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Friday, December 29, 2017

A Turning Point in history

As the year draws to a close, I believe that we are in the midst of a great turning point in western and world history, and that an era that began about 350 years ago might be coming to a close.  That era gave us western civilization and modern political institutions, based upon the Enlightenment, the idea that reason, embodied in the policy of the state, could improve the lives of nations.  It was an era of extraordinary intellectual ferment and a very creative era in politics and institutions.  I now see that I was born at perhaps the climax of that era, at the end of the Second World War, and that I lived through, and later wrote about, the events of the 1960s that were going to undermine it and, perhaps, consign it to the ash heap of history.  It is an extraordinary story, one whose consequences will continue to play out long after my generation has left the scene.

This era, which began in western Europe with the accession of Louis XIV, was characterized by the taming of the great landed aristocrats who, as I showed in Politics and War, had been at the bottom of so much domestic and international conflict in the years from 1559 through 1659.  Not only did Louis XIV create a much stronger French monarchy at home, but he also strengthened his fellow princes around Europe, rather than undermining them by subsidizing their leading aristocrats, as late 16th-century monarchs had done.  He also involved Europe in a series of wars--although they were limited wars that did not seek the complete overthrow of foreign governments.  That pattern of international politics persisted through the 18th century, until 1792.  Monarchs waged wars, in Europe and around the world, in pursuit of relatively small territorial claims.  They also waged them with relatively small armies, and civil life generally continued without much disruption during their wars.  Meanwhile, nations like Great Britain, France, Prussia, and, after 1776, the new United States, developed enormous civic pride in their institutions.  The United States specifically introduced the idea of a nation of equal citizens into western life in 1776, and it gained critical adherents in Europe as well.  During teh wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, the European states performed unprecedented feats of mobilization and carried on war on a new scale.  Napoleon's conquests also spread the French model of a largely equal citizenry ruled by a bureaucratic state around much of Europe.  Great Britain was something of an exception.  While a democratic spirit had grown within Britain in the mid-18th century, the crown and the aristocracy reacted against it in reaction to the American and French revolutions.  But in all the major nations, loyalty to the state and its institutions had become a key political force, and so remained for another 150 years.

Shaken by the convulsions of the revolutionary and Napoleonic era, the European nations managed to avoid any wars of comparable scale for a century.  The United States, on the other hand, divided over the issue of slavery in mid-century, and fought its Civil War from 1861 through 1865. That war, as Lincoln said again and again, was fought to prove that the world's first freely elected, democratic government could preserve itself.  The governments and peoples of Europe saw it as a war between the democratic North and the aristocratic South, and lined up accordingly.  The northern victory was a victory for the democrats of Europe as well, and it was no accident that Britain (1867), Bismarck's new Germany (1866 and 1871), and France (1871) all moved much closer to genuine democracy and granted the vote to more, or all, of their male citizens as a result.

In the last decade of the 19th century, European politics became world politics.  Imperialism spread direct or indirect rule of the great western nations through Africa and parts of Asia, while certain non-European states such as Japan and the Ottoman Empire struggled to adapt their institutions so as to survive in the new environment.  Meanwhile, Eastern Europe--ruled by three multinational empires from Moscow, Vienna and Constantinople--struggled to deal with the new ideas of nationalism, democracy, and socialism, all of which threatened them at their foundations.  In 1914 a nationalist conflict between Serbia and Austria led to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of the First World War. German imperialism turned it into a world war for supremacy in Europe.  The war was, among other things, a struggle between monarchy, represented by Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the western democracies, as both the Emperor William II and President Woodrow Wilson understood.  In the end it shattered all the empires of Eastern and Central Europe and created a host of new states, all with democratic constitutions.  The attempt to spread democracy into eastern Europe, however, was a failure, and democracy also fell in Italy in 1922 and Germany in 1933.  Soviet Communism created the USSR.

By the mid-1930s a great confrontation among different states and forms of government was becoming imminent.  While France and Great Britain still stood, in essence, for the pre-1914 status quo, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and New Deal America offered new forms of government and new approaches to the problems of modern industrial society--as did Japan in the Far East. The Second World War was thus an ideological struggle, but it was waged by nation-states. It also brought the issue of nationalism to a horrifying climax in Europe, with tens of millions of people either murdered (by the Axis) or forcibly moved (by the allies) to create homogeneous states.  Only two fully autonomous nation states, the US and the USSR, emerged from that war,, and the alliances they formed became the new basis of international politics for the next 45 years.

Moscow and Washington were, among other things, presenting different Enlightenment models to the world.  Washington stood for western democracy and capitalism, Moscow for socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat.  The competition between them had some very healthy effects in the west, which worked to show that it could provide for its working classes better than the Soviets could. In the United States the federal government pushed civil rights for black Americans partly o the grounds that the United States had to solve this problem to maintain world leadership.  American and European politics remained an inspiring career: political leaders, drawing on the large resources of their nations, could build enormous new infrastructure, regulate the economy, and compete on the world stage.  High marginal tax rates, which kept the government strong in relation to economic interests, were a legacy of the era of the world wars.  The world was moving forward, and by the early 1960s even Soviet Communism was beginning to evolve somewhat.  Then, in the mid 1960s, enormous changes began.

The beginning of the large-scale US intervention in Vietnam in 1965 coincided with the maturing of the Boom generation.  With five years, that war had convinced many of the wealthier and better-educated members of that generation that both US foreign policy and the whole US political and economic system was hopelessly corrupt.  Virtue was no longer to be sought at the highest levels of public service, but among the oppressed members of society, including racial minorities and, by the mid-1970s, women.  Such groups had been advancing within the old framework--albeit slowly--but now activists among them increasingly gave up the idea of simply carving out their place within the established order, and rejected it altogether instead.  Meanwhile, behind closed doors of corporations, another offensive against the Enlightenment idea of government was beginning.  A Virginia corporate lawyer, Louis Powell, wrote a very influential memorandum arguing that the free enterprise system had to mount a campaign to defend itself against government encroachment.  A network of very wealthy energy producers and industrialists began to subsidize right wing thought and search for new ways to influence politics.  Splits in the New Deal coalition opened to the door to an era of Republican ascendancy from 1969 through 1993.  Meanwhile, in Europe, the old national ideal gve way to the idea of the European Union, while Communism lost its hold on the imagination of younger generations.

The collapse of Communism in 1989-91 appeared to mark a worldwide triumph of western liberal democracy. Instead, it turned out to be the dying canary in the coal mine that might have warned us all about the decline of political institutions. Communism in the USSR gave way within 15 years to oligarchy and an authoritarian state.  Meanwhile, American politics increasingly fell under the control of a Republican party utterly devoted to the pursuit of private wealth, the increase of inequality, and an end to the New Deal model of a state that regulates inequality and provides for the basic needs of its citizens.  American politics has now become a profession for beggars and sycophants, not courageous leaders, and the politicians, as the results of the last few elections make clear, have lost touch with broad areas of the electorate. Meanwhile, cultural divides have made a truly national coalition impossible.  A career in business and television, it turns out, has become a better route to celebrity and popularity than a career as an elected official.  And so it was that Donald Trump in 2016 managed to destroy establishment Republican candidates in the primaries, and to prevail narrowly over the quintessential Democratic establishment candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton--who as I showed last week could not even turn out her own base--in the general election.  Trump is an oligarch, not a politician, and evidence is mounting that he came to power with the help of Russian oligarchs with whom he and some of his campaign had long-standing connections.  This is an echo of the 1559-1659 period, when the great nobles of various states frequently allied themselves with their counterparts in other states, or with foreign monarchs.

In my opinion, the repudiation of the traditions of the New Deal and Great Society has gone much too far for the simple election of a Democratic candidate in 2020 to revive it. Government now serves the interest of the wealthy at all levels, and inequality continues to grow.  Donald Trump is the cooperative figurehead for the Repubican coalition that has been organizing for decades to destroy the legacy of the last 100 years.    And that is what his Administration is doing, gutting the EPA, which has tried to protect us against health threats from the corporate world, and the State Department, which has kept the United States at the center of the great diplomatic conflicts of the world since 1945.  Yet Trump remains a significant historical development, as today's New York Times makes clear.  He is the first person to reach the White House without any commitment whatever to the principles that guided the United States through its great era of influence and power.  And this divides him, it seems, not only from foreign leaders like Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and Teresa May, but from his senior foreign policy team of Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster, and James Mattis.

On July 20 last, it seems, Secretary of Defense Mattis convened a meeting of the top foreign policy team in the JCS "tank" in the Pentagon which the President attended. The Times describes what happened.

The group convened in the secure conference room of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a storied inner sanctum known as the tank. Mr. Mattis led off the session by declaring that “the greatest thing the ‘greatest generation’ left us was the rules-based postwar international order,” according to a person who was in the room.

After listening for about 50 minutes, this person said, Mr. Trump had heard enough. He began peppering Mr. Mattis and Mr. Tillerson with questions about who pays for NATO and the terms of the free trade agreements with South Korea and other countries.
The postwar international order, the president of the United States declared, is “not working at all.”


Doris Gazda said...

Having lived for over80 years i have been a witness to much of what you describe. Whereas in the past we looked forward to years of improvements in equality and lifestyle of populations, today we have no such visions on a national or international level. The visions and dreams are disappearing and the future extremely uncertain. Where are we going? No one knows.

Eric said...

Thank you for another great article. I appreciate the historian’s Perspective. From an economists perspective I see much of the events of the last 40 years as outcomes of changing economics. We have had the rise of China, an authoritarian state, that has created a middle class larger than the population of the US. The worldwide web has overcome many boundaries and distances that allowed the average person access to information and goods nearly inconceivable in the past. These things made it very hard for US companies to pay world leading wages and to support a high level of social benefits as well. The only free enterprise way that I can see out of this is to have significantly higher productivity per worker in order to compete against lower cost regions. That is tough to do across an entire economy. Those nations having their first taste of a middle class lifestyle won’t easily relinquish it. The only other option that I can see is high tariffs on imports or some other government intervention. Then the question is how to find that intervention. I’m going to study Germany’s economic history next. I’m interested in how they have recovered from two devastating wars and absorbed East Germany while again becoming the healthiest economy in Europe.

Ed Boyle said...

1 concrete mistake, Angela, not Andrea Merkel. Good basic historical background analysis. On Trump's worries I must say that my wife, who lived through her first couple decades under Soviet rule in Russian province, never ate sausage but upon going to St. Petersburg was amazed that meat was freely available in the stores. All the republics like baltics, Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine and additionally Cuba, Ethiopia, Angola all had lots of subsidies, the good life in fact at cost of average Russian citizen. So those citizens were glad to see international communism's demise. Now Russians live for Russia although a bit of international cooperation like in middle East at low cost is occurring. Take USA military costs annually at ca. 1 trillion USD in total and trade agreements which eliminated US middle class to enrich chinese, Mexicans, Asian poor generallly exploired for corporate and Wall Street elite and you see a similar. though more sophisticated pattern. Roman history went through a similar pattern. Military expansion coyts money, destroys middle class, leads to collapse. De facto withdrawal militarily and economically, like Europeans post imperilism and Russians after 1989 is in the cards for USA. And about rising living standards and enlightenment values: earth only has so many resources for endless growing human consumption. Human population growth has paralleled for 200 years exactly energy consumption growth. Alt energy is unreliable and pollution, climate change, extinction has altered what we were handed over from our founding fathers. Theory of equal rights left out natural environment, naively, ignorantly, arrogantly. Just like imposing democracy on earth and free trade at cost of US slave population leaves out free choice ogf that population in favor of elite ideals. If Iran wants to live like they want then Kansas can too. Russia has dozens of small republics internally with independent cultures so this idea is to them natural. USA concept of homogeneity a la Mcdonalds and Coke is opposite. Who will win?

Bozon said...


Another good, very timely, article.

'The postwar international order, the president of the United States declared, is “not working at all.”'

This much was obvious, even to him. He differs from the bi partisan mainstream in his willingness to declare it to be so. Rather like finally admitting failure, rather than expressing hope.

You would not have seen Hillary Clinton even admitting so much, I suppose.

There is a lot more I might mumble, but it is there on the blog for all to see.

All the best

Anathema said...

This might be worth linking into your thinking. Gave me a new perspective on Carl Von C. and also puts a nonpolitical spin on POTUS's thinking.