Holger Danske

Holger Danske

This form does not yet contain any fields.

    The Long View: The Prophet of Decline

    Spengler with hairOswald Spengler remains of interest in the early twenty-first century because he managed to eerily predict some features of the world today. He didn't get everything right, for example his prediction that the United States would not survive the stress of the Great Depression, but he did manage to foresee both the Cold War and its resolution.

    While the Decline of the West is Spengler's best known work, John here looks at the possibility that Spengler's unexpected death prevented him from elaborating on his theory of history [and probably also prevented the Nazis from eventually needing to deal with his anti-Hitler snark]

    Arnold Toynbee would later publish a tremendous tome, in twelve volumes, expanding this kind of historical analysis from Spengler's seven civilizations to twenty-six.  While these men were rough contemporaries, the tone of their respective works are very different. The circumstances of their lives could not be more different either. Which makes the parallels between them so much more interesting.

    Toynbee became something like the court philosopy of the Kennedy Enlightenment, thanks to Henry Luce. His works were more friendly to the role of religion in society, and more upbeat in general than Spengler's. However, in the end, even cranky old Spengler started talking less about decline [Untergang] and more about perfection [Vollendung]. In science, it is common for multiple researchers to independently converge on the same idea at about the same time. It looks very much like something similar was operating here.

    Prophet of Decline:
    Spengler on World History and Politics
    by John Farrenkopf
    Louisiana University Press, 2001
    $24.96, 304 pages
    ISBN 0-8071-2727-2

    The first volume of Oswald Spengler's great comparative study of history, "The Decline of the West," was published in 1918, just as his native Germany lost the First World War. Spengler (1880-1936) has been with us ever since, though often only in caricature. Sometimes his name stands for little more than the sentiment of "historical pessimism," or for the proposition that "history repeats itself." After the Cold War, discussions about the "clash of civilizations" and hegemonic diplomacy raised issues that Spengler had first broached 80 years before. The time has come for Spengler's work to be critically reintroduced to a 21st century audience.

    John Farrenkopf, an independent scholar who has labored in the Spengler Archive in Munich, here provides a guide to the current state of Spengler studies, particularly in Germany, as well as provocative conclusions based on his own archival work. "Prophet of Decline" answers many common questions about Spengler's politics. The most interesting part of the book, however, is the thesis that Spengler expanded his ideas after "The Decline of the West" into what is really a second, largely unpublished theory of history. The book even has a picture of the notoriously shiny-pated Spengler with hair. Revisionism can go too far.

    Since the last quarter of the 19th century, many people have suggested that the modern era of the West bore significant similarities to the Hellenistic era and the late Roman Republic, a period running roughly from the death of Alexander the Great (330 B.C.) to the assassination of Julius Caesar (44 B.C.) Spengler elaborated this idea in two ways. First, he attempted to work out the analogy systematically. Other writers had noted parallels in the exacerbation of Great Power rivalries. Spengler went beyond that, arguing for parallels in the exhaustion of artistic styles, the domination of both periods by a few great cities, and even claiming that science and mathematics approached final formulations in similar ways in antiquity and modernity. Far more originally, he tried to identify similar patterns of development in seven other "High Cultures." Thus, not just the Greco-Roman World, but Egypt, ancient China, India and other societies had also experienced "modern eras" of two or three centuries. Each had also had its own peculiar "age of faith" (the pyramids, in Spengler's terminology, were "contemporary" with the Gothic cathedrals of Europe) and its cultural climax in a "Baroque."

    Despite the many specific examples the "Decline" employs, the logic of the work is not empirical but metaphysical. It accepts Nietzsche's rejection of Kant's historical optimism, but embraces the limits set by traditional German idealism on the power of pure reason. The story of the High Cultures, in fact, is the tale of societies that seek to transcend the power of human understanding and fail. One may not like this kind of reasoning, but the fact remains that Spengler was the first philosopher of world history to really try to write about the world, rather than just dismiss the other great civilizations as a mere prologue to Western history.

    Farrenkopf gives us a summary of the enormous critical reaction to "The Decline of the West." The critiques often said that Spengler's analogies were factually wrong, or claimed that Spengler's analogies were so obvious as not to need saying; a few critics said both in the same review. What really exasperated his critics from the first, however, was the fact that Spengler's "morphology" of the history of High Cultures had obvious implications for the future of the West. If the analogy from other "modernities" held, then, probably around the end of the 21st century, the West should collapse into a universal empire, with a culture that would ultimately become as stiff and curatorial as Egypt's during the New Kingdom. In the meanwhile, money and democracy would increasingly hollow out the traditional forms of society, until both collapsed in the face of mere power politics. Wars would reach a climax of technical sophistication and speed, even as nations disintegrated internally. This was a gospel of bad news, but Spengler used the worldwide notoriety of "The Decline of the West" to become its prophet. From the start, his success was mixed.

    Spengler conceived the idea for "The Decline of the West" during the Agadir Crisis of 1911, when he realized that a general European war was inevitable. As he put it, the West was entering a period of two centuries of wars for world power, like that between the Battles of Cannae (216 B.C.) and Actium (31 B.C.). Because Germany appeared as a nation state late in Western history, just as Rome did in the Classical world, and because it was an economically dynamic power at the periphery of the ancient core of its wider culture, just as Rome had been relative to Greece, Spengler assumed that Germany would play a role in late Western history like that of Rome in late antiquity. That is, it would overcome the other Great Powers, establish hegemony over Europe, and go on to create an "imperium mundi," a universal empire that might, ephemerally, encompass the whole planet.

    Spengler was a man of wide education, with a PhD in philosophy, though his day job had been teaching mathematics in a secondary school. He had quit some years before 1914 to pursue his literary interests, supported by a small but apparently adequate inheritance from his mother. Unfortunately, his property was largely in American stocks, the income from which became inaccessible during the First World War. He spent the war freezing in a Munich garret, working on the "Decline" and hoping his medical exemption from military service held up. Despite his threadbare circumstances, he took time out to compose a "memorial" for the Kaiser, explaining how best to navigate the difficult years that would follow a German victory. Examining this unfinished and happily unposted document, Farrenkopf reports that Spengler was then instrumentally friendly to democracy. Spengler suggested that support for the monarchy would be strengthened if the bourgeoisie and working classes were given real responsibility, which would have required a more democratic franchise than the class-weighted voting system of Prussia. It would also have required giving the Reichstag far more power than it had under Bismarck's constitution. Spengler came close to suggesting that the German government needed fewer monocle-wearing Junkers and more businessmen and labor leaders. Only thus could Germany achieve the degree of national cohesion necessary to carry out the foreign policy tasks that history had set for it.

    The "Decline of the West" is not a political tract, or even a mirror of princes, but a densely philosophical work. Nonetheless, even Spengler's philosophical detachment was disturbed by the loss of the world war. Spengler accepted the "stab in the back" theory for the catastrophe: Germany was not defeated on the field, but betrayed by subversives and ideologues. He soured on democracy. In the years between the end of the war and the stabilization of the Weimar economy in 1924, he became involved in the plots among right-wing aristocratic circles to overthrow the fledgling government and establish an authoritarian regime. Farrenkopf relates that Spengler even spoke with army chief General Hans von Seeckt about becoming the minister of culture or education in such a government. (The general ultimately stayed loyal to the Weimar regime.) Spengler was peripherally involved with a prospective monarchist coup in Bavaria that was short-circuited by Hitler's own Beer Hall Putsch. Still, in those years Spengler did not spend all his time making a fool of himself, but elaborated a political philosophy that goes beyond the ideas he expressed in the "Decline."

    The chief published presentation of this development is "Prussianism and Socialism" (1919), a short work in which Spengler tried to sketch a final philosophy of governance for the West. There were two options in competition for this role, he suggested. One was the "knightly" tradition, embodied in Prussia, of care for all and the will to plan for even the distant future. The other was the "Viking" tradition of the Anglo-American world. The Viking tradition could operate globally more easily than its competitor, but it was almost purely commercial. Its fate was therefore tied to that of financial capitalism, which Spengler believed to be an extreme and ephemeral characteristic of the modern era. What Germany needed to do, according to Spengler, was to rescue socialism from class warfare in general and Marxism in particular. The socialism of the future ("Ethical Socialism" was his term for it) would not be an economic theory, but a system of morality for the conduct of public affairs. To use a formula Spengler did not use, it would be the "chivalry" of the post-democratic elites of the coming centuries.

    Farrenkopf makes some defense of Spengler's ideas about economics. The turn-of-the-millennium euphoria about a world of free-trade liberal capitalism (the "Viking" option) might not survive another systemic crisis, he reminds us. Additionally, one can say that Spengler's presentation of economic history as a branch of culture, subject to styles and "periods," is a refreshingly novel view of the subject. Even granting both points, I would suggest that Spengler's rather mercantilist preferences illustrate his limitations. Spengler spent his public career emphasizing the cultural unity of the West and the inevitability of the end of national sovereignty. Despite this, he seems never to have seen an international institution that he liked, either public ones like the League of Nations or private ones like the global banking houses. It is as if he imagined that the imperium mundi of which he dreamed would have no institutional predecessors.

    Far more interesting than his politics, however, were the historical and philosophical concerns to which Spengler turned his attention after it became clear that the Weimar Republic would be around for a few more years.

    Readers of "The Decline of the West" are often struck by the questions it does not answer. It does not explain how the group of "High Cultures" arose or what they have to do with each other. Quite the opposite: Spengler's method in his great book is perfect cultural relativism. Each High Culture is equivalent to all the rest. The peculiar ways of looking at the world that each culture develops is true for itself, but fundamentally incomprehensible for the people of the other cultures. While the High Cultures may borrow techniques from each other, they borrow nothing essential, and even what they borrow they put to uses peculiarly their own. (Spengler's best argument for this is mathematics, where he shows how the West put Classical geometry and Magian algebra to uses that were different in kind from those of the societies that invented them.) Historical meaning, in fact, occurs only within each High Culture; there is no truth for mankind as a whole.

    In a scattering of unpublished notes, a few essays and one small book ("Man and Technics," 1931) Spengler modified much of this relativism, or at least created a larger context for it. He became deeply interested in the origin of civilized life. Cultures with civilizations (following an old tradition, Spengler reserved the term "Civilization" for the late phase of a High Culture) have existed for only a small fraction of the time that man has existed zoologically. Spengler at last pursued the possibility that all the High Cultures might be part of a larger story.

    His researches persuaded him that man as we know him is quite young, on the order of 100,000 years. Spengler discerns four ages in the past, roughly the paleolithic (the bulk of human history), neolithic, precivilization (after the last ice age ended about 10,000 B.C.) and the time of the High Cultures, which began in the Near East about 3,000 B.C. This looks like a pattern of accelerated development, but Spengler goes farther even than that. Sounding more than a little like Arnold Toynbee, he says that the members of the class of High Cultures fall into generations, related by the widespread primitive societies from which they developed. The latter High Cultures are more powerful and profound than the earlier ones, with the West reaching a maximum. Indeed, he says that the final phase of the West opens a fifth and final age of the whole human story. By its end, the physical environment of the earth could be seriously disrupted. Human populations could fall back to the sparse numbers of precivilization. The species could even become extinct.

    As Farrenkopf points out, what we see here is Spengler moving from qualified pessimism to full apocalyptic. In these fragments and short works, Spengler is reminiscent of Henry and Brooks Adams, or for that matter a negative image of Teilhard de Chardin. He sounds most of all like H.G. Wells in his last published work, "Mind at the End of Its Tether" (1945). Spengler never worked these new ideas into a coherent system, as he had hoped. (For one thing, he suffered a minor stroke in 1927, which made it difficult for him to concentrate on large projects.) He claimed repeatedly that he never changed his ideas about the pattern of historical development within each of the High Cultures. On the other hand, in his notes, he started to call them "End Cultures," so there was at least a change in emphasis.

    In the "Decline," he had voiced an idea not uncommon around 1900, that Russia was a vital but still fundamentally primitive culture that would eventually supersede the West. While he never entirely took back the prediction that Russia wound someday add a ninth High Culture to his historical eight, in "Man and Technics" this becomes a "maybe." He calls the prospective Russian Culture a mere straggler. What clearly interests him far more is the dramatic vision of the High Cultures as a series of ever-greater failures, with the coming end of the West the greatest catastrophe of all.

    This vision of ultimate doom, however, still left the question of how to manage the more immediate decline. As Farrenkopf points out, the destiny of the West as a High Culture is not purely pessimistic. As the era of Civilization advances, the West could be expected to produce a "final" version of science, of mathematics, of politics, of ethics, even a measure of universal peace in the imperium mundi. Spengler himself at one point suggested that he was really talking about the "Vollendung" of the West, its "fulfillment" or "perfection." ("The Perfection of the West"; now there's a title for you.) However, his advice about how to approach the terminal state was relentlessly anti-idealistic. The goal would not be achieved by nations and individuals cooperating to establish theoretically correct solutions, but through the unprincipled pursuit of national and individual self-interest.

    The term for this attitude in the theory of international relations is "realism," and in fact Spengler's continuing currency rests on the relevance of his ideas to the anti-Wilsonian school of foreign policy. Indeed, one might call Spengler's theory of foreign affairs Social Darwinist, were it not for one thing: Spengler did not believe in Darwin. Part of Spengler's teaching certification required writing a thesis on evolutionary theory, so he was current with the biology of his day. He did not doubt that evolution had occurred, but he was inclined to doubt that it was a teleology of survival. Rather, it was an entelechy of creatures becoming more and more themselves. Thus, man could not make peace with nature by adapting his understanding to it. Man was what he was. As in the drama of the tragic character-flaw, man's story could only be the playing out of the consequences of his nature over time.

    As Farrenkopf tells us, this is a far more fundamental objection to political realism than any posed by Wilsonian idealism. Realism and idealism presuppose there is a right answer; they differ only on how the world works. Spengler's apocalyptic realism, in contrast, suggests that, ultimately, there is no right answer. In the end, he counsels a historically informed Stoicism. This is not without practical merit, as we see in his last major work, "The Hour of Decision" (1933) and in his opposition to the Nazis.

    Spengler's cranky anti-Nazism may have saved his ideas for serious consideration by future generations, but only barely. During the 1920s, Spengler had continued to hope for an authoritarian, perhaps monarchist successor to the Weimar Republic. He made clear his contempt for the Nazis' demagogy and mysticism. Spengler had complicated ideas about the relationship of the Jews to the West, but he did not think that the Jews were the cause of Germany's problems and he had little patience for anyone who claimed they were. Nonetheless, in the final crisis of the Republic, Spengler voted for Hitler twice, with the cryptic explanation that "one must support the Movement." If Spengler had shared the expectation on the Right that a government of old-line conservatives could restrain Hitler in office, he was quickly disappointed. In fact, he took the rather dangerous course of snubbing invitations from Propaganda Minister Goebbels himself, refusing to attend Nazi-sponsored events or to contribute his writings to Nazi publications. Still, his international reputation was such that he was able to publish "The Hour of Decision" in 1933, one of the few works critical of the regime that appeared during the Nazi period. Spengler's sudden death in 1936 may have saved him from arrest or exile.

    Spengler being Spengler, "The Hour of Decision" was not a plea for parliamentary democracy and international understanding. Rather, he wanted to know why there were still all those marches and banners, even after the party had come to power. Did those people know what "government" meant? This book was not the occasion when Spengler made his famous anti-Hitler quip, "What Germany needs is a hero, not a heroic tenor," but the implication is there. Chiefly, though, he complained that Germany had no foreign policy and no military to speak of, this at a time that he characterized as the most fateful in all Western history. Clearly, Spengler said, a second world war was in the offing, one in which Germany faced not just a loss of status, but extinction.

    Farrenkopf points out something that had escaped my notice, the extent to which "The Hour of Decision" anticipates the Cold War. Spengler understood the Bolshevik government of Russia to be alien to Russia. He thought it was destined to be overthrown, without much fuss, at no very distant date. However, he also suggested that, in the meantime, the anti-Western regime could use Bolshevism to organize the non-white world (a group among which he included the Russians themselves) against the West. At times, he seems to forget his nationalist realism and urge a united Western front against "Asia."

    Spengler's advice here could have saved a world of trouble. He implicitly criticizes the Nazi regime again by advocating a purely defensive posture toward the East. We know from his letters and notes that he thought the idea of seeking "Lebensraum" in Russia was nonsense. In "The Hour of Decision," he emphasized that an invasion of Russia for purely strategic purposes was also unworkable; it would be simply a "thrust into empty space" that would not destroy Russia.

    Quite aside from its relevance to the Cold War, Spengler's analysis does look a great deal like the "clash of civilizations" approach that gained favor among the foreign-policy realists of the 1990s. The chief point of difference is Spengler's assertion that old, fossilized civilizations could act only negatively. They could combat Western influence, but they could not become world powers. In contrast, the more recent realists seem to assume that anything is possible to any civilization, given the right circumstances. As Farrenkopf points out, it is still not completely clear who is right about this. Islam is a swamp, and India is a narrowly regional power. Even China could blow up from attempting to modernize. This is not to suggest that Spengler's prescience was ever better than uneven. "The Hour of Decision" contains the memorable prophecy that the United States could break up under stress of the economic collapse of the Great Depression. One successor state might well be a Bolshevik regime in the industrial Midwest, with its capital at Chicago. (Why Chicago? Was Spengler a fan of Bertolt Brecht?)

    Regarding the United States, Farrenkopf notes that Spengler never treats it systematically. Sometimes, it is just a peripheral region of the English sphere, of no significance to the fate of the West. Sometimes, particularly in his earlier work, the US is a contender for the possible founder of the imperium mundi. Farrenkopf goes so far as to suggest that the United States actually did create the Western imperium mundi in 1945, 150 years ahead of schedule. Farrenkopf tries to fit the anomaly into Spengler's system by invoking Spengler's late idea of historical "acceleration." This really doesn't work. The temporal quantum in the life of Spengler's High Cultures is the generation, a measure that changes little over time. In any case, there is really nothing to explain. If you must look for an analogy, the situation of Rome after the end of the Second Punic War was not so different from that of the United States after the Second World War. Anyone who wants to see this idea worked out intelligently should read Amaury de Riencort's "The Coming Caesars" (1957).

    Probably, though, it is better not to look for a close analogy. Spengler's belief that all international systems collapse into universal states has merit. So do his ideas about cultural "completion." So, more tentatively, does his time scale. Beyond that, the logic of his system does not make many specific predictions. Indeed, if we take seriously Spengler's protestations about the uniqueness of historical phenomena, we are required to resist the temptation to predict the future from analogy (something that, according to Farrenkopf, Spengler himself belatedly appreciated). Spengler's model would be consistent with a wide range of futures, from a distended Hohenzollern Empire to Toynbee's ecumenical society.

    Farrenkopf observes that, as time went on, Spengler became less and less concerned with the prospect of universal empire and more worried about German national survival. "The Hour of Decision" is chiefly concerned about staving off mere chaos, another post-Cold War theme that Spengler anticipated. The path to the future that seemed so clear to Spengler when he was freezing in his Munich garret became obscure when he was a respected authority. Perhaps what we have here is not a growth of pessimism, but of a sense of responsibility.

    Why post old articles?

    Who was John J. Reilly?

    All of John's posts here

    An archive of John's site


    The Long View 2002-03-25: Happy Doomsday!

    Once you know Sauron was overthrown on the Feast of the Annunciation, many things become clear.

    Happy Doomsday!

    From Giants With Feet of Clay: On the Historiography of the Year 1000 by Dr. Richard Landes, Center for Millennial Studies:

    "Why then, would a conservative Parisian cleric invoke the Eschaton in the year 1000? Understandably, someone in Rudolf of Fulda's day might do so, since then it was over a century and a half away -- but why someone with only a generation to go? The answer comes in the next incident Abbo reports: the apocalyptic rumor from Lotharingia which, he claimed, had 'filled almost the entire world.' This computus-based calculation predicted the End when the Passion and the Annunciation coincided on Friday, March 25, the very date of the creation of Adam, of the Annunciation, and of the Passion."

    March 25 may be the most uncanny day in the calendar. Readers of The Lord of the Rings will recall that it is the day Sauron is overthrown, and which is therefore made New Year's Day. Once again, Tolkien was being creatively unoriginal: March 25 was sometimes New Year's Day in the Middle Ages. It is also the traditional date on which Doomsday is expected to occur.

    This is my gift to the world's greeting-card companies.

    Why post old articles?

    Who was John J. Reilly?

    All of John's posts here

    An archive of John's site


    The Long View 2002-03-15: Kaplan and Spengler

    Robert Kaplan is a good example of who, exactly, is part of the Deep State. Kaplan wrote a number of influential books on foreign policy, and was invited to a closed-door meeting by Paul Wolfowitz during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. However, he is also a good example of what the Deep State is not. Kaplan was a vocal advocate for the war with Iraq, but he later changed his mind. The Deep State is not monolithic nor conspiratorial, at least for the most part. It is composed of like-minded individuals who cooperate, or not, of their own free will.

    Kaplan & Spengler

    Ever a slave to fashion, I recently read Robert Kaplan's, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos. I also wrote a review of it, which I hope that the journal First Things will publish in due course. Three months after due course, I can put the review on my own site, so I am not going to write another complete review for here. Anyone interested in a full treatment of the book, including answers from the author himself to readers' questions, should look in the Archives of Andrew Sullivan's Book Club. There is a point extraneous to my review, however, that I would like to publicize sooner rather than later.

    Almost every element of Warrior Politics was covered 70 years ago, in Oswald Spengler's The Hour of Decision. That book was published in Germany in 1933, and it is full of old Oswald's crankiness. "No one living in any part of the world of today will be happy," he tells us in the Introduction, the most cheerful part of the work. The Hour of Decision was, famously, the only book critical of the Nazis to be published during the Third Reich. However, his criticism was not that the Nazis were especially brutal, or likely to be so in the future. What bothered him was that they were manifestly incompetent in an age that he correctly understood to be uniquely dangerous.

    Spengler and Kaplan have roughly the same model of history, and some of the same political concerns. As in ancient times, an "Era of Contending States" is coming to rest in an Imperium Mundi. There is a clash of civilizations between the West and the Rest. To allow the norms of domestic politics to govern those of international relations is to invite catastrophe. Warrior Politics and The Hour of Decision are short, suitable for harried statesmen to read on a train or plane trip. They even have the same sort of detailed, narrative Contents pages. Spengler is not mentioned in Warrior Politics, and there is no reason to think the later book was modeled on the earlier. I suspect what we do have here is a striking case of parallel evolution.

    To a large extent, the differences between the books arise from the fact they describe earlier and later stages of what both authors perceive to be the same historical process.

    Spengler was desperate. He knew a second world war was impending and he knew that the Nazis were not the people to handle it. He hoped 15 years earlier, when he was writing The Decline of the West, that Germany would be the organizer of the Imperium Mundi. In The Hour of Decision, he has serious doubts about whether Germany will even survive. Kaplan, in contrast, is past all that. For him, history has made the decisions to which Spengler alluded in the title of his book. The United States is the global hegemon. The question now is how a tolerable world system can be organized.

    Spengler's version of the clash of civilizations may seem to readers today to be cast in repulsively racist terms. Still, his observations are not without insight, so much insight in fact that the danger he foresaw has pretty much come and gone. What he called "the Colored World-Revolution" later took the form of what history calls "The Cold War." In his scheme of things, the Russians count as the leaders of the "coloreds," having seceded from Europe when the Romanov Dynasty was overthrown.

    Spengler characterized the Marxist ideology that Moscow promoted as a brilliant weapon, one used to manipulate what we still call the Third World, and to foment unrest within the West itself. The acme of this particular Spenglerian nightmare was, perhaps, the Bandung Conference of 1955. In any case, he insisted, Marxism had nothing to do with economics, and certainly the Russians did not believe it themselves. Eventually, they would simply drop the charade. Spengler suggested in The Decline of the West that the Russian Communist Party would be peacefully set aside rather than violently overthrown.

    The section of The Hour of Decision that really drags for an early 21st-century reader is the middle third, in the section called "The White World-Revolution." This attempts to explain the state of the class war and its relationship to the economic crisis of the1930s. It is full of little gems, such as "a stock, at bottom, is only a debt," which suggest that Spengler was on firmer ground when he discussed the history of mathematics. Nonetheless, the section is so boring because, as Spengler predicted, the whole subject would be obsolete by the end of the 20th century. In the 20s and 30s of the twentieth century, politics was about "the Worker," meaning the industrial worker in heavy industry. Some people were for a proletarian revolution, and some were against it, but everybody talked about it. It must have been very shocking when Spengler suggested the question was transitory.

    Spengler, of course, was often flat wrong. Looking at the prostrate United States of 1933, he doubted whether the country could avoid civil war and social revolution. Perhaps Chicago would become the Moscow of the New World. More seriously, he seems to have believed that politics meant nothing but the preemptive use of force. No one ever seems to have explained to this man that real Realpolitik is about compromise, procrastination, and restraint.

    Even with the limits to Spengler's political sense, and even with the passage of time, Spengler and Kaplan are still pretty much on the same page. Kaplan foresees an "aristocracy of statesmen," just as Spengler wanted national elites with global vision. Although Spengler's take on the clash of civilizations was conditioned by the Bolshevik menace, still he understood that the phenomenon was broader than that. Kaplan is patronizing to democracy. Spengler is dismissive or hostile. Neither seems to think it will be the organizing principle of the 21st century.

    The model that Kaplan and Spengler employ still has things to say about the future. Maybe in another 50 years, or even 70, another writer could write another book of much the same sort. That will be the last revival, however. The scenario will be played out.

    Why post old articles?

    Who was John J. Reilly?

    All of John's posts here

    An archive of John's site


    CrossFit 2014-08-05

    Harley Love

    6 rounds

    • 13 squat thrusters [65#]
    • 14 pullups

    Time 19:34


    CrossFit 2014-08-04

    Deadlifts and double-unders

    EMOTM 12 minutes

    • 5 deadlifts [135#]
    • 45 single unders

    3 rounds max effort pushups

    • 20-10-10

    4 rounds

    • 15 abmat situps
    • 15 hip extensions

    CrossFit 2014-08-01

    Escape from Wonderland

    3 rounds

    • 150 single unders
    • 50 air squats
    • 25 Calorie row

    Time 17:31


    CrossFit 2014-07-28

    Ham Sandwich

    • 50 wallballs
    • 25 deadlifts [155#]
    • 50 wallballs
    • EMOTM 5 burpees

    Time 20:00 [capped] 112 reps


    The Long View 2002-03-07: Some Nuclear Fiction

    This is another early blog post that impressed me. John had very acute judgement about things such as the military potential of dirty bombs. The whole point of asymmetric warfare is that you don't have to so much as kill or even truly frighten an enemy you can cause to expend vast amounts of time and treasure attempting to counteract what you are doing. Even less well appreciated is what is likely to happen if you do truly frighten an enemy like the United States. War to the knife. No stone left standing on another. Carthago delenda est.

    Some Nuclear Fiction

    Just this week, we learned that the federal government had plausible information last October that a 10-kiloton warhead had been bought or stolen from a Soviet-era arsenal, and that someone was trying to smuggle it into Manhattan. The information, thank God, turned out to be wrong. Still, public officials in the governments of New York City and New York State immediately began to complain that they had not been told at the time. They insist that, hereafter, they want to be informed even of unconfirmed threats.

    No they don't. Such was the state of morale last October that Manhattan would have been abandoned if the public had received an advisory of such a thing. Even if the authorities had issued no warning, but had merely taken "precautions," such as removing irreplaceable works of art from the island's museums, the news would have leaked in increments. That would have been worse, since the government would have lost credibility and the news would have gotten out anyway. It would have been the biggest man-made urban disaster in America since Sherman burned Atlanta.

    Now terrorism experts are focusing less on fission bombs than on radiological weapons. "Some See Panic as Aim of Dirty Bomb," says a headline in today's New York Times. That pretty much hits the nail on the head.

    An interesting historical aside is that, conceptually, radiological weapons antedate fission and fusion bombs. The first fictional atomic bomb, at least that I know of, appears in The World Set Free by H. G. Wells, which he published in 1914. The world war that the book describes starts in 1956. The atomic bombs in that war are essentially small nuclear reactors. They are dropped into cities and melt into the ground, forming small, radioactive volcanoes. They do not cause immediate mass destruction, but they do cause cities to be abandoned over a period of weeks.

    Less well known is a story that Robert Heinlein wrote in 1940, under the name Anson MacDonald. Entitled "Solution Unsatisfactory," the story appeared in Astounding Science Fiction the next year. This was the sort of story that gave the FBI hysterics in those years, since it described pretty much what the Manhattan Project would soon be doing; it even mentioned an imaginary supersecret military research office dedicated to building an atomic bomb. In this story, the United States does not enter the Second World War until 1945. Also, the attempt to create a fission bomb is shelved in favor of a simpler solution. An ancillary project devises a radioactive dust that can depopulate a city with just a few bomber loads. In addition to the dusting of Berlin, there is a war with a post-Soviet state called the Eurasian Union, or E.U.

    The important thing to note about these speculations is that they have been tried and found wanting. Robert Oppenheimer himself considered doing what the head of the research project in the Heinlein story does. After careful consideration, Oppenheimer abandoned the idea. So, reportedly, did the Iraqi government. There is no practical way to produce mass, immediate casualties with radiological material. It's not that potent, and it's hard to deliver.

    What radiological weapons can do is create a health risk just high enough to make living in an affected area unacceptable. In the New York Times story, experts told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about scenarios in which all of Manhattan south of Central Park might have to be closed off for decades, like the area around Chernobyl. Maybe no one would be killed in the explosion that would distribute the material over the island, but the stuff would still create a hazard that exceeds federal guidelines.

    We should note that those scenarios are extreme, and involve materials that terrorists probably could not obtain, or handle if they did. Nonetheless, one might create a considerable panic with ordinary radioactive medical waste.

    Why post old articles?

    Who was John J. Reilly?

    All of John's posts here

    An archive of John's site


    The Long View: The Twilight of Democracy

    Unlike the secretive NSA, sometimes it seems that everyone who retires from the CIA gets a book deal along with their pension. This book review is now nineteen years old, but it seems pertinent to understanding how the Deep State works. The Deep State might seem like a re-tread of Eisenhower's Military-Industrial Complex, but it is both broader and subtler than that. It is more like Cecil Rhode's Round Table groups for the present day, a broad network of like-minded individuals who have responsibility and influence in their own right, largely because of their intelligence and accomplishments, who collaborate informally.

    Mike Lofgren has a pretty good definition of the Deep State, and if you include certain think tanks, contractors, and NGOs the picture would be more complete.

    The Deep State does not consist of the entire government. It is a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies: the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Justice Department. I also include the Department of the Treasury because of its jurisdiction over financial flows, its enforcement of international sanctions and its organic symbiosis with Wall Street. All these agencies are coordinated by the Executive Office of the President via the National Security Council. Certain key areas of the judiciary belong to the Deep State, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whose actions are mysterious even to most members of Congress. Also included are a handful of vital federal trial courts, such as the Eastern District of Virginia and the Southern District of Manhattan, where sensitive proceedings in national security cases are conducted. The final government component (and possibly last in precedence among the formal branches of government established by the Constitution) is a kind of rump Congress consisting of the congressional leadership and some (but not all) of the members of the defense and intelligence committees. The rest of Congress, normally so fractious and partisan, is mostly only intermittently aware of the Deep State and when required usually submits to a few well-chosen words from the State’s emissaries.

    If my life had taken a different turn, I could easily have come into contact with the Deep State at some point. One of my math professors suggested I look into working for the NSA, which I never did since the NSA has been a little too good at keeping a low profile; I simply had no idea of what they actually did, other than cryptography. If I had known, I might have pursued this idea at the time. I did interview for a job at Raytheon Missile Systems designing warheads that I ultimately did not take. I also have a number of friends and acquaintances from college or my subsequent working career who have ended up in national laboratories, or the State Department, or one of the big intelligence contractors, working on this or that.

    All of this is clearly pretty peripheral to the Deep State as Lofgren describes it, but that is a good indicator of what the Deep State really is: not a shadowy cabal, but a big and influential part of American society that has sprung out of our victory in the Cold War and our continuing high defense spending from the Global War on Terror. There are probably few Americans who are more than a few degrees separated from this, because it is a major part of our economy. The college-educated STEM workforce is probably even more likely to be part of this, especially because you need to be a citizen of the United States to hold these jobs. Defense spending produces technical jobs that aren't easily available to immigrants.

    Thus the Deep State has a sizable fraction of the population naturally on its side. However, it worth remembering that it was the Deep State that pushed for, and got, war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is now pushing for some sort of showdown with Russia. Much of the motivation for this comes from a conviction that culture and ideology don't matter; everyone is basically the same once you strip away the ethnographic razzle dazzle. Everyone wants the same things and has the same motivations, thus liberal democracy is all but inevitable once you topple the dictator.

    We have now conducted this social experiment all over the world. Since so much blood and treasure has been expended testing this theory, we ought to pay attention to the results.

    The Twilight of Democracy
    by Patrick E. Kennon
    Doubleday, 1995
    $24.00, 308 pages
    ISBN 0-385-47539-X

    The Screwtape Report

    The author of this book is a recently retired CIA analyst who, after 25 years on the job, is finally able to say in public what he actually thinks. There are, of course, no secrets here. The book is part political theory, part overview of the post-Cold War world situation. As the title suggests, Mr. Kennon is gleefully determined to puncture some secular pieties. The effort is not without success. This analysis would have gladdened the black heart of Ambrose Bierce himself. Thus, we learn that bureaucracy is the key to civilization, that democracy is tolerable only when it is just for show, that no state attains developed status without passing through a period of authoritarian rule. Mr. Kennon's ideas are worth listening to, and some of them might even be true. Still, the book is most interesting, not so much for what it tell us about the world, but because it so perfectly illustrates the failure of imagination of the modern secular mind. This book is supposed to represent what we all really think, but which convention prevents us from saying. Maybe it is what many of us really think, but if so, we're wrong.

    The intellectual apparatus the author brings to bear might be described as nuts-and-bolts sociology, which is to say that it is long on history and Max Weber, and short on underdevelopment economics and a theory of ideologies. Indeed, particular ideas don't seem to make much of a difference in Mr. Kennon's world. There are, of course, categories of ideas, such as nationalism and millenarianism and socialism, that play a large role from time to time. However, one example of these things is much like another from the same category. In any event, such things are simply occasions for the fundamental forces of history to manifest themselves. Like any respectable global thinker, Mr. Kennon's view of things tends to fall into sets of three. The two following trinities are pretty much all the theoretical apparatus you need in order to analyze what is happening in any given society and in the world as a whole.

    The basic forces in any society are, in order of importance, the bureaucracy, the private sector, and politics. Bureaucracy, starting with the priestly administrators of Sumer and Egypt, is what brought mankind out of the cave. While the book is mostly concerned with "public sector," government bureaucracies, bureaucracies of much the same type also exist in business, and in practice often form a united front with their government colleagues. Bureaucracies embody the principle of impersonal, rational order. They are, ideally, directed toward the achievement of a goal, rather than the maintenance of their own power. Bureaus are a world of management, rather than leadership. Most important, a bureaucracy's very impersonality gives it a time horizon longer than the careers of the bureaucrats who work in it. Almost inevitably, bureaucracies come to think in terms of decades, and sometimes of centuries.

    Bureaucracies, we are told to our amazement, do best in emergencies, when they are given a single goal. If you ask them to win a war or to wipe out yellow fever and give them unlimited resources, they will usually succeed. If you give them more than one goal, however, such as winning a war within budget constraints, or fighting an epidemic without annoying the minority groups it most closely affects, they become befuddled and often fail. They are not very good at setting priorities. In normal times, when any number of goals compete for the bureaucrats' attention, they have no sure way to choose between them. Then they start to act like, well, bureaucrats.

    The private sector in this scheme of things is damned with faint praise. The term here is not limited to business, since it includes most features of civil society, from client-patron relationships to labor unions. However, the author is most concerned to show the limits of free market capitalism. A free market, he notes, will supply people with just about any product they want, from education to cocaine. The market is persistent, usually pacific, and ingenious beyond the dreams of the wisest bureaucratic mandarin. Although the free market is wonderful if you are satisfied with a street bazaar economy, it never by itself made any country great. It gives people what they want, even if what they want is toxic, and it persists in selling even when people should be saving for their old age. Some necessary elements of the economy, notably infrastructure and basic research, are beyond the time horizon of even the most farsighted entrepreneur. (Unless, like Cecil Rhodes, he is less interested in running a business than in founding an empire.) Only a bureaucracy of some kind can organize the construction of railroads or the development of passenger jets. Even when private parties do the actual work on this kind of project, they work at the behest of government bureaucracies and with the support of public subsidies. Countries like the United States disguise from themselves the amount of government planning they do by calling it licensing or franchising. If left to itself, in fact, the private sector will undermine the preconditions for its prosperity. The rule of law can disappear in a thicket of bribery, the currency can collapse from nonpayment of taxes, when the private sector is much stronger than the government.

    The great anachronism in modern life, we are told, is politics. The only genuinely stupid parts of the book are those that try to found a theory of politics on the supposed antics of cavemen and their testosterone-crazed leaders. While there are forms of social contract theory that can still be defended, the social Darwinist version given here is singularly uninformed by either anthropology or the study of primate behavior. It is not even clear whether the author understands that the "caveman" is a myth. From this point of view, the template for all political leadership, kings and presidents and parliaments alike, is the charismatic leader of a war band. Such persons might occasionally do their people some good, by robbing other people, but they rarely have thoughts beyond the means to their own self-preservation. They are interested in leadership, not management. The good leader today leads best by deferring to his experts.

    Legislatures also fall into the suspect class of leaders. Legislatures, after all, are composed of local leaders whose livelihood is dependant on currying favor with the rabble at the back of the cave. They may well gain some expertise while working in a legislature, and they might even have some when they are first elected. However, their very position as legislators makes them incapable of using this information objectively. Their purpose is not to find the right answer, but an answer everyone can live with. Wise legislators, even more than wise executives, just do what their staffs tell them.

    Mr. Kennon's discussion of leadership is not without value. In a world in which academic degenerates try to reduce all social life to a contest for power, Kennon sensibly remarks that power is the ability to do something, to achieve a goal. What the academics are burbling about is the sterile accomplishment that Kennon calls "domination." There is also something to be said for the principle that truly great leaders, the exceptional few whom Kennon calls "saints," are those who voluntarily relinquish power to a permanent institution. Washington and Cardenas of Mexico make this short list. So does de Gaulle. Curiously, Lincoln does not. Rather, he is relegated to the much larger group of history's pragmatic troublemakers. I suppose you cannot have everything.

    The place of any country in the world today can be largely described, according to Mr. Kennon, by an examination of how these three elements in society interact. Although he uses the terms "first world," "second world," and "third world," these terms do not quite correspond to what they mean in ordinary parlance.

    The third world, which today includes Russia and its post-Soviet neighbors, is the natural state of civilized man. It shows great variety. Some regions and social sectors enjoy technological prowess and prosperity equal to that of any country in the world. Other regions and sectors, often just next door, suffer neolithic underdevelopment. Some third world countries are ruled by sociopathic tyrants. Others have real elections on a regular basis. It makes little difference: the government has been absorbed by the private sector. It is personal connections, and not impersonal bureaucratic routine, that count. The levers of state power in the presidential palace are not connected to anything. It is only in third world countries that "death squads" are to be found, since the real police are off working second jobs and so are not available to terrorize people. Even if the economy is nominally socialist, the great parastatal corporations are generally the fiefs of certain families or other affinity groups. Nepotism is more important to the functioning of the economy than is the market.

    The third world is as stable as a swamp. Those parts that are absolutely poor are the most stable, since insurrection requires both resources and "relative deprivation," i.e., the frustration of some expectation people had reasonably entertained. In livelier regions, society is held together primarily by patron-client relationships. Apparently, as long as just about everyone has a godfather to complain to when life gets difficult, a revolution cannot occur. Third world countries can offer a great deal of personal freedom, and even intermittent prosperity. However, no one is actually running these places, so disputes between castes or religions or other groups that might be arbitrated by effective courts in the first world or a strong dictator in the second can become genuine civil wars. The process is hard to get started, since the resources for civil strife might not be available. Once it does start, however, it can smolder for years for lack of anyone to put it out.

    Second world countries are third world countries that are ruled by bureaucratically administered force. Some may have tyrants, and some may hold real elections, but the government does not rule by consent. To a large minority or even a majority, the government is not legitimate. It would be overthrown if the police and the army relaxed. Second world countries come in two chief varieties these days: "newly industrialized countries," such as the "little dragons" of East Asia, and modernizing police states, like Iraq, and like Chile was until very recently. (The latter are "police states," not because the police run the government, but because the government depends on the police.) The Soviet Union fell into the second world category after Lenin died and remained there throughout its existence.

    The key to second world status is that the bureaucracy, with the assistance of a patriotic section of the political class, dominates the private sector. The bureaucracy in question may be that of a party, as in Marxist states or as in Mexico, the army, as was historically the case in South America and is now in parts of the Islamic world, or simply a powerful civil service, as was the case in developing Japan and Germany and France.

    Whatever the origin of the keepers of order, their behavior is remarkably similar. They believe in high savings rates to fund domestic investment, so they ensure that consumer goods are expensive and social services are thin. They strangle cults of personalty that might form around popular leaders, including themselves. Personal and political freedoms are variously restricted. They conduct mercantilist trade policies. They generally promote a nationalist ideology. The great predators of history are countries that, like Nazi Germany, either fell out of the first world and into the second, or that, like France after the Ancien Regime, had just climbed out of the third. Most second world states, however, are less interested in conquest than in autarchy, at least for a while. When they have achieved a sufficient level of economic development, they can hope for admission to the first world. Spain did this in the 1980s (Franco clearly counts as one of Kennon's "saints") and so did Japan in the 1960s.

    Second world countries are not inherently stable. They are societies that are kept together only by a conscious act of will by an elite of experts. They can be destroyed if the bureaucracy's plans for savings and development are disrupted by the arbitrary projects of some charismatic dictator. They can also be destroyed if they relax their police measures too soon, before the legitimacy of the regime is generally accepted. Democracy has again and again thrown promising second world countries back into the third word. If you believe Kennon, this even happened to the United States in the first third of the nineteenth century. The original economic development policy of the United States, as set forth by Alexander Hamilton, was as dirigiste as anything conceived by the Japanese economic bureaucrats of the 1960s. It called for mercantilism, sound money issued by an independent central bank, and a program of great infrastructure projects, notably turnpikes and canals. Bit by bit, this clear program was compromised in the early years of the Republic. Finally, Andrew Jackson led the rabble out of the cave and into the White House. The country began to disarticulate politically. It was only after the Civil War that the Robber Baron industrialists and their political allies of the Reconstruction Era coerced the country back onto the path toward first world status.

    The first world itself is the paradise in which all good second world countries seek to be reincarnated. It is, of course, economically developed, which means that its economy is not tied to the deplorably inelastic demand for natural commodities or the primary manufactured products, such as cement or (these days) steel. The bureaucracy reigns in industry and the government, with the cooperation of a private sector strong enough to innovate but not to undermine basic social order. The political sector knows its modest place. Like a good British monarch, it reigns but does not rule. There are, of course, emergencies when the anachronism of political leadership still has some utility. However, these instances become fewer and fewer as civilization advances and its problems become more complicated. Modern civilization is a matter for experts, whose decisions the good president or parliament simply rubberstamps.

    Like the third world, the first world is stable. A first world country may suffer riot, high crime and corruption in high places, but its survival does not depend on the police. The regime is legitimate, even to people who want its whole personnel roster replaced. It can permit a very high level of personal freedom and an efficient legal system at the same time. Of course, it isn't indestructible. Kennon is much taken with Mancur Olson's thesis that developed countries tend to be dragged down by the growth of entitlements and special interest pleading over the course of time. What this is, of course, is the private sector reasserting itself. The result can be something like what happened to Argentina, which stood at the gates of first world status until the Peronist welfare state produced a secular decline. And then there's Hitler. A first world country can reenter the second, if it no longer is possible to rule by impersonal consensus. When that happens, it is necessary to rule by force, to establish a police state. The Germans, of course, got the worst of all possible worlds, a harsh second world police regime and a sociopathic third world leader to run it. The moral of this is that no country is naturally a member of one world or the other. Nations can and do circulate from one level to another.

    As for the future, Kennon suggests that the planet will be ruled by a first world empire by about the middle of the next century. This is not to say that there will be a de jure universal state, but that the international bureaucracies which exist today will ultimately become more important than the national bureaucracies of the first world. Major corporations increasingly think and act internationally, and national bureaucrats, with their natural bureaucratic inclination to bow to expertise, increasingly mesh with multilateral diplomatic and financial organizations. Sovereign states will continue to exist, even in the first world, but they and their elected officialdoms will be reduced to "sources of legitimacy," rather than possessors of actual power. This inner core will be surrounded by a ring of second world countries trying to achieve a sufficient degree of internal cohesion to allow them to enter the core. On the periphery will be the ever-stable third world, rarely policed, sometimes aided, usually ignored.

    The interesting thing about this model is how closely it resembles the "end of history" thesis put forward by Francis Fukuyama at the end of the 1980s. Fukuyama was not suggesting, as his ill-informed detractors suggested, that nothing interesting was ever going to happen again. What he was saying was that modern liberal democracy is the final product of political theory, just as Euclid's solid geometry was the final product of Greek mathematics. It answered the questions that had been asked. In rather the same way, Kennon's universal mandarinate is a sort of final state, one that admits of no further development. It is the peace of exhaustion.

    Mr. Kennon's view of the world is not wildly misleading as a description of the current state of things. (Except perhaps with regard to Israel. I realize that Kennon did not invent the phrase, but I doubt that Israel really deserves to be called a "Herrenvolk Democracy.") His account of history might be politely described as unnuanced, but then he was not trying to write a theory of history. The problem is that Mr. Kennon has a crabbed sense of the possible. He dismisses ninety percent of why governments and cultures say they do things. Mr. Kennon, equipped with his solid 1950s liberal education, knows why these people really did what they did. Surely any reasonable person will have to agree?

    The book has a blind spot regarding religion. (The author has read "The Golden Bough," unfortunately.) While Mr. Kennon has some interesting things to say millenarianism, he does not seem to fully appreciate that the concept has application outside exotic contexts like the Mahdi Rebellion in the 19th century Sudan. The fact that non-apocalyptic varieties of Christian eschatology are intimately linked with the idea of progress has escaped his notice entirely. More serious, he really seems to think that religious faith is something that is felt by the ignorant but can only be pretended to by the learned. He knows that religion isn't dying out, and he knows that it is often positively correlated with education, but he draws no inferences from these facts.

    There is a single conceptual failing in the book that turns Mr. Kennon's portrait of the world into a caricature. The lesson has not sunk in that you cannot predict the future by extrapolation. The fashionable term for unpredictable novelty in physics is "emergent behavior," and history is full of it. This is why all long-range plans, after a certain point, lead to Hell. It is why Marxist command economies make their people poor. It is why export-mad neomercantilist states like Japan eventually discover that they have given their exports away. It is why the search for social and international "stability," the alpha and the omega of CIA policy, is a pernicious chimera. It ensures you will spend your time fighting yesterday's menace and overlook today's opportunity. A bureaucracy can protect you against some kinds of bad luck, but never yet has a bureaucracy made a particle of good luck.

    Caricatures have their uses, of course, and "The Twilight of Democracy" is no exception. Certainly the book performs a useful service in today's climate by de-sentimentalizing democracy. Democracy is not historically inevitable, and it is not an excuse for bad government. Even if leadership is not as negligible a factor in history as Mr. Kennon says, it is good to be reminded that even a demon in power cannot do much harm if he does not have an honest bureaucracy working for him. In any event, the book's view of the world has the modest advantage that accrues to most forms of cynicism. Optimists are bound to be disappointed, but a cynic will go through life being pleasantly surprised.


    Why post old articles?

    Who was John J. Reilly?

    All of John's posts here

    An archive of John's site


    The Long View: Tragedy and Hope

    The Magistra likes to watch period dramas on Netflix. This is a work of the same genre, although Quigley probably didn't know he was writing one at the time. This book is a fossil from that brief and peaceful period in the 1960s before the big cultural upheavals in 1968, which in this case really means something more like the 1950s for most Americans, but more stylish.

    That was the time when "liberal Catholic" meant something like Pope Francis, left-of-center politically, but wholly orthodox. It was also a high point of the self-confidence of the West as a whole, and American liberalism in particular. One of the enthusiams of this book is Operations Research, a formal science that emerged out the the Second World War. This is a discipline that does not bulk large in anyone's mind today, but it was the nanotech of its day, capable of solving any problem in principle. John notes that the belief in Operations Research methods was part of what made Robert McNamara think the war in Vietnam could be managed using metrics and scientific methodology. This famously did not go well, although I can think of at least one old OR man who might dispute that interpretation.

    Quigley's book has achieved a kind of fame, at least amongst the conspiracy minded, due to his singling out of the Round Table groups founded by Cecil Rhodes. The most familiar of these groups today is the Council on Foreign Relations, but Rhodes also founded the Rhodes Scholarships with the same motivation as the Round Table groups; he wanted to build an international network of public-minded and public-spirited men across the English-speaking world.

    The Round Table groups were really just a spontaneous outgrowth of the first period of internationalization, when international trade began to rapidly outpace international institutions, and some mechanism was needed to fill the gap. Industrious Victorians like Rhodes were only too happy to come up with something clever to do just that. As international institutions caught up, the influence of the Round Table groups declined, if for no other reason than they were no longer the only players in the game.

    Anglophilia and conspiracy theories are not the main interest of this book, however. Quigley summed up everything he thought was best about the Western world thus:

    "The Outlook of the West is that broad middle way about which the fads and foibles of the West oscillate. It is what is implied by what the West says it believes, not at one moment but over the long succession of moments that form the history of the West. From that succession of moments it is clear that the West believes in diversity rather than in uniformity, in pluralism, rather than in monism, or dualism, in inclusion rather than exclusion, in liberty rather than in authority, in truth rather than in power, in conversion rather than in annihilation, in the individual rather than in the organization, in reconciliation rather than in triumph, in heterogeneity rather than in homogeneity, in relativisms rather than in absolutes, and in approximations rather than in final answers. The West believes that man and the universe are both complex and that the apparently discordant parts of each can be put into a reasonably workable arrangement with a little good will, patience, and experimentation. In man the West sees body, emotions, and reason as all equally real and necessary, and is prepared to entertain discussion about their relative interrelationships but is not prepared to listen for long to any intolerant insistence that any one of these has a final answer." [Page 1227]

    While at first glance this might seem to be merely to be a summary of the early 1960s liberal consensus, its roots go far deeper. Quigley himself considered this to be an interpretation of Aquinas. That is defensible, there really are ideas like this in Aquinas's thinking. It is also not the only possible interpretation of Aquinas. But it does represent a durable line of thought in the history of the West.

    This line of thought may or may not be true, but it has been with us a long time.

    Tragedy and Hope:
    A History of the World in Our Time
    by Carroll Quigley
    First Published 1966
    The Macmillan Company
    (Reprint GSG & Associates)
    1,348 Pages, US$35.00
    ISBN 0-945001-10-X


    For reasons that are only partly the author's fault, "Tragedy and Hope" has become one of the key texts of conspiracy theory. Famous for its exposition of the workings of the Anglophile American establishment during the first half of the twentieth century, the book is reputed to have "named names" to such a degree that the hidden masters of the world tried to suppress the unabridged edition. It did not diminish the book's reputation that Carroll Quigley (1910-1977), a historian with the Foreign Service School at Georgetown University, made a deep impression on US-president-to-be Bill Clinton during Clinton's undergraduate years at that university. We have Mr. Clinton's own word on this, so it must be true.


    If the hidden masters did try to suppress the book when it first appeared, they seem to have lost interest by now; the only problem I had buying this enormous volume was carrying the 15 pounds of it home. "Tragedy and Hope" has no notes, no bibliography, and a very inadequate index. As with the Bible, its sheer size has done something to ensure that it would be more cited than read. For what it is intended to be, a history of the world from about 1895 to 1964, the book is a failure. As Quigley acknowledges, there are insuperable problems of perspective in writing about one's own time. On the other hand, the book's prejudices are fascinating. It was written at the point in the 1960s just before the American liberal consensus began to unravel. Perhaps as important for Quigley, that was also the brief interval after the Second Vatican Council when "liberal Catholic" did not mean someone who rejected all dogma and tradition. Beyond its value as a period piece, however, the book occasionally transcends its time. Its remarks about the future, presumably a future more distant than our present, are close to becoming conventional wisdom today.


    Quigley's frame of reference is roughly that of Arnold Toynbee: the West, including Europe, the United States, Latin America, and Australasia, has entered an Age of Crisis. Other civilizations, when faced with analogous crises, solved them by entering an Age of Universal Empire. Universal Empires, however, are morbid: they are stultifying at best and eventually collapse in any case. Quigley's objection is not to international institutions, or even to world government. What the West must do, according to Quigley, is end its Age of Crisis without creating a Universal Empire through military conquest. The problem with the 20th century, down to the 1960s, has been repeated attempts by persons and groups to achieve universal power by force or manipulation.


    This analysis sounds much more interesting than it is. Quigley's tale is pretty much a vindication of President Franklin Roosevelt's administration (1933-1945). By Quigley's account, the failure to adopt the policies of those years earlier in the 20th century led to the disasters of the Depression and the Second World War, while the need of the decades that followed was to expand and perfect the Progressive tradition they embodied. Much of the reputation of this book among conspiracy theorists rests on its account of the world financial system of the 1920s, when the Bank of England no longer had the power to regulate the system, as it had before the First World War. The gap was filled by private institutions acting in collusion with the heads of the central banks, generally without oversight from the world's major governments. A combination of bad luck and stupidity made the system collapse at the end of the decade, so that currencies became inexchangeable, trade froze, and force displaced commerce both domestically and internationally. It's not hard to make ordinary banking practices sound like the work of the devil, and in this book the devil's little helpers are Morgans, Rothschilds, and Barings.


    One can take or leave Quigley's long, very long, expositions of economic theory. Many readers will be inclined to leave an argument that suggests the whole of history was preparation for the ultimate enlightenment contained in John Kenneth Galbraith's "The Affluent Society," which argued for Keynsian macroeconomics and a mildly redistributive social policy. (Quigley clearly alludes to that book, published in 1958, but does not cite it.) In any case, Quigley described speculative, international finance-capitalism as a feature of the past; he did not think it had any relevance to his own day.


    What chiefly ensured Quigley's work a lasting place in the pantheon of paranoia, however, was his attempt to provide a social context for this activity. This paragraph appears at the end of a tirade against McCarthyism:


    "This myth, like all fables, does in fact have a modicum of truth. There does exist, and has existed for a generation, an international Anglophile network which operates, to some extent, in the way the radical Right believes the Communists act. In fact, this network, which we may identify as the Round Table Groups, has no aversion to cooperating with the Communists, or any other groups, and frequently does so. I know of the operations of this network because I have studied it for twenty years and was permitted for two years, in the early 1960s, to examine its paper and secret records. I have no aversion to it or to most of its aims and have, for much of my life, been close to it and to many of its instruments. I have objected, both in the past and recently, to a few of its policies (notably to its belief that England was an Atlantic rather than a European Power and must be allied, or even federated, with the United States and must remain isolated from Europe), but in general my chief difference of opinion is that it wishes to remain unknown, and I believe its role in history is significant enough to be known." [Page 950]


    "Anglophilia" sounds like a debilitating psychological ailment, with some reason. In its American manifestation, it suggests a preference for tweedy clothes, water sports that don't require surf, and nominal affiliation with the Anglican Communion. The syndrome has a copious literature, much of it concerned with prep schools, but here is all you need to know in this context. The ideology of Quigley's network can apparently be traced to 19th century Oxford, indeed specifically to All Souls College, back when John Ruskin was expounding a compound of Gothic Revival aesthetics, the glory of the British Empire, and the duty to uplift the downtrodden poor. These ideas seized the imagination of Cecil Rhodes during his years at Oxford. He hoped for a federation of the whole English-speaking world, and provided the money and impetus for institutions to link those countries. (Lord Alfred Milner provided the organizing talent.) The best known of these efforts are the Rhodes Scholarships for study at Oxford. (Bill Clinton is among the many well-know recipients.) They also included informal "Round Table Groups" in the Dominions and the US, which sponsored local Institutes of International Affairs. The US version is the Council on Foreign Relations.


    While the people in these groups were very influential (that is why they were asked to join), Quigley makes clear that the Round Tables never had everything their own way, even in the administration of colonial Africa, where both Rhodes and Milner were especially interested. As with the finance capitalists, the Anglophile network was essentially a league of private persons trying to fill a gap in the international system. As public institutions were created to exercise the Round Tables' consultative and communications functions, the network itself became less important.


    Quigley makes the increasing marginalization of the Anglophile network perfectly clear, and in fact he does not suggest that it was ever more than one factor among many at any point in the 20th century. Nonetheless, it is his failing as a historian to suggest that a causal nexus can be inferred whenever two actors in a historical event can be shown to have met. Consider this excerpt from a discussion of the history of Iran:


    "By that time (summer, 1953) almost irresistible forces were building up against [Prime Minister] Mossadegh, since lack of Soviet interference give the West full freedom of action. The British, the AIOC, the world petroleum cartel, the American government, and the older Iranian elite led by the shah combined to crush Mossadegh. The chief effort came from the American supersecret intelligence agency (CIA) under the personal direction of its director, Allen W. Dulles, brother of the secretary of State. DulIes, as a former director of the Schroeder Bank in New York, was an old associate of Frank C Tiarks, a partner in the Schroeder Bank in London since 1902, and a director of the Bank of England in 1912-1945, as well as Lazard Brothers Bank, and the AIOC. It will be recalled that the Schroeder Bank in Cologne helped to arrange Hitler's accession to power as chancellor in January 1933." [Page 1059]


    I don't quite know what this is supposed to mean; that pretty much the same people overthrew Prime Minister Mossadegh as brought us Hitler? I am reminded of nothing so much as Monty Python's parody of an Icelandic saga, about the deeds of "Hrothgar, son of Sigismund, brother of Grundir, mother of Fingal, who knew Hermann, the cousin of Bob." Maybe this is Quigley's idea of "thick" description. Certainly "Tragedy and Hope" is thick with it; it goes on for pages and pages.


    "Tragedy and Hope" is a fossil, perfectly preserved, of the sophisticated liberalism of the Kennedy era. Quigley takes a partisan position in the debates about nuclear strategy that began in the 1950s. (He sat on several government commissions on scientific questions, including the one that recommended creating NASA. The book explains the physics of nuclear weapons in some detail; Quigley does not just name names, he names the weight of fissionable material necessary for a bomb.) Thus, he praises Oppenheimer and condemns Teller, deplores the cost-cutting strategy of "massive retaliation" embraced by the Eisenhower Administration and supports tactical nuclear devices suitable for conventional war. "Tragedy and Hope" has prose poems to "Operations Research," the application of quantitative analysis to military affairs, which he ranks with Keynsian economics as one of the pillars of modern civilization.


    Though it is not entirely fair to criticize even a book such as this for failing to foresee the immediate future, still I cannot help but remark how many of these ideas were tested in the 1960s and found wanting. The number-crunching military philosophy that Quigley endorsed was essentially that of Robert McNamara's Pentagon; as much as anything else, it is what lost the Vietnam War for the United States. Quigley covers Vietnam up through the assassination of President Diem in 1963, but gives no greater prominence to the conflict there than to other Cold War trouble spots. This book is good evidence, if any more were needed, that even the Americans who knew most had not the tiniest idea what they were doing.


    The problem with the Kennedy Enlightenment is not that elements of its conventional wisdom were wrong; that is true of all eras. The great flaw was its totalitarian streak. Quigley expresses this attitude perfectly:


    "The chief problem of American political life for a long time has been how to make the two Congressional parties more national and more international. The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps of the Right, and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical so that the American people can 'throw the rascals out' at any election without leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy. The policies that are vital and necessary for America are no longer subjects of significant disagreement, but are disputable only in terms of procedure, priority and method..." [Page 1248-1249]


    Quigley was aware that there was a substantial number of persons in the nascent conservative movement who did not think that all issues had been settled yet, but he regards their opinions as not just erroneous but illegitimate. Quigley has fits of class analysis, so he tells us that the traditional middle class, considered as a cultural pattern rather than an economic group, was evaporating because of growing prosperity and feminization. (His description of contemporary students as promiscuous, unkempt and unpunctual suggests he had some inkling of just how annoying the Baby Boom generation was going to be.) The Right, however, was dominated by a parody, also destined to be ephemeral in Quigley's estimation, of the disappearing middle class. The Right was "petty bourgeois" (he actually uses the term), grasping, intolerant and careerist. They were ignorant, even the ones who tried to get into top colleges on the basis of good grades, since those grades were achieved by unimaginative drudgery rather than by any real engagement with the life of the mind. The Right even came from unfashionable places, principally the Southwest, where they made fortunes in dreadful extractive industries, like oil and mining. The Right, particularly as manifest in the Republican Party, is merely ignorant. It must be combated, but need not be listened to.


    Let us think less harshly of Bill Clinton hereafter, if these were the opinions he heard from the Wise and the Good of his youth.


    The infuriating thing is that Quigley knows better. He was well aware of the totalitarian trajectory of the respectable consensus of his day, and he was not pleased by it. Consider this paragraph:


    "Because this is the tradition of the West, the West is liberal. Most historians see liberalism as a political outlook and practice founded in the nineteenth century. But nineteenth-century liberalism was simply a temporary organizational manifestation of what has always been the underlying Western outlook. That organizational manifestation is now largely dead, killed as much by twentieth-century liberals as by conservatives or reactionaries...The liberal of about 1880 was anticlerical, antimilitarist, and antistate because these were, to his immediate experience, authoritarian forces that sought to prevent the operation of the Western way. ...But by 1900 or so, these dislikes and likes became ends in themselves. The liberal was prepared to force people to associate with those they could not bear, in the name of freedom of assembly, or he was, in the name of freedom of speech, prepared to force people to listen. His anticlericalism became an effort to prevent people from getting religion, and his antimilitarism took the form of opposing funds for legitimate defense. Most amazing, his earlier opposition to the use of private economic power to restrict individual freedoms took the form of an effort to increase the authority of the state against private economic power and wealth in themselves. Thus the liberal of 1880 and the liberal of 1940 had reversed themselves on the role and power of the state..." [Page 1231]


    Quigley strongly suspected that, whatever else may happen to the West, democracy was likely to be a decreasingly important feature. In part, this was for a reason that would gladden the hearts of defenders of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution: the disarming of the citizenry, at least in comparison to the military. Universal male suffrage was partly a side effect of the dominance in the 19th century of the rifle-armed mass infantry. Firearms were cheap and great equalizers; governments could use such armies only with a high level of consent from the citizens who composed them. In the 20th century, however, the new weapons were beyond the means of private parties or groups, and they could be operated only by trained experts. In a way, the world came back to the era knights and castles, when the bulk of the population figured in politics chiefly as silent taxpayers.


    Quigley did recognize that the trends of the 20th century up to his day might not go on forever, and at this point the book becomes positively disconcerting. He saw no end to the standoff between the US and the Soviet Union, except to the extent that their economic and political systems might be expected to converge in an age increasingly dominated by experts. ("Convergence": now that's a buzzword that brings back memories.) On the other hand, he did think that the lesser countries of each block would be able to operate more independently from the US and the USSR, and even to relax internally. He makes remarks about the possibility of balkanization and decentralization that might almost have been made by Robert Kaplan and Thomas Friedman, who are perhaps best known for their recent writing about chaos and disintegration in the world after the Cold War. Like other people writing 40 years later, Quigley also suggests that, simultaneous with increasing disorder and complexity, new international institutions would also flourish, so that the nations of his day would lose authority to entities both greater and smaller than themselves.


    "Tragedy and Hope" suggests that the future may look something like the Holy Roman Empire of the late medieval period. [Page 1287] In principle, the empire was a federal hierarchy of authorities, but the principle was scarcely visible in the tangle of republics, kingdoms, and bishoprics that composed it. The Imperial Diet was as multichambered as a conch-shell, while the executive functioned only on those rare occasions when the emperor, an elected official, managed to persuade the potentates of the empire that what he wanted to do was in their interest. Actually, Quigley did not have far to seek for this model. The early European Economic Community of his day already was starting to look like just such a horse designed by a committee. Its evolution into the European Union has not lessened the resemblance. Quigley seemed to expect a parallel evolution of institutions universally, through the UN system, for which a united Europe would stand as a model. He is not perfectly clear on this point, however. As is so often the case when people talk about transcending national sovereignty, it is not clear whether they are talking about the evolution of the West, or of the world, or of both.


    To broach a final topic, one of the things that struck me about "Tragedy and Hope" was Quigley's lack of interest in intellectual history, except for science. His treatments of ideology tend to be cursory, misleading or wrong. Lack of interest is his privilege, of course, but to write a 1,300-page book about the first half of the twentieth century without liking ideology is like owning a candy store and not liking chocolate. The only point when the matter seems to fully engage his interest is when he is speculating about the ideology that might help the West to emerge from its Age of Crisis. What the West needs to do, he says, is to hold fast to its special intellectual virtues, which he summaries like this:


    "The Outlook of the West is that broad middle way about which the fads and foibles of the West oscillate. It is what is implied by what the West says it believes, not at one moment but over the long succession of moments that form the history of the West. From that succession of moments it is clear that the West believes in diversity rather than in uniformity, in pluralism, rather than in monism, or dualism, in inclusion rather than exclusion, in liberty rather than in authority, in truth rather than in power, in conversion rather than in annihilation, in the individual rather than in the organization, in reconciliation rather than in triumph, in heterogeneity rather than in homogeneity, in relativisms rather than in absolutes, and in approximations rather than in final answers. The West believes that man and the universe are both complex and that the apparently discordant parts of each can be put into a reasonably workable arrangement with a little good will, patience, and experimentation. In man the West sees body, emotions, and reason as all equally real and necessary, and is prepared to entertain discussion about their relative interrelationships but is not prepared to listen for long to any intolerant insistence that any one of these has a final answer." [Page 1227]


    At first glance, this might seem to be just another instance of the Kennedy Enlightenment assuming that its own parochial ideas are all the ideas there are. Certainly this laundry list looks more than a little like John Dewey's pragmatism. Pragmatism has its virtues, but is hardly the thread that runs through all Western history. However, that is not where the summary comes from. On close examination, Quigley's "Way of the West" has more content than is characteristic of pragmatism, which is a philosophy about procedure. What we have here, as Quigley tells us himself, is a take on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.


    Aquinas has been credited and blamed for many things. In the 20th century, he had been called "the father of science" and "the first Whig." There really are features of his ideas that are friendly to empirical science and to limited government with the consent of the government. On the other hand, if you need a detailed account of the physiology of demons, he is your man. A "liberal" Thomas is not the only possible Thomas, but such an interpretation would have appealed to a Catholic scholar like Quigley in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, where the ideas of John Cardinal Newman on the development of doctrine seemed to carry all before them.


    There is an obvious pattern in Quigley's ideas about the future. Consider the specifics: the end of mass warfare and mass democracy, the disintegration of the nation state into both a universal polity and local patriotisms, and a global intellectual synthesis that is willing to entertain any idea that is not contrary to faith and morals. (Aquinas was rather more honest about that last part than was Quigley.) What we have here is a vision of the High Middle Ages with International Style architecture. This vision may or may not reflect the future, but it certainly has a long history. Let us let Oswald Spengler have the last word; I suspect this is where the citation-shy Quigley got the idea in the first place:


    "But neither in the creations of this piety nor in the form of the Roman Imperium is there anything primary and spontaneous. Nothing is built up, no idea unfolds itself - it is only as if a mist cleared off the land and revealed the old forms, uncertainly at first, but presently with increasing distinctness. The material of the Second Religiousness is simply that of the first, genuine, young religiousness - only otherwise experienced and expressed. It starts with Rationalism's fading out in helplessness, then the forms of the Springtime become visible, and finally the whole world of the primitive religion, which had receded before the grand forms of the early faith, returns to the foreground, powerful in the guise of the popular syncretism that is to be found in every Culture at this phase."


    The Decline of the West, Volume II, page 311

    Why post old articles?

    Who was John J. Reilly?

    All of John's posts here

    An archive of John's site