All posts by John C. Hulsman

The ancient imperative that will help us predict the future

By Dr. John C. Hulsman and Lara Palay

By 480 BC, the Pythia of Delphi already amounted to an ancient institution. Commonly known now as the Oracle of Delphi (when in fact the ‘oracles’ were the pronouncements the Pythia dispensed), the Pythia were the senior priestesses at the Temple of Apollo, the Greek God of Prophecy.

The temple, perched precariously (and beautifully, the site is still a wonder to behold) on the slope of Mount Parnassus above the Castalian Spring, had long been the center of the Greek world, going back into the mists of time.

The site may well have had religious significance as early as 1400 BC, during the forgotten days of the Mycenaeans, with devotions to Apollo being established in the 8th century BC. Delphi remained a center of worship until 395 AD, meaning that it was in use for at least 1100 years.

During this long period, the Pythia was seen as the most authoritative and important soothsayer in Greece. Pilgrims descended from all over the ancient world to visit the temple and have their questions about the future answered.

Sitting in a small, enclosed chamber at the base of the edifice, the Pythia delivered her oracles in a frenzied state, most probably imbibing the vapours rising from the clefts of Mount Parnassus.

Given the pharmacological basis for the Pythia’s special insights, it is amazing at how good a political risk record the priestesses actually had. Between 535 and 615 of the oracles have survived to the present day, of which more than half are said to be historically accurate. We can name a goodly number of modern political risk firms who would kill for that record.

There is a very simple explanation for the Pythia’s extraordinary success. Carved into the entrance of the temple to Apollo at Delphi, standing watch over the Pythia’s rites since time immemorial, was a simple Greek phrase, ‘Know Thyself’.

The aphorism is often wrongly attributed to Socrates, who brought it into fashion. It amounts to one of the oldest and best pieces of advice given to humans. The aim of both modern psychology and as well as foreign policy analysis could be put as simply as: figure out who you are.

If you know yourself, you might untangle the snarls you get into in life. You might do better interacting with others; when you understand your motives clearly, you have a shot at seeing others with clarity. You might even be able to do good in the world, rather than be a slave to selfishness and rage.

Many of the pantheon of the gormless we have visited over the past three years—from a Donald Trump who cannot understand why firing the FBI Director who is investigating him might be a bad idea, to Jean-Claude Juncker and his EU minions who fail to see that the EU is the past and not the future, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel who continually confuses caution and wisdom—stumble over this primary intellectual hurdle.

They have absolutely no idea who they are, and thus have little clue as to their place in the world. From this simple but devastating mistake, everything else follows.

Of course to know thyself takes great courage, to look accurately at person’s (or a country’s) strengths and especially weaknesses is a heroic, Homeric endeavour. But the analytical rewards of doing so are legion.

Abraham Lincoln saw that the American Civil War was about something far larger in the history of the world, just as Winston Churchill put into stirring words that Britain’s peril in 1940 was about more than the fate of a country, but more broadly the survival of decency in the face of utter barbarism.

Neither of these moments would have been remotely possible without a real understanding of where Lincoln and Churchill stood in the universe, why their moments mattered. This is turn required the magic elixir of self-knowledge.

This column is the last in a series of articles we wrote together. We looked at what countries do, and then looked at human behavior, and what science has gleaned about the workings of the human mind and brain. We combined psychology, history and current affairs in this series, because the first directive in these disciplines is to discover the root causes of human behaviour and events.

In each of these fields and for all of humankind, this boils down to the individual, and for that individual, understanding begins with the self. So for this column, giving modern-day advice about the present, it seems like a good place to end–at the beginning.

Published in City AM London, May 15, 2017


Corbyn’s beloved Venezuela is sinking further into the socialist abyss

The definition of a fanatic is someone who doesn’t let the facts get in the way of their theories. By this standard, hapless, gormless Jeremy Corbyn is truly (if serenely) living in another galaxy.

 Heroes are important and Corbyn is crystal clear that Hugo Chavez and his charismatic, populist, socialist Bolivarian movement—long in charge of resource rich Venezuela–is a model he is just itching to emulate. Let us take him at his word and look at the prototype of the socialist paradise Corbyn dreams of.

 With any sort of remotely competent leadership, Venezuela ought to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world, as it possesses the planet’s largest known oil reserves. So economic illiterates Chavez and his even more clueless successor as President Nicolas Maduro have form, as wrecking such a paradise has taken real talent. When Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution took power in 1998, Venezuela was one of the richest countries in Latin America; now it is one of the poorest.

 What does this mean practically? Presently there are shortages of medicine and food staples, a direct result of government policies. The inflation rate in 2016 has been estimated a stratospheric 800%, with output falling by a precipitous 18.6% last year, after a mere 180% rate of inflation and 5.7 percent contraction in 2015. Simply put, due to economic negligence, the place is falling apart at the seams.

 Under its socialist champions and despite the incredible bounty of its oil reserves, Venezuela is desperately, irredeemably poor, and there is no sight whatever of even the smallest effort on the part of the gormless Maduro government to even attempt to right the ship, as to do so would be to abandon the socialist snake oil that they and Corbyn so enjoy peddling.

 Venezuela’s problem is structural, and simply isn’t going away. With the global price of energy halving (and with the American shale revolution now functioning as a permanent ceiling on global oil prices), the latest socialist fantasy is fast approaching its sell-by date.

 It is the easiest political risk call in the world to note (as almost everyone has) that the Bolivarian revolution is on its last legs. But tragically, it is unlikely the fetid, discredited regime will go without a fight.

 Maduro is Chavez without the charisma, meaning he is nothing. With his popularity rating plummeting to near Hollande-like levels of 24% in February 2017, the thuggish President has done about everything he can to change the subject from his obvious and glaring incompetence.

 Maduro has blamed the US (somehow its Washington’s fault as it would surely be for Corbyn) for his self-inflicted wounds. He charges the opposition are fascists and in the pocket of Donald Trump, rather than being a disparate, desperate group of Venezuelans trying to stave off economic disaster, and save what’s left of their country. Having lost December 2015 parliamentary elections to his foes, Maduro, rather than change course and tack towards sanity, has set about organising a takeover of the Venezuelan political system.

 He cajoled the pro-government Supreme Court to recently announce its assumption of legislative powers, in lieu of the opposition-controlled congress. Having extra-legally quashed the opposition’s effort to recall him (which given Maduro’s great unpopularity was sure to have succeeded), the Venezuelan President is not intent on re-writing the Constitution presumably to see that his political opponents, are never, ever in a position to threaten him again.

 Predictably, the opposition are in the streets this spring, leading ever larger demonstrations that have already resulted in the deaths of at least 36 people. Venezuela is a hair’s breath from revolution.

 Maduro will talk about anything, anything other than the undeniable economic mess he and his mentor Chavez have driven his country into. But in the end, the laws of political risk analysis—as is true for the laws of physics—cannot be indefinitely ignored. The disastrous socialist Bolivarian revolution that the Labour leader so admires is not long for the earth. Thank God, as the poverty-stricken people of Maduro’s country deserve far better.

 It is my strong bet that the people of Britain do not need this political risk lesson as to why a vote for Corbyn is a vote for economic suicide (beyond the Shadow Home Secretary’s disastrous inability to do simple maths).

 However, alternate realties and alternate paths not taken are an important comparison metric voters can use to gauge what taking a chance on a radical candidate would look like.

 In the case of Corbyn, one has only to look at the death throes of the economically-challenged Maduro regime to get a sense of what his government would deliver. To look, and then to shudder.

 Published in City AM London, May 9, 2017.