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Friday, April 12, 2019

Turning points

For 250 years or more, a particular model of human political development has led the way towards a new future, first in Europe and the Americas, and then, in the twentieth century, in the rest of the world.  Democracy--the election of political leadership--emerged as one part of that model in the wake of the American Revolution, but it was only one aspect of it.  A second aspect was the idea of equal citizenship under the law, societies without legal privileges for particular classes---which was what Tocqueville, among others, meant by the democracy which he saw spreading over the whole world.  And the third, which was to some extent independent of the first two, was the idea of government operating according to science and reason, respecting established procedures, and promoting the health, economic progress, and general happiness of the whole population.  One could argue that the third was the most important of all, since it could govern the actions of an enlightened monarchy or even a totalitarian dictatorship as well as those of a democratically elected government.  All these ideas are in retreat in much of the world, as three news items show.

The first of these, closest to home, is a story in the New York Times about President Trump's new chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.  Trump came into office railing against the Washington establishment and the "Deep State", the mostly liberal bureaucrats and national security bureaucracy that have been trying to implement the Enlightenment model of government since the founding of the Republic, and more actively since the progressive era.  In so doing, he spoke for the Republican base in the heartland, who had railed against that group since the New Deal, and who, as the 2016 primaries showed, had lost all confidence in the Republican establishment, which had reached at least a truce with that class a long time ago.  Trump's first two chiefs of staff--and particularly John Kelley, who held the position for well over a year--saw their role as negotiating between the President on the one hand and the establishment on the other, especially on national security issues.  Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican who won election to the House of Representatives in the 2010 Tea Party wave, appears to have as little sympathy for the bureaucracy as his boss, and as a New York Times story today reports, he is "letting Trump be Trump," making no effort either to control access to the mercurial President or to moderate his views.  He and Trump decided on their own to join the lawsuit attempting to overturn the Affordable Care Act, they agreed on the firing of  Homeland Security Secretary Kirsten Nielsen and some of her leading subordinates, and Mulvaney did not attempt to restrain the President's threats to close the border.  No modern president has tried to govern from the White House in defiance of the bureaucracy in this way.   Trump and Steven Miller seem to want to transform DHS and ICE into bureaucracies that will do their bidding, and if they can do so, that will take a big step towards a different kind of presidential government.

The second step away from the principles of the 19th and 20th centuries, I would argue, is Benjamin Netanyahu's apparent victory in the Israeli elections, after he had promised to begin annexing parts of the West Bank.  The founders of the state of Israel in 1948 took care to put it firmly within the mainstream political thinking of the twentieth century, even as they also called upon Old Testament precedents to justify their claim to the land.  Not only had they secured the approval of both the League of Nations and the UN for some form of the Zionist project, but they also founded a state based on democratic principles and equal rights, even for the non-Jews who remained inside Israel after the formation of the state.  52 years ago, the 1967 war vastly increased the Arab population under their control, and that population--within all the territory west of the Jordan River, and in Gaza--is now about equal to the Jewish population of Israel, and is still increasing more rapidly.  Since the aftermath of the 1967 war, the rest of the world, including the government of the United States, has stood for a two-state solution that will give Palestinians equal rights, and some Israeli governments have endorsed it in principle.  Now Netanyahu and his allies have apparently become weary of this endless disconnect between theory and practice and want to move towards annexation.  That will leave millions of Palestinians without political rights, living in tightly controlled and segregated communities in a condition which certainly walks and quacks like apartheid.  Every sign suggests that President Trump will enthusiastically endorse any steps in this direction that Netanyahu chooses to take.  Netanyahu's victory also showed that the Arab citizens of Israel (who were recently reduced to second-class citizenship as well by a new law proclaiming Israel to be a state of the Jews alone) had lost faith in modern democracy.  Their very low turnout--which the government took steps to encourage--was key to the right wing coalition's apparent victory.

Even closer to home, the measles crisis in Queens and Brooklyn shows that another fundamental principle of modern life has now eroded.  We take public health for granted nowadays, but it was a critical feature of the growth of the modern state, which asserted the right to take various coercive steps against disease, such as quarantining and contact tracing to halt the spread of infections.  Vaccination, which by their very nature often had to be universal to be effective, also became a kind of government measure.  Now we have an outbreak of measles, which could have been completely eradicated by now, because Americans of various political and religious persuasions refuse to be vaccinated.  The mayor of New York is trying to reassert a fundamental feature of modern government authority, and I hope that he succeeds--but the problem itself shows how we are leaving the Enlightenment behind.

The rhythm of history decrees that new generations will challenge any consensus, mobilizng the ambient anger that ebbs and flows under the surface.  That is why previous high points of civilization in various ancient empires did not survive, and gave way instead to centuries of anarchy and intellectual regression.  I feel very fortunate now, having written my autobiography, to have been born into a world dominated by Enlightenment thought, and to have tried to use some of its principles myself in my work as an historian. That I shall continue to do for as long as I can.   We must however recognize that the era of the mid-20th century is over and that the achievements of that period are under grave threat--especially in the political sphere.  They were, like all living human achievements, provisional.


Bozon said...

Interesting article. I have differing views on the notion of the enlightenment, etc, when it began, when it ended. Etc

Regarding the term deep state, see "Deep state in the United States", Wikipedia. Good ole George Friedman weighed in, claiming its actual existence goes back to 1871!

Why not to the days of the late Roman Republic, then?

Great stuff!

All the best

Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

Provisional and contingent, reflecting the uniquely contingent nature of human belonging.

Jude Hammerle

Ed Boyle said...

Elections, equal citizenship, rational government.
Best look at British TV series 'Yes Minister', pilot episoode called 'Open Government' start at 10 minutes to see fight between newly elected officials and sitting bureaucracy. The idea of openness, democracy vs. rational, professional government portrayed here makes the concept of 'Deep State' absolutely clear. Margaret Thatcher considered the series more a documentary.

My idea of deep state is actually not Sir Humphrey of the series but the state within a state of the security apparatus operating beyond the borders and within to create wars, control press, legislators. CIA, lobbyists. Take Bezos as latest example, buying WaPo, doing Cloud Server computing for the Pentagon, growing tentacles into every sphere like John D. Rockefeller. Anyone can get enough money can really control everything. Then morality and so called public interest and democracy are irrelevant. This is what Ike meant about the Military Industrial Complex. Once established as a power it just adds layers of power. So political rebels even at highest level rebelling against simple bureaucratic structures as in your example or the series I linked (similar example) will be unimportant due to inertia generally. Inertia and skepticism of the population towards growing complexity of life, corruption, various sources of information being contradictory brings about the vaccine opposition, Global Warming skeptics, etc. Netanyahu is leading the way, and good friend of the likes of Orban in Hungary, Polish right wing government and many others in Western Europe. Now they feel justified as not being any worse, antisemites or so. Open borders, global equality of all means access to northern countries job markets for people from cuntries with less successful economies. Xenophobia, economic angst is a middle to lower class problem as competition is in this area. Logical, rational conclusion. The rich buy an island, cayman islands bank account, lobby for low tax on their factories or move them elsewhere and buy a newspaper and work with the Pentagon and preach global warming but fly a Lear Jet or helicopter to work and preach Open Borders as antifascists but actually to lower wages in their factories to extreme levels in previously industrial paradises with high waged working class unionized populations. Rationalism works for those with the best tax accountants, press, public affairs office, dirty tricks campaigns, insider information. Money talks.

Ed Boyle said...

I read a very good 5 or six volume history of Rome in German from 19th century which stopped at Caesar. One sees a development from threatened small town through all the stages of growth. At every stage there are rational solutions for those in power or otherwise to best fit, improve the situation. One lives with the situation one is born into. It seems we are sort of at corrupt imperialist regime of early roman empire. Infotainment plus UBI of sorts exists(panem et circense), mass slave labor of a sorts in Amazon, Wal Mart, Mcdonalds, overindebted serfs with superrich like crassus was standard then. Credit card, student debts. Praetorian guard was state within state in later empire. Military chose emperor from within. CIA could do that. Think Putin. Why not. Very rational types, reliable.

A comparison with Athenian democracy might be pertinent. It was short lived experiment with a blossoming of culture ending in adventurist military and disaster. They made mistakes that the Romans learned from. Expand area, give new citizens increasing rights then citizenship, not like the Greeks, being pure democrats only at home and fearing dilution of their rights by fully integrating all of Greece into their polity. So without a wide enough basis they collapsed.

Maybe if USA were to absorb the whole world but treat them as equals from their unipolar moment of the 90s instead of abusing this moment and expanding nato and continually invading more countries they could have had several hundred years of Pax Americana. Instead it seems they will end as Athens did. Better Russia and China in Nato, Iran as equal partner. Or perhaps this will come to pass anyway as the rational powers of the 'Deep State' decide to forgo suicide and cooperate with the East, introducing gold or bitcoin and deescalating the arms race. Thousand year peace. Shia, sunni, jews, christians, buddhists, communists, capitalists, hindus, black and white all living in peace or dying. I find Dr. Strangelove to be a very funny movie or not. Perhaps more prophetic. Orwell's 1984 is extremely accurate in many areas of life. We always try to find historical or artistic correlations to the present. Or go to gypsies with their crystal ball or use a tarot deck or the I ching or read the stars. So much is changing that science, intuition, everything plays a role. Only a hundred years later can we have perspective. Scary, like experiencing an earthquake live.