Friday, February 28, 2014

New worlds emerging

In preparing to write this post I searched the archives of this blog for a quote, and I came across an interesting post of August 6, 2006, which quite closely anticipates what I have to say today. Interested readers can easily find it using the links to your right, but I will begin afresh, conscious that things have, sadly, continued in the direction I predicted, only more so.

Let me begin with an excerpt from the Bush Administration's infamous National Security Strategy of 2002, which summarized the history of the preceding 100 years as follows:

"The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity. People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages."

This confident paragraph probably owed a good deal to Francis Fukuyama's The End Of History and the Last Man, a well-known book written in the wake of the collapse of Communism. As Keith Windshuttle pointed out in his neglected classic, The Killing of History, Fukuyama had revived Hegel, who believed that a "world spirit" was directing history towards a goal.  Hegel's pupil Karl Marx adapted this teleology and simply redefined the goal towards which history was progressing.  He turned out to be wrong, but we can now see that Hegel did not turn out to be right.

Here is how I might redraft that paragraph, above.

"During the twentieth century, a number of ideologies competed for power and influence around the globe, drawing upon various versions of the more or less scientific principles of the Enlightenment that began in Europe in the seventeenth century and swept all before it in the eighteenth and nineteenth.  While Fascism in Germany, Communism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, and social democracy or American liberal capitalism obviously differed in fundamental ways, all sought to impose some structure on industrial society and all claimed to represent the best interests of the greater part of society as they defined it.  By the middle of the twentieth century these various versions of Enlightenment truth were so widely believed that almost no regime was left anywhere in the world that rejected them.  From Egypt to India and Pakistan to Turkey and the emerging nations of Africa, nearly every regime aspired to create some sort of modern state, establish a rule of law, and work to benefit its people."

To which I would now add:

"The collapse of Communism--following by 45 years the defeat of Fascism--did not as it turn out signal the triumph of liberal capitalism as practiced in the West.  Instead, it seems to have been the first chapter in a long story of the decline of Enlightenment values--a decline which is increasingly visible in much of the non-western world, but which threatens some of the western world as well."

Let us be specific.

The collapse of Communism marked the end of the Cold War international order, in which US and Soviet troops occupied virtually all of the industrialized world (at least until the emergence of Chinese industrial power) and Washington and Moscow sponsored and subsidized regimes all over the globe.  That order featured long and destructive proxy wars and civil conflicts, but it also allowed the superpowers to keep a lot of the globe relatively quiet, and borders, throughout that era, remained stable.  The crisis in the Ukraine--not the first conflict, but surely the most serious--to break out in the former USSR--is potentially extremely serious, and grows out of a Russian attempt to reshape the post-1991 order in those territories, just as the Communists managed to do so in the early 1920s, when Ukraine and much of the Caucasus had previously been independent.  As Timothy Snyder, one of the more serious scholars of his generation, shows in an article in the current New York Review of Books, Vladimir Putin is trying to form a new "Eurasian Union" as a counterweight to the European Union, based upon a rejection of liberal, democratic, secular western values.  He is among other things using homophobia to do so.  The new western tolerance of homosexuality, it seems to me, is the latest triumph of the Enlightenment spirit.  Yes, one hundred years ago, the new discipline of psychology, led by Sigmund Freud, "scientifically" discovered that homosexuality was a stage we all passed through, in which some people unfortunately became stuck.  In the last few decades, however, the evidence that homosexuality is a very powerful predilection for millions of men and women, whether biologically or emotionally acquired, has become overwhelming, and western nations are rapidly moving to treat homosexuals and their relationships just like everyone else.  Even in the United States homophobia has been a potent political force, although it seems to be in retreat.  It is far stronger in Russia, apparently, and in parts of Africa and in the Islamic world.  More important, however, is Putin's general repudiation of western ideas of democracy and free speech in favor of a Russian tradition of authoritarianism, the tradition that has so impressed so many students of Russia for centuries, and for which the collapse of Communism has not turned out to be a cure.  Putin is now using his ideological mix to try at the very least to split off the Crimea from Ukraine, and there is no telling where his ambitions, or those of a successor, might lead.  In any case, democracy has not taken root in most of the territories of the former Soviet Union, and things did not go well in Ukraine even when the opposition was in power.

Exhibit B of the decline of western civilization is to me at least as frightening.  It comes from a remarkable article about contemporary Turkey published in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago--which unfortunately is available to subscribers only.  Written by a Turkish-American scholar named Elif Batuman, who has been living in Turkey, it deals ostensibly with a wildly popular Turkish miniseries, The Magnificent Century, a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs set in the palace and harem of the 16th-century Ottoman sultan Sulemein the Magnificent.  This is such a brilliant idea dramatically that I'm amazed no one has imitated it in the West. The courts of Louis XVI, Charles II of Britain, or even Francis Joseph of Austria Hungary (which lasted for more than 65 years!) would provide at least as much excitement, sex, and intrigue.  But what is both fascinating and disturbing is the pride in their Ottoman heritage that the series has awakened.  In the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created a new Turkey, which renounced the Ottoman Empire--which as late as 1914 had ruled most of what we now called the Middle East--in favor of a relatively homogeneous state based upon western values.  The creation of the state was very cruel, involving the murder of at least hundreds of thousands of Armenians and the ethnic cleansing, by treaty, of a huge number of Greeks, but the Kemalist state was extraordinarily modern, featuring the emancipation of women and the separation of church and state.  Like most other political regimes, the Kemalist state lasted about eighty years, and remarkably is passing from the scene without widespread violence.  But the new Erdogan government is in many ways frightening.  Not only has it done a great deal to rehabilitate the Islamic traditions that Ataturk discarded, but it has also begun talking about spreading Turkish influence into all the areas from which it retreated as a result of the First World War, including the Middle East and even North Africa.  Turkey aims apparently to be a major player in the increasingly chaotic region to the South, siding with the Sunnis against the Shi'ites.  There is no telling where this might lead.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, the Obama Administration intermittently tries to keep remnants of the New Deal tradition alive, but without doing anything serious to deal with globalization and its consequences.  The Republicans, who are dedicated now to undoing the work of the past century, have been able to stop any moves in that direction since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, whose future may well be decided in the coming Congressional elections.   It is certainly possible that the Republicans could regain control of the Senate this November, and in my opinion it is quite possible that they could defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016, with truly enormous consequences.  Meanwhile, the political culture of western Europe, while still faithful to the best twentieth-century traditions, is hardly robust.  The values of the Enlightenment have included an emphasis on higher education, and the complete emancipation of women.  As a result, those committed to those values consistently show low birth rates.  That is probably the single greatest threat to Enlightenment values as an organizing principle of society during the coming decades--including here in the United States.

The collapse of Communism marked the beginning of new struggles more than the end of old ones.  They are radically different from those of the twentieth century precisely because we now live in an age of weaker national loyalties and weaker states.  They are political more than military, marked more by terrorism than by big battles.  They may kill many fewer people, but they will also have far less inspiring results.


Friday, February 21, 2014

Aluminum, then and now

The achievement of the New Deal, as my forthcoming book helps to show, was to harness the industrial era in the service of the nation.  Roosevelt and his leading subordinates felt that the history of their whole lives in general and the great depression in particular illustrated the limitations of the private market.  They did not expect it to fulfill all the nation's needs, and they thought government had to step in to fill the gaps that it left.  That meant not only that the government, in the form of Harry Hopkins's WPA (Works Progress Administration) and Harold Ickes PWA (Public Works Administration) became the employer of last resort, but it meant that the Reconstruction Finance Commission (RFC--a creation of the Hoover Administration) would finance worthwhile projects that could not attract private capital.  It also meant bringing electricity to rural areas that private companies didn't find profitable, and building huge dams to provide public power.

 The same philosophy, I show in No End Save Victory, allowed them to prepare for war  Roosevelt thought that air power would decide the Second World War, and he proposed an air force of enormous size in May 1940.  Private aircraft companies were content to produce hand-crafted civilian aircraft, but the Administration managed to arrange for mass production and assembly lines.  That meant more jobs.  It also meant more aluminum was needed. This raised a series of complicated, interlocking questions.

The nation's aluminum production was largely in the hands of one company, ALCOA.  After 1937, when FDR lost control of the Congress, he did what President Obama is now trying to do: to use executive power under existing laws to realize his goals.  Antitrust actions were one way of doing that, and the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department moved aggressively on many fronts.  One was to file suit against ALCOA as an illegal monopoly.  That suit was pending when the rearmament program began, and nearly all the major officials of the Administration disliked the company on principle.  They also had a useful lever with which to redirect production: the public power generated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and also by the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams in the Northwest.  Secretary of the Interior Ickes worked used that lever to distribute new contracts.  Some went to ALCOA, but others went to Reynolds Aluminum and Kaiser Aluminum, founded by industrialist Henry Kaiser (no relation.)  One new plant, contracted for in the spring of 1940, was operating by the end of that year.

Aluminum is in the news today.  Once again, perhaps the most powerful institutions in the country want it--but not to provide for the national defense, or to make useful and necessary goods.  Th leading institution is Goldman Sachs, a combination commercial and investment bank of the sort that the New Deal had prohibited.  As this remarkable article in Rolling Stone details,  they have taken advantage of loopholes in the Gramm-Leach-Biley Act--the 1999 law that repealed the 1933 Glass-Steagall act that separated commercial and investment banking--to become the major players in the nation's aluminum market.  They have bought warehouses and raw aluminum, held on to it to raise the price, charged users in all sorts of new ways, and, meanwhile, offered aluminum futures to customers who cannot possibly know as much about supply and demand for the product as they do.  This is slowing our economy and redistributing yet more money from the productive sector the financial one.  No one, as of now, is doing anything about it.

I am always struck by how any sector of our national life, when studied across a significant lapse of time, illustrates the broader changes that we have been going through.  "National purpose" in the first two thirds of the twentieth century was more than a slogan in every major nation.   In an era when all nations were preparing for a great war, it had to be.  That became a lever which enlightened government could use for all sorts of beneficial purposes, as the New Deal did.  Even in the 1950s and 1960s during the Cold War, the struggle with the Soviets helped the civil rights movement, because the nation had to show that it meant what it said about freedom to win hearts and minds in third world.  It now seems that by far the biggest result of the end of the Cold War was drastically to shift the balance between public and private power.  Perhaps it is no accident that Russia and the United States, the major protagonists in that conflict, are now, I believe, the nations with the highest rates of income inequality among advanced countries.  All the energy which earlier in the twentieth century went into making their nations great now goes into making individuals and institutions rich.  The results are not very inspiring.



Friday, February 14, 2014

The micro saeculum

The saeculum--about 80 years--is the fundamental unit of historical time according to the scheme developed by Bill Strauss and Neil Howe twenty years ago.  Within American history they identified a Colonial saeculum in the 17th century, a Revolutionary saeculum in 18th, the Civil War saeculum (1796-1865, approximately), and a Great Power saeculum (1865-1945.)  They named the next one the Millennial saeculum.  From today's perspective it seems appropriate to call it the micro-saeculum.  The issues that nations addressed on a large scale in the last saeculum now arise in the lives of individuals.

I was reminded of this this morning when a facebook friend posted this link.  Some schools around the country, it seems, including this one in Missouri, are staging realistic drills designed to simulate a shooting attack within the school to train kids how to react to it.  Being a child of the 1950s, I couldn't help but be reminded to the duck and cover drills we did in my Bethesda elementary school.  But those were designed (rather laughably, it must be said) to deal with a mass threat, a Soviet nuclear attack.  These new ones are designed (equally pathetically, really) to deal with the threat posed by deranged individuals.  Half a century ago such individuals were far more likely to be institutionalized than they are now.  In addition, citizens could not easily acquire weapons, and they could not acquire semi-automatic rifles at all.  Despite widespread dissent, society as a whole, insofar as the political process reflects its views, is willing to allow virtually anyone to get their hands on these weapons and accept the consequences of a periodic mass attack.  Such attacks are, of course, trivial in comparison to what a nuclear war would have meant--but nuclear war never took place, thanks to a barely sufficient measure of statesmanship on both sides during the key crises of the Cold War.

I got another perspective on this last summer traveling in Europe, when I met a social worker who works with families including Down's syndrome children.  In the early twentieth century one of the more unfortunate offshoots of the Enlightenment was the eugenics movement, designed to improve the human race by weeding out poorer specimens.  This led to sterilization laws for "imbeciles" in many American states, and to the worst excesses of the Nazi regime, which of course defined undesirables in many ways.  I cannot think of any government that is implementing such policies today, but the social worker I met told me that Down's syndrome is being rapidly wiped off the face of the earth by the combination of amniocentesis and abortion.  States have renounced the power to influence the gene pool, but parents have acquired it, and are using it.

The same thing has happened in the international sphere.  Twenty years ago there was a great stir about the idea of "democratic peace," which held that democratic nations never went to war against one another.  That idea seems to have faded in recent years, perhaps because the world's leading democracy, the United States, unleashed an unnecessary war (albeit against a dictatorship) in Iraq, and partly because democracy, which seemed to be sweeping all before it in the 1990s, is now in retreat in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.  But it is fair to say that modern states in general have lost their appetite for war with each other.  Instead, any individual, anywhere in the world, can suddenly decide to make war on western civilization on behalf of Islamic fundamentalism, and a number of states are threatened with fragmentation.  And states, led by the United States, define their international enemies not as other nations or even political parties, but as individuals.  That is why drones are becoming our weapon of choice.

Academia has not been immune to this trend--indeed, it has led it.  Specialization within disciplines was already a problem half a century ago, but it has become much worse.  In the humanities new, narrow fields of inquiry emerge every few years, while hardly anyone attempts anything broad and synthetic.  When I took first-year economics in 1965-6, nearly all the excitement in the discipline related to macroeconomics, the problem of keeping national economies strong and growing.  Microeconomics--the decisions of individual consumers and traders--seems now to have been in the ascendant for quite a while.

The micro trend has also affected entertainment.  Anyone can post their own video on youtube--or spend their time watching other peoples' videos there.  Music has become almost an entirely private matter.  News outlets are proliferating.  All the forms that depended on mass audiences, including network televsion and the movies, seem to be in retreat.

I have no idea where this all will end.  Eventually I feel sure that the trend will be reversed, as it has been repeatedly in human history, but the odds seem to be against my living to see that happen.  The age of large and powerful institutions and mass solutions to problems had, of course, its own huge problems.  It gave us world wars that did extraordinary damage, although the Second World War ultimately created a relatively stable and prosperous world for. . .the better part of a saeculum.  In any case, this is the world we live in, and the world with which younger people will have to cope.  It will not be easy, but the great political achievements of human history were often born out of crisis.

Friday, February 07, 2014

World disorder

More than two centuries ago in the north Atlantic world, a dream was born: a dream of a world ruled by law, whose principles would be drawn from human reason.  Science would continue improving the quality of human life; industry would create new products; and governments, established with the consent of the governed, would promote progress under law.  Logic, reason, and fundamental principles of equality would replace tradition, family, and inherited wealth as sources of authority.  All citizens would enjoy equality under the law.  During the 19th and early 20th centuries the idea also arose that nations, as well as individuals, would enjoy equal rights, and hopes grew that they might settle disputes among one another by legal means.  Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt involved the United States in two world wars to make that happen, and Roosevelt enjoyed extraordinary, though hardly complete, success.

So striking were the achievements of western civilization, moreover, and so overwhelming was the power that they gave the western nations, that new leadership in the rest of the world converted almost en masse to western views. The Japanese after the Meiji Restoration of 1867, the Bolsheviks of 1917, the Turks of the late Ottoman Empire, the virtually stateless Jews of Eastern Europe, and, gradually, the colonized peoples of Asia and Africa all sought a state and a nation based upon some form of western principles.  The First World War led to the founding of a series of new modern states in eastern Europe, and the Second led rapidly to the independence of former colonies all over the globe.  The Second World War also left most of the world living in the sphere of influence of one or the other of the two superstates that had done most to win it, the United States and the Soviet Union.

It was not altogether accidental, it seems to me, that this era of the spread of western civilization was also, we can now see, the great era of the printed word.  Books played the most important part in the spread of new ideas.  Newspapers--which during the 20th century developed an ideal of objectivity--created a worldwide educated public.  Public business revolved around speeches, laws, constitutions, and diplomatic correspondence.  The news of the day is filled with evidence that all this is now ceasing to be true, that western civilization has certainly passed the peak of its influence in the world, and that we are sliding towards a new form of anarchy without any idea of where it might end.

Thus, here in the United States, the morning papers tell me that Speaker John Boehner has rejected any new immigration law this year.  And that is no mere difference of opinion on what needs to be done.  Boehner has effectively denounced the legitimacy of President Obama, claiming that his past behavior on a number of fronts suggests that he could not be trusted to enforce the terms of any compromise legislation on immigration.  In fact, we are told, the Republicans, despite some fears about the future impact of the Hispanic vote,  feel they can increase their majority in the House and win back the Senate this fall thanks to Obamacare's problems, and do not want to hurt their chances by giving the President any kind of victory.  Such tactics are utterly alien to the Enlightenment model of government.  They are reminiscent of how the Nazis and Communists brought down the Weimar Republic a little more than 80 years ago, as I have mentioned here more than once.  They also are reminiscent of the Vietnamese Communist strategy of dau tranh, an attempt to make it impossible for government and society to function, which I explored at length here on May 19, 2012.  The Republicans have made enormous progress in their struggle with the help of changes in media over the last thirty years.  No single news broadcast commands the attention of more than a fraction of the public, and newspapers and magazines no longer shape opinion or create consensus.  Tens of thousands of white male retirees, it seems, spend their whole day watching Fox News.  The educated elite now divides between readers of the New York Times and readers of the Wall Street Journal, whose editorial pages agree on virtually nothing.

Meanwhile, the Russian government has apparently leaked the tape of a conversation between our Ambassador to Ukraine and the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs.  Russian intelligence presumably regards this as retaliation for the NSA's tapping of foreign leaders, but it is obviously an infringement of the confidentiality upon which government business often depends.  Meanwhile, clearly the US and the Russian governments are jousting over influence in Ukraine.  Valdimir Putin, who does not even claim, as his Soviet predecessors did, to stand for any universal principles, is trying to use energy supplies, intimidation, and the presence of ethnic Russians to continue rebuilding some form of the old Russian empire in the former Soviet Union.  In contrast either to the old Communist regime or the Tsars, he does not dispose of overwhelming military force with which to do so, but that may mean merely that the struggle will be messier, more prolonged, and ultimately more destructive of all political authority--none of which will do the peoples of the region the slightest good.

In the Middle East, John Kerry, who seems even more of a relic of a past age than I am, is making a last effort to secure peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, based upon the 1949-67 borders of Israel.  The Israeli government and the settlement movement are busily escalating their intimidation of West Bank Palestinians and their ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem. In one mildly sign, a new bill in Congress that would have imposed even tighter sanctions upon Iran to wreck any chance of a nuclear agreement, and would have commited the United States to support any military steps Israel took to stop Iran's development of nuclear weapons,.now appears to be stalled, and AIPAC has backed away from it.  The failure of the deal with Iran would doom perhaps the last chance to avert a decades-long regional struggle between Shi'ites and Sunnis.

Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and even Stalin drew on a shared vision of a world ruled by law to win the Second World War.   Even Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were animated by a vision of a stable world.  We are in danger of slipping into a world of sectarian struggles, in which the traditional world leaders think only of their own advantage.  Meanwhile, videos on youtube and short comments on twitter have replaced speeches and news stories as the forum for international conflict.  The Republican-induced paralysis of our own democracy is a dreadful blow to democracy worldwide.  And last but hardly least, the Republican position on immigration seeks in effect to institutionalize a situation in which millions of our workers have no legal status.  Not since slavery has the United States experienced anything comparable.  I cannot help but wonder whether the great achievements of western civilization are too far away to inspire enough of us anymore.  "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of  passionate intensity."