Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

How the world comes undone

Revolution continues to sweep the Arab world but the outcome becomes more and more uncertain. The lead article in today's New York Times deals with Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Egypt, and the emerging obstacles to national unity in each of those countries. Tunisia is threatened by a split between the coastal elite and the more religious interior, which, some speculate, may lead to a military coup. In Egypt the 10% Coptic Christian minority suspects the majority, and vica verca. Libya remains riven by regional divisions, while in Syria, Assad clings to power as the leader of the Alawite Shi'ite minority (while proving that militarized authoritarian states--see the graph, below--can indeed suppress rebellions if they have the will to do so.) A successful revolution needs a measure of national unity, and many in these nations wonder where it will come from. The same problem, of course, is at the heart of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in which the United States has so unwisely inserted itself.

A great deal of confusion prevails over these issues for many reasons, not least of them the idea behind Francis Fukuyama's The End of History that the world is naturally evolving towards capitalist democracy and that the evolutionary process is at late stage. It was always, really, a Utopian idea, every bit as much as National Socialism or Communism, but with the key difference that natural processes were supposed lead us to the promised land. Yet this has never been the case. Fukuyama assumed away the other key term in developmental equation, legitimate political authority. Because he simply assumed it he did not have to ask where it came from. Had he looked, he would have found a much more complex and much less reassuring story.

Reading the Times story today I was reminded of the French and Russian Revolutions. Both of them were based on ideas of universal equality; both swept away an old order weakened by time, by corruption, and by war. But both led immediately to division, civil war, and the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of people. It took a decade for Napoleon to re-establish stable political authority in France and at least six far more bloody years for Lenin to do the same in the Soviet Union. Those countries, too, lacked any shared sense of national unity, and one had to be imposed, both by governmental success and by violence. And that is often, though not always, the case in the crises that seem to hit modern societies every eighty years.

During the twentieth century the western world (including the Soviet Union) offered the rest of the world a number of models of political authority. In Turkey Kemal Ataturk created a new secular state modeled quite closely, it seems to me, on Napoleonic France. Japan adopted much of the western model even earlier, in the late nineteenth century, and easily resumed it after 1945. Independent India established a parliamentary democracy that has endured, with only one brief interruption, to this day. Meanwhile Communism provided an extraordinarily effective tool for the mobilization and seizure of political power in China, in Cuba, and in Vietnam. It has not however been able to survive more than one saeculum anywhere, and I would suggest that with the possible exceptions of Hezbollah and Hamas there are today no revolutionary movements nearly as well organized as Lenin's, or Mao's, or Ho's.

Does the West today offer a useful model for the third world, including the Muslim world? Unfortunately I must answer that question with a resounding "no."

The European Union, in my opinion, represents today the most highly developed civilization in human history. States that warred for centuries have surrendered large parts of their national sovereignty and created a single economy. Most of them use a single currency. Their governments have established some form of national health care and put a very high priority on infrastructure. Increasingly they are focusing on energy conservation. They too may face problems in the near future relating to national unity, thanks to their large Muslim populations. In addition, nationalism in Eastern Europe--one of the most destructive forces of the twentieth century--is re-emerging in several countries, including one of the most advanced, Hungary. But the Europeans surrendered so much national autonomy because they had lived through the worst of what nationalism can do. Their example cannot be immediately replicated anywhere else.

As for the United States, we have been engaged for about thirty years in a two-pronged assault on the very idea of political authority which has now paralyzed our government in the face of an economic crisis. The Republican Party since Reagan has embraced the idea that government is "the problem," and the strategy of "starving the beast" has now worked, leaving Washington with nothing to do but arguing about what to cut, since tax increases have been ruled out. Even Newt Gingrich, one of the stalwarts of the revolution, realized briefly two weeks ago that it had gone too far, although he was quickly brought back into line. But at the same time, the Left, such as it is, has also rejected political authority, based on the idea, now 45 years old, that those who exercise power are almost inevitably wicked, especially if they happen to be white males. Today's Times also includes a review of a collection of essays, Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals and Reformers in the Making of the Nation, which seems to be a compendium of newer-style history of the revolutionary period, written by another practitioner, Mary Beth Norton. None of the 22 essays in the book deal with a signer of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, a fact of which I am sure its editors are blushing with pride. They include Abigail Adams and Tom Paine, a number of American Indian leaders (many of which actually opposed the revolution), the rebels in Shays' and the Whiskey rebellions, and a number of very obscure folks who evidently held economic or social views that have become much more fashionable today. One such is Herman Husband, who dreamed of a new Jerusalem west of the Appalachians and whom his chronicler thinks "deserves to be remembered in the first rank of the heroes of American democracy." (Reviewer Mary Beth Norton dissents because Husband paid no attention to the rights of Indians, slaves, or women.) That actually is a good example of what a hero is to a Boomer or Boomer-trained academic: some one who held the right views, just as they have, by their own lights, for the last 40 years or so. Earlier generations thought that heroes, of whatever race or sex, did things like writing Constitutions, raising armies, fighting battles, making revolutions, and running governments. But Boomers in their youth became accustomed to thinking of those tasks as some one else's job, one unworthy of serious interest--and that goes for both the left and the right. In another interesting example of this trend, the Times also reports this morning that an education reform movement is sweeping the country--but it isn't the work of federal or state governments, but rather of Bill Gates, one of the more benevolent billionaires our new tax structure has created.

And thus Boomers are now proving themselves utterly incapable of dealing with the most fundamental task of government, passing a budget. Gen Xer Barack Obama, meanwhile, seems to feel very little urgency about the problem either--he is confident that he can make his peace with whatever outcome emerges, blessing it with a few typically eloquent words. Only in 1861, 1933 and 1940, I would argue, has the United States been so much in need of effective leadership as it is today--and I can assure you as a historian that we do not have leadership of comparable quality available.


Bozon said...


Great stuff!

Many thanks,

Anonymous said...

Great post!

Welcome to the Hollow Years.

Your post defines the cause and nature of the "Crisis" we are in. The truth is that both the Right and the Left as they currently exist are intellectually and morally bankrupt, and there is nobody in the current elite strong enough to fill the vacuum. The nation faces a total lack of legitimacy in its creative minority.

Nature abhors a vacuum. And any old thing (or person) can rush in to fill this vacuum. Beware!

Wisdom takes time to build (or restore). To me, it seems like the only thing that can heal this is time, and the rise of new generations, as the ideas of Late Modernity burn themselves out.

A long Crisis lies ahead of us, I fear.

Bob Hallahan said...

Terrific post, thank you!

Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

Your international graph suggests that there remain only two bits of earthly ground still at risk of being captured and held: South Korea and Israel. Given that these two targets are also ridiculously well defended, humanity seems for the first time to be effectively free of the threat of old-school wars of conquest.

But standing armies persist, and there is a pattern in their persistence. The US army is a lever presidents use to present an illusion of control and strength vis à vis political rivals. The Israeli army is a means to control collective thought by mandatory indoctrination. The Chinese army enforces the state’s putative control of reproductive competition. The Russian army’s primary responsibility is to control access to its nuclear materials. In recent months, the Libyan, Syrian, and Saudi armies moved to control fractious citizens, and the Egyptian army rose to control its own commander in chief.

This pattern requires a new model of understanding. Graham Allison’s I) Rational Actor, II) Organizational Behavior, and III) Political Bargaining models do not explain it. The fourth model—significant because it comprises completely irrational behavior—could be called IV) Illusions of Control.

Control is an attempt to compel conformance. But control is an illusion, because conformance is always a choice. If one conforms under duress there is no control, only a temporary choice based on self-interest. If one chooses not to conform, he/she chooses to rebel. Again and obviously, there is no control. So at best, efforts to control delay rebellions; at worst, they incite them.

The crucial awakening for humanity will come when we collectively abandon control as a political strategy. Since no leader has never made or even understood this choice before, history and reason will not point the way to our brightest future. While the wisdom required for such a change is in short supply among elites, it manifests itself daily in the increasingly public dialogues of ordinary people everywhere. They have declared war on illusions of control, and no standing force will be sufficient to suppress their will indefinitely.

With respect and affection,
Jude Hammerle

Pat Mathews said...

On the cultural front, they're already talking about "expostmodern"
meaning that not only 20th century Modernism is dead, but so is its backlash, postmodernism. Having done its morally relativistic work by deconstructing everything, it, too, is gone."The single most notable shift is the decline of alienation," and "(Joining a tiny group of outsiders is so last decade.)"

This is going to be the nucleus of the new politics for sure, and I have to say it has a very Millenial flavor to it.

JR said...

Haven't read the book to which you refer, but I live in Western Massachusetts, and the Shays Rebels are still respected around here. Without the rebels who drove the King out of what is now southern Vermont and western Mass in 1774-75, thus creating a core of independent territory, dear Mr. Franklin and his friends might well have hanged separately. The redcoats had no problem quelling the Boston mob, it was patriots from the countryside who fought at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill; who seized Fort Ticonderoga and its guns and dragged those guns through snow and ice and mounted them on Dorchester Heights, driving the British from Boston. And those patriot soldiers were royally (republicanly?) shafted by the Boston merchants after the war. They made some mistakes, and they were hugely outnumbered. Just because they lost, doesn't mean they weren't heroes.

Steven Winsor said...

Great article, David. While I am generally a conservative politically, I always enjoy your opinion on all things geo-political, even when I find myself frequently disagreeing. Our two political parties are not apparently up to the task for the hard work ahead. And you are correct IMO by saying that there is a dearth of leadership, unlike what we had in 1933 and 1940...and I would include the 1950s (Eisenhower years), which happened to have Federal tax rates of 91% for the wealthy {as we paid down the WWII debt}.

One question: you say the European Union is the most politically advanced govermnment in history...how do you factor in the debt difficulties (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal) as a potential factor for dissolution of said Union? What's happening is almost Randian: the producers (i.e. Germany) are becoming resentful of 'carrying' the non-producers and profligate spenders.

Anonymous said...


The USA is going in the wrong direction from being a positive example for 3rd world development.

According to the above link USA has been in a state of emergency where lawmakers have and citizens have no access to the laws or reasoning of the govt. and a shadow govt. already exists. Due to sheer habit then elections still take place and regular courts are sitting but it is just pro forma. By a big crisis of some sort de facto it will all end as in old Rome and a dictator will take over without any pretense of legality as Bush had, elections, etc. Such a crisis could be around the corner. The population is so empty, laws are passed without reps. reading or understanding them that it is no wonder this oculd come to pass. We are so used to relying on experts as the world is so complicated that the absurd fact of living unknowingly in a dictatorship is possible. People criticize Russia but USA is has become it's parallel of a fake democracy that is really a dictatorship. Lincoln, FDR had emergency powers for some years in declared wars. It seems a permanent police state is coming into effect. Wars stopped being declared in Korea, Vietnam and were just called police actions. Now a permanent state of emergency is in effect for ten years. How long till martial law takes effect?