Only hours after Leo Linbeck III described the ruling elite’s infatuation with Rosseau’s volonté générale — “the will of the political organism, an entity with a life of its own quite apart from that of the individual members of which it is built”, President Obama unwittingly commented on it by making the collective the new cornerstone of American freedom. He said in a recent speech that our freedoms are defined only within the context of the state.
But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.
For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.
Chris Matthews liked it so much he called it the new Gettysburg address. Many of us would find it more akin to another famous speech, one heard on the Internet that goes “all your base are belong to us.”
Matthew J. Franck of the National Review, unlike Matthews understood Obama’s speech at once and directly apprehended the link between Obama’s inaugural and the reification of the volonté générale.
But the most notable thing about the speech is not what it contains but what it lacks. The overwhelming impression one gets is that in Obama’s America, there is no civil society — no arena of private action, of voluntary responsibility, of free associations of citizens for solving the community’s problems. There are only the government (by default, the federal government, at that) and the individual. This is the “Life of Julia” campaign philosophy rendered in inaugural rhetoric: Without government’s aid in every aspect of our lives, we are lost, we are helpless, we are nothing. Every “we,” every “our,” every reference to “the nation” in this speech was a reference to a government solution to a “problem.” In this vision of America, no families, churches, charities, voluntary groups, or other institutions of civil society make any appearance at all. And when there are only the government and the individual, we know which one will be in charge.
And once in charge government will us give us our bread, safety and free phones. How wonderful for Julia if it could really come true. But as Walter Russell Mead points out, they might get nothing at all as even the New York Times admits that people are fighting for the scraps of the collapsing blue model. Obama’s vision of the collective apparently has a very large menu and an exceedingly small kitchen.
Dozens of city and state public employee pension plans are on the verge of bankruptcy—or are actually bankrupt—from Rhode Island to California; in 2010, a survey of 126 state and local plans showed assets of $2.7 trillion and liabilities of $3.5 trillion, an $800 billion shortfall. The national debt exceeds $16 trillion….
In cities from Los Angeles to Chicago to Houston, African-Americans are competing with Hispanics and others for government jobs, good schools, good neighborhoods, political power and basic resources.
Ironically people may have to fall back on churches, families, muskets and militias — what Leo Linbeck referred to as the “mediating institutions” to put food on the table. The great and omnipotent state cannot even pay its bills. Mead writes, “the reality of blue model decline is so obvious that nobody can ignore it any longer.” Nobody except maybe Julia and all her Facebook friends.
But can it at least provide safety for all of us? What Mead called the “blue model” has been showing its age and weariness for a long time abroad. Probably the first sign that people were losing faith in it was the little noticed Sri Lankan civil war, where for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall “Eastphalia” was chosen over “Westphalia” as the preferred model for fighting a civil war; this in spite of the strenuous efforts of Western NGOs to force the Sri Lankan government to fight according to Geneva rules. The Tamil Tigers were beaten down in what the West had considered an unwinnable war.
the victory attracted considerable attention through out the world. An interesting interpretation was offered by Sumit Ganguly, David P. Fidler (leading the Indiana University Centre on American and Global Security) and Sung Won Kim (of the Legal Affairs Division, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Korean Republic). In a paper which argued that with the shift in power to the East, the centuries old ‘Westphalian’ concept is being slowly supplanted with a new ‘Eastphalian’ alternative, they stressed, inter alia: “… Sri Lanka’s ability to gain Chinese and Indian support in the [UNHRC] to defeat Western-backed resolutions critical of Colombo’s bloody crushing of the Tamil Tiger insurgency is perhaps also a sign of Eastphalia’s arrival.” (‘Eastphalia Rising?’, World Policy Journal, Summer, 2009). It was then a significant set-back, one that the US and its allies cannot forget.
Major Niel A. Smith, USA who served as Operations Officer of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center from 2007 to 2009 offered an analysis of Sri Lanka’s victory in a National Defense University Paper.
Sri Lankan military and civilian leaders believe the application of these principles enabled the government’s victory:
go to hell (that is, ignore domestic and international criticism)
complete operational freedom
accent on young commanders
keep your neighbors in the loop.
These harsh principles stand in stark contrast to the population-centric approach articulated in U.S. military doctrine. Field Manual 3–24, Counterinsurgency, counsels an approach that attempts to influence and persuade the population to willingly side with the counterinsurgent by providing a superior alternative to the insurgent cause.
That plus the fact the Tamils could no longer raise money abroad meant the Tigers were doomed. The Sri Lanka civil war was a little noticed but tremendous setback for the approved NGO way of war. The shock could be felt round the NGO world. The Sri Lankan H.L.D. Mahindapala gloated at how thoroughly the Europeans were trashed:
Each time the Tamil Tigers walked out of negotiations on the flimsiest excuse Solheim and the I/NGOs backed the demands of the LTTE to pressure the GOSL to give into the next level of demands put forth by the LTTE with no guarantees of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Solheim too was happy to use Prabhakaran’s gun powder to force GOSL to concede more and more at formal and informal negotiations in Geneva, Colombo, Sattahip, Delhi and Oslo.
Meanwhile, negotiations were not going anywhere because the attitude of the Tamil Tigers was that they do not need talks, negotiations, mediators, co-chairs or peace deals because they have the guns. Solheim too was happy to go along with Prabhakaran’s because the only way by which he could consolidate his position as an interventionist dictating terms to GOSL was by keeping the gun powder of the LTTE dry. Enhancing the political, legal and military power of Prabhakaran was a deliberate policy of the Norwegians to gain credibility and acceptability with the LTTE. For instance, in the first round of talks in Sattahip, the delegation sent by Ranil Wickremesinghe was forced to address Anton Balasingham as “Your Excellency” conceding that he was a representative of a sovereign State. Solheim even told President Mahinda Rajapaksa that Prabhakaran was a great strategist and the Sri Lankan forces would be defeated.
The West was sold on the myth of the invincible superiority of the Tamil Tigers.
Western diplomats were queuing up at the gates of Prabhakaran in Kilinochchi to pay their homage as if he was the Head of State.
Not even the newly installed President Obama could stop them. The website Tamils for Obama exhorted him at the time to Save The Tigers. But he could not. The Voice of Command by the Western elites no longer sounds so compelling. And Prabhakaran is still dead.
But if Sri Lanka has since been forgotten recent events in Algeria have reminded us that the Western ways are no longer universally admired. Adam Garfinkle at the American Interest describes how Algeria also has a “go to hell” counterinsurgency policy for historical reasons. It began not just in the Battle for Algiers but continued to develop during their own civil war against the Islamists.
The present Algerian leadership consists of the very last remnants of the old guard that experienced the war of independence against France, and the generation right behind it experienced the civil war. Taken together, then, this leadership is as battle-hardened, ruthless and cold-blooded a group of guys as can be found anywhere. This is not a kind and gentle military that holds regular sensitivity-training sessions; it’s a military that uses eight bullets when two will do nicely, and that has no qualms about feeding still wriggling bodies through the wood chipper. They are also very proud and exquisitely sensitive to any slight coming from the general direction of foreigners. One former U.S. Air Force helicopter pilot (who of course will not be named) involved in a limited training mission has had this to say: “. . . the Algerians . . . . proved to be completely inflexible and almost hostile to the idea of working with us.
The Algerian civil war was the first major blowback from the mujahedin war against the Red Army in Afghanistan. …
Starting in around 1993, and through toward the most horrific years of the war (circa 1996-98), the French and U.S. governments concluded and remained convinced that the Algerian military could not win this war. After having had a hand in causing it by supporting the military’s annulment of the 1991 election, Paris and Washington now urged compromise. The senior Algerian generals, whose seminal experience had been the very bloody war for independence against France, believed otherwise. They doubled down, becoming utterly ruthless in an unshakable determination to win. They refused all compromise and they sustained as well as inflicted great pain—and they won. The main Islamist opposition group called it quits in 1999, but fringe groups, one called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) continued fighting until by 2002 the military had either tracked and killed them, or they managed to flee the country.
Whatever the long term efficacy of the “go to hell” model might be, these countries have shown one thing the administration and the West seem unwilling to do: fight their own corner. The Sri Lankans, Russians, Syrians, Algerians and Libyans — not to mention the Iranians — to name only a few, are the emerging members of the non-Julia world. They unabashedly want to win and if al-Qaeda hires axe-wielding dwarves they’ll hire some of their own. The new barbarians have no respect for the Roman Senate. As for dead Europeans and Americans, what of them?
They constitute the world that is right outside Europe and America’s PC gates. They constitute the world we are told no longer exists; that we don’t need muskets or militias to defend against. All we need is faith in collective action, the volonté générale represented by Barack Obama and everything will be jake.
And we may not even get Obama’s protection at that. Con Coughlin at the Telegraph writes: “Barack Obama has given up on the fight against al-Qaeda”.
Just before Christmas a senior Obama official claimed the America could wind up its campaign against al-Qaeda because it no longer posed a threat. That remarkable claim was made by US defence department general counsel, Jeh Johnson. At about the same time another Obama adviser told me that Washington didn’t really mind if the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan once Nato troops had withdrawn in 2014, as the Taliban was no longer interested in working with al-Qaeda. Unbelievable!
And now we have Saint Obama himself proclaiming that America was no longer at war, and could concentrate on rebuilding the economy and the country’s social fabric.
Free cell phones, post office and DMV jobs. Life of Julia stuff.
The debate over whether Rousseau or Tocqueville were right about freedom, about volonté générale, is not entirely philosophical. It is practical too. It is about which vision works. If the blue model is bankrupt, then the volonté générale of Obama is just a pile of I.O.U.s. All the soothing assurances about free healthcare, free Obama phones, secure government jobs and nice fat pensions are then just irredeemable promises that will be left in the public’s hands when the elite absquatulate to wherever such esteemed people go when the chips are down. The main problem with relying on a world without mediating institutions — without individual freedom and the mechanisms within which to work it — is what to do when Leviathan is bust.