The Long View: A Culture of Conspiracy

The world of conspiracy theories is a strange one. If anything, a lack of proof, or even disproof, only makes them more popular. There are a lot of durable memes that came out of the 1990s, things like the New World Order, or the Men in Black. Hollywood helped, and so did videogames. [in case you forgot, videogames are a bigger industry than movies]

This book is a scholarly investigation of this phenomenon, how mass media propagates, and even encourages ideas that lots of people, especially well-educated journalists, think are stupid and wrong. This was of course written before the rise of clickbait, but perhaps a new edition could be issued.

There is probably a hook here for the alt-right too, but that in itself is clickbait. Conspiracy theories and apocalyptic beliefs are just as common on the left as the right, because they are human nature. Hell, sometimes the specific ideas are the same on both fringes of the American political spectrum. For example, opposition to GMOs and vaccination have homes on both left and right. 

The real story here is that we aren't smart enough to do conspiracy properly. The people in charge don't really know what they are doing much better than anyone else. Sometimes, much worse.


 A Culture of Conspiracy:
Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America
By Michael Barkun
University of California Press, 2003
243 Pages, US$17.47
ISBN 0-520-23805-2

 

Why did Timothy McVeigh visit Area 51, the alleged flying-saucer test range, and view the film "Contact" on death row? Why did the harmless-looking phrase, "New World Order," take on a sinister connotation as soon as the first President Bush uttered it? Why does the acronym FEMA send chills down the spines of a substantial number of Americans? We cannot dismiss these facts as unrelated coincidences. No: they are all evidences of a strange mutation that occurred in American popular culture in the 1990s, when formerly obscure forms of esotericism and conspiracy theory fused with traditional millennialism and popular pseudo-science. The result was not a movement, but a worldview that threatens to undermine trust in public institutions, and maybe even consensus reality.

Such is the argument of this useful book by political scientist Michael Barkun of Syracuse University, one of the leading authorities on the political implications of contemporary millennialism. The literature of conspiracy theory is vast and rarely a pleasure to read, so there is something to be said for any survey that shrinks the Illuminati, the Men in Black, and the Hollow Earth itself to manageable dimensions. The chief merit of this book, though, is the description of a dynamic in contemporary conspiracy theory, one that turns ordinary popular culture into a venue for the propagation of ideas that the consensus culture has not just dismissed, but condemned. This model may exaggerate certain features of the popular mind, but it clearly does have some applications.

The chief sources of the culture of conspiracy are the tradition of conspiracy theory, conventional millennialism, and what must be called “ufology,” or the belief in the existence and importance of Unidentified Flying Objects and other extraterrestrial influences. The place where these sources meet is the realm of "stigmatized knowledge."

Some stigmatized knowledge is just obsolete knowledge, like alchemy or astrology, that the academic establishment no longer takes seriously on its own terms. Some of it is folklore and urban legends. Some of it is political ideas that have lost their bid for dominance in the wide world, but survive in niches and sects. The stigmatization of knowledge does not necessarily mean it is worthless: acupuncture, for instance, has risen from subcultural disrepute to the status of a recognized treatment. Whatever the merits of stigmatized ideas, people who accept stigmatized knowledge about one subject are likely to be more open to entertaining it in others. This leads to an attitude that views esoteric and unpopular ideas favorably, simply because they are stigmatized. Any official or consensus explanation is viewed with suspicion.

If you think that what most people believe about important aspects of the world is consistently wrong, the most economical hypothesis is that those people are being systematically deceived. This implies a deceiver, who must have confederates. The larger the conspiracy, the more a theory about it can explain: hence the attractiveness of conspiracy theories. "A Culture of Conspiracy" does not address the question of whether there is a perennial Western tradition of conspiracy theories, one that might include the legends about Rosicrucians, witches, Brethren of the Free Spirit, and similar shady characters. Rather, the book focuses on the well-known tradition of secular conspiracy theories, whose best-known originator is the Abbé Barruel. This tradition began in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Barruel's account sought to explain the Revolution as the work of groups of a generally Masonic character, of whom the most famous were the Illuminati of late 18th-century Bavaria.

There were indeed Illuminati, and the revolutionary phase of the Enlightenment was often organized through lodges and secret societies. However, conspiracy theorists tend to view secret and underground societies, not as vehicles for political activity, but as its cause. They see the public acts of statesmen and political groups as a mere smokescreen. For conspiracists, is it not necessary that the puppet-masters be altogether secret. Financial institutions and private associations will do nicely, as they did in conspiratorial accounts of politics that appeared as the 19th century progressed. (Barkun mentions Ignatius Donnelly for his popularization of Atlantis, by the way, but Donnelly also had the Jewish-Corporate Government connection down pat as early as the 1880s.) Around 1900, the Czarist secret police produced the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which ascribed a plot for world domination to the early Zionist movement. By about 1920, there was a standard superconspiracy model. The model linked international bankers, the central banks, the Masons, the Jews, and other groups in a long-running project, always almost complete, to establish a worldwide atheist tyranny.

In one form or another, this model has been remarkably durable. People with all kinds of perspectives can adapt it to fit any historical circumstance and any set of characters. Theorists with little interest in Jewish conspiracies, for instance, might read "Illuminist" in the “Protocols” wherever the text reads "Jew." So great is the explanatory power of superconspiracies, however, that they threaten to engulf in despair those who believe in them. Conspiracy theorists often think that little stands between them and an intolerable future, brought about by forces that are invisible to the general public and yet nearly omnipotent.

The forces of evil are happily less omnipotent in millennialism, which is the general term that “A Culture of Conspiracy” uses for endtime belief. One of the chief factors in conspiracy thinking in the early 21st century comes from the revival of premillennialism in the first half of the 19th century. Premillennialists generally often believe the advent of the Millennium to be near, but expect it to be preceded by “apocalypse” proper, the period when God's wrath will be poured out on the world. During this time, the world will be ruled by Antichrist. Identifying the Antichrist, and more important, his future collaborators, is an activity very close to what secular conspiracy theorists do. Premillennialists with an interest in current events borrowed the Illuminati and the cabal of international bankers, often adding their own traditional villains, such as the Vatican. Versions of eschatological conspiracy became widespread during the 20th century, but did not begin to join the general popular culture until the 1970s.

The bridge between the land of stigmatized knowledge and the world at large was the UFO phenomenon. UFOs made their way into millennialism as part of the great deception of the endtime; the aliens became demons who pretended to be angels of light. There was also some tendency for premillennialists to reinterpret their eschatology in physicalist terms, so that the pretribulation rapture sometimes becomes a rescue by spaceship. Michael Barkun has coined the term "improvisational millennialism" to describe this syncretism of motifs. Secular superconspiracists, for their part, had no trouble adding UFOs to their list of things that the powers-that-be were covering up. In some versions, the Great Conspiracy is in league with the aliens. In others, there were no aliens, but UFOs were being faked to cow the public.

In the 1980s, some quite new motifs appeared. There were the black helicopters, which served the conspiracy in a way that varied from theorist to theorist. There were the concentration camps that were said to be being prepared for dissident citizens for when the Day came. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was supposed to lead the effort to impose martial law. When disaster struck, either real or staged, FEMA would become the government. Then there was mind control, which government agencies were alleged to have perfected in the 1950s and '60s.

As is often the way with urban legends, there were sometimes thin threads of fact in these Persian carpets of fantasy. Yes, police tactical helicopters sometimes are black. The CIA really did experiment with mind-altering drugs. For that matter, there were even contingency plans around 1970 to create temporary camps if civil disorders got out of hand. However, the structures that placed these fragments in a greater whole could never be verified, or even tested.

There were also fascinating adaptations of older ideas. For instance, the notion that the Earth might be hollow, and the seat of one or more advanced civilizations, has an old pedigree. In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, it sometimes figured in fiction. When UFOs entered the popular consciousness, these subterranean realms became alternative or supplementary points of origin for these vessels. Admirers of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith will be interested to learn that many of their story devices reappeared as bald assertions of fact in later conspiracist literature. (I might mention H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness," not specifically cited in the book. That novella has as many subterranean aliens as a reasonable man could ask for, as well as an Antarctic locale, which is also important in many conspiracy theories.) The malevolent reptile-people who play such a key role in the conspiracy theories of David Icke seem to have slithered right out of the stories of Robert Howard, the creator of "Conan the Barbarian."

Much of 19th-century theosophy came straight from popular fiction, so the 20th-century adaptations simply continue the tradition. A tongue-in-cheek British documentary broadcast in 1977, "Alternative 3," described a conspiracy of elites to flee Earth before ecological catastrophe struck the planet. As happened in other contexts, some people immediately interpreted the fiction as an encoded account of the facts. And, of course, conspiracy theories form the basis for later fiction, such as the once fashionable "X-Files" television series. I would also note John Carpenter's film from 1988, They Live. In that story, certain people are enabled to see our reptile overlords as they really are, consorting with ordinary upper-class humans who know the aliens' identity. ("They Live" should not be confused with "Them," an older and much better film about giant ants.)

The culture of stigmatized knowledge has facilitated other revivals. The channeling of extraterrestrials by New Agers looks like nothing so much as communication with the Ascended Masters whom Madame Blavatsky used to consult. Similarly, the allegations that the conspiracy sometimes captures people for sexual slavery bear more than a few points of resemblance to the 19th century stories that purported to expose what really goes on in Catholic nunneries.

Historical and technological developments gave a boost to the culture of conspiracy. Conspiracy theory had been an activity conducted through small newsletters and pamphlets before the assassination of John F. Kennedy; within a decade, it was an industry. Just as important was the growth of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, which made even the most obscure materials available to virtually anyone, virtually anywhere. Accessibility was not the only important factor; so was the lack of authoritative criticism. For that matter, "authority" was increasingly in short supply offline, too. The academy, during the postmodernist episode, undermined the assumption that consensus reality was more than a mere construct. The distinction between stigmatized and consensus knowledge did not quite collapse, but it became far more porous.

Michael Barkun is not happy about these developments. He notes that antisemitic motifs had formerly been wholly excluded from popular culture. Now they are reemerging, often in scarcely altered form, as elements of widely disseminated superconspiracies. He also points out that the culture of conspiracy responds badly to emergencies. Conspiracists reacted to 911 by demonstrating how it fit into their preexisting explanation for what is wrong with the world. The same might also be said of other people, perhaps, but the conspiracists' explanations made them suspicious of collective efforts to deal with the situation.

For my part, I think that any discussion of conspiracism should acknowledge those contexts where the conspiracists are onto something. When evangelical Christians perceive a New Age conspiracy to extirpate Christianity, they often are quite right about the biases of some elements of the academy and the media. When opponents of the New World Order say that international organizations are plotting to subvert the sovereignty of the United States, they are sometimes just citing the law journals. About the gay agenda we need not speak. Conspiracists are not delusional when they say that important people often collaborate to bring about appalling results. The Great Conspiracy has two weaknesses, however. First: no cabal small enough to be hidden could have the leverage to control the world, or even to guide the public life of a single nation. Second: no cabal at all could survive with its agenda unchanged for generation after generation. Real conspirators are people just like you and me. They don't have a clue, either.   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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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


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