dice will roll in their favor so that they can pay off the bills that are going to add up when they land on Gates' hotels, but one spate of bad luck will put them out of the game just as a lost job or a health crisis can put most lower or middle class people into bankruptcy. The same is not true for Gates who has the funds to weather a few bad rolls and muddle through until the tide turns in his favor, which it eventually will. So slowly but surely the other players will go bankrupt one by one and surrender all of their wealth and property to Gates. They have no hope of winning or even getting back into the game and for them the game is effectively over. But for Gates the game is still alive and well and he wants to continue playing so that he can realize his dream of owning everything on the entire board, having a hotel on every property, and owning all the money in the bank. The thing is, he can only get there if the other players keep playing the game, so if they are ever about to go bankrupt Gates is ready to give them a loan, putting their future earnings in his pocket as well as their present savings. Now Gates isn't worried about giving out loans because he knows that he is going to get the money back, plus interest, because it is inevitable that the players who owe him money will land on his properties a lot more often then he lands on theirs. And so, the longer Gates keeps the other players in the game the more times they pass go and the more times they collect $200 that they will give to him to pay back their loans. At this point the other players will actually be happy to land on "Go directly to Jail" and spend as much time there as possible because it costs them less to do that than to move around the board and land on Gates' hotels. Also the other players are going to be dreadfully unmotivated to play the game, wanting to quit, watch TV, take long bathroom breaks, or do anything else but roll the dice. What's in it for them? They have no future. They have been reduced to eternal indebtedness and wage slavery. In the real world this is the direction we have been moving towards for decades with the bubbles of the last decade only serving to accelerate the process, making us think that we were getting richer while we were only receiving empty promises. Now we are dependent on a system which only exploits us.

The credit crunch can also be explained using our Monopoly analogy. Let's say that Gates has given out a large number of loans, some of them double or triple the amount of the properties which the players must mortgage, to all of the players. Let's also say that Gates has used a lot of the IOUs from those loans to pay for new hotels on his properties, selling them to the bank for cash. Imagine what happens when some of the players start defaulting on their loans. All of the sudden the IOUs are of suspect value and are possibly even worthless. Gates' empire is about to come crashing down around him. Also, since Gates is no longer able or willing to loan money to the other players, they are going to go bankrupt the next time they land on one of Gates' hotels. Complete disaster is about to strike. So Gates calls the banker, we'll call him Hank, and gets Hank to give him a loan for any IOU that goes into default. Hank is willing to do so since he wants the IOUs that his bank holds to be paid in full too and thus the bailout saves the day. Now the game can continue with Gates' empire still intact, but without Gates giving any new loans to the other players (because he fears that those IOUs will likely become worthless) the poorer players will end up bankrupt and Gates and Hank will end up owning everything. Their empire however, will be a poor, sorry, and unmotivated one. This is our future.

Now, how can the game be fixed? The laissez-faire solution, leaving everything alone to work out by itself as well as stopping Hank from bailing out Gates, isn't going to change much. Though Gates' empire will suffer large losses, the other players will lose even more and the game will end up tilted even more in Gates' favor. Another popular solution is to force Gates to give the other players access to more loans, but that isn't going to help change the outcome, it will only prolong the inevitable victory for Gates and likely create an even larger bubble, resulting in an even worse crash than before. Furthermore, "socialist" solutions involving the redistribution of money won't help either. For instance, let's assume that all of the players' money, Gates' included, is collected by a third party, let's call him Barack, who evenly divides the cash between the players. All will be well for a few times around the board but since Gates still has all of his properties and hotels he will soon end up with the lion's share of the wealth and the other players will be on the verge of bankruptcy once more. A labor leaning solution is to have all the players pool their properties and wealth so that they can build houses and hotels and try to compete against Gates, but if Gates has convinced Barack that such a thing is against the rules then that solution won't work either. What's needed is to restore a more balanced distribution of revenue generating property among the players so that everyone has a chance to contribute, be rewarded, and excel if they work hard enough, and it is important to add that such intervention must be temporary so that the free market system is allowed to do what it does best: allow competition to bring out the best in everyone. In the game Monopoly such redistribution is done by declaring one player the winner and starting the game over, giving everyone a fresh start. In the real world such a reorganization has yet to be done in any satisfactory manner. Taking too much from the wealthy reduces their incentive to work hard and invest capital while giving too little to the poor creates only temporary fixes to structural economic problems. Enraging either group through either repeated government interventions or leaving a broken system in place risks political turmoil and can even result in violent revolution or a military takeover. This is not a simple problem so beware of simple solutions, especially ideological ones.

The Great Depression and U.S. economic policy throughout provides a good lesson in economic rebalancing. Then as now the wealth and income distribution in the U.S. had become heavily skewed to record levels in favor of the wealthy and the debt burdens which so many were carrying were at were so great that they were suffocating the economy. Similar to our Monopoly analogy people were desperate to pass go and collect their $200, but it never seemed to be enough and many people were losing their property in a system which was stacked against them. In the 1930s, F.D.R. redistributed income by raising taxes on the rich through the roof and spending that money by employing large number of Americans on public works projects. This worked, though slowly, and contrary to the current U.S. stimulus packages there was no massive borrowing (which is currently pushing the U.S. to the brink of insolvency) nor tax breaks in the hopes that the private sector would somehow magically fix all of our problems. Contrary to neo-liberal theorists, the private sector is not the answer to all economic problems. While the private sector is a powerful force in the economy, it is mostly focused on short term profits and is unable to pay for massive long term investments nor endure the continuing losses on investments which provide a great benefit to all, especially to those without much wealth, as well as pave the way for private sector opportunities. Long term investment and sacrifices for the common good are what the government can do well and has done so in the past in the form of the interstate highway system, the postal service, the internet, the G.P.S. system, the national parks project (thanks to Ken Burns for his magnificent series on that), funding for research in universities, and the list goes on and on. A great many highly profitable businesses owe their existences to government led infrastructure investments that no private businesses would have been able to undertake. F.D.R.'s investments in particular helped the economy to flourish twenty years later but they were not enough to rebalance the nation's wealth so that it could rise up out of the depression.

It is popular on both the left and the right to claim that World War Two pulled the U.S. out of the depression. The right claims that F.D.R.'s policies actually prolonged the depression rather than helped to end it and that only when the government began awarding massive contracts to private sector military suppliers during the war did the economy turn around. The left counters that the massive government spending during WWII was simply F.D.R.'s Keynesian economic programs writ large and that the reason why the U.S. didn't pull out of the depression quickly in the 30's was that F.D.R. didn't tax and spend enough. The trouble with both of these arguments is that they ignore the massive government borrowing during the war which is an obvious cause of the boost in economic productivity during that period as well as ignore the post war recession and the fact that the economy didn't truly pick up until five to ten years after the end of the war. Furthermore, massive government borrowing along with equally massive military spending has been policy in the US since the mid-70's and has it done nothing to keep the U.S. out of its current economic woes. In fact it appears that such policies are one of the primary reasons for causing today's economic woes. Thus, it seems that both the left and right are missing the larger picture, that the balance of wealth and income is what is crucial to create a thriving economy, and thus they do not see what the war did to produce such balance and lead us to a lasting recovery.

During World War II roughly 60 million people were killed, a great many of them young men who would normally find employment in the manual labor market. These losses immediately produced a global labor shortage and the situation was made even more acute by women leaving the wartime labor market to have children and raise families. In the aftermath of the war manual labor was desperately needed to rebuild the shattered nations of Europe and Asia and that demand combined with the labor shortage put tremendous upward pressure on the price of manual labor. The result was an increase in the salaries of blue-collar workers that was so large that they were rivaling the salaries of white-collar workers. Labor unions took advantage of the situation and used collective bargaining to gain a great many benefits for all working class people. For once the poor were getting richer. The end result was a more balanced distribution of income throughout the labor market which resulted in a growing middle class and a thriving economy. The key to this massive growth lay in the way a balanced distribution of income motivates laborers to be more productive as well as motivates the wealthy to invest in new enterprises. Laborers became more productive because they were finally receiving a large share of the fruit of their labor which they then spent on more luxury items, realizing their dreams of ownership as well as creating massive demand for new products such as cars, appliances, and other modern marvels. This demand created opportunities for those with capital to invest in new industries as well as expand existing ones. A fortune could now be made by giving the "common man" what he wanted because those common men had a larger share of the economic power, and thus the door was opened for those who wanted to become rich as well as those who wanted to become richer. Wealth was everywhere and thus economic opportunity was everywhere and everyone was interested in working hard to get their fair share. The free market system sorted out the good ideas from the bad ones and everyone ended up richer, more productive, and better off than before. And with the G.I. Bill and the ability of working class people to be able to afford higher education for their children the ground work was laid for a prolonged boom based around an educated workforce.

Compare that economic situation to one where the wealthy already have the vast majority of the nation's wealth and the poor have little. The wealthy are few and thus they do not create a large demand for anything so economic development stagnates. And when the wealthy do employ people it is mainly to create things for themselves and other vanities and thus the poor will not be able to share in those developments nor indulge in the fruits of their own labor. This saps their motivation to work hard. Where are their rewards? Certainly a few lucky poor will be able to rise up out of their situation and excel but most will merely survive at a subsistence level with few luxuries and no opportunities. Furthermore, the low demand for labor drives wages down and ensures that the poor will stay both poor and numerous. This is the type of economic profile that is common in the Third World and is the direction in which the First World is headed. The United States is leading the charge.

Current economic policy acknowledges the fact that demand throughout the general population creates a thriving economy and this is the reason why the goal is to create jobs. Left leaning theorists believe that the best way to create jobs is through government programs and right leaning theorists feel that it is best to empower the private sector so that they hire more people. The trouble with both of these cases is that too much of the money spent for these purposes never reaches the hands of the people who can create the kind of demand which will pull the economy upwards. The government is handicapped by massive corruption and endless privatization which ensures that a great deal of the money spent ends up being siphoned off by cronies and other well connected individuals. The private sector is similarly burdened with executives demanding massive pay, stockholders requiring a large share of the profits, the government raising taxes and assessing fees, and banks taking their pound of flesh for the loans that businesses require in order to operate. Furthermore, the tight labor market that created the boom in the fifties and sixties has turned into a global labor glut, especially in the United States, where both highly skilled and unskilled workers come into the country and work cheaply and where factory jobs are exported to cheap labor markets. This has put severe downward pressure on wages, destroyed labor unions, and rolled back many of the gains won by organized labor in days long past. At the same time the "F.I.R.E." sector corporations (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) have become extremely powerful and very adept at "rent seeking", that is extracting higher and higher fees for their services from an increasingly captive market with the help of a cooperative government. No economy thrives when one part of it becomes so powerful and so predatory and to make matters worse the bursting housing bubble has allowed the F.I.R.E. sector to collect handouts from the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury department in addition to extracting payments and penalty fees from cash-strapped borrowers. As it stands now the once powerful and wealthy middle class has simply been bled dry of the bulk of their wealth, wealth which can now be found piled up in the bank accounts of the rich. The only solution to get the economy moving again is to somehow get the bulk of that wealth moving back through the hands of those who can create large-scale demand (as income not as loans), but with the labor market oversupplied and, as Simon Johnson points out, the government captured by the finance industry, the only transfer of wealth we are likely to see in the future is from the bottom to the top.

Today we watch as health care reform morphs into a program that transfers taxpayer wealth into the bank accounts of insurance company executives. We are unable to stop a "war on terror" which costs taxpayers trillions and benefits those who own and run firms which supply the military. Massive government debts promise future taxpayer earnings to stockholders and bankers while the Federal Reserve "saves" the economy but by only enough to enable financial firms to continue to extract mortgage payments from the victims of a housing bubble which the industry itself was very much complicit in stoking. What is going on is more than just "starve the beast", it is in essence "domesticate the beast", making the government serve the ends of the rich at the expense of the poor. And as the dollar dies and paper wealth of all types grows less valuable, the ones who have a lot of dollars have been on a shopping spree: buying up foreclosed houses, spare gold, rare antiques, and anything else of value that those of us who need money cannot afford to keep. So we must trade everything of value to us for those precious Almighty Dollars and need more and more of them each day to buy the things that we need to survive. We mortgage our houses and land on hotels and the game slowly gets more and more stacked against us. The endgame is here and it appears that we, as a people, have lost.

Speaking of endgames I continue to wage my battle against chronic fatigue syndrome with both hopeful signs and depressing signs. Things are changing for me though and I have always taken that to be a good sign, indicating that the current phase of my treatment is doing something productive and not just proving to be a waste of my time. The bad news is that another two months has gone by with no progress on the Fireaxe front. The nightmare continues. The battle wages on.

A big ‘Hello’ to anyone receiving the Burning Blade for the first time. This is the Fireaxe newsletter.

From Individualism to Narcissism to Fascism

In the introduction to The Burning Blade 12.4 I wrote of the reemergence of fascism and how movement in that direction in the United States appeared to be inevitable. In an essay in The Burning Blade 12.6 I wrote that we have embraced individualism to such a strong degree that our culture was suffering greatly because of it. So one might ask, "How can we be headed towards both fascism and extreme individualism at the same time?", and wonder if I am suffering from a sharp loss of long term memory that is typical among bloggers, pundits, and anyone else who takes a strong position on a regular basis. Compartmentalization it is called, which allows you to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time and yet see no conflict between them.

Well I am one of those writers who will admit a mistake. For instance, about two and a half years ago I predicted that the current economic crash would bottom out after eighteen months and end up a lot lower than it did at the end of twenty three months. About a year after my first prediction I extended my crash bottom date by another twelve months, stating that it would likely follow the same pattern as the crash preceding the Great Depression with one big leg down followed by a partial recovery which would give way to another major leg down. I figured that the stock market would finish up at a level 80% below where it began, giving us a Dow Jones value of about three thousand. Well, unless the next month sees a seven thousand point crash in the market then I think that I can toss that prediction into the waste basket too. And though I think that we will still see another big leg down during this crisis, and maybe a few more, I'm not going to make any more predictions about when it will happen because I'm pretty much just throwing darts blindfolded at this point. We are deep in uncharted waters here folks.

However, when I pointed out two seemingly different trends in two different newsletters I don't think that I was making a mistake. I see compatibility between the descent into fascism that I wrote about half a year ago and our embrace of extreme individualism which I wrote about in the last newsletter. At first fascism and individualism appear to be completely incompatible. One conjures images of Hitler, Mussolini, the fiercely loyal SS, and brutal gangs of brown shirts, while the other conjures images of John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Easy Rider, and legions of westernized youths all trying to find their own personal identity. But I feel that the key which connects the two lies in a transitional stage of narcissism where the individualist's embrace of their own ideology and belief that it is the absolute truth leads to the desire to impose that truth on others in order to save them from themselves (as well as spare the individualist from the bad decisions of others). In other words, individualism will turn into narcissism and narcissism can lead to fascism or totalitarianism or other similarly suffocating ideologies. In the essay that follows I'll expand on this idea and dig deeper into the subject of narcissism and how it affects and distorts our behaviors, our religious beliefs, our politics, and our relationships with each other as well as what it portends for our future.

Carl Jung wrote that "The foundation of all Mental Illness is the unwillingness to experience legitimate suffering." For narcissists, who suffer from a permanent sense of dissatisfaction with, and even hatred towards, their current selves there is no such thing as legitimate suffering. They perceive themselves as always suffering unjustly, as struggling against a world which refuses to or is not able to appreciate them and which persecutes them out of jealousy. Any suffering, sometimes including that which they inflict upon themselves but for which they hold others at fault, is viewed as being illegitimate and feeds their persecution complex, reinforcing and deepening their narcissism. Ideology plays a powerful role in causing this mental illness and this can be seen clearly in the Christian religion, most notably in the parallels between a narcissist's self-perception and the life of Jesus. Jesus' role in the Christian religion is one of supreme importance. He is said to be the son of the Christian god and the savior of all mankind with the power to perform miracles, and yet throughout his life he was always persecuted by others who couldn't see his divinity nor accept the truth in his words. In the end he suffered more than anyone else ever had or ever will, dying an agonizing physical death during which it is said that he suffered for the sins of all mankind. This basic formula is how narcissists see themselves: that they are special and have wonderful gifts to give to others but they are constantly persecuted for their beliefs and actions. Jesus' story provides a template for narcissism and Christians are encouraged to emulate his life and actions, making them more narcissistic. Furthermore, Christianity fuels narcissism in other ways. For instance, narcissists do not love themselves as is the popular perception, but rather love an idealized version of themselves. In essence they love who they aspire to be and hate who they currently are. Christianity provides narcissists with a reason to hate their current selves since no one can be completely free of sin, and they provide the narcissist with an idealized version of themselves such as that they are a saint or a holy warrior or a humble soul bound for eternal salvation. And as they follow the teachings of Jesus they will run into conflict with the parts of the world which do not believe as they do. Jesus even expects this to happen ("I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother…"). When a Christian encounters strong reactions to their proselytizing it can be perceived as persecution, and the story of Jesus allows narcissists to view such persecution as a validation of their holiness. The more they suffer, the more they are like Jesus, which makes them feel like how they want to be, holy and pious, instead of how they are, wicked and sinful. Thus, Christianity provides a framework for encouraging and exploiting narcissism in its followers.

Of course, the more negative aspects of narcissism, such as superficiality, a strong desire for revenge, jealousy, immodesty, and especially their tendency to put up a false self image, are not things which Christianity teaches and in fact speaks against in its holy book. The trouble is that these aspects of narcissism are innately tied to the deep seated feelings of insecurity that Christianity, as well as other ideologies, instill in their believers in order to motivate them. A person immersed in self-hatred will have a great need for admiration as well as a strong reaction to any criticism. Their need to be loved and admired by others will lead them to feel jealousy towards those who receive the accolades which they do not as well as make them tend towards immodesty in their attempts to gain others' attention. And to gain the support of the large numbers of people which their insecurity demands it is almost imperative for them to create a false image of themselves and lie to others so that they can get what they need. Being honest is a strategy which works well if you only need a few friends and are willing to accept that there will be others who don't like who you really are. But if you want to be popular you generally need to be all things to all people, putting up a sterile, superficial image of yourself which has only good features and no bad side. Lying to others as a matter of course will make it necessary to keep your relationships shallow and the fear of being betrayed by a friend or cast aside by a lover, fears often rooted in painful first hand experience, will make the narcissist resist becoming too attached to any person or thing. The greater one's needs, the more one must embrace the negative aspects of narcissism to satisfy those needs.

Problematic is that narcissists can be very charismatic people who can inspire great numbers of others and spread an ideology far and wide. A narcissist is usually an accomplished liar, having had a lifetime to figure out what to say and how to act in order to get others to like them, and is good at telling people what they want to hear, building up their self image with compliments, and promising them a wonderful future if they follow the narcissist's recommendations. In this way the narcissist can make others dependent on them, building within them the need to hear the narcissist's words to make them feel good about themselves and their future. Many narcissists are natural leaders and the general public will accept them as such even though narcissists are no better at leading than anyone else and have serious, usually hidden, shortcomings. Thus, despite their personality flaws ideologies benefit greatly by turning their followers into narcissists since they are able spread the word of the ideology so well as well as inspire believers and convert non-believers. Not surprisingly narcissism is widespread in religion, politics, the performing arts, and anywhere else where appealing to a wide cross-section of people is critical to one's success. The last three presidents of the United States are marvelous examples of narcissists, especially the current one, all of them leaders who excel at being well liked and stirring great passions in others but who have dubious leadership ability and glaring flaws. And I would go so far as to say that it is rare that any politician, or leader in any field, could have attained their level of power without being narcissistic to some degree. Caring about others, being true to yourself, and not feeling inadequate will generally cost you down the road even though you may serve the greater good better than an awe- inspiring narcissist. And consider the recent trend in management towards inspiring, motivating, and leading one's employees to success as opposed to coordinating them, advising them, and overseeing their efforts. This is in essence narcissists applauding and encouraging their own narcissism. Managing people the old way requires hard work, attention, and diligence while doing things the new way places too much emphasis on things which can be accomplished with empty words and the fakery often employed by narcissists. While inspiration and motivation are powerful tools they will quickly give way to cynicism and lethargy if they aren't backed with substance. There are no shortcuts to lasting success.

Narcissistic leaders can be very dangerous given their personality flaws, especially their defensiveness, jealousy, lack of empathy for others, and often strong desire for revenge. Such a leader would be prone to start or escalate wars based on perceived slights and not exercise restraint given their lack of caring for the lives lost to champion their vanity. And when two or more narcissistic leaders discover that they have personal or national disagreements is it not unusual for the dispute to escalate in a series of retributions which won't stop until a catastrophe results. Narcissists have a tendency to clash with one another as they both tend to have the same needs such as becoming the best at something, winning the admiration of the same group of people, being the one in charge, etc., and due to their sensitivity to criticism and desire for revenge any dispute between them tends to get blown out of proportion, often quickly. However, since narcissists are very insecure they are also prone to being seduced by other narcissists who are able to build up their self image and give them the admiration that they feel that they deserve. This seduction can take the form of a boss exploiting an underling, an underling brown- nosing their boss, two equals forming a codependency bond, or several narcissists coming together to form a "mutual admiration society" or "echo chamber". Like-minded co-dependent narcissists can work together towards the same goals as well as shut down opposition to their goals and silence any criticism of their group, in essence acting like a single, powerful narcissist. Narcissism in large groups tends towards the "cult of personality" phenomenon where the public image of a leader is carefully orchestrated to attract throngs of loyal followers. Other narcissists who fall under the sway of a narcissistic leader don't need to be forced to support the leader as they have no small amount of their self image tied up in how their idol is perceived. They live vicariously through their idol and their idol's successes are their successes. By aligning themselves with a narcissistic leader the follower willingly becomes part of the echo chamber, saying only good things about them, shouting down any criticism, and identifying with that leader as if the leader and the follower were one and the same.

This is the process for how individuality can transform into fascism. As individuality devolves into narcissism, people become more insecure, more desirous of admiration, and more vulnerable to the compliments and promises of a charismatic and narcissistic leader. If you add to this mixture a severe shock to the system, such as a war, an economic collapse, or other social calamity, a narcissistic leader is often allowed to seize total power by the throngs of narcissistic followers who want a dictator to impose their will and give them back what they've lost. We are seeing many signs of rising fascism here in the United States. Political parties are becoming more and more like "echo chambers" and are intolerant of criticism and unwilling to compromise, individuals are arguing politics with the passion and hostility typical of narcissists, and rival cults of personality are doing battle with each other in the media and on the internet, polluting the public discourse with intellectually dishonest partisan rancor. Our personal narcissism is bonding with the narcissism of our favorite ideological personalities and we are becoming less tolerant and less respectful towards our opponents. In short, we are being seduced into becoming foot soldiers in an ideological war.

Now I'd like to go back to an earlier part of this essay about how the Christian religion tries to discourage its followers from having narcissistic tendencies. Even a casual reading of the New Testament reveals numerous instances of Jesus admonishing the selfishness, intolerance, and duplicity of the people he encounters in his journeys. In a sense the New Testament is a manifesto against narcissism, trying to pull people away from pettiness and materialism and towards caring for others and gladly suffering misfortune. One would think that it would dissuade people from being narcissistic and thus make them more resistant to kneeling before fascists, but the Bible fails at the former as well as the latter. As discussed earlier, the Bible fails to discourage the personality flaws inherent in narcissism because it exploits the insecurities of the individual and builds up their image as a holy warrior bound for heaven. By reinforcing one side of a person's narcissism it automatically encourages the other side, but instead of the negative narcissistic traits being self-centered ones, the Bible redirects these so that they become god-centered ones. Personal success changes from becoming richer than your neighbor to saving more souls or being more pure than your fellow Christians. Your goals become your god's goals and you are willing to accept poverty or suffering because you want to prove to your god, and fellow Christians, that you are able to pass tests of divine design. You still love the image of your idealized self but the image changes from one of material gain to one of spiritual accomplishments and the belief that you are attaining entrance to an eternal paradise. Furthermore, the character flaws associated with narcissism can manifest in uniquely Christian ways despite the Bible speaking out against them. Narcissists are notoriously resistant to self examination and are quick to point out the speck in their neighbor's eye while somehow seeing past the log in theirs. Projecting envy on to others and putting up a false holy image are things that many narcissistic Christians will indulge in to make themselves appear to be more pious than their fellows. Manipulating people, having a strong desire for revenge, and thinking that the end justifies the means can also be justified if one believes that they are fighting a crusade against the devil with the fate of millions of souls on the line. And if one puts their god before all else, as the bible demands, a reduction in empathy towards loved ones can follow as well as sheer contempt for those seen as evil. Narcissistic Christians will often wish to see sinful people punished harshly to fulfill their desire for revenge and reward their piousness.

Thus, Christian ideology encourages one to become a part of a cult of personality structured around their god. This makes them quite vulnerable to charismatic, narcissistic leaders who claim to speak for their god and who tell the congregation what they want to hear. In this way their faith can lead them into fascism and totalitarianism. For Catholics, their church is already structured around a rather fascist hierarchy which tends to make them subservient to the Pope's decrees, but papal power has waned in the last few centuries and especially the last few decades and the church is not as powerful a force as it once was. Protestantism was a movement away from a centralized church structure and in recent centuries has focused on a person's private relationship with their god with very limited amounts of religious politics, and thus it is very much like individualism applied to religion. But protestants are hardly immune from the seductive powers of men "aflame with the Lord", especially those who lead evangelical movements. And revivals like the first and second "Great Awakenings", the Azusa Street revival, televangelism, and the Promise Keepers movement have occurred frequently during the course of history where some degree of "Christofascism" has swept through nations and often resulted in the remolding a number of laws of the land to fit Christian ideals. However, the era of Christian domination over the state appears to be over as new ideologies such as democracy and communism have arisen since the Enlightenment which are resistant to the spread of Christianity. Though Christian movements occur in nations which follow these newer ideologies they tend to run out of steam before altering the existing ideology in any substantial way.

Christianity isn't the only ideology which exploits narcissism in order to enable it to spread, all ideologies contain elements which make believers feel inadequate and promise them a wonderful life or afterlife if they serve the ideology's goals. In the Fireaxe Theory this motivational scheme is described as the ideology instilling within the believer a permanent psychological deficit, a persistent feeling of inadequacy, which can only be alleviated, and then only for a short time, if the believer does something which serves the ideology. How this scheme works for various ideologies is described in more detail in The Burning Blade 12.4 and it matches up very well with what sociologists and psychologists have discovered about narcissism. The downside of exploiting narcissism is that an ideology's leaders will often be volatile, disingenuous, arrogant, and prone to addiction to forms of instant gratification. However, it is only in extreme cases of narcissism where these negatives outweigh the positives, at least the positives as they pertain to the ideology, and so from an ideological point of view moderate amounts of narcissism in its followers is not only tolerable but desirable, even if the afflicted individuals as well as those close to him or her sometimes suffer greatly because of it. Narcissists may spend their lives drowning in self doubt and self hatred, manipulating and abusing loved ones, and brutally punishing their rivals, but on the whole they tend to advance the causes of the ideology. One of the more disturbing "advantages" of an ideology exploiting narcissism is that in most cases it is a permanent and untreatable affliction. This can be a major problem for an individual seeking a cure for their problems, but for an ideology it is very useful since it makes it very difficult for rival ideologies to convert its narcissists to their belief systems or dissuade or influence them in any way. Narcissists are fiercely defensive and can often be highly resistant to logic when aroused. When fighting they can be vicious and unrelenting, seeking victory over their opponent at all costs. And when they are overwhelmed and face defeat narcissists sometimes completely capitulate, descending into their private hell of self loathing. At first it might seem as though this capitulation is a sign that a narcissist has conceded and will change their ways or beliefs, but in reality it is a defense mechanism which allows them to preserve the idealized self image which they are striving to attain while directing all the criticism towards their inadequate current self. In this way their self loathing can deepen their pathology and thus capitulating can make a narcissist even more committed to what they believe. Examples of this bipolar-esque cycle of Christian narcissism and self pity can be found in a number of Psalms written by David in the Bible. A noteworthy one is Psalm 22 which most Fireaxe listeners will recognize. And so, ideologies benefit by encouraging their followers to seek conflict because, win or lose, it will end up making them more devout and more committed.

The permanent nature of narcissism makes it difficult to change the course of a group, organization, nation, etc., once narcissists take control of it. If you've encountered narcissists in your life, and you probably have, especially if you've spent time in any newsgroups or chat rooms on the internet where narcissists are often free to launch vicious flames at people they disagree with and seem to be locked in endless duels against other narcissistic foes, you understand how futile the act of trying to bring change can often be. Even when a narcissistic organization has become highly dysfunctional and the criticisms against it are stated calmly, rationally, and by many, those in charge will still resist change, often resorting to the pathological responses of their affliction such as manipulation, intolerance, and hostility to defend themselves, their policies, and their positions in the power structure. For example, a large group of dissenters might protest the dysfunctional policies of a particular government and march peacefully in the streets, counting on media attention to relay the slogans they chant and wrote on signs to the rest of the public. Heavy handed governments will reveal their intolerance of criticism and hostility by cracking down on the protesters, calling a media blackout, and sending the riot squads out to beat up, use tear gas on, and arrest and humiliate the protesters. Democratic governments have been known to be equally intolerant and use the same tactics, but they are often under pressure to appear to be more reasonable and their actions more justified so what they often do is use manipulative tactics to create the public image they want to project. This is commonly done by provoking the protesters into becoming violent by either planting instigators in the crowd or having riot police act overly aggressive towards them. This strategy often results in minor outbursts of violence or clashes between the rowdier protesters and the police even though most of the protest is peaceful and well behaved. The media however, can usually be counted on to show the violent parts of the protest almost exclusively, or at least can be manipulated to show only those scenes if necessary, so as to portray all of the protesters as being crazy anarchists who deserve what they got. This all makes the government looks calm and reasonable in contrast. Of course, using provocative tactics to smear your opposition instead of letting them have their say is an attack at the core of democracy itself, but a narcissistic government will have no trouble in doing so. The leaders believe themselves to be right and the protesters to be misguided at best or dangerous fanatics at worst and so they can rationalize such tactics as being necessary to save the misinformed majority of protesters from the seductive rants of their fanatical leaders. Furthermore, another common tactic is to take a few choice words or phrases from one of the nuttier protesters and attempt to portray the entire movement as embracing such foolishness. This is the straw man fallacy, but listen to any pundit for a few minutes and you'll think that the country is under attack by an army of straw men. Narcissists see no problem in using logical fallacies in order to support their positions.

And to finish on a darker note, if ruling narcissists refuse to leave power, even as the domain over which they rule crumbles around them, and if other narcissists refuse to give up the fight even though it is obvious that they have lost, it often becomes necessary to use force to remove them from power and prevent them from causing further damage. But there is a danger here, one that is familiar to Christians, that using force to silence a dissenter, especially using excessive force such as nailing the dissenter to a cross, can turn him into a martyr and turn people against those who wielded that force. Though a dissenter can be dangerous when they speak they can be even more dangerous when they are silenced and using force can make a rational person appear to be an unreasonable narcissist who is unfit to rule. This is especially so if rival narcissists are encouraging that perception. But when two opposing forces clash they are often both led by narcissists who have gained power by exploiting the narcissistic tendencies of their followers and thus they both tend to be unreasonable, prone to revenge, and resistant to change except by force. When ideologies become deeply entrenched in an individual or group it is often necessary to imprison or kill them in order to make them stop and when such actions are undertaken they invite similar retaliations as the leaders of the victims portray those violent acts as unjustified aggression and proof of the other side's depravity. This can "radicalize" moderates and motivate them to join the fight, escalating the conflict further. For terrorists and resistance movements, this escalation of retaliation is part of their central strategy and their goal is to draw as many people as they can into a conflict that they hope that they can win. The trick to beating them is not to fall for their game and to act rationally, but for narcissists resisting the urge to strike back is very difficult and they are more likely to launch a massive counterstrike or escalation instead. Thus, a few narcissistic fanatics are sometimes able to drag entire peoples into wars and turn us all into Food for the Gods.

The Fireaxe theory - Outline

I. Basics - well established theories

  • 1. Emergent systems - that complex systems can arise from the interactions of simple things
  • 2. Natural selection - that organisms mutate, proliferate, and compete, with the "losers" becoming extinct
  • 3. Behavioral science - that neurological systems, at their core, function according to the rules of conditioning
  • 4. Entropy - that within a closed system, entropy always increases, which limits the amount of transformation that can occur

II. Extensions

  • 1. That consciousness is an emergent system: a complex system arising in the human mind from the interaction of simple neurons.
  • 2. That civilizations are emergent systems arising from the physical interactions of humans whether conscious or not.
  • 3. That ideologies are emergent systems arising from the psychological interactions of conscious humans
  • 4. That emergent systems follow the laws of natural selection in much the same way that organisms do
  • 5. That the universe is, by definition, a closed system

III. Contentions regarding consciousness

  • 1. That consciousness is a survival advantage
  • 2. That being a member of an ideology is a survival advantage
  • 3. That making its members conscious is a necessary part of an ideology's survival
  • 4. That consciousness is created by instilling within a person a permanent sense of inadequacy - in essence a state of constant fear
  • 5. That the deeper the sense of inadequacy, the stronger the person is motivated - generally to serve their ideology

IV. Contentions regarding ideological struggle

  • 1. That ideologies fight for survival using many methods including, but not limited to, war and enslavement
  • 2. That aggression is a survival advantage
  • 3. That survival in the short term outweighs survival in the long term prompting ideologies to pursue shortsighted and sometimes suicidal strategies
  • 4. That aggressive ideologies make members of rival ideologies feel afraid and inadequate which in response become more aggressive, thus creating a vicious circle
  • 5. That aggressive ideologies must continue to grow or face internal strife as their aggressive members will feed on each other to satisfy their needs
  • 6. That internal struggle results in ideological mutation

V. Contentions regarding the future

  • 1. That internal strife is inevitable since the laws of entropy imply that continuous growth is not sustainable
  • 2. That the abstract bases for ideologies transcend mortality and thus suicidal aggression is not restrained by fear of death
  • 3. That technological progress has made the destruction of the world through ideological warfare possible and will continue to make it easier to effect
  • 4. That ideological mutation will eventually result in the creation of a suicidal ideology which will destroy the human race in the attempt to save it

How to order Fireaxe CDs

Ordering Fireaxe CD's is an informal process as I am selling them personally out of my apartment. Simply mail me a letter which contains the following:

  • 1. The names of the CDs that you want to buy.
  • 2. The address where you want the CDs sent.
  • 3. Cash, a check, or a money order for the total cost.

Or if you want to do PayPal, just send me the answers to 1 and 2 above in an e-mail and I'll tell you where to send the money.

Here is a price list. The first number is the cost for U.S. based customers, the second is for outside the U.S. The prices include shipping and handling.

Eternal Devotion to the Dark Goddess: $6 / $9
Food for the Gods: $12 / $15 (SOLD OUT)
Victory or Death: $5 / $8 (free with any purchase)
Lovecraftian Nightmares: $5 / $8 (SOLD OUT)
A Dream of Death: $3 / $6 (SOLD OUT)

Send everything to:

Brian Voth
1301 Medical Center Dr. #415
Chula Vista, CA, 91911 USA

If you review CDs on a website or in a magazine, any one of the single CDs (Not "Food for the Gods") is free of charge in exchange for the review. In this case all I need is a request by e-mail. Please send me the URL of your review site or copy of your magazine with the review in it when it is done. If you want to exchange CDs, tapes, or stuff of equivalent value, make these requests via e-mail and we'll arrange a trade.

The CDs come with a booklet filled with awesome art, a letter about the project, and some information about the CD which can also be found on the Fireaxe site.

Lastly, if you want to print and distribute Fireaxe CDs I can send you an additional CD which contains tiff files for all the booklets, tray cards, and labels for each project. The tiff disk is free so just say the word.

The Future

Unfortunately 2009 was a total bust for Fireaxe as far as recording is concerned. Health issues sidelined projects scheduled for completion during the year and other than the guitarist taking the opportunity to get a whole lot better with his axe, nothing was accomplished. With any luck 2009 will be the only year that went for naught.

In 2010, Fireaxe will once again focus on remaking the past. First of all, "Food for the Gods" has sold out and will be re-mastered before a second printing run is made. Also, it will be re-mixed with the vocal rerecorded for much better sound quality. When all is said and done it should sound as good as "Eternal Devotion to the Dark Goddess. Secondly, the first Fireaxe CD, "A Dream of Death" will be getting a complete overhaul before it is re-released. Everything will be rerecorded using much more modern equipment and with everything that I've learned over the last ten years going into it to make it better than ever. Also, since it was recorded at a time when CDs had a 74 minute limit instead of the current 80, I will add six more minutes of music to the work in which I will explore a number of musical themes as well as add a killer new song written by Octavio Ramos. So it looks like a year of sequels for Fireaxe. I'll probably leave the names of the CDs the same but I've been kicking around a ideas for alternate titles, such as "Food for the Gods - Regurgitated", "Desert for the Gods", and "A Dream of Undeath", "The Morning After Death", or "I'm Dreaming of a White Strait-Jacket - a Fireaxe Christmas in Hell".

My goal is to deliver music to whoever wants to hear it in whatever way is necessary. Whatever the market demands, I will supply, but I do want to avoid the mass marketing channel. Exposure is fine, but in the modern business, the substance of the music must be altered to match the demands of the marketplace. This would totally defeat the purpose of why I write music in the first place. I write music because it is a way to express my emotions. What I both think and feel goes into the songs. That is the power, Fireaxe is the channel, and any diversion diminishes the emotive effect. Thus I try to avoid such diversions. That is how art should be.

Rights to duplicate Fireaxe materials

Currently Fireaxe is not for profit. I sell the single CDs for $5 or $6, $12 for "Food for the Gods" since it is three CDs, which covers the production and mailing costs. For CDs sent out of the country, I'll have to charge an extra $2 per disk to cover the additional mailing cost. If you write reviews or put samples on your website I'll give you a CD for free. Since I am not making any money with the current recordings, you are free to make duplicates of them to distribute as long as you obey the following guidelines:

  • 1. You can only sell the duplications for the price of the medium or less, plus any delivery cost. You are not allowed to make any profit with the music.
  • 2. You should tell me how many copies you gave out and who got them so I can keep track. Also, if they have an e-mail address I'd like that as well so I can add them to the mailing list.
  • 3. You are likewise free to adorn any webpages or duplications with the gifs and jpgs on my website as long as you include an obvious link back to my website. This includes putting Fireaxe song samples on your site as well.
  • 4. You are free to play any Fireaxe songs (in unaltered form) provided you are an unsigned band without a marketting tie-in. You are not allowed to record those songs onto anything that you will sell.
  • 5. Do not fall in love with the Dark Goddess. I mean, seriously. She's the goddess of death after all. It's not a good idea. Furthermore, do not have sexual fantasies involving the Dark Goddess. She does not have a womb and thus lacks the entrance to that particular organ. Also, attempting to use other entrances will likely result in castration. Again, it's not a good idea.
  • 6. You are vehemently discouraged from doing anything depicted in the CD "Eternal Devotion to the Dark Goddess" such as: torturing someone, lying for corporate profit, rationalizing greed, beating, raping, and murdering your girlfriend, destroying the lives of those who've wronged you and their families, corrupting the government, trying to kill yourself with pleasure, kidnapping and ransoming people, committing atrocities, cutting someone's face to pieces, destroying half the world as revenge, and especially stating that any of these things are okay because "God is on your side." Please, think before you act.
  • 7. You are food for the gods.
  • 8. You are required to crank the song "Hounds of Tindalos" as loud as you can as often as you can. It's your only defense against THEM. Be warned, they come through angles. Note that the CD is round. Are your speaker cabinets square?
  • 9. Cthulhu, the Necronomicon, Hastur the Unspeakable, and all other mythos creatures are purely the inventions of Lovecraft and other fiction authors. None of it is real, at least that's what I'm going to say in court if you try to sue me for destruction of your property, house, city, or soul as a result of listening to the "Lovecraftian Nightmares" CD too much.
  • 10. You are free to play "The Rack" in school or church or any other institution bent on crushing your will and turning you into a mindless zombie slave of the corporate dominated world. Try not to develop a bad attitude about it.
  • 11. You are not free to commit suicide while listening to any Fireaxe song. I'm sorry, I'll have to prosecute. On a serious note, if you are thinking about doing it, please e-mail or call me if you have no one else to talk to. When I was in my teens the album "The Wall" by Pink Floyd used to really get to me. Just hearing songs like "Comfortably Numb", and "Hey You" would get me pretty depressed and mildly suicidal. I'm just trying to say that I've been there. If my music is having that effect on you, please get in touch. You aren't alone.

The gist of it is that you can do just about anything with the music as long as you don't profit from it and that I get some sort of credit for having written it. I'm open to any methods of distributing my music, such as compilation tapes or CDs, radio play, or recording label distribution. However, you will need my direct permission to do so or some kind of legal agreement.
Brian Voth - Creator of Fireaxe

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