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Friday, May 31, 2013

The lives of nations

This week I have been reading an excellent book published half a century ago by Samuel Beer, then a distinguished member of the Government Department and one of the most important educators at Harvard, British Politics in the Collectivist Era.  This evening I saw the film Midnight's Chldren, written and based on a book by Salman Rushdie, which is a symbolic history of India from the 1930s through the 1970s.  Both of them left me with a heavy feeling of how the world has changed during my adult life--because both of them are stories of national life.

Beer's book was also striking because it illustrated the huge changes in political science in the last half century.  I took very few Government courses in my undergraduate years and I did not have to take Social Sciences 2, Beer's general education course, but I was thereby the loser.  Beard's book shows--and assumes--a fairly detailed knowledge of British history at least since the seventeenth century.  It's a book about the development of political traditions that focuses on the development of the Labour and Tory parties, but ranges far more widely and hardly leaves out a single major British political figure from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Beer's colleagues at that time included Stanley Hoffmann, still a friend of mine  whose course on France, of which he had a similarly encyclopedic knowledge, I did take, and Adam Ulam, a Polish Jew who had the same level of expertise about Russia and the Soviet Union.  Edwin Reischauer, whose course I took, did the same for Japan. I just checked the current Harvard catalogue, and the only foreign countries whose governments get a whole course are Russia, India, China, and Japan, and the course descriptions make clear that not one of them takes a long-term historical approach to its subject.  The course on presidential power is taught by a lecturer, that is, a junior faculty member on a very short-term contract.   The course on the Supreme Court is taught by a law professor.  The great drama of western history--the development of the modern state--hardly figures in the government curriculum any more.  We now take it for granted--with consequences that are around for all to see.

Beer's book is particularly depressing because both the Labour and Conservative parties in those distant days believed in the state as the mechanism to promote prosperity and secure economic justice for the people.  Labour remained committed in theory to socialism, although it had even begun backing away from true socialism late in the Labour government of 1945-51--the British equivalent of the New Deal. The Conservatives had always believed in a strong state and they had begun intervening directly in the economy in the 1930s--albeit with far less impact than FDR's New Deal.  From Disraeli through MacMillan, their leaders insisted that they were the true guardians of the interests of the common people and they did enough to give the argument some force.  By the early 1960s, when Beer was writing, they had accepted much of what the Labour Government had done, including the National Health Service, which still, of course, survives.  Beer also discussed the laissez-faire Liberal and Radical traditions in British politics and argued that they had never been as strong in the UK as in France or the United States.  He could not of course anticipate Margaret Thatcher, who took advantage of another Tory tradition--the tradition of deference to the party leader--to set Britain on a very different path indeed.   One can read the whole of Beer's book without finding anything similar to Thatcher's notorious comment that she did not believe there was such a thing as "society," only the individuals living in it.   Labour under Tony Blair followed in her wake and David Cameron has not made any changes.     My best British friend told me two years ago that Britain remains considerably more collectivist than the US, but the spirit of its political life has changed.  Parliament, it seems, is now more an economic opportunity than the calling it was, even if has not sunk as low as the US Congress.

Salman Rushdie, I have just discovered, is exactly my age, born twelve days after myself in 1947, and thus, just two months before Indian independence, the birthday of the hero of Midnight's Children.  That hero embodies many of the paradoxes of India: he evidently had a British birth father and he is a Muslim who lives much of his youth in Pakistan.  While the magical realism of the movie is not exactly to my taste, I still found the portrait of Rushdie's native land both tragic and compelling.  But he published it in 1981, when he and I turned 34 and when we were recognizably living in the world into which we had been born.  He was concerned with the promise of Indian democracy and its betrayal by Indira Gandhi's state of emergency, which had just come to an end when the book was written.  Whether he still feels the note of hope upon which the book ended, I do not know.

Two critical developments, it seems to me, have done the most to weaken western political traditions. The first, paradoxically, was the collapse of Communism and the end, really, of traditional geopolitical threats.  The western nations during the Cold War were in a political, economic and military competition for survival, and it brought out the best in them at least as often as the worst.  The second, related development, of course, is globalization, which has led so many nations to surrender control of their economic destiny to international markets.  (It did occur to me when Beer discussed the British abandonment of the gold standard in 1931 how wise the British now seem to have foresaken the Euro, and I did find myself wondering if indeed Europe would be better off without it.  As the Greeks and Spaniards have discovered, a country without its own currency has lost control over economic policy.)  Mainstream opinion, as represented by nearly every journalistic pundit, regards both of these developments as triumphs.  I am not convinced.

The twentieth century was an extraordinarily creative period in western institutions because the Enlightenment tradition was reaching its climax.  That of course resulted in some horrifying "utopias" coming to life, but it also produced some extraordinary results in response.  My own generation has done little to keep that century's achievements alive.  Authority has been devolving steadily for several decades.  It shall, I am afraid, devolve until the consequences become too serious to be denied.  And at that point, all sorts of responses will again become possible--including some that will pay even less respect to the democratic process.  This is, evidently, the rhythm of history, and as I have often remarked, a new crisis will offer great opportunities to younger generations--including some that have probably not yet been born.


Larry said...

Nice post David and I agree that it appears the Ayn Rand "self-interests" model has drawn in too many poorly informed citizens that would otherwise be more inclined to support the general welfare of society that government was intended to serve.

Bozon said...


many thanks for this blog installment.

Regarding much, of great interest, here, I would nevertheless advert to an earlier comment I had made:


Many thanks for this post.

Re ' peace at last '

Didn't Chamberlain say something like ' peace in our time '.....

Lately I have mused that a return to territorial aristocracy and monarchy, if not also imperialism, were it Western, would be a lesser of evils than the anarchic laissez faire, liberal, Eastern tending, civilizational chaos, now unfolding, which we have foisted first on the European ancient regime since WW I, and on the world in the 20th century.

all the best"

That still seems to be a position I am willing to return to, going forward.

I see little reason, back then, (WW I), or now, in trying to make the world safe for our brand of democracy.

Many other possible chains of discussion are possible, in connection with a road not taken, so to speak, but those have seldom been sketched out at all by American policy makers.

all the best,

DAngler said...

For some time I have shared your pessimism regarding the end of the New Deal. However, there is a glimmer of hope showing in the South, and in many of the red states. The younger generation is far more progressive than ours. Here is a series of three articles that cause me to see some light at the end of this very long tunnel.