Belmont Club

Changing places

A very strange thing has happened in British politics.  According to Philip Blond of the Daily Mail, the Conservative and Labour Parties have changed places.  By some alchemy the Tories are now the hope of the “lower classes” while Labour now carries aloft the values of the chattering rich.  In a bygone time the Conservatives would rally their voters round the flag and Britain forever. Today the appeal is to the working stiffs who feel “betrayed” by the Saviors of the People.

This year, the rapturous applause was in response to a demand by Cameron to help the poor and relieve the destitute. … The first time delegates rose to their feet was when he expressed his disgust at the 96 per cent marginal tax rate suffered by the low-paid as they try to get off welfare and into work. The second, and more heartfelt, ovation came when he pledged to fight for the poor who have been so clearly and so utterly abandoned by New Labour. …

The overwhelming thrust of this new Toryism is to tackle the causes of poverty, not just its symptoms. For Cameron’s new ‘One Nation’ Tories there are five main drivers of poverty. They are:

  • Economic dependency: the UK has the highest proportion of children living in workless households out of any EU country;
  • Educational failure: 44,000 school leavers each year are illiterate;
  • Family Breakdown: 70 per cent of young offenders are from lone-parent families;
  • Drink and drug addiction: one million children have alcohol-addicted parents;
  • Debt: British consumers are twice as indebted as those in Continental Europe.

But if this list of woes — welfare dependency, dysfunctional schools, collapsing family values, drugs and debt — is vaguely shared by Americans, the British Conservative solution which is for the government to “fix” Broken Britain may still raise suspicions in a country that has ‘not yet’ come to accept that the State is here to solve things. But it soon may.

Ken Jowitt writing at the Hoover Institution, describes the evolution of the Western soul.   He argues that the collapse of the Soviet Union in the last of the three great wars of the 20th century misled observers into thinking the values that America was presumed to embody would inherit the earth. And in 1945 everyone knew what these were. They sold themselves; they made the sale because they worked. Europe admired America because it functioned well, and that fact, however unpleasant, forced a grudging admiration of the virtues which undergirded it.

In the aftermath of World War II, one could say of the Americans and Soviets what Virgil said of Mnestheus’s men: “They are strengthened by success, they have the power because they feel they have it.” For a critical period of time, beginning in the late 1940s, the United States powerfully and authoritatively offered itself as the exemplar of Western liberal capitalist democracy everywhere from Japan to West Germany. Japan and Western Europe might have had socialist, even communist, parties with substantial constituencies, quite different welfare traditions, and marked ambivalence towards the United States, but all the authoritatively defining institutions during this critical period were American: the Marshall Plan, nato, the imf, and the dollar. In a striking expression of the conflation of American, Western, and international power, the United Nations, far from being located in neutral Switzerland, Sweden, or Ireland, was located in the “Empire State,” in New York City. The United States of America succeeded in creating a global political, economic, and military reality, a liberal-capitalist-democratic one led, disciplined, and concretely embodied in the United States.

But some were secretly hoping it wasn’t so; that America’s success was accidental, not due to the operation of virtues they despised.  And with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, these secret doubters had their chance. Jowitt argues that in the period following 1991 the old statist ideas were under under no obligation to think they had been saved by America from the big bad Soviet wolf. They could simply accept the fact of victory and let America pick up the tab. “In contrast to the period after World War II when General Motors’s net value was greater than the Italian economy, by 1991 the EU and Asian economies were robust, and in 2009 the Italian carmaker Fiat was bidding to take over GM in Europe and Chrysler in America.” But more importantly, the American elite itself felt under no obligation to ascribe America’s triumph to superior virtue. Things had come for so easy, for so long that they could regard the Soviet collapse as yet another in a series of tributes to themselves, something to be carelessly stored away and mislaid.

In addition to changes in America’s international environments, important changes had also occurred in the United States. Not all appraisals of America’s national condition prior to the end of the Cold War were as euphoric and triumphalist as the neoconservatives say. One of the most astute students of American society, the late Christopher Lasch, forcefully argued that “members of the American elite have lost faith in the values, or what remains of them, of the West. For many people, the very term ‘Western civilization’ now calls to mind an organized system of domination designed to enforce conformity to bourgeois values and to keep the victims of patriarchal oppression . . . in a permanent state of subjection.” That certainly applied to American elite universities from Harvard to Berkeley. In a similar vein, James Kurth suggested, “the most significant development for Western civilization . . . has occurred within its leading power. Increasingly, the political and intellectual elites of the United States no longer think of America as the leader, or even a member, of Western civilization. . . . The American political and intellectual class instead thinks of America as a multicultural society.” This may well apply to President Barack Obama.

For the Western elites, success had become a birthright. It had not even been necessary to win in Vietnam.  The Indochinese retreat “proved” one could safely give ground to the enemy and yet emerge triumphant. Was is it even necessary to “win” at all? And from there it was easy to imagine that all the West’s past progress was consequence of their personal excellence and attractiveness instead of due to the enterprise, courage and hard work of their populations. Once the victories of World War 2 and the Cold War could be reinterpreted in terms of their eloquence and personal beauty then it was but a step to the belief that the Western elite simply had to spread their enlightenment upon the masses for the world would saunter into the broad meadows of tomorrow. On the day when lesbian feminists became Presidents of Afghanistan and everyone cycled titanium-framed road bikes to work the world would be at peace.

Jowitt then gallops at full tilt toward the most remarkable aspect of his thesis. He argues that Francis Fukuyama was correct despite everything in believing that Western ideology would triumph over all comers. He points out that no non-Western totalitarian system — not even Islam — has really emerged as a credible alternative to its ideology.  He was just wrong about what he thought Western ideology was. The mistake was ignoring the possibility that Western ideology itself could become cancerous; that the West had won the bout and the gentleman Doctor Jekyll had been seen to triumph, little knowing he was about to claim the Championship Belt as Mr. Hyde. Jowitt suggests the transformation, but offers two versions of it. In the first version, Mr. Hyde simply wants to dismantle the nations and replace it it with a multicultural, welfare-dispensing version of himself.

The possible changes I have in mind include an innovative reform of liberal capitalist democracy that substantially reconfigures the nation-state as its flying buttress and extends the ideological tenets of liberal capitalist democracy, e.g., the meaning of individualism in general, citizenship and entrepreneurship in particular, in an institutionally more integrated Western (not global) world. The United States and the eu are best positioned for such a development, though there is an opposing obstacle in each case. In the American case the obstacle is its essentialist, indelible, view of national sovereignty. In stark contrast, “unbundling” — to use Michael Mann’s term — national sovereignty into its various dimensions and functions is the eu’s novel achievement. The obstacle to innovation in the eu, even within the framework of liberalism, is the eu’s allergic response to any ideologically majestic enterprise. To substantially reform the current Western liberal nation-state, the United States would have to become more European in its attitude toward sovereignty, and the eu more American in its acceptance of liberal ideology, not simply liberal practicality, as its inspiration.

The other possibilty is far more disturbing. It’s the prospect that Mr. Hyde really wants to be Mr. Hyde. Jowitt argues that the Nazis really didn’t fly to the moon in 1945 as some cranks have claimed. No. Something stranger happened. The nihilism they represented grew up again our midst of their enemies and, in gentle guise, turned us into zombies. We are the enemy we’ve been waiting for.

Another much more radical possibility, should the current crisis dramatically expand, is the appearance of a novel post-liberal ideology that decisively revises liberal capitalist democracy’s historical legacy and replaces the nation-state as the basic unit of production, power, and allegiance. This would be a genuine world historical event comparable to the emergence of the liberal capitalist nation-state itself in England in the 17th century. …

There is of course, an additional possibility, a malignant one, the emergence of an anti-Western “Movement of Rage,” informed and disciplined by an ideology, like Nazism and Leninism, whose scope is civilizational, not merely national.

And while Jowitt ends his article with the belief that we have nothing much to worry about from this reversal of positions; that “America may substitute a casual Obama for a strident Bush, political apology for political theology, but the level of political endeavor will remain mundane”, I think that he shrinks back from his own conclusions rather than following them to their logical ends. Anyone familiar with the Left will instantly understand why the change in polarity he struggles to describe took place: democratic centralism. The Left in opposition is all “for democracy” but the Left in power is all about “centralism”. The installation of millions of closed circuit surveillance cameras in the UK may be totally useless.  But we misunderstand their purpose: they are their because they ought to be. Democratic centralism.

Ironically, the emergence of a fatuous but authoritarian aristocracy was made possibly by the earlier achievements of the peasants. America in 1945 could not afford to subscribe to concepts like “global warming” in the face of a global Soviet challenge. But after the Berlin wall it could. The ultimate reality check preventing the indefinite expansion of the New Deal was Soviet Russia. But unlike Truman in 1945, Clinton in 1991 had no great enemies to face and it was time for a cigar. They have been chain-smoking them since. Those cigars, cumulatively lit, may have lighted the United States and Great Britain to their present situation.

In the UK, those trends may now have reached the point where a political entrepreneur like David Cameron can see an opportunity is raising the countryside against a new bureaucratic class of socialist barons and baronesses, who surrounded by their court of talk-show hosts, entertainers and jesters, all a-twitter over the dangers posed by carbon dioxide, the menace posed by Michael Savage and the inspirational power of the latest Nobel Peace Prize, make too tempting a target to ignore. If these are the people who have inherited the earth in a twisted fulfillment of Francis Fukuyama’s prediction, then we want our money back.

It’s an interesting thesis, especially because it leaves a number of questions unanswered: will hard times destroy a new transnational aristocracy just as success bred it? Or will hard times mutate it into a “Movement of Rage”?


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