Saturday, June 05, 2010

Outlets for ambition

During the 1980s I wrote an ambitious book called Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler. It appeared in 1990 and is still in print. It drew on most of the literature of European conflict from 1555 until roughly the outbreak of the Second World War, focusing on four periods of general warfare. I was primarily interested in what nations were fighting about in various different periods, but as the book developed, I also became interested in the political and even social functions of war in different periods. And at one point I broadened the discussion in some ways that help explain exactly where we have gotten today, and what we would have to do to get back on track.

The first two sections of the book dealt respectively with the years 1559-1659, dominated by conflicts between fairly undeveloped monarchies on the one hand and aristocracies on the other, and 1661-1715, when Louis XIV and his fellow monarchs brought war under their own control. Most of the eighteenth century did not figure in the book, largely because war, happily, was waged on a considerably smaller and less destructive scale, and thus did not disturb the progress of civilization. But a new era began in the early 1790s, when, as Clausewitz (who lived through it) argued a few decades later, the French Revolution enabled successive French governments, culminating in Napoleon's empire, to raise huge armies and wage war on an unprecedented scale.

Although the wars of 1791-1815 were extremely destructive, it was very exciting to write about that period, just as it was to live through it. Several different aspects of European politics, I argued, gave it its particular character. One was the spread of Enlightenment rationalism, which called older territorial and political arrangements into question and allowed Napoleon and his contemporaries to withdraw and simplify the European map. Another was the idea of "career open to talent," which allowed lesser nobles and even bourgeois to take part in the game of statesmanship. Napoleon was the most striking beneficiary of that trend, but he was not the only one. While Washington and Jefferson and Adams and Hamilton built and expanded a new Republic in North America and Bolivar began freeing South America, various Europeans acquired wealth, glory and distinction by leading armies, negotiating treaties, floating bond issues, and rewriting legal codes. They created the world of the nineteenth century, which endured, in many ways, until the First World War.

At the conclusion of my treatment of this period, I commented that war and politics had in the late eighteenth century become the arena in which ambitious young men tried to realize their goals. I added that the industrial revolution had come along rather fortuitously at just about this time in Britain, and not long after on the European continent, and had thus given ambitious young men a new outlet for their energies, one that could in fact be socially beneficial, rather than destructive. By and large, this was the nineteenth century's solution to the problem Abraham Lincoln identified when he was about thirty years old, in his remarkable speech at the Springfield Lyceum, in which he identified, if you will, the generational motor of history that was going to bring about the American civil war. Long-time readers will, I hope, forgive me if I quote the key passage once again. Here, in early 1838, he reviewed the founding of the Republic and forecast the future.

"That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away. Through that period, it was felt by all, to be an undecided experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one.--Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction, expected to find them in the success of that experiment. Their all was staked upon it:-- their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten. They succeeded. The experiment is successful; and thousands have won their deathless names in making it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.

Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.

Here, then, is a probable case, highly dangerous, and such a one as could not have well existed heretofore.

Another reason which once was; but which, to the same extent, is now no more, has done much in maintaining our institutions thus far. I mean the powerful influence which the interesting scenes of the revolution had upon the passions of the people as distinguished from their judgment. By this influence, the jealousy, envy, and avarice, incident to our nature, and so common to a state of peace, prosperity, and conscious strength, were, for the time, in a great measure smothered and rendered inactive; while the deep-rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of being turned against each other, were directed exclusively against the British nation. And thus, from the force of circumstances, the basest principles of our nature, were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest cause--that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty.

But this state of feeling must fade, is fading, has faded, with the circumstances that produced it.

As Lincoln predicted, his own generation decided to seek fame, fortune and distinction in freeing slaves or enslaving freemen. The post-civil war generation of Americans, named by Strauss and Howe the Missionary Generation, took up an entirely different task: the reform of the nation, and of the world. They certainly did not do so unanimously, and in the 1920s they abandoned that path, but they were ready when the crisis of the 1930s struck. The post-Second World War generation--the Boomers--have taken a completely different path--or rather, paths.

I do not mean to ignore the social achievements of my more liberal contemporaries. They had very little to do with the civil rights movement--indeed, the greatest successes of that movement and the beginnings of its very rapid decline coincided with our coming of age in the mid-1960s. But they had a great deal to do with securing women's rights and gay rights and, as I have often said, with encouraging people to take their own feelings seriously. Our parents' successes in the public sphere enabled us to focus on such questions. In the economic and public sphere, however, their contributions have been disastrous.

Not since the late nineteenth century have corporations pursued profit so irresponsibly as they do now. I feel oddly cut off from the oil spill in Louisiana because I almost never watch TV news, and therefore miss many of the media images that now dominate American life. But BP clearly took enormous, irresponsible risks, and a great deal has already emerged about how the federal agencies charged with regulating drilling have, like so many others, become the captives of the industries they are supposed to regulate. Energy derivatives seem to have enabled energy producers to bid prices higher, bleed more money out of the economy, and transfer more to the Middle East. And in the financial sphere, new generations have created the entire shadow banking system designed to escape the regulatory structure created in the 1930s and bring back every abuse they were designed to prevent, while inventing more of their own.

It is taking a long time to begin to understand exactly what they have managed to do, but I keep discovering tidbits. Recently an article in the New York Times explained, two years into our financial crisis, that credit default swaps are really a form of insurance--they guaranteed their holders a payment if certain assets lost their value. But because they were not recognized as insurance, those who sold them were not required, as insurance companies are, to maintain cash reserves sufficient to meet their potential obligations. More importantly, anyone can buy them--including people who do not own any of the obligations they insure. You cannot, for obvious reasons, bet on some one else's death or on the destruction of their house by fire, but you can now bet on the demise of a corporation or a sovereign government in which you have no stake. Indeed, Paul Volcker, in a Jeremiad in the current New York Review of Books, reports that credit default swaps reached the sum of $60 trillion, a "large multiple" of the assets they were supposed to insure. Think about that. What even the author of the Times piece failed to note was that the institutions that sold these trillions of dollars of swaps--such as AIG--were in effect insuring the whole economy, and in the nature of things could not possibly pay off in a severe recession.

Meanwhile, for thirty years at least, a steady drumbeat of Republican propaganda has undermined the very idea of governmental authority and convinced the American people that government exists to take money from the deserving and give it to the worthless. Simultaneously corporations have acquired a stranglehold on our political life unparalleled since the Gilded Age, when corporations at least built railroads, made iron and steel, and created modern retail establishments, instead of multiplying unregulated financial instruments. This is the situation which Barack Obama is called upon to face, and it is no wonder that his progress is uneven at best.

Following the oil crisis, however, I have certainly noticed another aspect of modern American life that threatens to lay us even lower. It is not Obama's fault, obviously, that a well was drilled in mile-deep water without any proven procedures, as far as I can tell, for dealing with a blow-out and a gigantic leakage. Something similar happened off the Mexican coast in 1979, as Rachel Maddow showed us all at length (some one pointed that out to me), and then as now, only relief wells that took months to drill actually brought the leak to an end. There are no quick solutions. So the President--and, even more, his staff--are reduced to trying to project the right emotions--to show the American people that he shares their anger. The Presidential sound bites that reach the public, at any rate, consistently emphasize, first, that the government is in charge, and secondly, that he is very angry with BP.

There is, surely, much to be angry about, but I find the contrast with Franklin Roosevelt depressing. FDR did from time to time express anger at "malefactors of great wealth" and political opponents, but he led the nation through the Depression, the crisis of 1940-1 and the war not by sharing his feelings, but by telling the nation what its problems were and what we were going to do about them. He belonged to a generation of doers, not spinmeisters, as the bridges, schools, and international institutions they built still show. Barack Obama instinctively seeks consensus. Even now I am not sure that he believes that the nation is fundamentally on the wrong track and needs to move in a new direction. There is no consensus--on the contrary--about more regulation of energy, or about a vast expansion of alternative energy sources, or about the government's role in health care, or, really, about any major issue before us. We need him to create one. We need him to show that a modern President can be more, much more, than William Jefferson Clinton or George W. Bush. If he cannot, then any improvements we can make in the nation's lives will be local, small-scale, and inadequate for many years to come.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Kaiser, I would strongly disagree with you that there is no consensus!!

Let's look at the numbers:

Federal Debt, Terrorism Considered Top Threats to U.S.

70% Support Crackdown On Those Who Hire Illegal Immigrants

60% Favor Repeal of Health Care Law

65% Oppose Nationalization of U.S. Oil Industry

72% Are Not Confident Congress Knows What It’s Doing When It Comes to The Economy

The current president and his regime are not doing ANYTHING about
the subjects voters care.
They are following their OWN
agenda with total disregard for
voter's wishes.

One can just look at the deficit
spending of the current administration to see the glaring
disconnect between the regime's
agenda and the voters wishes.

All of that will be addressed
in the upcoming and subsequent

Gerald said...

Have to say a word here. Great article.

Unfortunately, voters often no longer know what may be in their interests, especially with expansions of the franchise, and the failure of the 1st amendment, etc., to do anything but aid media to sell by sensationalism, obfuscation, or fear, not edification.

Thus, what are voter 'numbers', really, in the larger scheme of things?

And, as you have mentioned elsewhere, the parties have played false with the electorate for decades.

It is a systemic problem......

Churchill was returned to power, very reluctantly, at the outset of the Second World War. Failure of appeasement (read, now, cold war liberal international economic order).

Could easily not have happened. Just imagine the consequences.

When the smoke cleared, he was sent packing. Nuf said.

All the best,

dunnettreader said...

I found your discussion fascinating re big shifts in culturally shared aspirations/values that link to incentives for different sorts of achievements which a culture rewards with high status. I've been thinking about that recently because I've been reading a lot of Britain in the first half of the "long 18thC".

Among the notable differences between England and France was the effective disappearance after the Cavalier generation of a big chunk of the nobility that was devoted to, defined itself and justified its existence in terms of, war. Sure, there were famous generals and admirals the British lionized like Marlborough until his fall. But for a young English aristocrat deciding how he wanted to make his mark in the world, the military wasn't top choice. It was attractive for younger sons who had an interest in the military, but it wasn't the route to gloire.

Given how pedestrian the English court was for most of the century after the Glorious Revolution, whether in terms of social status or patronage of the arts, "success" at court as a goal also didn't match the French obsession with Versailles. An interest at the British court was far more likely to be pursued in the rather brutal competition for political power (and the wealth that often accompanied it).

So there wasn't much in the way of top-down definitions of culturally validated aspirations which were widely accepted by society. Instead, there was conflict across a hosts of spheres (political, artistic, philosophical, scientific, educational, commercial, financial) among competing definitions of what was to be aspired to and rewarded.

What is Pope's Dunciad but the posing of the Question: Who in the world could want their sons to grow up to be just like Sir Robert Walpole and his minions, hacks and henchmen? A culture is dead if that is all it is capable of aspiring to.

You've got me musing now on the dynamics of how Britain shifted over the subsequent century from a vacuum of shared values (or a heavily contested space) to a cultural consensus that rewarded industry and empire. Hmmm.

dunnettreader said...

Now to shift from history to your comments on our current situation.

I have a problem with how you seem to be applying the lessons of the past (and the Lincoln speech, which is wonderful!) to Obama. I'm with you as you diagnose our current malaise as, in part, a function of a highly dysfunctional set of aspirations that our society rewards with high status. But your FDR-to-Obama link seems to be missing something. You jump from social patterns to a leader's (FDR's) behavior. And I don't see you show how his success as a leader was clearly linked to a set of aspirations that drove men during that period (other than the tail-end of a "missionary" stage?). And then you seem to be saying that Obama's behavior should be like FDR's - what can we do, not how can we spin. And to succeed, Obama must first create a consensus, which I agree is missing, on what we should do.

But if we follow your argument from history, the fundamental consensus that's lacking is a consensus re aspirations and values, not a consensus about how to act. I'm putting words in your mouth, but I take from your historical examples that we won't find a sustainable consensus on policy action unless those policies flow from, or are consistent with, a consensus on values and goals.

I do think that Obama has a pretty good idea about the need to set an entirely new course in terms of both policies and democratic process. In fact, he's been consistently explicit about both the need for a new course and the new directions he thinks we should set. I expect he also recognizes that without a consensus about aspirations and values (or with our currently dysfunctional set of rewards for bad behavior), it's going to be that much harder to turn the aircraft carrier. I'd expect he's read and taken that Lincoln speech to heart.

But I doubt that he thinks he as President either can or should be the one to "lead" the nation to a new set of culturally embedded values. I expect he thinks he can make a marginal difference in some attitudes, but that he believes there are and should be limits to what he can do.

After watching him for several years, I've also concluded that he thinks how he acts, not just what policies he puts in place, is part of the shift we need. So his personal, stubborn commitment to a low-key, consensual process, even if it doesn't produce the "bipartisanship" he appears to be seeking, is still important.

That's the "king and his court" element that can be influential even in a democratic republic. By his actions, not his words, he changes what gets praise and rewards. Give people different things to aspire to do and be.

So if I apply your history lessons, it seems to me your critique of Obama is missing something. If you're going to criticize him for being too consensus-seeking in process, but failing to forge a new substantive consensus, you need to explain what he, Obama, should be doing to nurture a set of aspirations and values to replace the ones that have gotten us into the mess we're in.

Bruce Post said...

I have long had trouble with the meaning of the word "consensus." And, I want to focus just a bit on this because you wrote:

"Barack Obama instinctively seeks consensus. Even now I am not sure that he believes that the nation is fundamentally on the wrong track and needs to move in a new direction. There is no consensus--on the contrary--about more regulation of energy, or about a vast expansion of alternative energy sources, or about the government's role in health care, or, really, about any major issue before us. We need him to create one."

Consensus, in this case, may be synonymous with terms such as "meta-narrative" or "unifying theme" or "shared beliefs." Yet, can we truly identify any such narratives, themes or beliefs in this world?

Theologian Walter Brueggemann once wrote, "The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act." Substitute the word "democracy" for the word "church", and we have a sense of our American socio/political/cultural dilemma.

I recently came across this diagnosis of the plight of the screenwriter. It was written by screenwriter Robert Towne and was republished in Lapham's Quaterly. He wrote:

"Again, a series of shared beliefs, in this case focusing on what was wrong with the country, created a sense of communion between filmmakers and filmgoers.

We share no such beliefs today. That, in fact, is pretty much at the heart of the screenwriter’s difficulty now: it’s tough to write effectively without common ground between you and your audience. Shared beliefs, like shared experience and shared myths, provide that ground. They give us substance and structure, allow us to interpret and make sense of experience, tell us how we should and shouldn’t behave, help us find significance in our lives. It is belief that makes the real world real and not a surrealistic nightmare. It is belief that makes us think there’s such a thing as truth. It is belief that makes drama—“make-believe”—possible."

You, as historian, Brueggemann, as theologian, and Towne, as writer, have all put your fingers on a major problem. In a world that, as you identify, is so dominated by the corporate/consumerist ethos, can we have any reasonable expectation that any national leader can somehow forge a consensus that is the antithesis of that from which we now suffer?

xjsd said...

Dr. Kaiser,
Thanks for a thoughtful, provocative view of the present through your historical prospective.

We are indeed buffeted by complex and threatening seas. Hopefully our leaders will rise to the occasion. Unfortunately, illustrated by the response of anomyous, the task of building consensus to meet the challenge is far more difficlut than it needs to be due to polarization of the electorate between the thoughtful and the know nothings who are flogged on by the latest resurgance of the John Birch Socity wing nuts.

Howard Gladman

Seth C. Burgess said...

I haven't read this Lincoln quote before. Interesting, we certainly see this "changing of the guard" idea in local communities.

alohamac said...

David , This is a broad and thought provoking article .It is true that Obama seeks consensus just as LBJ sought consensus . It is also true that the GOP and the far right forces in America have been quite sucessful in preventing any actual sonsennsus to occur. One cannot deny that the race card and the so-called southern strategy is working to divide America as it has seldom been divided in the past .

Anonymous said...

Dr. Kaiser:

you might find Daniel Ellsberg's
interview quite interesting.

'Obama Deceives the Public'

Gerald Meaders said...

I have just started a blog, partly so as not to persecute others' too much.

Thurston Macaire's remarks are excerpted there, page at a time, sans notes, for anyone interested.

all the best,
Gerald Meaders