Sunday, January 02, 2011

A changing civilization?

As a new year begins, I see signs all around us that we have lived through one of the most profound changes in modern history. The last three centuries have been a profoundly transitional period, moving one part of the world after another into a new age of literacy, science, and political struggle. I am beginning to think that that age is coming to an end. One could examine these questions from many different angles, but I shall do so from the standpoint of the related fields of politics and history.

The eighteenth century--to which I was seriously introduced in my very first semester of college--gave birth to the great age of rationalism in western thought. Its great thinkers included David Hume, John Locke, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who was not at all the utopian many believe him to have been), and our own Founding Fathers. They did not, like various nineteenth and twentieth century successors, dream of utopias, but they believed that reason and science could improve human life. They also conceived of the idea of equal political rights, which the revolutions and wars of the eighteenth century crisis and its aftermath spread through most of Europe and the Americas. Thanks to European science, European civilization now had a critical technological lead over the rest of the world, and that helped spread European rule, and aspects of European civilization, around the globe. But within western civilization, domestic institutions remained the most consuming focus of interest. The North American democratic experiment in the United States faced and in one way or another overcame a long series of challenges, including slavery and, later, the consequences of industrialization. In Europe, the entire first two-thirds of the nineteenth century revolved around the intermittent struggle for democracy from the Elbe River west. By 1880 or so every major European nation enjoyed some kind of representative government, and socialism had become the issue of the future. Even all of Eastern Europe, where emperors still ruled, had some kind of constitution by 1905. Japan had adopted much of the western model in 1867 and some Chinese hoped to do the same. Educated youth were imbibing the essential texts and principles of western civilization in India, in Dakar, and in Indochina.

The First World War interrupted this pattern of relatively smooth progress forward with a vengeance. Originating in southeastern Europe, where Serbia, among other new nations, sought the overthrow of Austria-Hungary, it spread around the world when the German government decided to use this occasion for a bid for European dominance and world power. The war destroyed the Russian Empire and brought a new and terrible utopianism, Soviet Communism, into power. It also crippled representative institutions in Germany and brought Nazism into power. Democracy had already disappeared in Italy in 1922 and also vanished from Eastern Europe and the Iberian peninsula during the interwar period. Japan retained democratic forms but became in effect a military dictatorship. It seemed moribund in France and relatively ineffective even in Britain. Only in the Americas did democracy seem to be governing effectively by the mid-1930s, and even there it could not overcome the economic crisis.

Yet--and this seems to me now the key point--the struggle among different forms of government defined the first half of the twentieth century, just as it became the organizing principle of the Second World War. The issue in 1940-1, the period I am now researching, was whether Fascist totalitarianism or democracy would become the leading ideology of the world, and a German victory in Europe was expected to have profound consequences even in the Americas. In the end democracy as represented by the US and Soviet Communism were the victors in the war, and those two nations promptly embarked upon a new ideological struggle. And thus, the world in which I grew up was focused upon issues of political change and competing political systems. I never took Government 1A at Harvard but hundreds of my classmates did, and it intensely examined the differences among the the governments of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The whole Third World was now a battleground between two competing ideologies. And within the United States the issues of the first half the twentieth century still dominated public life: issues of economic organization and economic, civil rights for minorities, and poverty. The ruling generation thought they were all on the verge of a solution. They were wrong.

Two key developments, it seems to me, mark the last 45 years. The first is an erosion both of the role of government, especially in the United States and in Russia, the antagonists in the Cold War, and its increasing weakness relative to economic institutions in particular. In Russia the collapse of the Soviet Union has led within twenty years to the emergence of extraordinarily powerful oligarchs, backed by a highly authoritarian state that uses isolated acts of state terror to intimidate its opposition. In the United States, both parties are largely in thrall to corporate interests, whose lobbyists not only finance political campaigns but actually write the legislation that passes in response to public outrage. More importantly, we are entering a new phase of a nearly 40-year struggle to defund and cripple government at virtually every level. It is no coincidence, as I have suggested several times here, that the so-called "base" of the Republican Party and its propaganda arm have adopted Theodore Roosevelt as their new arch-villain, because they aim to undo the entire political work of the twentieth century. And on the world scene, western civilization is being directly challenged by traditional religious belief in ways that would have seemed unthinkable 50 or 100 years ago.

The second development, an intellectual one, is even more interesting: a loss of interest in history as it was understood from the eighteenth century until the last third of the twentieth. This began in the academy, in the midst of the Vietnam War, which taught a whole generation of young academics--my own--to regard authority as inevitably oppressive and corrupt, and to look for virtue and inspiration among the oppressed. Initially in the 1970s the oppressed were defined in economic terms, but in the next two decades race and gender became far more important categories. And interestingly enough, the academic focus on race, gender and sexuality as, it would seem, had important political consequences. Black and female Americans have gained enormously in power, and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, signals at long last the end of formal legal discrimination against gays in America. These are important achievements--but they have come at a gigantic price. The interest in those issues has led to a nearly total eclipse--really--of interest in the kind of great political struggles that I learned about, and wrote about, in college and graduate school. Virtually no one makes a career in history or political science any more by doing detailed research into politics and government. The courses they teach reflect this bias as well, and their students graduate with little or no knowledge of how the world they live in came to be, and by implication, how it might be changed. And that in turn has affected the reading public. Once again this morning I found just one work on history, as opposed to current events, on the hardcover New York Times best seller list: the third volume of Edmund Morris's biography of Theodore Roosevelt, which is rather low on the list and not likely to remain there very long. There are no such works on the paperback list. A parallel change has occurred in our print media. Not only are they far less influential, but they contain much less hard news about national, and especially international, politics. The internet can be and extraordinary resource for the collection of data, but it functions mainly as an outlet for the expression of personal opinion in practice.

And all this in turn is affecting our response to the current crisis in American economic life, which which history has become irrelevant. I have pointed out here repeatedly that both Lincoln and FDR understood that they were presiding, respectively, over the second and third great turning points in American political life, and specifically compared and related the issues they faced to those of the revolutionary period and, in Roosevelt's case, to the Civil War. But neither Barack Obama nor George Bush has done anything like that. George Bush, it is true, presented his foreign policy as the next step in the advance of democracy--but the results have inevitably been disappointing at best, largely because democracy has lost so much of its vitality even here in the United States. Barack Obama confines his rhetoric almost exclusively to the present or the very recent past. He did not take the opportunity to suggest that the economic crisis of 2008-9 grew out of the repeal of various New Deal regulations and reforms, because he and his team did not want to put the key ones back in place. He seems to think that he need only improve the operation of the current system.

Americans today, and particularly young Americans, are constantly distracted by their nonstop contact with their friends and by electronic media. University education was designed to give young people time to think, but it is no longer very successful at doing so now. Literacy and history enabled mankind to see itself in a broader context and to relate contemporary political struggles to the past. They were key elements, for this reason, in creating the 80-year cycle that Strauss and Howe developed. But both are now undergoing a severe decline, and this has already had, and will have, consequences.

Partly because so few of us have a real sense of the distant past, I no longer believe that any great and beneficial transformations of American life--particularly economic life--can be expected in the next decade or two. It is too early to declare that our great crisis is over, and indeed, international events may yet give it a whole new dimension. But there seems to be no real political constituency sufficiently dedicated to any kind of rebirth of the New Deal--not only money, but also organization and enthusiasm, are on the other side. As for history, I know myself that there are plenty of Americans who can still be moved by detailed historical narrative, and I am proud to have reached a few tens of thousands of them myself, in defiance of all the prevailing trends inside my profession. For the time being, however, its great era is over as well. I feel very lucky to have lived through enough of it to develop both the passion and the skills necessary to do what I could to keep it alive, and I plan to go on doing so for a long time.


Gerald Meaders said...

Great overview.

Also, incidentally, many thanks for the reference here, recently, to Pauline Maier's work.'Ratification' is very illuminating, for the amateur history buff.

all the best,

PJ Cats said...

This is a beautiful column. I've been reading your blog for over a year now and it is always a treat. Though I (a historian myself) phrase my opinions in quite a different way, I think the underlaying arguments are practically the same. We see an astonishing slide into illiteracy and stupidity, brought on by, to put it short, greed and amusement. I like your comment about the 'connectedness' of the young, as I find this poses a major problem to, well, almost anything functioning in our society. It's also beneficial, by the way. It always makes me think of how fascism and communism would bring us the 'new man'. That didn't work, and now the internet and mass communication media have unwittingly brought us a newer man than anyone ever imagined. There's yet to be seen how this works out, but for the moment it's rather frightening (due to the stupidity argument).
Anyway, just wanted to say how much I appreciate your blog. Thanks!

Robert G in NC said...

Dear Professor,
I, too admire your work and bemoan the death of the New Deal social contract (especially Glass-Steagall). The loss of historical perspective is an acute limitation on hope for the future,
You accurately finger the "pseudo-leftist" academics of the 1970's -- these were the ex-flower children and anti-establishment (Anti-Americans) of the 1960's, who, eschewing their middle & upper class status, briefly sought the working class and blacks as their moral compass, but did not have the guts or social integrity to persist in formation of a true "Labor Party" or even reformation of the Democratic Party. They ran to cover in academia or back to Daddy's Wall St related businesses, smugly certain they had tried the "good fight".
Perhaps another trend was operative: let's call it a pyschological/marketing/Hollywood dream of everyman a millionaire, a narcisisim in which the self became the ultimate moral compass, and, the group or society became the enemy. Marketers, lobbyists as agents of "capitalists" (Republicans), exploited this adroitly from Reagan to Obama. And here we are.
Please keep up your good work.

Bruce Post said...

I tend to read theology and speculate as to its application to culture and real life. Generally, I avoid biographies and autobiographies, particularly the "crap" or hagiographies that many of today's politico/celebrities have ghost-written for them. I, however, am now working through A.N. Wilson's biography of Tolstoy.

Having said all that, I considered Edmund Morris' "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" an absolutely memorable and extremely valuable work. I have seared into my consciousness a quote of TR in the book, which I will paraphrase: Better to try great things and fail than to live in that gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat." And, for Christmas, I had one of my kids get me Morris' "Colonel Roosevelt."

I remember the old debate: Does the man/woman make the times or do the times make the man/woman? I don't think we can answer that successfully but must consider it in a larger context of a symbiosis between the times and those who inhabit them. They can mutually shape each other.

While we have a supposedly educated society (or might I say a "schooled" society, to differentiate between mere schooling and true education), perhaps we should think no longer in terms of functional illiterates but rather ill-functioning literates. Beset by a building avalanche of complex problems, besieged by an onslaught of trivia and the diminution of institutions of wisdom (think about how many postsecondary schools have essentially become trade schools), I fear a retreat into nativism and primitivism. While terms such as neo-colonialism and neo-liberalism have been bandied about, perhaps you can speculate on what I call "neo-Know Nothingism", after a dark period of American history I only vaguely remember studying.

I may have recommended this book before, and if I have, please excuse the repetition. While it is not a history, I believe that Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here" provides plenty of speculative grist for considering what we face with the decline of democracy.

Anonymous said...

“But there seems to be no real political constituency sufficiently dedicated to any kind of rebirth of the New Deal.”

I’m not sure that it’s even possible at this point to get resurrect the New Deal in any meaningful way. Globalization has taken nearly all the leverage away from Labor that is needed to force change of this type. It’s far too easy and profitable for companies to go off-shore. The Feds also have much less influence over the multi-nationals today then they had when most companies were headquartered in the US. Without a vigorous Labor movement and an activist Feb, I just don’t see us getting back to that state.