A tale from Communist China

post by Wei_Dai · 2020-10-18T17:37:42.228Z · LW · GW · 65 comments

Judging from the upvotes, it seems like people are quite interested in my grandparents' failure [LW(p) · GW(p)] to emigrate from Communist China before it was too late, so I thought I'd elaborate here with more details and for greater visibility. They were all actually supporters of the Communist Party at the beginning, and saw it as potential saviors/liberators of the Chinese people and nation. They were also treated well at the beginning - one of them (being one of few people in China with a higher education) was given a high official post, and another retained a manager position at the factory that he used to own and operate.

The latter side of the family considered moving away from China prior to the Communist victory since they would be classified as "capitalists" under the new regime, but were reassured by high level party members that they would be treated well if they stayed and helped to build the "new China". They actually did relatively ok, aside from most of their property being confiscated/nationalized early on and their living standards deteriorating steadily until they were forced to share the house that they used to own with something like 4 other families, and them being left with a single room in which to live.

The other side were more straightforward "true believers" who supported Communism at an early stage, as they were part of the educated class who generally saw it as the right side of history, something that would help China leapfrog the West in terms of both social and economic progress. My grandmother on that side even tried to run away from her family to join the revolution after graduating from the equivalent of high school. Just before the Communists took power, my grandmother changed her mind, and wanted to move away from China and even got the required visas. (I asked my father why, and he said "women's intuition" which I'm not sure is really accurate but he couldn't provide further details.) But my grandfather still believed in the cause so they stayed. After the Communist victory, there was still about a year before the borders were fully shut, but it seemed like things were moving in a good direction and disproved my grandmother's worries. My grandfather was given an important post and went around making important speeches and so on.

Unfortunately he was not very good at playing politics, as his background was in physics (although plenty of natural politicians also fared quite badly during the various "movements"). His position started attracting envy from those who thought he didn't contribute enough to the revolution to earn it. He was demoted and moved from city to city as the Party assigned him to various jobs. Finally, some kind of political dispute near the start of the Cultural Revolution led to his opponents digging up an incident in his distant past, which was then used as an excuse to persecute him in various ways, including confining him in a makeshift prison for ten years. He died shortly after the Cultural Revolution ended and he was released, just before I was born. According to my father, it was from over-eating due to finally being released from the extreme deprivation of his confinement.

BTW, I wasn't told any of this when I was still a kid living in China. My parents had of course grown quite disillusioned by Communism and the Communist Party by then, but probably didn't think it would be to my advantage to show any signs of resistance to the indoctrination and propaganda that I was being fed in school and in the mass media. So I can also testify from personal experience that if those in charge of schools and the media want to, and there's enough social pressure to not resist, it's not very hard to brainwash a child.


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comment by Wei_Dai · 2020-10-19T07:12:37.020Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Lessons I draw from this history:

  1. To predict a political movement, you have to understand its social dynamics and not just trust what people say about their intentions, even if they're totally sincere.
  2. Short term trends can be misleading so don't update too much on them, especially in a positive direction.
  3. Lots of people who thought they were on the right side of history actually weren't.
  4. Becoming true believers in some ideology probably isn't good for you or the society you're hoping to help. It's crucial to maintain empirical and moral uncertainties.
  5. Risk tails are fatter than people think.
Replies from: Dagon
comment by Dagon · 2020-10-19T15:03:47.313Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I draw a few more lessons from this (and from conversations with other survivors and escapees from horrific regimes):

6. Change is both gradual and terrifyingly fast - there is often months or years of buildup and warning, before weeks of crisis.  

7. Terrifyingly fast is not instantaneous.  It costs a lot, but one can get out if one actually believes the evidence in time.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2020-10-18T21:56:47.340Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another detail: My grandmother planed to join the Communist Revolution together with two of her classmates, who made it farther than she did. One made it all the way to Communist controlled territory (Yan'an) and later became a high official in the new government. She ended up going to prison in one of the subsequent political movements. Another one almost made it before being stopped by Nationalist authorities, who forced her to write a confession and repentance before releasing her back to her family. That ended up being dug up during the Cultural Revolution and got her branded as a traitor to Communism.

comment by AspiringRationalist · 2020-10-20T02:54:43.514Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One thing I'm curious about - what did the process of the border closing off look like, and what was going on in the weeks leading up to it? While I have no near term plans to emigrate, I often wonder what the warning signs are that it's time to start seriously looking, and what the warning signs are that it's time to GTFO.

Replies from: Vaniver, nicole-ross
comment by Vaniver · 2020-10-21T17:51:10.270Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In general, I think people try to time markets much more than they have skill for. Suppose you think there's a stock bubble; the temptation is to buy, hold as it rises, and then sell at the top of the bubble before everything comes crashing down. But enough people are trying to do that that you need some special skill in order to be in the leading edge, able to sell when there's a buyer. It's much less risky to just sell the stocks as soon as you think there's a bubble, which foregoes any additional gains but means you avoid the crash entirely (by taking it on voluntarily, sort of).

A similar thing happened at the start of the pandemic, where my plan was basically "look, I don't think I'm going to be especially good at the risk assessment, I want to just lock down now instead of staying open to get the marginal few weeks of meetings or hangouts or whatever," and various other friends said "look, I believe in math, I think it's just paranoia to lock down immediately instead of doing so based on a cost-benefit analysis." None of us knew it at the time, but the official tests were faulty and delayed and other testing was being suppressed, and so the numbers being used for the cost-benefit analyses were significantly underestimating the true amount of viral transmission.

Also relevant was at the start of the pandemic, there were various border closures and regional quarantines that by design had as little warning as possible. Suppose Disease City has too many cases, and also people in Disease City would want to leave if they think they're going to get locked in (because regardless of whether or not they have the disease, it's better for them to be out than in), and the regional / national government wants to lock them in; then the government want to impose the lockdown and then announce it, since that minimizes the number of people who can flee.

Noticeably, if there's a revolution in some country, it's much better for the new government to murder all of the people who would want to leave than let them leave. Contrast "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" with anti-Cuban politics in the US being driven by Cuban expatriates who felt wronged by the government they fled, or various potential leaders kept by other powers as potential puppets ready to be installed when the time is right. If more educated / capitalist Chinese had been allowed to leave China, and ended up in the US, it seems likely could have been a voting bloc much like the Cuban voting bloc, and impacted US-Chinese relations accordingly.

[As it happens, most of the people that I know who speak of the annihilation of the Armenians are themselves part of the Armenian diaspora. Out of the various genocides and purges I'm familiar with, people mostly seem interested in ones to people similar to them, and curiously uninterested in ones that are of their political enemies, or even of the political enemies of people they would like to be allied with.]

In summary, there's no fire alarm [LW · GW] for when to leave the country, in part because the situation is adversarial, and this isn't the sort of thing you should expect people to be well-calibrated on, since they don't have many examples to learn from.


I think there's also a factor where 'the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second best time is today.' If you expect to want to be in Canada instead of the US in 2030, say, then you might expect to prefer the timeline where you move to Canada in 2020 and live there for ten years to the timeline where you live in the US for nine and a half years and then move to Canada the night before the civil war breaks out (or whatever), and then live there for six months. If the first, you'll have been able to invest in lots of things that you expect to stick around; in the second, you might skip making useful home improvements because they aren't mobile. [Similarly, imagining our Chinese intellectuals in the 1950s, if they knew they would want to move to the US in 1965, they might have decided to get the move over with as soon as possible, since then their children might have grown up speaking English, they might have been able to get positions at universities before there was a flood of similar refugees, they might have been able to liquidate Chinese assets at more favorable prices, and so on. Most of the benefit of delaying comes from the hope that actually you won't have to move; this is why the illusory short-term positive signs are one of the most important parts of the OP.]

This story is less obvious when there's a huge difference in value between the options. If you're making net $60k a year in the US and would make net $30k a year in Canada, or whatever, each year you delay moving doubles your effective income. But if the difference is smaller, or you're weighing different psychological benefits against each other, it's probably better to get it over with than procrastinate.

Replies from: Viliam, gilch, Benito
comment by Viliam · 2020-10-25T17:08:12.082Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Noticeably, if there's a revolution in some country, it's much better for the new government to murder all of the people who would want to leave than let them leave.

At Yalta conference, Stalin requested that all captured Russian soldiers be returned to Soviet Union. Especially the ones who turned and fought against Soviet Union during WW2. After hearing about the deal, many of them committed suicide rather than return. Those who were returned (both those who turned and those who did not) were sent to death camps. According to Soviet policy, all prisoners of war were automatically considered traitors. They were supposed to fight harder, duh.

Then there was no one to contradict the Soviet propaganda, and many left-wing people in the West parroted it completely uncritically. So as a part of propaganda, Russian expatriates who left before the WW2 were asked to return and help rebuild their war-ruined country, because "it's completely different now". Those naive enough to believe the message and actually return were also sent to death camps.

By the way, speaking about Armenians, who remembers all those ethnic groups exterminated by communists? ("Which ethnic groups?" My point exactly.) Even in the recent debate about whether Crimea was historically inhabited by Russians or Ukrainians... susprisingly, the correct answer is: neither.

comment by gilch · 2020-10-22T21:40:11.462Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Suppose you think there's a stock bubble; the temptation is to buy, hold as it rises, and then sell at the top of the bubble before everything comes crashing down. But enough people are trying to do that that you need some special skill in order to be in the leading edge, able to sell when there's a buyer. It's much less risky to just sell the stocks as soon as you think there's a bubble, which foregoes any additional gains but means you avoid the crash entirely (by taking it on voluntarily, sort of).

The correct move in this situation isn't to get out early, but to leverage down. [LW · GW] By keeping a balanced fraction in cash, you both accumulate the gains as the bubble inflates, and survive the inevitable crash—and it's likely you can come out ahead on net. The appropriate ratio depends on the amount of volatility you're expecting.

I'm not sure how to generalize this insight, but maybe there's a similar move available? A winter home in Costa Rica, perhaps? Even if that means a smaller summer home here.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2020-10-21T18:19:31.352Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a really great comment, thanks. (Consider making it into a post.)

comment by Nicole Ross (nicole-ross) · 2020-10-20T18:01:31.938Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm interested in this question as well.

comment by Viliam · 2020-10-18T22:37:55.049Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So I can also testify from personal experience that if those in charge of schools and the media want to, and there's enough social pressure to not resist, it's not very hard to brainwash a child.

I grew up in communist Czechoslovakia, and I am pretty sure if the regime wouldn't end, I would probably be a Communist Party member now. (And if not, probably only because I would have failed at some political game.)

If you control all information one gets, it is not that hard to create a believable "Matrix".

In reality, the information control is never perfect... but then we also accept that in real life there is some noise, some things we don't know, etc. So if something in the official picture doesn't fit, there are many ways to explain it away. Even if you start to doubt, the doubt is likely of the kind "it is essentially correct, but slightly exaggerated" rather than "it is complete bullshit".

And of course, the regime is always ready to excuse its systemic failings as acts of foreign intervention, sabotage, someone's personal failing, etc. And because foreign countries do exist, and personal failings do exist, it sounds believable.

For younger people, there is the illusion of perfection. For older people, who have already seen the imperfections, there is the promise that they are the last generation to suffer, but their children will live in the true paradise they helped to build. (Of course, the following generations will get exactly the same fake promise.)

Replies from: chris-leong
comment by Chris Leong (chris-leong) · 2020-10-19T05:04:02.396Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When did you start to doubt?

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2020-10-19T11:15:57.222Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was never a strong believer. There was never a moment where my "faith shattered", because I never had "faith" in the first place. It's just, given the filtered information, how the regime described the situation, that seemed to me like a plausible description of reality. I haven't heard any alternative description, and I didn't have a reason to invent one.

Also, I was a small kid, so my ability to think about politics was quite limited. For example, I heard the broadcast of Voice of America / Radio Free Europe (I am not sure which one, maybe both) a few times, and I was warned that this is something controversial that I am never supposed to mention to anyone outside my family, lest I want to get my family into big trouble... but frankly, I didn't understand what the broadcast was about. It was just some boring adult talk; I had no idea what was supposed to be exciting.

From my perspective, living in the regime was just an ordinary everyday experience. Like, you are told to go to school, so you go to school, because everyone does, duh. (Imagine a society that never invented the concept of homeschooling.) Then you are told to join the Pioneer movement, so you do, because everyone does, duh. (There are a few exceptions; you are told not to ask. They are problematic people. You don't want to be problematic, do you? So just do your thing and ignore them.) The Pioneer movement is boring, almost the same way the school is boring. You don't know why adults organize your life in such a boring way, but that's how it is, so you sit and listen when you are told to sit and listen, then you go home and play. This was the depth of my political sophistication back then.

When I was 13, the regime fell.

Afterwards, I was exposed to different kinds of information; different people saying contradictory opinions. I guess I don't have a strong psychological need for closure. I accepted that when they tell me about their near-mode experience, they are probably telling the truth; and when they tell me their far-mode opinions, well, everyone says something different, and there is no way to reconcile it. (Today I would say: everyone focuses on some aspects of reality, and ignores whatever doesn't fit in their story.)

So my model updated gradually. I gradually collected more and more data points about what was wrong about the regime, starting with "the Pioneer movement meetings are so boring", through "seems like some people were treated unfairly by the regime, for reasons that seem stupid to me", through "holy shit, they were actually Hitler's allies during the first part of WW2, and they murdered millions of people", to "what the fuck, it's even worse than I imagined when I already believed it was quite evil". There was no clear moment when I switched from "pro" to "anti"; it was a gradual shift.

Replies from: ryan_b, Teerth Aloke
comment by ryan_b · 2020-10-21T17:13:35.512Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

They are problematic people. You don't want to be problematic, do you?

Ominous, under the circumstances.

comment by Teerth Aloke · 2020-10-20T10:16:34.245Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Who killed millions of people? Czech Communists? Or Communists in general?

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2020-10-21T16:07:26.052Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In general. About one hundred million victims.

Replies from: Teerth Aloke
comment by Teerth Aloke · 2020-10-25T09:11:14.948Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One hundred million? That is an extraordinary figure. So one hundred million were executed by Marxist-Leninist regimes? Or does this include excess deaths in Gulags, due to wars, famines etc. I can't believe that 100 million were executed.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2020-10-25T17:17:04.739Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't say 100 million were executed.

A historian could provide an exact methodology, or maybe Wikipedia. My guess is that people who died in death camps or during genocides were included, people who died in a regular war were not. But that's just a guess.

Anyway, suppose it was only half of the number; I don't think it changes the point substantially. The optimistic estimates would still be in order of tens of millions... for the sake of debate, let's assume that's how it was.

Replies from: clone of saturn, Teerth Aloke
comment by clone of saturn · 2020-10-27T08:12:46.488Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's striking that these numbers are always stated alone, and never compared to the number killed by capitalist governments using a similar methodology. (Which is clearly not zero, just two examples off the top of my head put it well into the millions [1] [2])

Replies from: Viliam, Teerth Aloke
comment by Viliam · 2020-10-27T17:49:08.277Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Of course.

The dichotomy betwen "socialist" and "capitalist" countries makes about as much sense as a dichotomy between e.g. "Mormons" and "non-Mormons". That is, it probably sounds very important and profound to a Mormon, but it puts many different kinds of stuff in one basket.

Unless your point was that British colonialism was evil, in which case I agree. There is enough place for more than one evil regime in history.

But "capitalism" in the sense of "a country not governed by a Communist party" is a non-apple.

Replies from: clone of saturn, Teerth Aloke
comment by clone of saturn · 2020-10-27T20:48:40.442Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the goal is to figure out how murderous the Mormons are, comparing their murder rate to the murder rate of non-Mormons, or some other reasonable base rate, is exactly what you would do. Surely this would be obvious in any other context.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2020-10-28T21:04:46.686Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For the sake of thought experiment, suppose that there are three highly murderous religions, e.g. Mormons, Moonists, Mohists; and everyone else is relatively peaceful.

If you say, in such situation, that Mormons are highly murderous, it doesn't mean you want to take credit from the remaining two, unless you use words like "most murderous" or "the only murderous".

There are two things I have an issue with:

One-sided "whataboutism". Like, in every discussion about Mormons, someone inevitably mentions Moonists and Mohists... but in discussions about Moonists or Mohists, Mormons are typically not mentioned. That makes me suspect that the real reason of the objection is simply to move the discussion away from the Mormons.

(For example, if you wrote an article about the Great Famine in Ireland, it would be pretty inappropriate for me to try derailing it into a debate about communism.)

Creating an almost-all-encompassing basket of "non-Mormons" which includes the murderous Moonists and Mohists, along with the rest of humanity, me and you and Gandhi included; pointing out a few examples of Moonist and Mohist atrocities, and concluding "as you can see, the non-Mormons are just as evil".

(The basket is "capitalist country" which is pretty much a synonym of "a country not ruled by a communist party". Yes, a few of them are pretty evil. Are they representative of non-communists to the same degree Stalin + Mao + Pol Pot are representatives of communist regimes?)

Replies from: Teerth Aloke
comment by Teerth Aloke · 2020-10-29T11:47:24.101Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree, such whataboutism is not necessary. But my point remains. The 100 million killed by communism is an incorrect figure created by anticommunists with an agenda.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2020-10-29T20:26:32.315Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, I am not qualified to judge historical research. As a personal heuristic, I assume things were more likely towards the worse end of the scale. Not only because of Soviet official propaganda, but also because many "experts" in the West publishing about Soviet Union were shamelessly bribed. Thus I believe that the consensus of experts will be biased towards denying atrocities.

To explain why I consider the Western "experts" unreliable, remember that Soviet Union was a totalitarian state, and only people approved by the regime were allowed to enter the country. So, as a first step of selection, only those Western journalists and historians who already demonstrated pro-communist sympathies were allowed to enter the country. As a second step, those who afterwards wrote anything negative, were not allowed to return. (So if you wanted to build a career as an "expert on Soviet Union", you had a strong incentive to only write what they wanted you to write. If you didn't, you lost access, and then your colleagues attacked you as "he writes as if he has reliable and up-to-date information about Soviet Union, but he didn't visit the country for the last X years, and all his research is only based on guesses and rumors and outdated information -- but we all know the bad things only happened in the past, and it is completely different now".) Lastly, foreigners visiting Soviet Union were only allow to visit specified places, and the important ones were often accompanied by police all the time. So they only saw the Potemkin villages the regime wanted to show them, and they only heard good news from local people, because the local people knew that if they something improper, they will be shot along with their families afterwards. This makes me view Western left-wing intellectuals writing positively about life in Soviet Union with deep suspicion.

There is a story in The Gulag Archipelago when Solzhenitsyn was in a death camp where inmates survived 6 months on average... and one day the guards told them that an important American journalist will visit them, so they have to behave nicely. The prisoners were taken to a place outside the camp, where the journalist interviewed them. That is, the journalist spent 99% of time talking to the guards who explained him the enlightened principles of Soviet government that wants to give the second chance even to the hardest criminals (note: many inmates got their sentences for made-up crimes, because the police had to fill the quota of criminals sent to death camps), and then he just asked the prisoners: "so, is it true that you are treated nicely here?"... and the prisoners, with the guards standing right behind them, said "yeah", not being suicidal. Returning to the camp, Solzhenitsyn thought that the journalist of course cannot be stupid enough to take this all at face value. But a few years later, he had an opportunity to read the article, and... yes, the journalist accepted the story hook, line, and sinker, and wrote a passionate article about how the Russian penal system is so much better and more humane than American.

So, of course there is a chance the survivors would exaggerate, but I still trust their estimates more. To discuss the expert opinion, I would need to know more about the background of these experts (as a rule of thumb, anyone who personally visited Soviet Union before the fall of communism is absolutely untrustworthy in my eyes -- they wouldn't be allowed in otherwise).

Replies from: Teerth Aloke
comment by Teerth Aloke · 2020-11-03T13:37:59.297Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree. Some intellectuals in the West could not even condemn the execution of Lenin's comrades by Stalin on trumped up charges. I will trust no Sovietologist who tries to show that Stalin was a good person.

comment by Teerth Aloke · 2020-10-28T02:11:09.321Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A comparison with USA will be enlightening. I shall note that the methodology includes systematically choosing high estimates. Some of these high estimates like the prison population of USSR, the death toll of the famine stand discredited.

comment by Teerth Aloke · 2020-10-27T14:21:29.137Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

USA itself is responsible for mass murder, by bombing, in Japan, Germany, North Korea, North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. US-backed regimes are implicated in mass murder in Indonesia, East Pakistan, Somalia, and Guatemala. USA also backed Pol Pot, the Cambodian genocidal dictator, during and after his ouster by the Vietnamese army. And we must not forget that USA backed military juntas in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay. These governments also killed thousands of opponents.

comment by Teerth Aloke · 2020-10-26T16:35:26.504Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

While not defending Communist regimes, it is true that propaganda has greatly inflated the number. For example, Solzhenitsyn said '110 million Russians fell, victims of Socialism'. No one can seriously believe that. Meanwhile the methodology of including famine deaths is questionable, to say the least. Most scholars of the field regard the Holodomor famine as unintentional on the part of the Soviet government. There is evidence that members of the Soviet administration tried to reduce the impact of the famine. We are manipulating the definition of 'killed' if we include the dead of an unintentional famine. Purposeful deaths of Marxist regimes might be around 10 million.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2020-10-26T23:16:36.348Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most scholars of the field regard the Holodomor famine as unintentional on the part of the Soviet government.

When the government takes away food from the entire country, by searching the farms and confiscating every grain... it takes some chutzpah to call the resulting famine "unintentional".

There is evidence that members of the Soviet administration tried to reduce the impact of the famine.

Some people working in Soviet administration were not monsters. Of course. [LW · GW] There were good people among the Nazis, too. Doesn't make the regimes less evil.

Purposeful deaths of Marxist regimes might be around 10 million.

If you agree to reframe this as "even the greatest apologists of Marxist regimes, after excluding all deniable deaths, couldn't reduce the number of victims below 10 millions", okay.

(But to me it feels like having a debate that Nazis only killed 3 million Jews, because according to some historians, people who died of X, Y, and Z don't really count. Yeah, maybe. So what?)

Replies from: Teerth Aloke, Teerth Aloke
comment by Teerth Aloke · 2020-10-27T14:14:54.267Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was just pointing out that 100 million killed by Communism is a dubious conclusion, arrived by large overestimates made in ignorance. Such estimates, are now rejected in the academic, but the 100 million figure is still used. 

'So what?' needs no answer. I am not justifying anyone, or defending Marxist regimes. 

comment by Teerth Aloke · 2020-10-27T01:50:46.358Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Soviet administration reduced the amount of grain to be exported in the first half of 1933 from Ukraine by 50% from the amount exported in the first half of 1932. Moreover, 300000 tonnes of grains were allocated to Ukraine to combat the famine. As the situation got worse grain acquisitions were decreased.

comment by shminux · 2020-10-18T22:07:18.525Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting how it mirrors the experience of my great grandparents after the Russian revolution through the 1920s and 1930s. It always starts with good intentions, but eventually deteriorates into the usual squabble for power and control, ideology superseded by envy and greed. I was also not told much about it until I was out of the situation where knowing too much would be dangerous. People never learn, of course. Wonder when and where will this pattern repeat (or has repeated).

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-10-19T05:12:21.275Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When COVID started, I made a checklist for what to look for to predict a global catastrophic pandemic based on the mechanisms of transmission and harm and historical outcomes in various outbreaks.

It would be interesting to make a checklist for what to look for when expecting the rise of a totalitarian state from a democratic one, vetted for sensitivity and specificity against historical regimes.

Do we have any examples of such an event in the last century?

Replies from: rockthecasbah, lsusr
comment by rockthecasbah · 2020-10-20T18:06:36.492Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Totalitarianism is not a very useful political category. Authoritarianism is a preferred concept. In general democracies tend to have larger and more effective bureaucracies. China and the Soviet Union are outliers in this regard, inaccurately suggesting that authoritarian states are necessarily large and interventionist. They are usually much less competent.

Authoritarian states can emerge from democracies. The following risk factors are observed

  • Young democracies
  • Presidential systems rather than parliamentary
  • Poorer countries
  • Countries with large natural resources. This is well established
  • Weak democracies are sometimes created to protect the outgoing elites. Examples include Lebanon, Burma, Hungary, and (sort of) the US. The resulting democracies are less successful at creating legitimacy and may backslide more often. This theory is debated. See https://faculty.washington.edu/vmenaldo/Articles in Journals/BJPS Article.pdf

There's coupcast model. It's not very good https://oefresearch.org/activities/coup-cast

Because the US is a presidential model with many veto points and FPTP, it is more likely to have a coup. This makes it unusual among long established democracies. Japan is also a younger democracy (first regime change in 1994).

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-10-20T21:41:21.212Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I want to know what my prior should be for a US coup. Sure, perhaps these factors you cite make it more likely to have one than it would otherwise and ceterus paribus, but what's the base rate of coups in a multi-century, presidential, wealthy, resource-rich democracy?

Replies from: rockthecasbah
comment by rockthecasbah · 2020-10-20T22:36:33.788Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Assigning a base rate here is difficult. We know presidential systems have more coups, and there are very few multi-century presidential systems. If your base rate is based on only those factors its low because of New Zealand and Sweden and the UK, which almost never have divided legislatures or divided judiciaries. This is a real problem - all the democracies that last as long as us look different. The democracies that are most like us had coups long ago.

If you ignore that problem, the base rate is like .3%. If your reference class is presidential democracies, then your base rate is more like 3%.

Chile had lots of other risk factors:

Of Chile's three neighbours, two experienced 7 or more coup attempts in 1950-89. The other, Peru, experienced 5. Executive and parliament not just divided, the legislature in coalition against the executive President elected with just 36% of the vote Riots and protests were common. Escalating political violence Inflation 140%/year Judiciary publically criticizing the executive Failed coup just one month prior Economic contraction

All of those combined I say make coups quite likely. Over the 5 year period from 71 to 76, maybe 25%.

Replies from: ryan_b
comment by ryan_b · 2020-10-21T18:10:59.273Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do the data speak about the relationship between coups and federal systems? In the US, there is more than one level of fundamental government in play, even though they use similar models. I wonder if this helps to explain our weird longevity.

Replies from: rockthecasbah
comment by rockthecasbah · 2020-10-21T19:09:46.952Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just did a very quick search. The literature focuses really heavily on the relationship between federalism and interethnic violence at the national level (if we give tribe B their own province, are they more or less likely to launch a coup/civil war). Your question is addressed much less often, but if I had the time to dig I could find something. One note - among non-democratic states I doubt a relationship. Soviet Union was federal and high-coup.

In the US case, I strongly agree with your explanation. There are two plausible mechanisms.

  1. The states would resist any coup in distant Washington. GW and TJ could not name themselves kings because the states had much larger armies. Similarly like Macron and Merkel cannot take over Europe by couping the EU. Biggest reason.

  2. Any faction has a reduced incentive to launch a coup. This is more subtle, but it explains the large divergence in regime length in the Christian and Muslim world from 1,000 AD on (because Christian feudalism is "federal"). Each faction controls the wealth of a state/province/barony and has rich opportunities for rent seeking there. They can increase their rent-seeking by couping the capital, but the increase is actually low. They will still have to share with the states, and they already control their base. So the incentive for each faction to coup is much lower.

Imagine, by comparison, being an Ottoman Mamluke. Choose not to coup - you have 0 wealth. Win the coup, you get all the wealth. Huge incentive to take risks.

Caveat - not all coups are about rent-seeking. Actors may launch a coup to avert a national crisis, like the many coup attempts against Hitler. These are a minority (although everyone pretends they aren't rent seeking).

comment by lsusr · 2020-10-19T05:38:51.408Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
  • In 1923, a bohemian corporal attempted to seize power from the Weimar Republic. He tried again in 1933 and succeeded.
  • In 1949, a coup overthrew Syria's democratic government.
  • In 1953, the USA overthrew the Iranian constitutional monarchy.
  • In 1954, the USA overthrew the Guatemalan representative democracy.
  • In 1960, the USA overthrew the Congo's legally-elected prime minister.
  • In 1964, the USA overthrew the democratic government of Brazil.
  • From 1968-1972, the Panamanian military replaced the civilian government.
  • In 1973, the USA overthrew Chile's democratic government.
  • In 1979, the USA overthrew the democratic government of Salvador.
Replies from: rockthecasbah, AllAmericanBreakfast, Viliam, Teerth Aloke, frontier64
comment by rockthecasbah · 2020-10-20T17:41:10.610Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is misleading. Firstly, it selects on the depenent variable. Secondly it implies that the USA is responsible for the the majority of backsliding instances, which is not correct. Thirdly, it overstates the role of the US in several backsliding instances and understates local dynamics.

Replies from: lsusr
comment by lsusr · 2020-10-20T23:02:39.750Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that my knowledge of history is biased towards events politically relevant to the USA. I appreciate how this comment of yours [LW(p) · GW(p)] helps correct against that bias.

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-10-20T03:31:52.192Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

These are in line with what I was asking for, thank you for providing! On reading this list, I realized what I was envisioning was more like an internal revolution or government takeover by a homegrown grassroots militaristic organization. Something that started like one of our current social movements here in the USA that developed into a power akin to the Cultural Revolution.

Replies from: lsusr
comment by lsusr · 2020-10-20T04:20:28.098Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's worth noting that the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution was official government policy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Chairman Mao Zedong and (for our purposes here) represented neither a transfer of power nor a bottom-up social movement. The transfer of power which put Mao and the CCP in charge was the 1927-1949 Chinese Civil War. But the concept of a "1927-1949 Chinese Civil War" is an anachronism. China: A History by John Keay describes China as more-or-less in a state of civil war from the fall of the Qing Dynasty (well before 1927) until its domination by the CCP.

In other words, the first domino was "civil war", not "Maoism". The CCP didn't even come into existence until years after the fall of the Qing Dynasty

If you want to use modern Chinese history as a model for predicting political catastrophe then the place to look is for indicators of the breakdown of the Qing Dynasty. The obvious place to begin an examination for that would be the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion, both of which are out-of-scope of "the last century".

If our goal is to specifically look for "a transfer of power from democracy to non-democracy in China" then that happened when Yuan Shikai took power from Sun Yat-sen. But to emphasize that particular transfer of power is to examine history through a narrow, biased lens. After all, the Kuomintang lost the war. Rather than look for situations where democracy turned into non-democracy, I think we can get a better understanding of historical forces by looking for indicators of a transfer of power more generally, and then applying these general indicators to the specific places we care about.

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-10-20T06:09:34.799Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's not a bad idea, though I already know that it's beyond me to execute such a synthesis. It's one I would read with great interest, however.

comment by Viliam · 2020-10-19T11:27:57.109Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In 1945 and the following years, Soviet Union took control over the Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, East Germany). Not sure how much democratic were the countries before this, but most likely less totalitarian than afterwards.

Replies from: Teerth Aloke
comment by Teerth Aloke · 2020-10-20T10:18:33.765Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can't say about the others but East Germany was certainly undemocratic prior to 1945.

comment by Teerth Aloke · 2020-10-25T09:20:51.611Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Soviet Union was, or might be, also involved in various coups like the 1978 coup in South Yemen, the 1971 coup attempt in Sudan, 1969 coup in Somalia, the 1978 coup in Afghanistan etc. However none of the pre-coup regimes had been democratic, and were friendly or allied to USSR. 

comment by frontier64 · 2020-10-19T15:13:33.866Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This meme that the US had anything to do with Pinochet's coup has to stop. Your own Wikipedia link says that the US did not have anything to do with the coup,

"Although CIA did not instigate the coup that ended Allende's government on 11 September 1973, it was aware of coup-plotting by the military, had ongoing intelligence collection relationships with some plotters, and—because CIA did not discourage the takeover and had sought to instigate a coup in 1970—probably appeared to condone it."

The CIA underwent efforts to destabilize Allende's regime in 1970 that were unsuccessful and only served to consolidate power around him as the Chilean people were not fond of the idea that foreigners were attempting to kill their president. Pinochet's coup however was an internal affair, he was not contacted by the CIA, he received no monetary or military assistance from the CIA, and the CIA actually made his job harder by trying to start a military coup and completely failing three years earlier.

But you go beyond alleging mere US involvement and say that "The USA overthrew Chile's democratic government" as if the Chilean military was a branch of the US Armed Forces. That is false and completely out of line with reality.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2020-10-19T16:31:15.825Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that "the USA overthrew Chile's government" seems like it goes too far. But your initial comment, objecting to the idea that the US had anything to do with Pinochet's coup, also seems like it goes too far.

A few excerpts from that same Wikipedia page:

After a review of recordings of telephone conversations between Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Robert Dallek concluded that both of them used the CIA to actively destabilize the Allende government. [...] In one particular conversation about the news of Allende's overthrow, Kissinger complains about the lack of recognition of the American role in the overthrow of a "communist" government, upon which Nixon remarked, "Well, we didn't – as you know – our hand doesn't show on this one." [...] Historian Peter Winn found "extensive evidence" of United States complicity in the coup. He states that its covert support was crucial to engineering the coup, as well as for the consolidation of power by the Pinochet regime following the takeover. [...] Peter Kornbluh asserts that the CIA destabilized Chile and helped create the conditions for the coup, citing documents declassified by the Clinton administration. Other authors point to the involvement of the Defense Intelligence Agency, agents of which allegedly secured the missiles used to bombard the La Moneda Palace.

That last one is only "allegedly". But all of that looks, on the face of it, like the US absolutely did have something to do with Pinochet's coup, no?

Replies from: frontier64
comment by frontier64 · 2020-10-20T04:52:34.856Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You haven't quoted a single factual allegation that would be considered US involvement in Chile so there's nothing for me to contest here. The only quote that one could consider evidence is this supposed admission by Nixon:

"After a review of recordings of telephone conversations between Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Robert Dallek concluded that both of them used the CIA to actively destabilize the Allende government

I've explained that the US attempts to destabilize Chile prior to 1973 actually served to strengthen support of Allende, who was not well liked in the immediate aftermath of the election[1][2]. The acts of American aggression against Chile including the CIA-backed assassination of Chilean official René Schneider made Allende seem like more of a good guy than he actually was.

Besides that I don't know what actual facts these random historians are basing their ultimate conclusions on but you didn't include that information anywhere. What is this "extensive evidence" these Peters are referring to? What exactly did the Nixon administration do to support Pinochet?

Did the US give him money? No, we exchanged in trade.

Did the US give him weapons? No he had weapons of his own.

Did the US train his soldiers? No we only trained his economists.

If you are claiming that the US helped Pinochet's coup you have to say what they actually did to help! You can't just point to a random historian making an ultimate conclusion without citing any underlying facts and think that's that.

  1. He only got 36% of the vote and was running against two other candidates from anti-communist parties. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1970_Chilean_presidential_election) ↩︎

  2. He openly assassinated political rivals and let communists sow terror in the streets while he forced the military, ironically led by Pinochet, to crack down on anti-Allende riots. (http://nixontapeaudio.org/chile/517-004.pdf) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augusto_Pinochet) ↩︎

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2020-10-20T10:28:25.671Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's true that I haven't given details (not least because I don't know them) nor cited my sources (beyond what you can find in the Wikipedia article from which I quoted them). It's a bit odd, though, for you to complain at my lack of such details while giving no such details yourself.

I made some assertions about the Pinochet coup that are backed only by references to Robert Dallek (a history professor at reputable universities, specializing in US presidents), Peter Winn (a history professor at a reputable university, specializing in Latin America), and Peter Kornbluh (director of the National Security Archive's Chile Documentation Project).

You made some contrary assertions about the Pinochet coup that are backed only by your say-so.

That doesn't mean mine are right and yours are wrong! The Wikipedia page may be misrepresenting what those historians say, or cherry-picking particular claims that give a misleading impression of their opinions. Or the historians might be wrong; history is difficult. But it seems a bit rich to complain that I'm not providing enough evidence in enough detail, when you have provided zero evidence in zero detail.

(It would be less odd if the opinion you're complaining of inadequate support for were some sort of fringe view: I think it's reasonable to have a heuristic where one needs more evidence when defying conventional opinion. But, whether it's right or wrong, the idea that the US was involved in the Pinochet coup is the conventional opinion.)

Replies from: frontier64
comment by frontier64 · 2020-10-20T12:20:30.369Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have cited my sources in both my original comment and the followup, and I have included footnotes in my last reply. I cited Wikipedia for my original claims that the US was not involved in Pinochet's coup. This comment is pure falsehood about what I've previously said, creating some weird, fake strawman that you can complain about for not citing any sources.

But, whether it's right or wrong, the idea that the US was involved in the Pinochet coup is the conventional opinion

I don't care what most morons on the internet think. Read the Wikipedia article on the US involvement in Chile and half the statements in there are that the US did absolutely nothing to help Pinochet's coup, they only fucked some earlier coup attempts up, because that's the only logical conclusion one can come to when they're looking at the actual underlying facts and not some historian's bogus, lying opinion. You're the one making a claim, 'The US was involved in Pinochet's 1973 Chilean revolution.' You have to support that claim. What the hell am I supposed to do to argue against that if I don't even know the basis of your claim? Am I supposed to cite some random historian that says the US wasn't involved in the Chilean coup? No. That's stupid and I don't believe that debates are supposed to be one side citing some historian that says this and another side citing another historian that says the opposite. Then we'll get nowhere. But if you really want nonsense like that go read this article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/on-us-involvement-in-chilean-coup/2013/12/12/a61e9ecc-6125-11e3-a7b4-4a75ebc432ab_story.html that is a conclusion from a person with knowledge who is citing few underlying facts, just like your historian quotes.

If you want a response actually give me a theory of the case, give me some explanation for how the US was behind the coup. I'm disinclined to respond if you choose to strawman my comments again.

Replies from: gjm, lsusr
comment by gjm · 2020-10-20T17:15:10.973Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(Aside: I'm a bit surprised by how angry you seem to be about this. Is there some particular context?)

I have cited my sources in both my original comment and the followup

Literally the only source you cite in your original comment, so far as I can see, is the Wikipedia article already referenced by the person you were responding to. I cite the same source myself. Why is that sufficient citation when you do it but not when I do it? -- Or is there some other citation I have missed despite carefully rereading both your comments?

I have included footnotes in my last reply.

Including footnotes only counts as citing sources if the footnotes contain actual citations. In this case, your footnotes lead to two other Wikipedia articles and a transcript of a recording of a White House meeting involving Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. One of those Wikipedia articles is about the 1970 election in Chile and therefore has little to say about the US's involvement if any in the 1973 coup, and what you actually use it to support is a statement about how much of the vote Allende got in 1970, which again has little to say about the US's involvement if any in the 1973 coup. The other Wikipedia article, about Pinochet, you cite in support of a claim that Pinochet was in charge of cracking down on anti-Allende riots before the coup. Again, this tells us nothing about whether and how the US was involved in the coup. Finally, the transcript (from 1971) indicates that in 1971 Nixon thought Allende was terrible and didn't want to increase US military aid to Chile; this again says nothing about whether or not the US got involved in the coup two years later.

A source citation for the actually controversial claim you're making, namely that the US had nothing at all to do with the coup, might be e.g. to someone saying "The US had nothing to do with the Pinochet coup" or to a transcript of a White House meeting in 1973 where someone says "Mr President, this guy Pinochet wants to mount a coup and wonders if we can help" and Nixon says "I don't give a damn what he wants; we're continuing to leave Chile completely alone. No intervention, and that's my final word". Etc. Nothing remotely like any of that is in any of the things you cited. So, again, you are complaining that I have not cited sources for the claim that the US had some involvement in the coup (other than, y'know, two historians with relevant expertise and the head of the NSA's "Chile Documentation Project") and you are offering no sources for the claim that the US had no involvement in the coup.

To be clear, I'm not saying you're obliged to provide any such citations. You're welcome to go on just asserting that the US had no involvement. But in that case you have no business complaining that I have provided no citations for my opposing claim.

If you want a response actually give me a theory of the case, give me some explanation for how the US was behind the coup.

I am not claiming the US was "behind the coup". I am claiming (tentatively, and willing to be corrected with actual evidence) that it looks as if the US had some involvement in the coup, so that your original statement "This meme that the US had anything to do with Pinochet's coup has to stop." goes a bit too far. (I agreed with you that lsusr was wrong to say that "the US overthrew" Chile's government.)

Replies from: rockthecasbah
comment by rockthecasbah · 2020-10-20T17:50:49.396Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You are missing the extraordinary claim here. The extraordinary claim which requires extraordinary evidence is that the CIA successfully instigated a coup. That's a really hard thing to do. Had they done so we would expect good evidence of them planning it and being involved.

The fact that we know they tried two years prior and failed suggests that

  • We would probably have evidence of them trying in 1973 if they did so
  • We need evidence that their attempts were effective, since most encourage coup attempts fail

The Chile-driven coup explanation looks good because

  • A coup makes sense given the high levels of disorder in Chile at the time
  • Chile's political institutions fit the coup profile
  • The structure of the coup is ordinary (no events which demand a CIA explanation)

The claim that the CIA had a decisive role in the coup really is silly because the evidence is weak and unnecessary to explain the outcomes.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2020-10-21T01:13:10.946Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have already explicitly disagreed twice with that "extraordinary claim". The much weaker claim that I am defending (again: tentatively, in the knowledge that I could turn out to be wrong because the evidence readily available to me is not conclusive) is that the US had something to do with the Pinochet coup. frontier64's original comment here denied that, not merely the stronger (and, I agree, probably wrong) claim that the US was responsible for the coup, and that's the only thing I'm disagreeing with frontier64 about here.

(Well, no, it's not the only thing; we also apparently disagree about whether frontier64 did or did not cite sources in support of the statement that the US had nothing to do with the Pinochet coup. That's a thing anyone can check just by reading the comments in this thread, though.)

Replies from: rockthecasbah
comment by rockthecasbah · 2020-10-21T03:24:16.329Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The statement "The US had something to do with the Pinochet coup" is so vague that it's obviously true. For example, the statement "The US had something to do with the Soviet launch of Sputnik" is also true, since some paper some soviet scientist read was written by an American, and they were competing with us. Or the statement "the US had something to do with Uruguay's invention of the pacemaker", etc.

Let us cache out some more useful statements.

Did US policy increase the probability of a coup occuring in Chile by any amount: Most likely yes. Pinochet knew that America would tolerate a coup based on US past policy. Our available evidence suggests this was a small factor in Pinochet's calculus, relative to if the US had no signals. The failed attempt in 1971 might have actually protected Allende, we can't know for sure.

Could a different US policy have decreased the probability of a coup occurring by any amount: Again, almost certainly yes. There are reasonable indications that changes in US policy since 1990 have decreased the rate of coups in Latin America. The effect of this counterfactual is much lower than the endogenous Chilean factors or the influence of Chile's immediate neighbors. But would have been non-negligible.

Was the main reason for the coup Chile's internal politics: Clearly yes. The outcome of the US's early attempt shows that Chilean democracy was difficult to influence from outside. Meanwhile we know that the role of institutional factors in coups is very large. You can look at coup-cast's predictions for Sudan currently. Or look at outcomes by various taxonomies of democracy.

Finally, this is all Hamilton's fault for introducing presidentialism and checks and balances). Federalism is cool though, that was a good idea.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2020-10-21T22:15:13.247Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If "The US had something to do with the coup" is so vague as to be trivial, then "This meme that the US had anything to do with Pinochet's coup has to stop" is so overstated as to be trivially wrong. (Obviously that's not your fault, unless you and frontier64 happen to be the same person going by two names.)

Your more finely-tuned statements all seem reasonable to me, though I don't know enough about the Pinochet coup to say more than that.

comment by lsusr · 2020-10-20T12:57:16.613Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The "article" you link to isn't an article. It is a letter to the editor. And it wasn't written by a historian. It was written by a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer.

The real article is a book review about "a CIA-backed coup". The book in question is written by a professor of human rights and political philosophy at the University of London (Birkbeck) who won the Frantz Fanon Prize in 2010 for one of his several other books about Latin American history.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2020-10-20T22:51:24.389Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This ended up being my highest-karma post, which I wasn't expecting, especially as it hasn't been promoted out of "personal blog" and therefore isn't as visible as many of my other posts. (To be fair "The Nature of Offense" would probably have a higher karma if it was posted today, as each vote only had one point back then.) Curious what people liked about it, or upvoted it for.

Replies from: ryan_b, maia
comment by ryan_b · 2020-10-21T18:31:11.841Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I liked that it provided a personal perspective into an important window of history. Whether by instinct or design, you also neatly organized it into information-decision-information-decision, which is exactly the kind of analysis we want to be able to do.

Separately from my appreciation: it fits the zeitgeist, since the US is in political crisis and modern China is and has been an important factor in world events for years.

Lastly, though I can't put my finger precisely on why, it feels relevant to the events of Petrov Day this year. Sort of the inverse, if that makes any sense: not world-ending, but personal world-ending; plenty of time to make the decision but a stupendous amount of information to consider; the consequences stretched out over years and decades rather than a few hours.

comment by maia · 2020-10-21T00:47:19.615Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I found it mildly useful to hear about someone's experiences in this kind of situation, and it's an interesting story.

It's also a very easily digestible post.

comment by MondSemmel · 2022-01-15T14:45:56.885Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a personal anecdote, so I'm not sure how to assess it as an intellectual contribution. That said, global developments like the Covid pandemic sure have made me more cynical towards our individual as well as societal ability to notice and react to warning signs. In that respect, this story is a useful complement to posts like There's No Fire Alarm for Artificial General Intelligence [LW · GW], Seeing the Smoke [LW · GW], and the 2021 Taliban offensive in Afghanistan (which even Metaculus was pretty blindsided by).

And separately, the post resulted in some great discussion, e.g. a comment by Vaniver on the difficulty of timing markets [LW(p) · GW(p)], which someone suggested could be turned into a post of its own; or this story by Viliam of growing up in communist Czechoslovakia [LW(p) · GW(p)].

comment by Dagon · 2020-10-20T16:59:21.813Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In your experience (and others who directly experienced similar repression and violence), how did age demographics play into it?  I get the sense that in China and early Nazi Germany, a lot of it was driven by (in one author's words) "roving gangs of teens and young adults, murdering with impunity".  Some revolutions seem to include very young children as soldiers and enforcers.  

I wonder if that's one of the stronger signals of the shift from "worrisome trend" to "get out now" - when we see significant (an order of magnitude worse than the summer protests) non-state, non-regulated youth violence.

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-10-20T19:09:42.041Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That makes sense, but doesn't pattern-match very well onto the concerns people like Wei_Dai have about our present moment. What are the trends that people tend to focus on when they're worried about "where this is all heading?"


  • Attacks on reputation: cancel culture, conspiracy-peddling
  • Street violence: some significant looting, occasional murder, arson, not with impunity but sometimes treated with tolerance by those not directly responsible for enforcing the law
  • Polarization: accusations against individuals, institutions, and groups within society as being evil/complicit in evil or inherently good/trustworthy due to their label/affiliation/demographic/job; calls for radical restructuring of society; open division of civil society


  • Grasping for power: major political rule-breaking, disparaging basic democratic process, open attempts at voter suppression, cult of personality
  • Division and disorder: between generals and President, constant churn in the White House
  • Encroachments: Federal law enforcement getting involved in local protests
  • Questionable loyalties: the President's refusal to divest and upcoming debts, "Putin's puppy" meme

It's tempting to jump to the worst-case nightmare scenario, but it's a more tractable and, to me, more interesting question to ask "what does one step worse look like?"

Here are some possibilities:


  • Weaponized false/manufactured accusations against high-status people increase in frequency and acceptance
  • Protests intensify. Shaming people in their houses at night for not joining protests turns to trespassing and home invasions. Property destruction and looting is the norm, not the exception. The rate and size of protests, the frequency of deadly protests, and the number of deaths increases 50% over the course of 6 months to a year, assassination attempt
  •  Polarization intensifies: Defaming categories of people becomes a part of official school curriculums a la "teach the controversy," more intense restrictions/bans/grassroots censorship on taboo topics or more categories of taboo topics, colleges see increasing proportions of local students as regional differences solidify


  • Grasping for power: open rejection of election results, major violent counter-protests by defeated side even with landslide victory, shocking repeat victory by Trump drives unprecedented protests and counter-protests along with continued corruption within the White House
  • Division and disorder: disputed election leads to unanswered questions about military's role in settling a dispute
  • Encroachments: Surprise Trump victory/election stealing leads to state of emergency declaration ongoing in multiple states
  • Questionable loyalties: selling of state secrets by insiders in the Trump White House, Trump defects to Russia

Having done this exercise, my two main fears are:

  1. A surprise Trump victory leading to military policing in liberal states. This will be obvious.
  2. Intensification of protests and polarization. Less immediately concerning, but also sneakier. I would like to see attempts to quantify size and scale of violence at protests and track it over time, shifting curriculums and academic norms, and examples of accusations of violence that seem manufactured not for attention but to eliminate a specific political figure.
Replies from: rockthecasbah
comment by rockthecasbah · 2020-10-21T03:37:08.611Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another factor is the policy drift. The US congress doesn't pass much policy anymore, and budget negotiations tend to fail. So money keeps going into policies that made sense decades ago, but are now nonsense. The electoral gridlock is likely to continue or worsen, so the policy drift will only become worse. That could intensify the dissatisfaction with the political system and vulnerability to populism.

Many presidential regimes just solve this through the president openly bribing the legislature.

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-10-21T04:44:52.951Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In thinking about this, it seems to help me to use the following framework:

  1. "What does one step better/worse look like in category X?"
  2. "How fast could we take those steps?"

It's tempting to try and describe a variety of worst case scenarios and the winding paths by which we might get there. There's a sort of Sorites paradox behind Wei_Dai's fear. When do we go from "things are getting worse" to "it's probably to late" to you're on a train to the gulag?

That's impossible to say. It's also impossible to sum all the negative trends and say "how bad is it?" Since each trend is hard to compare, we also can't say "are things getting worse or better overall?"

But there are two things we can do.

One is to designate an arbitrary threshold at which we commit to making a plan for fleeing the country and opening that conversation with our loved ones, and another one at which we actually follow through on it. A good threshold needs to be simple to determine and compelling enough to motivate action - your own and that of others. It might be a good conversation to pre-game without being too serious or specific about it.

The other thing we can do is pick one or two individual trends that we happen to care about, and monitor for whether they're individually getting better or worse. I think part of why politics kills minds is because we try and take in everything, all at once, and synthesize it all.


In that endeavor, perhaps the US Crisis Monitor can be a useful tool.