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Sunday, August 30, 2020

Mere anarchy is loosed

  For the second time in a week, men have been shot and killed during protests.  In Kenosha the shooter was a right-wing counter-protestor, and the victims part of the original protests; in Portland, things are much less clear.  This is the development that I have feared for more than three years, since the Charlottesville confrontation.  It echoes what happened in the last years of Weimar Germany, when militia groups from the Nazi, Communist and Social Democratic parties battled one another in the streets, taking hundreds of lives.  (The Nazis actually got the worst of it in the streets but eventually outpolled these two rivals at the ballot box and worked their way into power.)  With the country so awash in guns that a 17-year old can acquire an AR-15, it is surprising that it took so long to come to this.  But how far will it go?

I think there will be further incidents along these lines between  now and the election.  Across the nation, our police consistently kill about three people a day.  So far this year they have killed 661 people, most of whom we never hear of.  242 of them, it is worth noting, are white, and 123 are black.  80 are Hispanic and more than 200 do not have an identified race.  Only when actual video exists do they become national issues.  Shootings remain constant and videos become more and more common, and thus, I expect more well-publicized cases.  Each of them will lead to more marches, probably to more outbursts of arson and looting, and perhaps to more violent counter-protests as well.  I share the fear that all this will help Donald Trump in his campaign for re-election.

Yet I still do not think that we are heading for anything remotely resembling national socialism, because that was a product of a completely different time and place.  The militias of Nazi Germany were highly organized and hierarchical.  That was natural in a country that had had compulsory military service until very recently (it had been eliminated by the Versailles Treaty.)   The whole western world, I would argue, was more organized and more respectful of authority at many levels then than it is now.  For half a century, we have been living through a revolt against leadership of all kinds.  It began in the 1960s, when young Americans rebelled against  the draft, young women began to reject traditional roles, and young black activists rejected the authority of long-established civil rights groups.  That revolt has continued through three generations on both sides of the political fence.  On the right it has been mainly economic, on the left, it is more based on identity.  The two revolts have left us almost without common values and certainly without the ability to devote major resources to a common goal.

COVID-19 is dealing another huge blow to our institutions.  Not only is the Administration utterly unable to cope with it, but it has crippled our entire educational system.  Paralysis has now stopped the Congress from passing effective new relief measures, allowing the President to step in with his own mock measures instead.  Certainly I hope that Joe Biden will win election this November and return a functioning adult to the White House, but I certainly understand why so few Americans believe that any outcome will make a meaningful difference in their lives.  They may turn out to be right.  A prolonged controversy over the election will not help, either.

The United States, I think, went through a somewhat comparable period during the last three years of the Hoover Administration, when the government could not cope with a devastating economic crisis.  That came to an end when FDR convinced the nation that he understood its problems and was doing something about them--even though it actually took the war to end mass unemployment.  The Revolutionary War and the Civil War were more difficult periods to live through, but in each of them the nation was making a huge and ultimately successful effort to solve the big problem before it.  It has now been decades, however, since our government successfully attacked a major problem of interest to us all. 

Future posts will discuss how all of this began.  I cannot predict where it is going.  The national discourse, reflected on the front and op-ed pages of mainstream media and by the memes that keep popping up on my facebook page, is only making matters worse, based as it is on unrestrained anger, suspicion, and self-righteousness that rarely reflects real facts.  

There is, I think, a profound connection between political and intellectual anarchy.  That is why, as a favorite Harvard professor of mine remarked nearly 50 years ago, history thrives in periods of restoration--that is, the 20-40 years after a great political crisis, when political authority has won renewed respect, society is relatively stable, and there is enough time, and calm, to think.  We do not live in such a time.  I do not know when it might return.


Bozon said...


Great post. Sums it up.

I see the 60s as a late echo of challenges to authority that began with the Reformation, and then got magnified after 1776 and 1789.

Palmer had thought of it, in the 18th Century, as The Age of the Democratic Revolution.

If the best society, in the best of possible worlds is now based mainly only on ever larger conglomerations of 4 year vote cycles, and ever larger conglomerations of global markets, what have you really got, ultimately, for meaningful authority, or for a spiritual or cultural life? It is a purely rhetorical question.

All the best

Energyflow said...

Give it 5 years of anarchy and decline and then the anger may have gotten burnt out. Still, one really needs a major conflict to bring things to a head and make people sensible. It does seem more and more dangerous however. The Occupy movement was peaceful.This one is violent, pillaging. Lockdown has made a suspension of reality in society like in a novel or film or on vacation. When workaday normality rules then such things don' t occur. Now it seems some are willing to play out their fantasies. Russia had a prolonged period of decay in the 90s without a large conflict( Chechen war?) so that could be a model for us. If troops return home, USD collapses and urban flight, ripts , decyy armed insurgency, crime become rampant then authoritarian rule and systemic change could be accepted. The Fed must be replaced and TBTF banks eliminated.Wall Street share prices have disconnected from Main Street realities( "let them eat cake"). Revolutionaries stop seldom at symbols. Guilt and fear ridden corporations are paying BLM , financing essentially domestic terrorism! If the middle class had not been destroyed by ZIRP then none of this could have happened. The 90% fight against each other in the streets while the rich hide in villas and telecommute from Aspen.

Bryan P said...

Thank you very much for your post, Professor.
They are a weekly highlight on my reading list.

I see that FDR won over the population by proving he understood their concerns and offered a solution that they believed in.
Have US politicians historically been more successful or less successful when they campaign on pro American platforms vs pro America platforms?
It appears (to an uniformed outsider) that most voters still believe that in the context of politics, America and Americans are synonymous, or at the very least what is good for America is good for Americans.
Has there been much evidence of this in recent history? i.e. that improving America has improved the life of Americans.
More people than ever before seem to want to enter the U.S. and compete for success (whatever that my look like for them), yet this "climb" is steeper and more precarious than ever. It would suggest that even aspiring immigrants to the US cannot distinguish between America and American.

The slogan seems to be America First, Make America Great, Fighting for America.
America is not imminently at risk of being killed, however it appears that in many ways Americans are, both by policy and by peer.