The Long View 2006-10-11: Springtime for Doomsday; Mainstream Crusade; Tridentine Indult; Idomeneo; Secure Yourself

A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the few Catholic apocalyptic novels. It remains one of my favorites, because of how seriously, and how imaginatively, Miller took Catholic doctrine.

Will Wilson's brutal tweet about the online LARPing of Catholic space empires is on point, and the best response I could imagine is the Catholic imagination of Walter Miller.

In this blog post, John also works at the essential dilemma that we face today regarding freedom of speech and the deplatforming tactics of groups such as Antifa. If all the West really stands for is allowing Nazis and other assorted ne'er-do-wells to have rallies, then it isn't worth defending. John discussed this in the context of the intentionally offensive cartoons of Muhammad in 2006, but the principle isn't really different now. John made an argument that allowing intentional transgressions was a necessary friction, but I think that time may have passed us by.

In 2002, John made an argument that healthcare was a public good, not a public right, and I still like this argument. He said that you couldn't call healthcare a public right in the same sense you could call the right to confront your accuser at trial, because healthcare depended upon an elaborate infrastructure of technology and training, while if you were going to have a trial, your accuser could simply be produced.

I think teasing out the subtleties of this argument would be a book, at least, but I think there is something here. 

In a similar vein, the relatively homogeneous Western European societies that developed ideals of free speech had a remarkable ability to tolerate cranks and dissent, within certain bounds. Think of Toad in the Wind in the Willows. The relatively unhomogeneous Western societies we have now, don't. Much like healthcare, our capacity to tolerate blasphemy and hatred depends on our capacity to provision public life with a common meaning. When that is lacking, it doesn't matter what the constitution says; no one is getting what is promised.

Springtime for Doomsday; Mainstream Crusade; Tridentine Indult; Idomeneo; Secure Yourself


Alas for Millennial Studies, which made the mistake of trying to institutionalize itself in connection with the year 2000. Today, I think, few people would deny that the area is of more enduring significance. Consider, for instance, Thomas Hibbs' comments on the enduring significance of Walter Miller's 1959 novel about the interval between the Third and Last World Wars, A Canticle for Leibowitz:

[A]t a time when we are inundated with ideologically charged and artistically mediocre end-times stories — the latest entry is the CBS TV series Jericho — it is perhaps time to recommend Canticle, a novel that serves to put in question our simplistic apocalyptic oppositions between science and religion, knowledge and faith, even Jews and Christians. ...

End-times stories have become quite popular in recent years. In a recent New York Magazine piece, entitled “The End of the World as They Know It,” Kurt Anderson observes that from “Christian millenarians and jihadists to Ivy League professors and baby-boomers, apocalypse is hot...”

Buffy and other apocalyptic stories stress the recovery of a lost knowledge of good and evil, but this knowledge is typically needed, not so much to inform a living culture, but merely to fend off destruction and to do so by violent means. In A Canticle for Leibowitz, by contrast, the accent is not on destruction or even holding back destruction through violence but on preservation. The goal is integration and unification, however difficult that objective might be.

I have been saying that for years; I may be saying that until doomsday.

* * *

What are we going to call the rollback of Islam? The Reconquesta? Anyway, we will soon need a term if even a journal as clueless as The New York Times notices that Across Europe, Worries on Islam Spread to Center

Europe appears to be crossing an invisible line regarding its Muslim minorities: more people in the political mainstream are arguing that Islam cannot be reconciled with European values...Now those normally seen as moderates — ordinary people as well as politicians — are asking whether once unquestioned values of tolerance and multiculturalism should have limits....

When Pope Benedict XVI made the speech last month that included a quotation calling aspects of Islam “evil and inhuman,” it seemed to unleash such feelings. Muslims berated him for stigmatizing their culture, while non-Muslims applauded him for bravely speaking a hard truth....

In Austria this month, right-wing parties also polled well, on a campaign promise that had rarely been made openly: that Austria should start to deport its immigrants. Vlaams Belang, too, has suggested “repatriation” for immigrants who do not made greater efforts to integrate...The idea is unthinkable to mainstream leaders, but many Muslims still fear that the day — or at least a debate on the topic — may be a terror attack away...

Perhaps most wrenching has been the issue of free speech and expression, and the growing fear that any criticism of Islam could provoke violence.

On the subject of free speech and expression, we should note Stephen Schwartz's report that there was less to the Idomeneo controversy than met the eye:

First, the Berlin Opera performance of Idomeneo was threatened with cancellation because German authorities decided that showing the decapitated head of Muhammad would offend Muslims and cause violent disorders.

Such a claim might have borne some weight, except that there was no evidence that any Muslims anywhere had ever heard about the opera or cared at all about it. Excitement among the Berlin officialdom was caused by a telephone tip from an individual who surmised the opera might cause problems. As this column is written, however, German Muslim leaders have called for the opera to be shown as planned.

Second, the appearance of the severed heads in the opera was a novelty created by producer Hans Neuenfels, to express his own hatred of religion. It does not appear in Mozart's original work, which is set on the island of Crete at a time when nobody in the Hellenic world knew anything about Buddha, and Jesus and Muhammad had not yet been born. Islamophobes (because people who irrationally fear and hate Islam do exist, unfortunately) soon blew the brouhaha far out of proportion, declaring that the Berlin Opera had surrendered to expressions of Muslim rage that, as noted, did not exist, and as much as declaring that the very survival of human liberty depended on the opera being presented in Neuenfels' version.

The latest news assures the opera public and global opinion that the Neuenfels production of Idomeneo will be mounted as planned, the head of Muhammad will be displayed, and the Western understanding of freedom will be, at least temporarily, saved.

That's an encouraging outcome, I suppose. It leaves us with the satisfaction of seeing cultural provocateurs fleeing from their own shadows. More important, maybe, is that it saves us the embarrassment of needing to defend this godawful production. As I have noted, the avant garde has become subversive of liberty:

The fact is that if democracy meant nothing else than that blasphemy could be freely circulated, or that pornography was always available at the touch of a button, or that Michael Moore got to make as many tendentious films as he wanted, then democracy would not be worth having; certainly it would not be worth dying for. The fact is that we put up with these annoyances because they are necessary frictions. We have freedom of the press and contested elections because, on the whole and over the long run, they produce good government and the improvement of the human estate. They produce virtue. The lethal danger that postmodernism and libertarianism pose for the West is their embrace of the transgressive. Their mixture makes Western society repulsive abroad and, in the long run, causes the freedoms on which they depend to become a matter of indifference at home.

These people need to read A Canticle for Leibowitz.

* * *

Speaking of forward-looking preservation, we see that Benedict XVI is about to do something else that needed doing:

THE Pope is taking steps to revive the ancient tradition of the Latin Tridentine Mass in Catholic churches worldwide, according to sources in Rome.

Pope Benedict XVI is understood to have signed a universal indult — or permission — for priests to celebrate again the Mass used throughout the Church for nearly 1,500 years. The indult could be published in the next few weeks, sources told The Times...The new indult would permit any priest to introduce the Tridentine Mass to his church, anywhere in the world, unless his bishop has explicitly forbidden it in writing.

I know people to whom this move has been almost an eschatological hope. We should remember, though, that priests educated after the 1960s do not know how to say the Tridentine Mass. As for the older ones who do know how, most of them would not do so even at gunpoint. Still, this is a positive development. The old liturgy needs to stay in circulation so it can be mined for ways to perfect the vernacular liturgy, particularly with regard to music.

* * *

Finally, take note of the website in which that Stephen Schwartz item above appears: Family Security Matters. In part, it describes itself thus:

We want to be your best resource for accurate and practical knowledge that will make your families and communities safer, stronger, and more secure. This problem is too important to wait for someone else to solve it. So explore our site, sign up for membership and FSM's Daily Security Updates, and come back often to learn everything you need to become active participants in America's struggle for security and peace.

This smacks of one of Mark Steyn's suggestions in America Alone, that it would be better if ordinary people took responsibility for their own physical security rather than waiting for the government to make them safe.

As Mr. Burns said when Smithers assured him that the Jade Monkey had been found in the glove compartment of Mr. Burns's limousine: "Excellent. It's all falling into place."

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: America Alone


If the National Intelligence Council really predicted that the EU will collapse by 2020, their prediction is looking like a real long shot at this point. Maybe that is why DARPA funded Philip Tetlock's superforecaster project: to improve the accuracy of things like this.

To be fair, if you had told someone in 2006 that a huge wave of migrants from the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa would move into Europe in 2016, and that terrorism would be a regular feature of life in much of Western Europe, then a collapse of the EU might have seemed more likely.

I think it demonstrates that the neoliberal consensus is a lot stronger that it might otherwise seem. A relatively tolerant, multicultural, welfare capitalist global system [with a military/secret police enforcement system] seems to be the twenty-first century answer to the same problem the Habsburgs faced in Central Europe: how do you hold together a truly diverse polity?

There are a lot of people who suspect you can't. I think you can, but it's hard. I think this is one of the things that is likely to push us towards a truly post-democratic political order: the need to keep the peace.

Steyn's book talks about how we built a global system on the assumption that populations would keep growing forever. Large scale immigration is often advocated for precisely this reason: we need people to keep the system going. The controversy over immigration has become explosive, but what is interesting to me is that the model doesn't actually seem to be right.

The developed economies keep doing just fine, despite aging populations. If anything, there is too little work to be done, rather than too much. The assumption that Steyn and his political opponents share, the social democratic state needs to constantly grow to survive, may not be true.

In the eleven years since John wrote this, the average number of children across the world has continued to fall everywhere except Africa. So far, sub-Saharan Africa has proven unusually resistant to the demographic transition.

America Alone:
The End of the World as We Know It
By Mark Steyn
Regnery Publishing, 2006
224 Pages, US$27.95, Can$34.95
ISBN 0-89526-078-6


There is no way to put Mark Steyn’s view of the next few decades gently:

“The U.S. government’s National Intelligence Council is predicting the EU will collapse by 2020... How bad is it going to get in Europe? As bad as it can get – as in societal collapse, fascist revivalism, and the long Eurabian night, not over the entire Continent but over significant parts of it. And those countries that manage to escape the darkness will do so only after violent convulsions of their own.”

But who is this Steyn fellow, and why is he saying these terrible things? Mark Steyn is a Canadian-American journalist (he first attracted notice as an arts and music critic) who is now sometimes accounted the most influential conservative writer in the anglophone world. He owes that position in part to an epigrammatic style that bears comparison to that of the early G.K. Chesterton. America Alone is composed chiefly of Steyn’s scintillating columns of recent years, but he or his editors have accomplished something very rare: a compilation of previously published occasional pieces that reads like a connected text, with a lucid argument and surprisingly little repetition. This synthesis was possible because Steyn believes he has discovered the Key to World History, or at least the mechanism that will determine the history of the 21st century. To put it briefly:

“[D]emography is an existential crisis for the developed world, because the twentieth-century social democratic state was built on a careless model that requires a constantly growing population to sustain it... The single most important fact about the early twenty-first century is the rapid aging of almost every developed nation other than the United States.”

The magic number here is 2.1, as in the total fertility rate per woman that a developed society needs to maintain its population over time. The US fertility rate is at about that number, a fact explained only in part by immigration: the native-born population of Red State America is over that figure, while the figure for the Blue States is generally below it. It is almost uncanny how much of the rest of the world is below it, either slightly (like Australia) or catastrophically (like Italy and Russia and Japan; and don’t forget China, doomed to get old before it can get rich). It’s true even of most of Latin America. Aside from America, the only regions where it is not true are India, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Muslim world. Without the Muslim angle, this might be a story of economies freezing up and welfare states closing down as the percentage of working-age people becomes too small to support a growing majority of pensioners. The effect of Muslim immigration and conversion, however, coupled as it is with the spread of lethal jihadist ideology, is to raise the possibility that much of Europe could slip out of the Western world entirely. Steyn did not coin the term “Eurabia,” but in an age when a third of the young people in France have been born to Muslim parents, it comes in handy.

Several writers have raised these points in recent years. However, despite the title of the book, Steyn does not subscribe to the conclusion of many of his colleagues that the United States should simply turn inward:

“And I’m a little unnerved at the number of readers who seem to think the rest of the world can go hang and America will endure as a lonely candle of liberty in the new Dark Ages. Think that one through: a totalitarian China, a crumbling Russia, an insane Middle East, a disease-ridden Africa, a civil-war Eurabia -- and a country that can’t even enforce its borders against two relatively benign states will be able to hold the entire planet at bay? Dream on, ‘realists.’”

Neither is the book a call for an American Empire. Steyn tends to support the Bush Administration’s military policy, and particularly the invasion of Iraq; he faults the execution of that campaign principally for being too culturally sensitive. However, he tells us:

“This book isn’t an argument for more war, more bombing, or more killing, but for more will.”

Steyn’s Key to History unlocks not just a proper reading of foreign affairs, but reveals to him the need for a cultural and political transformation of the West. That part of the book, and particularly his prescriptions for the future, is the most problematical. As for the doomsday material, one might observe that it is in the nature of present trends not to continue. If the ones Steyn highlights do continue, however, his grim forecasts will be right.

Steyn has a short explanation for demographic catastrophe:

“In demographic terms, the salient feature of much of the ‘progressive agenda’ – abortion, gay marriage, endlessly deferred adulthood – is that, whatever the charms of any individual item, cumulatively it’s a literal dead end...In fact, [opposition to Islamization] ought to be the Left’s issue. I’m a social conservative. When the mullahs take over, I’ll grow my beard a little fuller, get a couple of extra wives, and keep my head down. It’s the feminists and the gays who’ll have a tougher time.”

The welfare state in Europe and Canada allows the political system to focus on satisfying “secondary impulses,” such as long, legally mandated vacations and government-provided daycare, or for that matter, responsibility for the care of the elderly:

“But once you decide you can do without grandparents, it’s not such a stretch to decide you can do without grandchildren...[T]he torpor of the West derives in part from the annexation by the government of most of the core functions of adulthood.”

As he never ceases to remind us, there is an important distinction between Europe and America in these matters, or at least between Europe and Red State America. The distinction, he argues, results from a recent historical accident:

“It dates all the way back to, oh, the 1970s. It’s a product of the U.S. military presence, a security guarantee that liberated European budgets...[however]...[u]nchecked, government social programs are a security threat because they weaken the ultimate line of defense: the free-born citizen whose responsibilities are not subcontracted to the government.”

To quote an authority that Steyn does not, Immanuel Kant once said, “Even a nation of demons could maintain a liberal republic, provided they had understanding.” If we are to believe Steyn, however, Kant was wrong about the degree to which rights and procedures could replace morality and religion:

“[B]y relieving the individual of the need to have ‘private virtues,’ you’ll ensure that they wither away to the edges of society...Almost by definition, secularism cannot be a future: it’s a present-tense culture that over time disconnects a society from cross-generational purpose.”

One may note that this would apply only to a form of secularism with no metahistorical script for the future. Thus, a Marxist society (if it did not starve), or a eugenicist society, or a society intent on colonizing the solar system, might make the connection between generations. A society that was just a gas of atomic individuals today and looked forward to being just a gas of atomic individuals tomorrow, in contrast, would have neither a past nor a future.

Steyn is not just another talkshow ranter (though he does that, too) because he sometimes slows down enough to express skepticism about his own arguments. He asks: does the loss of religion explain the morbid state of advanced and even moderately developed countries? That might seem to be an explanation within the United States, with its relatively sterile and aging New England versus, say, the burgeoning Mormon population of Utah. But what about Europe, where the relatively religious South has even lower fertility rates than the godless North? One might also adduce East Asia: the populations of neither Japan nor South Korea are sustainable, but South Korea is a hotbed of evangelism of all sorts, while Japan is as secular as Sweden.

If God is not the answer, could Mammon be? America as a whole has a somewhat more free-market economy than most of Europe, but the most laissez faire economies in the world are in East Asia, and they have birth rates lower than most Western countries. We should also note, as Steyn does not, that the prolific Red State populations receive more in federal subsidies than they pay in taxes: those family values are paid for with farm subsidies and often rather paternalistic business practices. Steyn also points out that the major anglophone countries all have birthrates either at or near replacement level, but he does not suggest that the birth dearth could be solved with Berlitz courses.

* * *

Among the most delightful features of America Alone is the blurb on the front bookjacket from Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi Ambassador to the United States: “The arrogance of Mark Steyn knows no bounds.” The prince perhaps has reason to be miffed. Though he does not say so in this book, Steyn elsewhere likens the increasingly successful Islamization of Europe to an opportunistic infection, made possible by the simultaneous collapses in cultural confidence and fertility. He has many worthwhile things to say in this regard; he is certainly right to underline the fantastic level of mendacity among the people in the West who speak for and about Islam. In academia and on the evening news, “sophistication seems mostly to be a form of obfuscation by experts.” As for official appreciation of the threat, “government ministers in Western nations spend most of their time taking advice on the jihad from men who agree with its aims.” The problem is not simply a matter of immigrants with new ideas changing the nature of their new homes: “Islam,” not just in the West but around the world, increasingly means a brutal and hegemonic version of Wahhabism. The evangelization of this doctrine is lavishly subsidized by the government of Saudi Arabia, support that ranges from establishing local Islamic schools in Canadian and American cities to building mosques the size of cathedrals in Europe.

Steyn recounts many anecdotes of allegedly moderate Muslims in Western countries who turned out to be recruiting or fundraising for terrorist groups, but far more disturbing are the proliferating incidents of homegrown jihadis turning against the lands of their birth:

“If you’re a teenager in most European cities these days, you’ve a choice between two competing identities – a robust confident Islamic identity or a tentative post-nationalist cringingly apologetic European identity. It would be a mistake to assume the former is attractive only to Arabs and North Africans.”

As Steyn notes, multiculturalism was instituted not to acquaint Westerners with other cultures, but to criticize the West. One effect of multiculturalism has been to absolve students of learning any hard information about other cultures. The result is that the West has disarmed itself in the most critical arena:

“We have no strategy for dealing with an ideology...groups with terrorist ties are still able to insert their recruiters into American military bases, prisons, and pretty much anywhere else they get a yen to go.”

Western attempts to influence the development of Islam are usually exercises in self-delusion, beginning with the preferred choice of interlocutors: “’moderate Muslims’ would seem to be more accurately described as apostate or ex-Muslims.” As for more long-range efforts: “We – the befuddled infidels – talk airily about ‘reforming’ Islam. But what if the reform has already taken place and jihadism is it?”

The Islamization of Europe is no longer hypothetical, in part because of the determination of the anti-discrimination police to enforce accommodation to what often extremist and unrepresentative Islamic groups claim to be Muslim sensibilities: “there’s very little difference between living under Exquisitely Refined Multicultural Sensitivity and sharia.” Worse than that is the casual use of violence and threats against European writers and artists, or even against ordinary persons: non-Muslim women in heavily Muslim neighborhoods increasingly go about dressed in something approaching Muslim fashion in order to avoid insult.

* * *

How, you may ask, can the United States prevent much of the world from turning to theocratic rubble, like Taliban Afghanistan? Steyn suggests these priorities:

"In World War Two, the sands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa where the main event, and rounding up the enemy sympathizers in Michigan was the sideshow. One can argue that this time around the priorities are reversed -- that bombing Baby Assad out of the presidential palace in Damascus is a more marginal battlefield then turning back the tide of Islamicist support in Europe and elsewhere. America and a select few other countries have demonstrated they can just about summon the will to win on the battlefield. On the cultural front, where this war in the end will be won, there’s little evidence of any kind of will.”

Nonetheless, he says that the military dimension cannot be neglected: the worst thing to do is nothing. Even if the war is chiefly ideological, there are state sponsors of the hostile ideology, and something has to be done about them, either militarily or through devastating economic sanctions:

“[E]very year we remain committed to 'stability' increases the Islamists’ principal advantage: it strengthens the religion – the vehicle for their political project – and multiplies the raw material...So another decade or two of ‘stability and the world will be well on its way to a new Dark Ages...But the central fact of a new Dark Ages is this: it would not be a world in which the American superpower is succeeded by other powers but a world with no dominant powers at all.”

It is true that the United States is held in light esteem in many of the world’s better magazines, and even does increasingly badly in public opinion polls taken in countries whose leadership is not necessarily committed to America’s destruction. Steyn attributes the darkening of the American image to elites like those in France, who are obviously weighing their chances in a semi-Muslim future, or to other well-meaning people who live in a fantasy world, where the most pressing issue facing civilization is rising sea levels. One might also suggest that, if the post-World War II international system is decomposing, America has become the screen onto which are projected the anxieties and ambitions aroused by the decomposition. To the jihadis, America is the godless Great Satan; to much of Europe, and even to many Blue State Americans, America is a theocratic Jesusland. As Steyn puts it: “America is George Orwell’s Room 101: whatever your bugbear you will find it therein; whatever you’re against, America is the prime example thereof.”

In reality, though, what much of the developed world is going to experience in the next 10 or 20 years is re-primitivization: “The Serbs figured that out – as other Continentals will in the years ahead: if you can’t outbreed the enemy, cull ‘em.” Where states fail, private parties can be expected to step in:

“If a dirty bomb with unclear fingerprints goes off in London or Delhi, it’s not necessary to wait for the government to respond. As in Ulster, there’ll always be groups who think the state power is too [timid] to hit back. So unlisted numbers will be dialed hither and yon, arrangements will be made, and bombs will go off in Islamabad and Riyadh and Cairo. There will be plenty of non-state actors on the non-Islamic side. In the end the victims of the Islamist contagion will include many, many Muslims.”

To combat the Islamic dimension of the threat (and remember, it’s chiefly a demographic problem) Steyn has suggestions of various degrees of plausibility, of which the most intriguing is the proposal to create a civil corps to engage Islamism ideologically:

“If America won’t export its values -- self-reliance, decentralization -- others will export theirs. In the eighties, Paul Kennedy warned the United States of ‘imperial overstretch.’ But the danger right now is of imperial understretch -- of a hyperpower reluctant to sell its indisputably successful inheritance to the rest of the world.”

Steyn wants to scrap the post-World War II international institutions and replace them with an alliance of capable and committed democratic powers. He says the Saudis have to be stopped from financing their worldwide religious underground. He would also like to develop technology that would end the dependence of the developed world on Middle Eastern oil: a fine notion, and none the worse for having been suggested a hundred times before.

This brings us to the cultural front. It is a good bet that Steyn is prophetic when he tells us, “By 2015, almost every viable political party in the West will be natalist.” And what should the platforms of these Mewling Infant Parties contain? “We need to find a way to restore advantage to parenthood in the context of modern society. Shrink the state. If you got four dependents, your taxable income is to be divided by five. We must end deferred adulthood.” And how do we do that? “We need to redirect the system to telescope education into a much shorter period.” The upshot, apparently, is that educated people should be educated faster so that they will normally have children while they’re in their twenties. We hear not one word that these proposals, though perhaps inevitable, will mean that the life courses of men and women will diverge again.

Steyn has given us a fiery polemical introduction to the crisis of the first quarter of the 21st century. However, we recognize the limitations of his analysis when we come to statements like, “The free world’s citizenry could use more non-state actors.” Consider his view of the moral of September 11, 2001:

“What worked that day was municipal government, small government, core government -- fireman the NYPD cops, rescue workers. What flopped -- big-time, as the vice president would say -- was the federal government, the FBI, CIA, INS, FAA, and all the other hotshot, money-no-object, fancypants acronyms.”

Stirring words, but counterfactual. In reality, on 911 the World Trade Center’s security service killed many of the people in the buildings by urging them to return to their offices after the attack was underway. The radios of the various emergency services were not able to communicate with each other. The firemen died needlessly by charging into burning buildings that local fire experts had declared indestructible. The epitome of effective local government, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was almost killed because the city’s emergency command center was located in the World Trade Center complex, despite the fact everyone knew the complex was the most likely target for a terrorist attack. The federal government did not cover itself with glory on that day, either, but at least the feds managed to close down and then restart the airline system within the space of a few hours.

Toward the end of the book, Steyn remarks, “You can’t win a war of civilizational confidence with a population of nanny-state junkies.” But the fact is that is how the world wars were fought and won, either by states that had extensive social-welfare systems, or that promised such systems to their citizens as part of the reward of victory.

It is certainly the case that the nanny state of the postwar developed world, with its therapeutic model of governance and its subsidy of victimhood, is a degenerate and unsustainable type of polity. But consider what it degenerated from: the war-and-welfare state of the era of the Great Wars that lasted from 1861 to 1945. The same powers of economic and political mobilization that allowed those wars to be fought permitted, indeed required, the domestic mobilization of education and public health and industry that allowed the governments of that explosive era to function effectively as military actors. Those governments commanded the most effective states that ever existed, and the mark of the societies they governed was precisely that, during the long lifetime from Lincoln to Churchill, the fortunes of the state and of the citizen increasingly merged. For a while, for just a few years, the mechanisms were in place to drive society in the service of urgent public policy.

The nanny state is a declension from that height of state fitness, and so is the libertarian state. In the face of an existential crisis, Churchill promised his people that their lives would be drenched in blood, sweat, and tears until victory was won. In the face of a comparable threat to civilization, George Bush made some fine public restatements of America’s now traditional Wilsonianism, but otherwise told the American people to support the tourist industry by visiting America’s beauty spots; while cutting taxes in the middle of two major wars, he reminded the taxpayers, “It’s your money.” Even if you accept the president’s economic model, surely it is obvious that such policies have no power to mobilize. The philosophy behind them diverts attention from the core functions of government, as the embrace of an open-borders policy by the Republican establishment illustrates. The small government that Steyn urges might be able to win conventional wars, but it would be unable otherwise to affect events. Increasingly, its irrelevance to the real problems, many of which Steyn has identified, would lose it the loyalty of its citizens. Thus we see that the libertarian state undermines patriotism quite as effectively as the European Union. They are parallel manifestations of the same phenomenon.

Many of Steyn’s specific proposals have merit, but they need a context he has not yet attempted to articulate. It might be possible for America to revive the Churchillian State within its own borders; maybe Japan could do that too, but neither Europe as a whole nor the nations within it could manage such a thing. In any case, it is not at all clear that even America should try. The work of regeneration needed to fight off the Muslim infection and save the threatened societies of the world from suicide cannot dispense with patriotism. However, it must be patriotism strengthened by some wider loyalty impervious to the subversions to which the Churchillian State proved subject.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Neocons, Theocons and the Cycles of American History

Neocons go back to James Q. Wilson or possibly the Coleman Report. They represented the wing of American liberalism appalled by the Sixties and the radial Left of that era.

Neocons, Theocons and the Cycles of American History


“...[T]he full story of [the generation that came of age around 1900] cannot possibly be told recalling the steel-willed leaders of the 1940s...[T]he full story must include very different images--of youthful indulgence, coming-of-age fury, rising-adult introspection, and midlife pomposity and intolerance. What finally emerged late in life, the austere and resolute persona, was largely self-created by a generation determined (in Edith Wharton’s phrase) ‘to build up, little by little, bit by bit, the precious things we’d smashed to atoms without knowing it.’”

--from “Generations,” by William Strauss and Neil Howe, page 237


In November of 1996, the Manhattan-based magazine First Things published the first installment of a symposium entitled “The End of Democracy?: The Judicial Usurpation of Politics.” It was occasioned by the possibility that the Supreme Court might uphold two lower court decisions that had found a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide. Among the original contributors, Robert Bork and Charles Colson were the best known, though Russell Hittinger’s essay, “A Crisis of Legitimacy,” perhaps best addressed the specific issues suggested by the symposium’s title. Considering that First Things is a respectable monthly read mostly by clergy and conservative academics, the Introduction by the editors was breathtaking. They posed the matter thus:

“The question here explored, in full awareness of its far-reaching consequences, is whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.”


Before going any further, let me first make some personal admissions. I write occasionally for First Things. I was not part of the symposium, but I wrote an essay that appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of Culture Wars dealing with much the same topic. The piece was entitled “How to Prevent a Civil War.” My argument was not so different from that of Robert Bork’s contribution to the symposium, in which he suggested various mechanisms for limiting the scope of constitutional judicial review. I too used the term “regime” to describe the current jurisprudential system, though I picked up the usage not from the right, but from Michael Lind’s “The Next America.” I too think that contemporary constitutional theory is damned and doomed. If I differ from the symposium’s participants, it is only in believing that the current jurisprudential regime is not just wicked but rotten, and that it will collapse under very little pressure in a fashion not at all dissimilar to Soviet Communism. I am thus not a wholly impartial observer.

Objectivity notwithstanding, the reaction in the weeks that followed the symposium was manifestly explosive. Several prominent members of First Things’ own editorial advisory board resigned. Just about all the conservative magazines chimed in. The Weekly Standard, for instance, ran a piece called “The Anti-American Temptation,” which accused the editors of First Things of running off the rails of ordinary politics, in a way analogous to the “pick up the gun” radicals of the 1960s. The New Republic (not a particularly conservative magazine) ran a piece by Jacob Heilbrunn entitled “Neocon v. Theocon: The New Fault Line on the Right.,” that is worth considering in some detail.

Heilbrunn’s thesis is that the neoconservatives (the neocons) are mostly New York-based Jewish intellectuals who broke with leftist politics in the 1970s. They remade conservatism by articulating serious intellectual critiques of liberalism and the welfare state. When the conservative revival began about 25 years ago, the concerns of cultural conservatives were not much represented among this group. Therefore, they were not much represented in government or the academy, despite the fact it was cultural conservatives, mostly evangelicals and ethnic Catholics, who provided the growing electoral muscle of the Republican Party. Latterly, however, the neocons have been joined by a new breed of conservative intellectual, for whom Heilbrunn has coined the nifty term “theocon.” The theocons, by his account, are predominantly Catholic, and unlike their Jewish colleagues have a tendency to frame political questions with a theological twist. The theocons, in fact, are seeking to restructure American society in accordance with Thomistic natural law. Their efforts are intellectually sophisticated, far more so than anything conservative populists from George Wallace to Pat Buchanan have been able to formulate. However, according to Heilbrunn, “Thomism is an ideology to which only the faithful can subscribe. It is not so much anti-American as un-American.”

Well, so much for John Courtney Murray and the decades-long attempt to establish the compatibility of Thomism with the American enterprise. For that matter, so much for the more recent debate about the natural-law assumptions of the Founding Fathers. The only kind of natural law Heilbrunn seems to feel to be appropriate for American political discourse is the post-Kantian theories of Leo Strauss, who did indeed influence many neoconservatives.

I for one find Heilbrunn’s assessment more odd than offensive. Whatever else you may think about Thomism, it is difficult to think of it as a subversive political ideology. Images rise up of a Senate Subcommittee on Neo-Scholastic Activities. Could its jurisdiction be challenged on the ground that subcommittees offend against Occam’s Razor? C-Span is not ready for this.

For that matter, it is misleading to characterize First Things as a hotbed of Thomism. The editor in chief, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, is indeed a Catholic priest, but before that he was a Lutheran pastor. Much of his social thinking is informed by the Lutheran model of the “orders of creation,” which is analogous to natural law but by design non-theological. The magazine’s editor, James Nuechterlein, remains a Lutheran and delivers himself of a no-popery declaration every few months to make sure that no one forgets. The Managing editor, Matthew Berke, is Jewish. The contributors to the magazine are all over the lot in terms of denominational affiliation. First Things is perhaps most noted for its “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” initiative, announced in its May 1994 issue, which went far toward providing a common roof for all cultural conservatives. St. Thomas is indeed much quoted and praised in the pages of First Things, but then it defines itself as a “Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life.” One thing it is not is a Catholic magazine, much less an organ of creeping international Thomism.

Of course, there is no lack of prominent proponents of natural law on the national scene, many of whom are Thomists. The most prominent, no doubt, is Justice Anthony Scalia, who often makes himself unpopular with his Supreme Court colleagues by critiquing their more incoherent decisions from the bench. There is former presidential candidate Alan Keyes, a brilliant speaker who would have transformed the 1996 election campaign if he had been featured at the Republican convention. (Keyes, by the way, is a former student of Allan Bloom, who was in turn a student of the influential Leo Strauss. In Keyes’ mind, at least, Aquinas proved more persuasive.)

On the other hand, the ranks of Thomists do not include people such as Robert Bork, whose objections to judicial activism arise from a historically-based interpretation of the powers of the courts. “Theocon” might not be a bad term for describing many cultural conservatives. It might not even be a bad term for describing me. However, it is misleading to suggest that all or even most theocons are Thomists, or that opposition to the current state of constitutional law is a crank enthusiasm of religious sectarians, Catholic or otherwise. (For that matter, with all due respect to the Prodhoretz and Kristol clans, neoconservatism is not a Jewish monopoly, even if you confine the term to subscribers of little magazines.)

Granted that Heilbrunn’s criticisms are misdirected, nevertheless it seems to me that all sides to this debate, neocons, theocons and the liberals who mock them, are overlooking some important things about it. What we are seeing now is a drama that has been played out more than once before in American history, when the chaos created by a radical episode was repaired a generation later by much the same people who caused the commotion in the first place. We have all heard that the 1990s are the 1960s turned upside down. In the neocon-theocon flap, perhaps we see an instance of 1960s style turned against the institutionalized vestiges of 1960s substance.

The short explanation for the radical tone of the First Things symposium is that the Supreme Court does bad work in important areas of the law and will not admit its mistakes. It does not help that in such ill-reasoned decisions as Planned Parenthood v. Casey, for instance, we find such language as, “If the Court’s legitimacy should be undermined, then so would the country be in its very ability to see itself through its constitutional ideals.” What nonsense. The country can see its constitutional ideals in the constitution. The court’s “legitimacy” (perhaps Justice O’Connor meant “credibility”?) stands or falls by the court’s competence, the lack of which has been the problem.

This explains the exasperation, but why does the exasperation take the form of a bunch of parsons and college professors making noises like students circa 1968 threatening to storm the math building? Partly it’s because the parsons and college professors came through the 1960s themselves, though they were for the most part too old to be students at the time. The style of some generations, as Strauss and Howe argue in the book cited at the beginning of this article, dominates cultural and political life for decades. The substance may change, but the manner is tenacious. Fr. Neuhaus, for instance, once famously marched into Henry Kissinger’s office with other prominent opponents of the Vietnam War and read him the Riot Act. The First Things symposium is not quite as dramatic, but the spirit is the same.

These remarks apply even more to neocons than they do to theocons. The neoconservatives became neoconservatives, after all, because they were appalled by the extremism of the language and behavior of the far left of 20 or 30 years ago. The theocons of today, or at least the ones at First Things, have few violent tendencies, but once again the neocons are put off by language that seems to suggest that questions of civil order are at issue.

The difference this time around is that the “radicals” have a better chance of winning. The radicals of the 1960s had no prospect of success. On the other side of the victory of, say, the Weathermen there was a world of re-education camps and political dictatorship that few Americans could imagine. Of course, the Kids of the 1960s have “won” in the sense of outliving their elders. One of them is actually in the White House as I write this. However, he got there by abandoning some of his youthful beliefs and dissimulating about the rest.

The task of today’s conservatives is the relatively modest proposition of repairing the damage many of them did themselves 20 or 30 years ago. On the other side of the victory of today’s cultural conservatives, there is a world sort of like the Eisenhower Administration but without racial discrimination. Many people might not like this outcome, but it is not hard to visualize and few people find it actually repulsive. Thus, we may be in for a larger than average historical irony. The very attitudes and rhetorical style that did so much to institutionalize the ‘60s in our law and popular culture may also be among the chief instruments by which that era is finally dismantled.



Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

This article originally appeared in the February 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. An edited version was included in the book:


The End of Democracy?
"The Judicial Usurpation of Politics"

The Celebrated First Things Debate with Arguments Pro and Con and "The Anatomy of a Controversy"' by Richard John Neuhaus"


The publisher is The Spence Publishing Company (Dallas, Texas). Their telephone number is 1-888-SPENPUB.

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Conquistador Book Review

by S. M. Stirling
Roc Books, 2003
ISBN 0-451-45908-3

This book continues the tradition that Stirling never writes sequels to the books of his I like best. Ah well.

I especially like the acknowledgments to this volume:

To Jerry Pournelle, for help and assistance; Giovanni Spinella and Mario Panzanelli, for help with Sicilian dialect; Steve Brady, for Afrikaans, Greg Saunders, for local knowledge of LA; to the Critical Mass, for continuing massively helpful criticism; and any others on the list.
All faults, errors, infelicities and lapses are my own.
And a special acknowledgement to the author of Niven's Law:
"There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of an author.
"The term is 'idiot.'"

I suspect the last entry was necessary because all of the major players in this book are 'deplorables', to use an anachronistic term for a book written in 2003. Un-reconstructed Southerners. Former Waffen-SS. Pied noirs, white Rhodesians, and Boers. As a high concept, this book seems to be about: what would happen if all of the losers of Western Civilization's great internal conflicts got together and created a new society free from the influence of history's winners, but the losers could take any knowledge [cultural or technological] they wished into extra-dimensional exile?

Stirling's answer turns out to be pretty interesting. For example, the Commonwealth of New Virginia, is an environmentalists paradise: completely sustainable, driven largely by renewable energy, with strict limits on urban sprawl and massive reserves of untouched wilderness. The alternate history California of Conquistador is a prose poem to Nature along the lines of Steve Nichols' Paradise Found. Or perhaps I should say it would be an environmentalist's paradise, if you could separate environmentalism from the political Left. There is plenty of mining and hunting, because the New Virginians are conservationists of the strict observance. They preserve the wilderness because it is pretty, and because animals taste good and look nice as rugs.

The social arrangements of the Commonwealth are similarly perplexing, if you insist on maintaining the alliances of convenience that characterize current American politics. Political power is concentrated in the Thirty Families, the descendants of those who settled the New World. The head of each family sits on a council, and their word is law. Yet, laborers have a great deal of power, due to a short supply of labor due to an extremely strict guest-worker program. The entreaties of beleaguered businessmen are dismissed with contempt.

Fertility is high, as is religious observance. Free-thinkers exist, they just aren't paid much heed. Which isn't to say the state, such as it is, is theocratic. For historical reasons, the settlers largely brought Christianity with them into exile, but it seems to have been shorn of its universalizing tendencies. That may be because we mostly see the Commonwealth through the eyes of its masters, who are hard and unsentimental men.

While there are some references to "missions", there doesn't seem to be anything like the Franciscan order that accompanied our world's conquistadors. Which makes sense, since the ruling elite wouldn't want anyone with real allegiance to a completely autonomous center of power, and largely come from places with strong traditions of political control of religion.  

Stirling's presentation of all this strikes me as bold and interesting, because he gives the impression that the Commonwealth of New Virginia isn't a terrible place to live. In fact, it is rather nice in many ways. It is sometimes unjust, as all states are, but it has more virtues than you might expect. Unlike his Draka series, this state founded by horrible people isn't a living nightmare. It is simply another place in the realm of possibility, that represents a slightly different mix of the features that make up the West.

I want sequels because I would like to explore the future evolution of this society. I suspect that a Western polity that amputated the radical and universalizing features of Christianity would eventually turn into something quite different than what we see today. I doubt the result would be good, but I would say that. I'd like to see what Stirling's answer to that question is, but I suspect I won't get it. Which is a pity.

My other book reviews

By S. M. Stirling

The Long View 2005-03-04: Secret Writings

H. P. Lovecraft's place in the American canon is assured.

Secret Writings


As a matter of policy, I cannot say that I was ever very keen on the practice of executing people who committed murders as juveniles, so I am not altogether displeased with this week's US Supreme Court decision, Roper v. Simmons, which held the practice unconstitutional. The interesting aspect of the decision is the general acceptance of the degenerate jurisprudential technique of Justice Kennedy's majority opinion. This was not the first case in which the Court tried to ascertain the national consensus on an issue by taking a poll of state laws on the subject, but I think we have yet to appreciate how remarkable this procedure is. Essentially, the court is inviting the states to amend the Constitution by a simple majority vote, contrary to that document's explicit terms.

This is worse than having an invisible constitution that exists only as a conversation among judges and law professors. At least the law professors publish learned articles and the judges issue formal opinions. The Kennedy Constitution is a dumb poll of the sentiments of the political class. The Supreme Court still claims the authority to decide when this "logic" will apply, but the Court's claims to clear and uncontestable powers of review are increasingly incompatible with its embrace of fuzzy logic in other areas.

Justice Scalia's dissent therefore misses an important point. Despite what he says, there is nothing wrong, or even novel, about US courts looking to foreign practice to settle domestic questions. He is also wrong to criticize the Missouri Supreme Court for, in effect, overturning the US Supreme Court's prior holding in this area. The broader the power of judicial review becomes, the weaker the power of stare decisis must become. That is inevitable. He would be better advised to think of ways to turn this development to the advantage of the causes he favors.

* * *

Visitors to the top page of my site will have noted that I have done a review of On Tyranny, an anthology of the famous debate between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojève about philosophy, politics, and, incidentally, the fate of the world. Very smart people have been urging me for some time to get started on Strauss. Well, honor is satisfied.

Frankly, the underlying question about the relationship of philosophers (broadly defined) to government is not something that it would ever occur to me to ask. That is far from saying it is not a real issue; I am just pointing out that it rarely comes up in my time and place. The closest I come to it is the question: what duties do technical experts owe to the public when they advise their clients? When does advice from a lawyer constitute aiding a client to commit a crime? How responsible are scientists and engineers for the uses to which governments and private enterprises put new inventions? At least in some forms, these circumstances present analogies to what Strauss and Kojève were talking about.

The big difference is that S&K are talking about the effect that the advice of "experts" can have on the fate of the world. My problem with On Tyranny is that, for a book with such a cosmic theme, the conceptual space in which the authors maneuver is so claustrophobic. When they were mature scholars, and when they were students, lots of people were discussing the "end state" of the historical process. Spengler, Hesse, Toynbee, H.G. Wells; I would have given a great deal to know what Strauss thought of the cult of the Ultimate Socratics in the First World State described in Olaf Stapledon's novel, Last and First Men. Allusions like this are precisely the kind of breath of fresh air that never enters the windowless world of On Tyranny, not even in the extensive private correspondence the book includes.

It is foolish to criticize an author for failing to write the book you would have written; it is even more foolish to criticize very learned writers for failing to have read one's own undirected reading. Still, it seems to me that On Tyranny is not a classic, but a period-piece.

* * *

Speaking of the end of history, we know it is near, because H.P. Lovecraft has entered the American canon. That, at least, is the thesis of Michael Dirda's review ("The Horror, the Horror!") in The Weekly Standard of March 7. The review is of a new anthology from the Library of America, H. P. Lovecraft : Tales. (The review is edited by Peter Straub, who you figure would know about these things.) The review tells us:

But it now seems beyond dispute that H.P. Lovecraft is the most important American writer of weird fiction in the 20th century---and one of the century's most influential writers of any kind of fiction...Lovecraft created a province of the imagination as vivid as William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County--and he did so in prose as distinctive and powerful as Ernest Hemingway's or Raymond Chandler's

For better or worse, I am in no position to quarrel with this. I have a Misketonic University tee-shirt in my closet. And a Hellboy baseball cap.

Thanks again, Ihor!

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: On Tyranny

Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss

Alexandre Kojève

Alexandre Kojève

Political philosophy is my favorite after natural philosophy. The question of how we are to order our lives together is perennially interesting, although most people probably prefer a less theoretical approach

Leo Strauss is also fascinating because of his association with the idea of esoteric writing. John pooh-poohs the idea here, but I'm coming around to it.

On Tyranny
By Leo Strauss (with Alexandre Kojève)
Edited by Victor Gourevitch & Michael S. Roth
University of Chicago Press, 2000
335 Pages, US$18.00
ISBN 0-226-77687-5


If Leo Strauss were the Great Cthulhu, this book might be The Necronomicon. In reality, of course, Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was a professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago for many years, and this book is an anthology. Strauss is considered the font, if not quite the founder, of modern Neoconservatism, which is widely believed to be the secret doctrine that actuates the foreign policy of President George W. Bush. The book does not really support that thesis. Here we see Strauss advising the wise to avoid instigating revolutions, much less the democratic world-revolution that the Bush Administration is keen on. Also, while Strauss concedes that world empire might be inevitable, he also says it would be an unfortunate institution, and not one likely to last. The book is really about the relationship of philosophers to politics, and whether the philosophy of the Greek classics has the resources to define it properly. The treatment of the nature of history is extensive, but incidental.

The centerpiece of the book is a study that Strauss first published in 1948, On Tyranny. It closely analyzes the dialogue Hiero, by Xenophon (430-355 BC), a student of Socrates. (The volume also contains a translation of the dialogue, which is just 18 pages long.) Strauss is answered by a long review from Alexandre Kojève, entitled “Tyranny and Wisdom.” (Kojève, a Russian émigré born Alexander Vladimirovitch Kojevnikoff, knew Strauss in Strauss's native Germany. Later, in Paris, they were both starveling immigrant scholars. Kojève became a French civil servant and played a prominent role in organizing the first GATT treaty (precursor to the World Trade Organization) and the European Community (precursor to the European Union); he also seems to have been a Soviet spy.) Strauss answers Kojève in “Restatement on Xenophon's Hiero.” The rest of the book, about 90 pages, is taken up with the correspondence between Strauss and Kojève from 1932 to 1965.

Xenophon is one of those ancient authors better known for clarity than for depth; his dialogue Hiero would seem to support this characterization. It sets out a supposed discussion between the poet, Simonides of Ceos (circa 556-468 BC), and Hiero I (died 466 BC), tyrant of Syracuse and master of Sicily, on the advantages and drawbacks of being a tyrant. We should remember that “tyranny” is a term of art in classical philosophy. It refers to “monarchy without law,” a situation that often arose when a democracy went sour. Tyranny was generally considered the most defective class of regime. However, it was also recognized that there were good and bad tyrannies. Simonides makes it his business to improve Hiero's.

Simonides asks apparently ingenuous questions, such as whether tyrants ate better than private persons, or had better sex lives. Hiero answers by detailing the miseries of the tyrannical condition, in which wretched excess cohabits with personal insecurity. When they get to the question of public honor, which is basically about Hiero's desire to be loved, Simonides can suggest ways in which tyranny can be modified to Hiero's advantage. Though of course Hiero cannot dispense with the mercenaries on which his government depends, Simonides advises Hiero to use those mercenaries to ensure public safety. As a general matter, he should be seen to spend his own fortune on public amenities, rather than use public money. The public should not seem him inflicting punishments. Rather, he should distribute prizes in competitions designed to promote patriotism. Thus could Hiero's life become happier, and the life of Syracuse greatly improved.

From this tiny acorn of a dialogue Strauss cultivates a mighty oak of interpretation. Starting from the plausible inference that Hiero is afraid of Simonides because the tyrant does not understand the perspective or motivation of the wise, Strauss draws general lessons about how philosophers in general should deal with politics in general. Simonides, in his capacity as a wise man, contemplates eternal things. To the extent that he seeks human approval at all, he seeks it from competent judges, which is to say, from other members of the wise. Hiero, in contrast, seems most worried about whether his catamite really loves him. In order for these mentalities to communicate, the philosopher must sometimes couch principled advice in terms of self-interest. As in this case, it is sometimes possible to advocate reforms as a way to realize a relatively noble desire, that is, Hiero's desire to be loved by his subjects. However, the gap between the philosophical and the political remains.

Kojève, in contrast, says that the gap will close at the eschaton, that is, at the end of history. This final term does not refer to clock time, but to philosophical history. Kojève elsewhere argued that “history properly speaking” ended in 1806, when Napoleon's victory at Jena ensured that the French Revolution would, in some form, spread universally. Since then, it has been all over, bar the shouting.

We may note that, adapting Kojève's thesis, Francis Fukuyama used the opportunity of the collapse of Communism in 1989 to argue in The End of History and the Last Man that even the shouting had ended, and that liberal democracy was the form of the “universal and homogeneous state” in which Kojève said history would eventuate. Kojève himself had been ambiguous. He sometimes suggested that it made no difference which side won the Cold War, since the same sort of final society would result in either case.

For Kojève, the motor of history is Hegel's famous Master-Slave dialectic. Slaves want their basic human dignity recognized. Masters want to be recognized by their peers. Thus, the Masters of the world have an interest in manufacturing peers. They extend the size of states they control to include neighboring states, so that the citizens of those states may also acknowledge them. Within the state, they gradually emancipate slaves, then women, then even children. The logical end of this process is, as we have seen, a state that includes the whole of mankind, and that makes no distinctions of any kind among its citizens. Thus, everyone may not be happy, but they will be “satisfied.”

Philosophy is a work-in-progress until history ends, according to Kojève, when we will understand everything we can understand. Because philosophy is essentially historicist, it is essentially atheist: there is no transcendent repository of final answers to which self-sufficient philosophers can look. Even if there were, it would still be necessary for philosophers to engage the larger society, since to do otherwise is to run the risk of solipsism and madness. The function of philosophers is to create models of ideal societies, and to propose from time to time how they might be implemented. Only in this way can the philosophers hope to emerge as the wise in the post-historical situation:

“One may therefore conclude that while the emergence of a reforming tyrant is not conceivable without the prior existence of a reforming philosopher, the coming of the wise man must necessarily be preceded by the revolutionary action of the tyrant (who will realize the universal and homogeneous state).”

Kojève also notes that there is a special affinity between the philosopher and tyranny. Philosophers can devote only so much of their time to practical matters, so they are necessarily people in a hurry. The same is true of tyrants who, being lawless, are also open to new ideas. Philosophers, however, simply are not competent to judge the method or the pace with which the tyrant implements their ideas. If philosophers could make that kind of practical judgment, they would be politicians rather than philosophers.

Strauss is horrified by this encomium of tyranny and atheism. To begin with, he insists that one sort of regime really can be preferred to another, and that in the circumstances of the modern world, there is no better option than liberal democracy. He also insists that philosophers do not seek this “recognition” of which Kojève speaks, but rather delight to contemplate the well-ordered souls of the wise (who can exist at any point in history), and to educate such souls among the young.

Thus, there is a community of the wise. They preserve themselves by convincing society that, however esoteric their discussions may be, they are not “atheists,” they do not despise what other men revere. The wise are not subversive or revolutionary, but helpful. The modest measures of reform that they may propose do the only sort of good that is possible in a world that will never be perfect.

However pure Strauss may insist the motives of philosophers to be, he seems to concede that something like the hunger for recognition may really govern history for other people. The result might even be the outcome that Kojève anticipates. Strauss, in fact, offers a sketch of the “Universal and Final Tyrant” that might serve as a gloss on the figure of Antichrist (or as a description of that recurring nightmare of Chinese history, the Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi). On the other hand, he also says that this “end of history” is not really final. The homogeneity of the “universal and homogeneous state” will be a fraud, since it assumes a sophisticated philosophical understanding of the post-historical world on the part of everybody, everywhere. Moreover, such a world will simply not be satisfying, in Hegel's sense or anybody else's, because it will be purposeless. The empire of the Final Tyrant will be overthrown, perhaps in a nihilistic revolution that will be the only expression of humanism possible in that dark era.

In some ways, the most interesting thing about Strauss is his exegetical method, particularly the detection of the “secret writing” that he made famous. This requires placing quite a lot of emphasis on silence, on what a text does not say.

For instance: in addition to his reply to Kojève, Strauss also replies to a review of On Tyranny by Eric Voegelin. Voegelin argues that classical political philosophy is incomplete, because it lacked, among other things, an account of Caesarism. Voegelin defines that as a post-constitutional situation in which a return to republican government is no longer possible. That makes it unlike tyranny, which could and did alternate with various forms of constitutional government. In reply, Strauss says that Caesarism is a kind of legitimate monarchy. It may sometimes be the best that a society can do. Here is Strauss's explanation for why classical philosophy did not address the issue:

“The true distinction between Caesarism and tyranny is too subtle for ordinary practical use. It is better for the people to remain ignorant of that distinction and to regard the potential Caesar as a potential tyrant. No harm can come from this theoretical error, which becomes a practical truth if the people have the mettle to act upon it. No harm can come from the political identification of Caesarism and tyranny: Caesars can take care of themselves.”

To another philosopher, the obvious answer would have been that classical philosophy did not address Caesarism because Caesar lived after the “classic” era of classical culture was past. To Strauss, the answer was that the ancients were omniscient, but tactful.

And then there's Kojève. As he got older, his interpretation of ancient texts became more and more whimsical. To be fair, he was no longer a professional academic after the late 1940s, but he began discovering secret writing in places where Strauss evidently feared to tread. In his letters to Strauss, he characterizes some sixth-century writings, including some by Julian the Apostate, as “Voltaire-like” exercises in disguised skepticism. From this he surmises that the classical philosophical tradition actually survived very late in an underground tradition.

That is a little like saying that the Middle Kingdom Egyptians were familiar with Faraday's equations, but just made sure never to write them down. The Socratics and the other schools of the golden age of Greek philosophy may have had all the esoteric doctrines you please: underground traditions would be plausible, because the aboveground effect of philosophy on Greek life was obviously so great. There was nothing like that effect in the sixth century, and no amount of secret writing will substitute for the lack of the schools and sages and controversies that we know existed 900 years earlier.

Though Strauss never says anything as foolish as Kojève, the chief impression I took from this book was the capacity for both of them to miss the real forest in their hunt for the secret trees. The key to the problem of modern tyranny is really another point that Voegelin raised in his review: ancient tyranny, at least in the West, lacked the millenarian component that we see in modern, ideology-driven tyranny. Voegelin had muddied his case by arguing that Machiavelli was significantly influenced by Joachim of Floris, a thesis that Strauss correctly rejects, but which does not diminish the fact that modern revolutionary tyrants do in fact have a strong apocalyptic streak. Kojève is left similarly clueless by his Hegelian psychobabble about “recognition,” despite the fact his theory is an eschatology.

On Tyranny is well worth reading for several reasons. However, there are far less constricted ways to approach the issues it addresses.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Holy Roman Empire

The idea of the King holds great power in the West, even when actual kings and queens largely do not. For us Westerners, what the Emperor means comes from Rome through Charlemagne and Otto I. There is a mythical undercurrent however, that is far older.

The Holy Roman Empire
By Friedrich Heer
German Original 1967
English Translation 1968
(By Janet Sondheimer)
Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers
309 pages, Various Editions & Prices


The Empire was not a state, but a system of dispensing justice.

We find that lucid formula near the end of this sprawling book by Friedrich Heer (1916 – 1983), the great Austrian authority on intellectual history. The formula is welcome, since there has always been some mystery about what the Holy Roman Empire was, as well as about what it was supposed to be. However, just as the formula comes late in the book, so it best applies only to the final phase of the empire, when the emperors were preoccupied with the defense of their solid Habsburg possessions in Austria and Hungry, and the empire was a sort of German United Nations that functioned through the Perpetual Diet of Regensburg and through the imperial courts. Even in the 18th century, however, the empire never lost its connection to the days when the emperors were priest-kings, who reflected an even more primordial past.

And indeed, just as there is some mystery about what the empire was, so there is some mystery about how to characterize this book. Heer's work is like a good film adaptation of a complicated adventure romance: it is filled with lyrical language and splendid images (wonderful graphics in this book, by the way), but it is really an illustration of the story rather than a retelling of it. A full history of the Holy Roman Empire would be almost a political and intellectual history of Europe. This “History of the Holy Roman Empire” is set out chronologically, and most of it is a narrative of the reigns of the emperors, but the effect is almost of a cycle of prose poems.

There are key dates and events in the political history of the thousand-year empire, naturally. The Roman imperial title was revived, or created, for Charlemagne in 800, and survived the rapid disintegration of his empire. Eventually it passed to Otto I, who was crowned in 962, which in many ways was the real beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. It was a largely, but not exclusively, German league of princes, bishops, and municipalities. All were under the authority, if never quite the control, of a nominally elective king. The fundamental constitutional text of the empire was the Golden Bull, issued by Charles IV in 1356. Among other things, the Bull fixed at seven the number of imperial electors, the college of lay and ecclesiastical lords who elected the emperor; their number eventually rose to nine. In 1555, at the end of the reign of Charles V, the first round of the wars of religion ended in the long truce of the Peace of Augsburg. Through a combination of malice and stupidity, the truce collapsed into the Thirty Years' War in the next century. The war (wars, really) ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which made it possible for Catholics and Protestants to co-exist in the empire. The cost was a broad and precise definition of the rights of the German principalities that prevented the formation of a national German state. The empire was dissolved, under pressure from Napoleon, by the Emperor Francis I in 1806. Heer repeatedly assures us that the dissolution was beyond the emperor's power, and illegal; he's probably right.

The difficulty with telling the story of the Holy Roman Empire is that all the verbs and adverbs are attached in every generation to different nouns. The empire's center of gravity was generally in Germany, or Austria, but sometimes the emperors identified more with their possessions in Burgundy or the Netherlands, or in Bohemia. Charles V, the first ruler on whose domains the sun never set, was as Spanish as he was Burgundian or Austrian (though the Spanish Empire and the Holy Roman Empire were coincident only in Charles's person). The hold of Charles's family, the Habsburgs, on the imperial office was almost secure in the last few centuries of the empire. The various branches of the Habsburgs perfected the art of being everywhere present and nowhere a foreigner. The fact of being cosmopolitan did not make the Austrian Habsburgs chiefly concerned with protecting their most cosmopolitan title, however. They cared for the empire, just as they cared for their other possessions. At the end, though, they could let it go without diminishing their house's real power or influence.

Nonetheless, the empire does have a history, because there were constants. Heer tells us that the Ottonian conception of the empire characterized it to some degree until the very end:

“What could be finer, what more right and proper, than a Holy Empire conceived as a great federative league, based on trust rather than subjection, composed of friends from within and without (at their head the Pope, both as bishop of Rome and the king's friend), the whole under the leadership of the Emperor-king?”

Despite the empire's protean geography, there were some basics that all emperors struggled to retain. They all protected the jurisdiction of the imperial courts, for instance, and they all tried to secure communications through imperial territory. There was a small number of imperial rights they insisted on keeping, and to a remarkable extent they succeeded.

Political theory is relevant to the study of the empire, obviously, but the empire stays in our minds because it is where all those emperors in European fairy tales come from. Heer does not cease to remind us that the symbols and the functions of the emperors go back 5,000 years, to the first city-states with their eagle emblems and god-kings. The emperor was in some sense a universal ruler, in dignity if not in fact. His archetypical claim to deference had nothing to do with his power.

They emperors always did certain things. They hunted. They cured by touch, at least reputedly. They protected the Church. They made peace. More precisely, they had the duty to give peace. Also, the emperors, and the empire as a whole, were the restrainers of Antichrist. (Curiously, Heer does not cite II Thessalonians 2:7.) The German emperors played this role when they defeated a Magyar invasion of the West in 955 at the Battle of Lech, and thereby created the sense of “Germanness.” They played the same role six centuries later, when they were the only European rulers to offer serious, systematic, and ultimately successful resistance to the Turkish jihad aimed at central Europe. According to persistent myth, when the Emperor of the Last Days lays down his crown at Jerusalem after finally defeating Babylon, then the Antichrist will appear.

Sometimes, of course, the emperor was Antichrist, at least in the opinion of the pope. The tension between holy empire and holy church, both claiming divine sanction, runs right through the history of the West. Heer points out that the largely successful campaign by the popes of the 12th and 13th centuries to desacralize the empire was the basis of every other claim of right that would ever be made against the state. It also meant that the Church, the City of God, would eventually become just another political body: society as well as the state was ultimately desacralized.

Interesting as the medieval material is, Heer's book is most valuable for its treatment of the period after the Treaty of Westphalia. He points out that the empire's only “native style” was the baroque. Baroque art, politics, and philosophy were employed by the empire (and also by the Catholic Church) to preserve the world of images that the Reformation had begun to destroy.

The high baroque was a “festival culture,” colorful and profligate. Underneath the gilt and gemütlichkeit, however, there was an unshakeable foreboding. In Heer's telling, the good humor of Mozart's empire was an expression of the understanding that life is based on sacrifice, on self-sacrifice, which was to be carried out with style and without complaint. The music, the painting, and the overwrought architecture all reflected this. The result has never been to everyone's taste. Had Heer lived longer, he might not have been surprised that post-Habsburg Eastern European cities became the locales of choice for horror films.

Even in its final, Enlightenment era, the intellectuals of the empire expressed as philosophy something of that Great Chain of Being that was directly intuited by the medieval mind:

“The picture of the world presented by Leibnitz, his outlook on the world and the entire body of his religious and philosophical thinking, whether he knew it or not, is a eulogy of the Holy Roman Empire: his universe is one of a pre-established harmony, sustained by a regulated but voluntary harmony of the 'monads' (an expression he borrowed from Theresa of Avila). Just as in the Holy Roman Empire – as Leibnitz saw it – the princes, the imperial towns and all the other groups and individuals who were centered on the Emperor were supposed to work together in free and orderly fashion, so did faith and reason, God and man, nature and the supernatural, the smallest objects and the greatest, work together in the cosmos.”

The end of the empire as a political entity was overdetermined. Among the specific causes that Heer points out, I might mention just two. One was the theft of Silesia by Frederick the Great from the Habsburgs. The province was not that important to Austria, but it gave Prussia (which was founded by the Imperial Elector of Brandenburg, by the way) the human resources to carry out the long-term project of hegemony in Germany. More important was the fact that the emperors themselves were turning their backs on old Europe.

The greater cause of the empire's end was internal. Before the beginning of the age of mass revolution, the Enlightenment encouraged revolution from above. The 18th century was full of reforming despots, among the most radical of whom was the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. He expropriated Church property and regulated the clergy in a way that the French Revolution would only imitate. He expanded the rights of religious minorities within his own territories. He attempted to elevate the peasantry, especially in backward Hungry, from serfs to freeholders. He promoted education and manufactures. And when he died in 1790, he realized that he had largely failed.

In every age the empire had its patriots, figures of the caliber of Dante and Goethe. Such people were also intense local patriots, with deep attachments to cities and small states. The universal patriotism of the empire complemented these native loyalties, because the empire was not a country, but an idea. Indeed, there is a sense in which the mere death of the political empire has in no way diminished its importance, or its hold on men's hearts:

“The crisis of the Empire and the crisis of the Church were terrifying to live through. In twelfth-century Germany and Italy the painful experience stimulated thinking men to attempt a philosophy and theology of world history. These writers, as they reflect on progress and decay, consciously or unconsciously hold up for us a mirror to the history of their epoch, the epoch which saw the rise and decline of the Empire and the rise of the Church...Underground eddies of this historical thinking reached Friedrich Hegel as he in turn reflected on world history in the last days of the Holy Roman Empire, and they re-emerge (some of them clearly identifiable) in his philosophy.”

One could easily extend that chain of influence to people like Francis Fukuyama, and to 21st century transnationalism and neoconservatism. The empire has its patriots still.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Holy Roman Empire
By Friedrich Heer

The Long View: Why We Need a Philosophy of History

The driver of world history. No, I'm really not kidding.

The driver of world history. No, I'm really not kidding.

Francis Fukuyama's legacy will surely be his essay, "The End of History", or the book version thereof. In the narrow sense that liberal democracy does indeed seem to reflect a completion, or an exhaustion, of the Western political tradition, I think Fukuyama's thesis can still be broadly defended.

This was a recurring theme of John's, he called it The Perfection of the West. This title is John Reilly's gloss on the cyclical historical theories of Spengler and Toynbee. Spengler famously titled his version The Decline of the West, but John noted that Spengler himself said he could just have easily called it the Completion or the Perfection of the West.

The idea here is that progress [in just about any fashion you want to define that] is not linear. It goes through periods of growth that result in an efflorescence of novelty, followed by long periods of stasis. However, the periods of stasis are really just as important as the periods of growth, because the times when it seems like nothing is changing are when the advances of the previous period of growth are turned into permanent features of civilization.

The periods of stasis are a winnowing, separating the wheat from the chaff. If you take the long view, you can use past experience to filter current enthusiasm through a version of that winnowing:

One of the best reasons to study philosophy is so that you know enough not to worry too much about the world historical implications of things like Prozac. Lots of drugs, notably alcohol, also produce a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem sufficient to deaden the struggle for recognition. Prozac will have to be very widely prescribed indeed before it has as much effect on the state of human consciousness as Heineken beer.

If you add in human genetics, you can probably understand the modern world very well indeed.

Why We Need a Philosophy of History


In the summer of 1989, Francis Fukuyama published an essay in "The National Interest" entitled "The End of History." Appearing in one of the great revolutionary years of modern history, the essay provided a Hegelian interpretation of the collapse of Eastern European Marxism and the apparent universal vindication of liberal democracy. The essay (later expanded into a book, "The End of History and the Last Man") became famous, but not because so many people leapt to embrace its thesis. The title invites attack, especially attacks that do not engage the fairly narrow meaning that "history" has in Hegelian philosophy.

On this tenth anniversary of "The End of History," Fukuyama is at it again with another essay in "The National Interest," this one entitled "Second Thoughts." To put it briefly, he says that his 1989 essay was correct on its own terms, but that those terms were wrong. He continues to assert that liberal democracy is the only possible philosophy of society that satisfies both the economic and the "spirited" sides of human nature, the latter being that aspect of the personality which craves recognition as a moral agent. Thus, liberal democracy truly is the terminus of the long struggle between "master and slave" that constitutes political history in the Hegelian sense. Fukuyama now says, however, that this terminus is not really final, because science is still progressing.

While Hegel knew that different aspects of human nature were manifest in different historical eras, still he assumed that this nature was in some sense constant. A constant human nature implied the possibility of some form of society that would optimally satisfy all its aspects. In 1989, Fukuyama announced that we at last had such a society, or at least a situation where the principles for such a society were universally acknowledged. Societies prior to liberal democracy were inherently unstable, because they could not provide for the physical needs of their members adequately, and because they were so structured as to invite struggles for personal recognition. Liberal democracy is the first society that can no longer be disturbed by these factors, but it is nonetheless mortal. Human nature may have been constant in the past, but it will probably not be in the future. Modern science is on the verge of making fundamental changes in the physical and psychological nature of the species.

Society would change dramatically, for instance, if people could be made immortal, a goal that Fukuyama says is at least conceivable in light of some recent findings in the genetics of aging. Less speculative is the use of psychoactive drugs, such as Prozac and Ritalin. These are already used on large numbers of school children, mostly boys, to control newly discovered "behavior disorders." It is not hard to imagine a world in which the struggle for recognition, or for anything else for that matter, is contained by the use of chemicals rather than by liberal economic and political institutions. This is how "soma" was used in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," a novel that also illustrated how reproductive technology could be used to maintain an inherently stable caste system.

For myself, I have to say that I never had much problem with the conclusion of Fukuyama's original essay, if it is understood as a statement about intellectual history. There is a sense in which Western classical music "ended" in the 19th century, just as political philosophy is supposed to have ended with Hegel. (Of course, it took until 1989 for all the alternatives to liberal democracy to be disposed of in practice, but then people persisted in composing new kinds of music after Brahms, too.) The relationship of a "final" theory of society to the actual practice of politics and economics was less clear to me. For instance, it is possible that "democracy" could persist as a venerated fossil in a world where hardly anyone bothered to vote and government was largely the business of a small corps of judges and bureaucrats, or for that matter of plutocrats and soldiers. "The End of History" in this sense means not the achievement of a state of perfection, but the admission of a failure of imagination. Thus, while I too did not quite accept Fukuyama's original thesis, I found it a valuable exercise.

The level of pure philosophical analysis found in the earlier essay, very rare in today's public life, is missing from "Second Thoughts." One of the best reasons to study philosophy is so that you know enough not to worry too much about the world historical implications of things like Prozac. Lots of drugs, notably alcohol, also produce a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem sufficient to deaden the struggle for recognition. Prozac will have to be very widely prescribed indeed before it has as much effect on the state of human consciousness as Heineken beer. The really interesting point raised by neuropharmacology is the credulity with which its claims are received. These are, in reality, based on materialist superstitions about the mind that contemporary philosophy is often unable or unwilling to combat.

Genetic and reproductive technology might seem to be a more serious issue, but I wonder whether it really presents important systemic implications. Human cloning, when it occurs, will be a misguided enterprise, but it is not going to change the nature of life as we know it. If the human genome were tampered with in such a way as to create a wholly new kind of intelligent animal, that might indeed end human history. However, as E.O. Wilson notes in one of the responses that accompany Fukuyama's article, making a new animal on purpose is very hard. Since one gene sequence is often involved in a number of somatic and behavioral expressions, you cannot change the biological characteristics of an organism to fit arbitrary specifications. As for immortality in higher organisms, if it were possible, it would occur somewhere in nature.

Francis Fukuyama was interviewed by John Horgan for the book, "The End of Science," so it is a good bet that he has at least heard the phrase. It is a little mysterious why the subject is not mentioned in "Second Thoughts." We do indeed live in a world of brilliant basic research, particularly in cosmology, and of astonishing breakthroughs in engineering, not the least of which concern genetics. Still, what we also see today, perhaps, is the beginning of a failure of the imagination that is not so different from that which began in political theory in the 19th century. Fundamentally new ideas in the physical sciences are surprisingly hard to come by. There is still a great deal of development to be done with the chief established theories, particularly in biology, and the limits of technology are very far away in most areas. However, it is not at all clear that science really has much further to go, in the sense of revealing really new things about the physical world. We may well be entering an age of synthesis rather than of exploration.

It is possible that we are not at or near the end of history, even in the narrow sense of the completion of a set of long-running trends in intellectual life and economics. It may even be foolish to speculate about such things. Still, I count myself among those who cannot help making the attempt. In this pursuit, different people find different philosophical approaches helpful. In fact, different people seem to mean different things by "philosophy." In the context of history, what philosophy means to me is viewing contemporary enthusiasms skeptically.



Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Dante's World Government

This is an absolutely beautiful exposition of the idea that a universal state is the best for the flourishing of man. I'll let the words speak for themselves.

Dante's World Government:
De Monarchia in the 21st Century


By John J. Reilly

“In writing the introduction to a work of political philosophy there is a temptation to attribute more importance to the work in question than it can properly claim. With Dante's Monarchy this temptation scarcely arises; for many have dismissed the treatise as a dream, the vision of an idealist out of touch with political realities who was yearning for an Empire that had passed away.”

So wrote Donald Nicholl in his introduction to the English translation (Noonday Press, 1954) that I used for this essay. There is a sense in which his assessment remains true 49 years later. It has been a long time since many people had much enthusiasm for the Holy Roman Empire, which was the particular instance of universal polity that Dante was defending. The paucity of translations of De Monarchia into English might also be taken as evidence of lasting irrelevance. (The Latin original is, oddly enough, available online, at no charge.) Some things have changed in the past half-century, however. The prospect of new forms of transnational governance is often discussed these days, either as a promise or a threat. Moreover, the dream-like abstraction of Dante's arguments may allow for modern re-interpretation in a way that would not be possible to a more concrete and historically grounded analysis. It is very unlikely that De Monarchia will someday be hailed as a guide to restructuring the international system. Nonetheless, in intellectual history, there are some issues that never really go away. In this book, Dante gives us an early formulation of some perennial ideas.

Even the most Platonic political theory has some history behind it, of course. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was born into Florence's Guelph party, which was the faction that generally supported the papacy against the Holy Roman Empire. (The imperial party was the Ghibellines.) Briefly a member of Florence's governing council, he was exiled in 1301, when the Guelph faction that was backed by France took control of the city. The French were there because Charles of Valois had entered Italy at the pope's invitation to restore order to the peninsula. The next year, Pope Boniface VIII issued the famous bull, Unum Sanctum, which advanced the broadest claims to the supremacy of the church over temporal authority, particularly over the empire. De Monarchia may be considered an answer to those claims; or maybe better, their dialectical opposite.

The date of De Monarchia's composition is disputed, though it was probably finished in the second decade of the 14th century. Its arguments in favor of the autonomy of the empire are not greatly different from the political theory of the Convivio, which Dante abandoned unfinished about 1308, and The Divine Comedy, which he completed shortly before his death. It probably was not finished before the arrival of the new emperor to Italy, Henry VII, in 1310. He, too, came to restore order, this time with the blessing of Clement V, the French pope who initiated the removal the papacy to Avignon that would last until 1377. These events turned Dante into what he described as a “party of one.”

De Monarchia asks three questions: Is the secular monarchy necessary? Did the Roman people receive the monarchy by right? Does the monarch receive his authority directly from God, or through the intermediation of some minister of God? These terms require a little explanation. By “monarchy,” Dante does not mean simply the rule of a single individual, though his argument does tend toward the Aristotelian proposition that legitimate monarchy is the most perfect form of government (in contrast to tyranny, which is monarchy's opposite and the worst form). The later Roman Republic was the “monarch” of the ancient world, in Dante's terminology. De Monarchia is really about the structure of the international system. As for the “Roman” element, Dante does not distinguish between the Republic and the Empire, or between ancient Rome and the medieval empire.

So, then, to take Dante's first question: Is the secular monarchy necessary?

Remarkably, Dante derives the necessity of monarchy from an argument that is almost Hegelian. Universal government is necessary, because it is the way to universal peace; universal peace is necessary, because it is the only way the human race can attain its end, or purpose; this end is actualization of the “possible intellect,” which is possessed by the human species as a whole.

The possible intellect got Dante into a lot of posthumous trouble; it was one of the reasons De Monarchia stayed on the Index of Forbidden Books from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The notion comes from the 12th-century Iberian Islamic philosopher, Averroes (Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd), who deployed it in a way that argued against personal immortality in favor of a collective human soul. Dante himself thought no such thing, of course. His version rests on the scholastic commonplace that human beings are only partly intellectual beings (unlike angels, whose substance is intellect). Because of this defect, no single human being, however intelligent, could fully embody the intellectual capacity common to the species. That could be done only collectively and, since knowledge is cumulative, historically. The human species, if it is to achieve the state of intellectual perfection possible to it, required a peaceful and therefore unified world.

Since the 19th century, we have been more inclined to expect the advancement of intellect to come from competition than from harmonious peace. To that, perhaps, a medieval would have argued that even a market of ideas requires rules to keep the market functioning. Certainly a dynamic world is not quite contrary to the medieval ideal of the tranquility of order.

Be that as it may, Dante insists that the ideal political order is a universal polity. The good inherent in the whole, he explains, exceeds the good inherent in the parts, though these parts may have an internal constitution that resembles the order of the whole. Thus, only a polity that encompasses the whole human species could really be perfect.

The universality of the universal monarch would not be expressed by promulgating the positive law for every district. Rather, the universal law would be a common law, which deals only with those things all men have in common. Neither would it mean that the several nations could not have their own princes and other magistrates. However, those rulers could rule justly only by virtue of their relationship to the universal monarch.

This is essentially the same argument that Julius Evola made in connection with his critique of 19th century imperialism. An empire in competition with other empires for national glory was mere violence, in his estimation. The distinction between “the empire” and “an empire” is also fundamental to the analysis of the postmodern world in Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt's book, Empire. They point out that the global system of governance has a moral basis that was lacking in the competitive empires of early modernity. The empires were imperialistic; though they might sometimes benefit their subjects, they were founded on ambition and greed. The “empire” of the late modern international order, in contrast, though it may cause endless disaster, is founded on the principle of eternal justice. The former were imperialistic; the latter is imperial.

All things being equal, the universal law would better be made by one agent, rather than by several, according to Dante. Human concord can be attained only by a concord of wills, which needs a human director. One may note that this reasoning would work almost as well as an argument to move beyond a law of nations enforced by nations to a world system with a genuine executive, if not necessarily a “monarch” in the conventional sense.

Dante, who spent the last two decades of his life in exile because of the chaos among the petty states of Italy, saw nothing odd in also asserting that the empire is necessary for human freedom. Freedom is the perfect condition of man, the state he was designed for. However, man is free only when his judgment may operate undeflected by the appetite. The monarch could create the institutional basis for a society in which the most people would be able to approach this condition. This is because only the monarch could himself be entirely free; having the greatest honor in the world, there would be nothing further for him to desire. Thus, being wholly disinterested, his reign would have no object other than the common good.

This reasoning might perhaps seem non-obvious to moderns, who are quick to point out that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Neither would there be general assent today to the proposition that satisfying all a man's desires would necessarily make him a good person. On the other hand, Dante's reasoning does bear a family resemblance to Francis Fukuyama's hypothesis that liberal democracy is the end of history because it satisfies all aspects of human nature. Moreover, there have been several recent arguments to the effect that something very like Dante's empire is necessary to human freedom, or at least to the highest level of human freedom that is possible in much of the world. So said Niall Ferguson, in yet another book named Empire, with respect to the British tradition. On a somewhat higher level of abstraction, that is also what Patrick Kennon says in Tribe and Empire.

The modern apologists for empire use reasoning that is not as different from Dante's as might at first appear. They say that the empire is the institution best suited to mitigate ethnic strife, because the empire is transnational and, like the monarch, disinterested. Further, Dante says that only the perfectly free monarch can impart a measure of freedom to the wider world because only he possesses this quality himself; similarly, only a liberal democratic empire could impart liberal democracy to societies that lack it.

Before proceeding to Dante's second question, this might be a good point to examine Dante's method. Readers will have gathered that, in fine scholastic style, he favors arguments “in the alternative.” Indeed, in this summary I have taken some liberties by integrating arguments that Dante leaves side by side. The internal logic of each argument is formal and partisan; unlike Thomas Aquinas, Dante does not trouble to state possible counterarguments systematically. These two paragraphs are typical of the whole:

“On the basis of this exposition we reason as follows: justice is most powerful in the world when located in a subject with a perfect will and most power; such is the Monarch alone; therefore justice is at its most potent in this world when located in the Monarch alone.

“This preparatory syllogism is of the second figure, with intrinsic negation, and takes the following form: all B is A; only C is A; therefore C only is B. That is: all B is A; nothing except C is B. The first proposition clearly holds, for reasons already given; the other follows by reference to the will and then to power.”

This procedure tries to reach conclusions about the world by arguing from first principles. In effect, Dante formulates archetypes and then hunts for their incarnations. This type of metaphysical reasoning has fallen out of fashion, particularly in the social sciences; but it, too, is always with us. Modern physics is littered with examples of mathematical objects that had first been formulated as merely speculative exercises, but which later turned out to describe things in the real world. This is not so different from what Dante is doing: sifting through the products of history to find incarnations of the ideal forms.

This brings us to the second question: did the Roman people receive the monarchy by right?

Dante tells us that the history of the rise of the Roman Empire had seemed an inexplicable wonder to him. Then he realized that the Roman people did not acquire the monarchy of the world by ferocity, but through right, guided by providence. The progress of the Roman people was at many points attended by miracles, like the history of the Hebrews. Thus we see that God approved of the empire; Christ Himself chose to be born in the “fullness of time,” the peaceful age of Caesar Augustus.

Indeed, Christianity requires that the Roman Empire be legitimate. The central doctrine of Christianity is that Christ was punished for the sin of Adam. If the magistrate who sentenced Jesus was not an “appropriate judge,” then the suffering of Jesus was not a punishment, and we are not saved. Only the representative of the government of the whole world could have had the authority to inflict punishment on He Who suffered for the whole world.

Providence is not always expressed through the clearly miraculous. Sometimes God's hidden judgments are revealed by the outcome of duels, which in effect was what happened when the Romans defeated all others in the contest for world empire. The empire expressed the natural hierarchy among the peoples, of whom the Romans were the noblest. Even regarded simply as a matter of natural right, the citizens of the Roman Republic were working for the public good by creating a structure of universal peace. Nations, like individuals, should resort to force only as a last resort. However, whatever is acquired in a duel is acquired by right.

In the modern era, the idea that the historical process gradually expresses natural right is not rare: we see it from Hegel to Francis Fukuyama to Robert Wright. This is the intuition behind the dedication of transnationalists to the evolution of the network of supranational institutions and non-governmental organizations, which for them is now the seat of legitimacy in the world. Arguments even closer to Dante's have been made by macrohistorians who predict that the modern era will end in a universal state very like the Roman Empire. In any case, though the actors differ from theory to theory, the fundamentally providential structure of history remains.

Something that does change, of course, is the relationship of this providence to religion. One of the few specifics in which Hardt & Negri's empire differs from Dante's is that theirs is equated with the Kingdom of God. Possibly this was a mere rhetorical flourish on their part; they are also keen on the idea that the empire excludes the transcendent. Dante, in contrast, did insist on a transcendent foundation for the empire, but he strongly distinguished the empire from the Church, which is part of the Kingdom of God. This is the burden of his answer to the third question:

Does the monarch receive his authority directly from God, or through the intermediation of some minister of God?

In a rare display of tact, Dante said that those popes who asserted the empire owed its existence to the papacy were merely misguided by zeal. However, he says that the kings and princes who follow the popes' lead in this matter are not sons of the Church, but sons of the devil. He dismisses the claims of the class of ecclesiastical lawyers called the decretalists, because it is irrational to claim authority for the Church from its own legal rulings, when it is precisely the authority to make those rulings that is in question.

Much of the discussion about the relationship between Church and Empire is taken up with distinguishing the implications of a metaphor: the Church is the sun and the Empire is the moon. Dante accepts this then-common equation for the sake of argument. Just because the sun provides the moon with its light, he points out, that does not mean the existence or the operations of the moon are derived from the sun. Both sun and moon were created directly by God. The light the moon receives is more properly likened to divine grace, which makes everything appear different. In no way, however, is this illumination analogous to a grant of authority.

Dante assures us that God is the lord of all things, spiritual and temporal, and that the pope is His vicar. However, it does not follow from this that the pope is the lord of all things. Vicars do not have all the powers of their principals. The pope, for instance, does not have any special power over nature.

Dante also addresses the venerable allegory of the Two Swords. The proof-text is Luke 22:38, in which Peter offers Jesus two swords, and Jesus says they are enough. The lesson usually drawn from this exchange is that church and state are separate. Papalist propaganda, however, noted that the two swords remained in Peter's keeping, and so argued that both the spiritual and temporal power were both ultimately in the pope's keeping. Dante simply denies that the analogy is relevant, dwelling instead on the meaning of the verse in context.

No doubt the doctrine in question is not worth much, but one wonders how a poet could dismiss such an important metaphor. The analogy of the two swords runs right through Western history. When US senators debate whether public funds should be available to faith-based organizations, that is still the pope and the emperor arguing about who has the authority to invest the bishops of Germany. Unlike in other civilizations, church and state in the West are always distinguished, even in those periods when they closely supported each other. Even when the ecclesiastical power seems to have wholly lapsed, it is natural for academics and artists to claim the privileges and influence traditionally granted to priests.

Inevitably in any medieval discussion of the temporal power of the papacy, Dante addresses the Donation of Constantine. This legend, aided by some forged documents, had it that, in the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine had given the pope the authority to govern Italy and the western empire. Dante does not dispute the authenticity of the Donation, but he says that nothing more could have been involved than the transfer of a right of guardianship.

Why so? Because, as Dante tells us, whatever is contrary to the nature of a thing is not to be numbered among its powers. Now one of the essential features of the empire is its universality; it has the right of universal jurisdiction, even when it does not have the fact. To divide the empire by ceding sovereignty over a particular region would have been to destroy the empire as such. The powers of the emperor, which derive from the nature of the empire, could not have included such a grant. Moreover, the Church by its nature could not have received such a grant, since the Church cannot own property, but only the fruits of property. (This was, of course, the ideal of the radical Franciscans.)

The tranquility of order that the emperor protects is important for the salvation of all men. The emperor's authority is therefore providential, but the authority belongs to the office itself. The authority of the emperor could not have come from the Church, since the empire antedates the Church. Furthermore, since the emperor's authority comes directly from God, the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire do not really choose the emperor. Rather, they simply declare where the right to the office lies.

* * *

I have occasionally noted that the instrument of abdication and dissolution issued by the last Holy Roman Emperor in 1806 seems to contravene the provisions of the Golden Bull of 1356, which guaranteed the prerogatives of the electors. Thus, it is arguable that emperor did not have the authority to dissolve the empire. However, even if that is a correct reading of the law (which I rather doubt), that is still not the kind of indissolubility that Dante was talking about. Even if the constitutions of the empire had contained explicit provisions for its dissolution, the empire still could not have been dissolved. Its existence is not contingent on politics; it is the one politically necessary being.

The political theory of the modern era was designed specifically to do away with this kind of thinking. There have been schemes for world order in that time. Some, like the Concert of Europe, were reasonably effective. However, even the most idealistic internationalists thought in terms of positive law, of flesh-and-blood legislators creating laws and treaties with visible texts. Only toward the end of the 20th century did we see a return of the insistence that a universal law must already exist in some sense; more important, we have seen a return of the willingness to act as if such a law existed. This is as true of the neoconservative establishment in the United States as it is of proponents of the International Criminal Court. Neither group is likely to get quite the world it expects, but their worldviews are not as far apart as they imagine.

The empire is like the doctrine of the Two Swords: it is among the insistences of the West, which take different forms at different times. Dante's Holy Roman Empire is long gone. So is Charles V's. So, one suspects, will be the United Nations in its current form. Even today, though, we see that men are beginning to repeat in modern form the reproof that Dante wrote to his own obdurate city during an imperial siege:

“Why are you stirred by this will o' the wisp to abandon the Holy Empire and, like builders of a second Babel, to embark on new forms of state so that the Florentine sovereignty should be co-ordinate with the Roman?” 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The De Monarchia
By Dante Alighieri

The Long View: World Government and the Roman Catholic Church

One of the complaints about Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si is that he calls for a world government. This isn't really something new in Catholic social teaching. John frequently argued that Catholic social teaching and just war doctrine assume that something like a competent international authority already exists.

However, John also makes the point that Catholic teaching has a lot to say about what a government should do, but nothing at all about how it should be structured. This is one of those little points that makes Catholic thought so fascinating to me. In principle, any form of government, or any particular government, can be in accord with the universal principles articulated in the Catechism, but no particular government is singled out as best. While many Catholics over the years, even popes, have expressed preferences about what form of government is best, when it came time to write a universal catechism the long institutional memory of the Church ignored all of those particulars in favor of something more universal.

World Government and the Roman Catholic Church
by John J. Reilly
There are lots of things which can be said for and against the "GATT" (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs), "NAFTA" (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and the other acronym organizations that have been created since the end of World War II to orchestrate a general reduction of tariffs, either regionally or around the world. The logical sides to this issue would be people who support free trade as a stimulus to economic growth (projecting domestic laissez faire onto the international level) versus those who believe tariffs and preferences are needed to protect domestic jobs and industries (projecting domestic regulation onto the international level). Little about the politics of these debates in the 1990s has followed logical expectations, however. Although it is Republicans who traditionally supported letting the free market operate with a minimum of government interference, the Democratic Clinton Administration considered the 1994 GATT agreement to be the crown jewel of its foreign policy in its first term. The opponents to the agreement ranged from consumerist semi-socialists like Ralph Nader to the conservative nationalist admirers of Patrick Buchanan. (The sentiments of the latter became even better represented in Congress when the Republicans took control.) There were reactions to the GATT more surprising than these, however. There are people who think that the GATT was quite literally the work of the devil.
We live in an age of eschatological expectation, and for most of this century a feature of popular American eschatology has been the expectation of the rise of a wicked world government, controlled by Antichrist. It was, perhaps, the "World" in the name of the World Trade Organization, the arbitration association created by the latest GATT agreement, which set off the reaction. In any case, the GATT was denounced by hostile congressmen as a move toward world government, while the chatter on computer bulletin boards described it as yet another sign of the near approach of the endtimes. Throughout the discussion, the explicit premise was that world government is inherently diabolical, and that any international organization is a sort of "government" until proven otherwise.
Although the hostility to world organizations is at least as widespread among conservative Catholics as among conservative Protestants, it really does not fit very well with Catholic tradition or the current understanding of doctrine. Since the Holy Roman Empire proved to be something of a disappointment, the Church has been slow to support particular schemes for universal government. However, the notion of some sort of secular international authority, one that would not detract from the sovereignty of independent states but serve to facilitate their interaction, does fit rather neatly into Catholic social teaching.
Reference to the new Catechism of the Catholic Church can quickly illustrate this point. The general rationale for government is given by section 1927. As we can easily see, this rationale in principle invites universal application:
"It is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society. The common good of the whole human family calls for an organization of society on an international level."
The Catechism is careful, however, to point out that even an authority which is universal in jurisdiction is not therefore necessarily universal in power. Indeed, as Section 1884 explains, the situation is quite the opposite:
"God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of governance ought to be followed in social life. The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard to human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence."
What we are talking about here, of course, is the principle of subsidiarity. In political theory, it takes the form of the axiom that the most local level of an organization which is capable of handling a certain issue should have the authority to handle that issue. Subsidiarity is the guiding constitutional principle of the Church. It is the reason why bishops have such wide discretion over matters of discipline and liturgy in their own dioceses. Indeed, it is part of the secret of the Church's longevity: if the Church really were the centralized autocracy of Protestant mythology, it would have strangled in red tape many centuries ago.
Subsidiarity has applications far beyond ecclesiology. It is closely akin to the principle of federalism in American constitutional theory, under which the states are supposed to retain primary jurisdiction over government functions that are local by their nature. The European Community explicitly defines the relationship of its member states to the union government as one of subsidiarity. What we should note here is that the principle does not just protect the rights of local jurisdictions. It also strongly implies that hierarchy, properly understood, is a positive good. Section 1885 suggests, in fact, that good government naturally seeks to make the tranquility of order universal:
"The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order."
In discussing the hypothesis of world government, we should recall that not all governments are twentieth century bureaucracies. Henry Kissinger, in his book "Diplomacy," notes that the rather informal association of great powers known as the "Concert of Europe" was for all intents and purposes the government of that continent in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. The United Nations, in contrast, has all the trappings of a government, except the ability to actually govern anything. The Catechism has nothing to say about what form the institutions of world order should take. Rather, it seeks to outline what their functions should be. Quoting the Vatican II document, "Gaudium et spes," Section 1911 gives us some notion of what a world government would be expected to do:
"Human interdependence is increasing and gradually spreading throughout the whole world. The unity of the human family, embracing people who enjoy natural dignity, implies a UNIVERSAL COMMON GOOD [phrase italicized in original]. This good calls for an organization of the community of nations able to 'provide for the different needs of men; this will involve the sphere of social life to which belong questions of food, hygiene, education....and certain situations arising here and there, as for example...alleviating the miseries of refugees dispersed throughout the world, and assisting migrants and their families."
Governments normally provide disaster relief and social services, but then so do private agencies. The defining power of government has usually been a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, particularly of military force. The sections dealing with war, 2306-2316, rather grudgingly allow to states a right of self-defense, "as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power" to maintain world peace. Presumably, then, a universal government would have as one of its functions the duty to police the world, though the principle of subsidiarity would suggest that local disorders should normally be dealt with by local forces.
The verb "police" here is precisely the right one to describe the Catechism's view of the role of the military. Sections 2306-2316 (which together comprise a division entitled "Safeguarding Peace") simply restate traditional Catholic doctrine on war. Peace is defined as not just the absence of conflict, but as the tranquility which naturally arises from a just social order. The familiar criteria for a "just war" are set out. Anyone who reads this material out of context is likely to be struck by its legalism. For statesmen in most places at most times, questions of war and peace are questions of policy, of contingency. While not quite lawless, perhaps no decision about going to war has ever been governed entirely by a legal formula. If the principles enunciated in "Safeguarding the Peace" are supposed to be normative, they are not descriptive norms.
What Catholic military doctrine does resemble is the criteria that well-run civilian police forces articulate regarding the use of deadly force. As the nightly television news will tell you, rules of this sort often work imperfectly. However, they do make sense for any law-governed society in which the authorities, too, can be held responsible for their actions.
In other words, Catholic doctrine best fits a world in which subsidiarity has already reached its logical conclusion. It assumes that a universal "law" and "government" are somehow normative. The present society of nations, in which states must resort to self-help to protect themselves, is provisional. Catholic doctrine looks toward a future situation in which there is some supernational entity with the acknowledged right to settle disputes among states, and the physical ability to make its decisions effective. In that world, the rigid legalism which the Catechism prescribes for questions of war and peace would be not only workable, but morally unavoidable.
There are some denominations that lay great stress on international cooperation and occasionally give explicit support to the idea of world government. They dismiss the anxieties of millenarian evangelicals because, for liberal Christianity, the "endtimes" have become purely metaphorical. The Second Coming means only the eventual victory of goodness and niceness, and the only Final Judgment will be the judgment of history. There are, of course, Catholic theologians who think much the same way these Protestants think, but the actual deposit of the faith is quite otherwise. The Antichrist is alive and well in Catholic eschatology, as section 675 of the Catechism indicates. So is the notion of a final tribulation, when many will be tempted to apostasy by a false messianism. In those days, the Church will "follow her Lord in death and Resurrection" (section 677). The liberal belief that "the kingdom will be a historic triumph of the Church by a progressive ascendancy" is specifically rejected. Only the direct intervention of God in history will defeat the final unleashing of evil. For the Catholic Church, the apocalypse is not a metaphor.
The Catholic Church's lack of anxiety about international organizations has another foundation: historical memory. The Church has lived before under governments with pretensions to universal sovereignty. There is no reason in principle why it could not do so again. As the neo-Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper once noted, although it is likely that the reign of Antichrist would involve some sort of world state, a universal government might still be a goal which men of goodwill could pursue if it seemed advisable at the time. The Roman Empire, for instance, was sometimes hostile to Christianity, sometimes indifferent, and sometimes friendly (too friendly, according to many observers). A government that could actually claim jurisdiction over the whole human race for any length of time would be likely to make a similar record, but even a hostile world government would not necessarily be the mark of the endtimes. The final tribulation is a unique event, a miracle of evil. Religious persecution, in contrast, typically needs no explanation beyond politics.
Considering the dismal record of the United Nations in recent years, this is not one of those eras in which stronger international bureaucracies are a self-evidently good idea. The contemplation of a world government which accurately reflected the political culture of the world today is enough to give any reasonable person the heebie-jeebies. Fine. Nevertheless, it does seem to be a law of history that any international system, such as that which existed in the Mediterranean world in the centuries before Christ, will eventually fall under the control of some overarching sovereignty. I suspect, like Toynbee and Spengler, that our own civilization will also someday find itself governed by a universal state. If you don't live to see it, maybe your grandchildren will. Be this as it may, there is no cause for undue anxiety. It does not have to be the end of the world.
Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Warrior Politics

Imagine this as a bald eagle with olive branches and arrowsThe opening entry of this review explains much of John's views on the Middle East. And also why this article was published in First Things.

Robert Kaplan has spent these past 20 years reporting on local collapses of civilization, chiefly in sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. He tells us that, in the future, we should expect more collapse rather than less, and over a wider area. Indeed, he says "the paramount question of world politics in the early 21st century will be the reestablishment of order." The period we have entered will be "the most important decades of American foreign policy," when the terms of the emerging global civilization are written. We need more than merely new policies to navigate this stretch of history, Kaplan believes. In "Warrior Politics," he tries to give us nothing less than an outline of an imperial ethos for American elites.

John didn't think that the terrorists could defeat us, but he did think that a loss of will in the voting public of the United States could have negative long term consequences. I think our wars in Iraq were stupid, but John's point of view does give me pause. It is pretty easy to laugh off John's analysis as imprecise and unscientific, but part of the reason I am re-posting everything he wrote over the last fifteen years is I am acutely interested in what he got right, what he got wrong, and why.

For example, Kaplan was very much right that societal collapse seems to be something we see more of, rather than less. One might point out that Kaplan was involved in causing this himself, but he later changed his mind. As of yet, the United States has not yet pursued the logic of promoting democracy in the Global South to its logical end. For example, we destroyed Libya, but we have have preserved Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite their depravity.

It really isn't difficult to imagine the reason why. We think we know how to remake the world in our image, but each political generation discovers anew that we cannot. We make our peace with the regimes we support and the ones we choose to destroy, but we have not yet found a principled reason for what we do. John proposed a reason, and I think we should consider it.

Warrior Politics:
Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos
By Robert D. Kaplan
198 Pages, US$22.95
Random House, 2002
ISBN: 0-375-50563-6


Robert Kaplan has spent these past 20 years reporting on local collapses of civilization, chiefly in sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. He tells us that, in the future, we should expect more collapse rather than less, and over a wider area. Indeed, he says "the paramount question of world politics in the early 21st century will be the reestablishment of order." The period we have entered will be "the most important decades of American foreign policy," when the terms of the emerging global civilization are written. We need more than merely new policies to navigate this stretch of history, Kaplan believes. In "Warrior Politics," he tries to give us nothing less than an outline of an imperial ethos for American elites.

Kaplan says about Western foreign policy pretty much what one wag once said of Queen Victoria: we have pursued goodness to the point of self-indulgence. The result has too often been bloody chaos. Before the UN insisted on conducting an independence referendum in East Timor, for instance, two things were clear. First, the people would vote for independence from Indonesia. Second, Indonesian partisans would exact revenge violently, unless a foreign security force were on the ground to keep the peace. The UN, or rather its members, would not provide such a force, but the do-gooders of the world nonetheless insisted on enforcing the international norm of self-determination. The cost to the people of that country was terrible.

Particularly since the end of the Cold War, the West in general and the US in particular have been guilty of many such exercises of catastrophic good intentions. We punished military governments in places like Pakistan and Nigeria because they were not democracies, though we knew those countries could unravel if civilians took over. We imposed economic sanctions on countries with imperfect human rights records, even though we needed their help in combating forces that were lethally disposed toward us. Often enough, such policies have been driven by nothing more than the irresponsible harping of the press. We could not have continued to conduct foreign policy like that forever. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, we haven't been. "Warrior Politics" does not directly discuss those attacks, but it does explain what we had been doing wrong that made them more likely.

In essence, Kaplan says that the Wilsonian tradition in American foreign policy seeks to apply essentially civic norms to international society. Kaplan characterizes these norms indifferently as "Judeo-Christian" or Kantian. In any case, he says we have been making a category mistake. Civic morality, in Kaplan's view, is a morality of intent. We seek to respect the rights of others, and ask that others respect our rights. The measure of how well we live up to this standard is the disposition of our will to respect it. However, as Hobbes was rude enough to point out, rights become an issue only after order has been established. Only the Leviathan state can provide civic order, and there is as yet no global Leviathan capable of enforcing universal norms. In the world as it is today, the best we can do is an ethics of result. The goals may well accord with Judeo-Christian ideals, but the means to achieve them often cannot.

Among the many technical points Kaplan never clarifies is how the ethical dilemmas of statesmanship differ from those of sovereigns domestically. Obviously, the duties of private persons differ from those of magistrates, because the latter are responsible for the well being of people other than themselves. This is true whether the conflicting goods they must reconcile are domestic or international. Is the ethics of keeping the peace abroad really so different from keeping the peace at home?

Kaplan is at pains to emphasize that he is not endorsing amorality, but rather a morality that is not Judeo-Christian. He calls this ethos "pagan," though he asserts it underlay the ethics of great modern statesmen, notably his hero Winston Churchill, and of Machiavelli and Hobbes. The actual pagans he discusses at length are Sun Tzu, author of the fourth century B.C. Chinese classic "The Art of War," and Thucydides. "Warrior Politics" is really a meditation on the implications of the ideas of these five men, plus those of Malthus, for the 21st century.

The "warrior ethos" that Kaplan proposes takes something from each of them: Churchill's animals spirits, Thucydides' caution against arrogance, Machiavelli's injunction to "anxious foresight," Hobbes's assessment of man as a dangerous predator, and the willingness of Malthus to consider that the mechanical trends of history need not tend toward the increase of human happiness. Inspired in part by an unpublished essay by Michael Lind on the "honor paradigm" in international relations, Kaplan says that the wise statesman of the 21st century should be guided by something rather like the code duello.

In civil society the state protects us, but in lawless regions we must look to self-help, or to strong protectors. The safety of the weak, in fact, depends on the willingness of the strong to use violence in their behalf. In such an environment, the strong dare not suffer insult, lest their credibility diminish and so invite further attacks against them and their clients. There are limits to violence, however. The strong act from self-interest, but only to the point dictated by necessity. To use more force or cruelty than the occasion demands would provoke one's enemies to unite in self-defense.

Readers of Frank Herbert's romance "Dune" may note how closely this ethos matches that of the leaders of the Great Houses in Herbert's imaginary galactic civilization. Indeed, the parallels are closer, since Kaplan imagines a world in which conventional military conflict is rare, but conflict continues nonetheless through "asymmetrical" means. Terror and assassination become the preferred methods of attack, not by the weak, but by the ambitious. The leaders of the West, and particularly the United States, must be prepared to function in a world in which democratic mass armies no longer ensure security. Future wars "will feature warriors on one side, motivated by grievance and rapine, and an aristocracy of statesmen, motivated, perhaps, by ancient virtue." So much for soccer-mom politics.

The role of the United States in all this is unique. It is not quite a world Leviathan, but it is a planetary hegemon. It does not have the luxury that Great Britain had after the Second World War of handing its place in the world over to a compatible power. If anyone is going to embed human rights and the rule of law in the world system, it has to be us. As Kaplan puts it, "Global institutions are an outgrowth of Western power, not a replacement for it." At least on a military level that power lies almost exclusively with the United States.

Kaplan suggests that the world is moving to a greater level of institutional unity. He dwells on an analogy between modernity and the Warring States Period in China. That era resulted, after three appalling centuries, in the Han Dynasty at the end of the 3rd century BC. Kaplan characterizes the dynasty as a loose system of "governance" for the newly unified but highly diverse Chinese world. Inevitably, he also makes the analogy of the United States to Rome; the point of departure is the frequently made comparison between the Second Punic War and World War II.

The United States, then, is to oversee the crystallization of a global civilization we would want to live in. However, Americans must be quite literally the last people in the world to eschew ordinary patriotism for internationalism. Americans must cultivate Flag Day and the Fourth of July in order to maintain the national integrity needed for their global role. Kaplan's model here is the myth-making patriotism of Livy, though one may note that Livy idealized the ancient Republic after it was over, in the first generation of the Empire.

"Warrior Politics" does not propose a formal system of ethics, not even an ethics of statecraft. Still, while describing an ethos is not quite the same as elaborating an ethics, we may note that the ethical systems that come down to us from the ancient pagans have little to do with the "ancient pagan ethos" that Kaplan submits for our approval. Epicureanism and Stoicism were at least as much philosophies of self-cultivation as is Kant's Transcendental Idealism.

Kaplan's dictum that "unarmed prophets always fail" has as many historical exceptions as confirmations. Kaplan does mention that the unarmed followers of Jesus did "help bring down the Roman Empire," but without discussing the case in detail. However, inflexible idealism prevailed over pragmatism even in one of his favorite historical analogies. In the great ideological contest of the Warring States Period between Legalism and Confucianism, the outcome was the defeat of Machiavellian Legalism and the triumph of persnickety, I-told-you-so Confucianism. The prigs do sometimes inherit the earth.

Kaplan's silence about Christian political theory is encyclopedic. He mentions Niebuhr's "Christian Realism" favorably, though he does not describe it. He also makes a passing friendly reference to Richelieu's and Bismarck's "pietism," which Kaplan believes left them free during business hours to maneuver as Realpolitiker. No doubt he saved himself the trouble of reviewing an extensive literature by confining his remarks about Just War theory to this: "Grotius's 'just war' presupposed the existence of a Leviathan - the pope or the Holy Roman Emperor - to enforce a moral code."

"Warrior Politics" is really a call for the American political class to redefine itself in terms of a new goal: the maintenance and consolidation of an international system that is, in some respects, a loosely organized global empire. Kaplan does indeed propose a transformation of values, though maybe not the ones he imagines. In effect, he is not asking for the rejection of Jesus, but of John Rawls. The imperial project is not inconsistent with the expansion of the rule of law, domestically and internationally, and the spread of democratic institutions, or even of economic equality. However, its overriding goal would be peace, or at least a tolerable global order. This would be a new organizing principle for politics. Certainly it would be an un-modern one.

One way to look at modernity is as the period in which societies sought to transform themselves in order to achieve the highest social goods. Democracy and equality in some form have usually been counted among them, but then so have free markets for some and socialism for others. For many people the highest goods have included secularization and environmentalism. In any case, these highest goods, however defined, could never be more than instrumental to the global system of perpetual peace (or mitigated war) that Kaplan is proposing as the end of policy. We are to turn our attention from the highest goods of modernity to the common, essential good of civilization, which is a livable order.

This may or may not be a good idea, but let us not deceive ourselves about the magnitude of the change Kaplan proposes. His "warrior ethos" would change our rhetoric, our public priorities, the kinds of things we admire and despise. An imperial future would be a different world.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2002 issue of First Things. Please click on the following line for more information:

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2002-08-01: War Plans

John has been definitely refuted here by the events that followed not only the downfall of the Baathist Iraqi state, but also Syria and Libya. Deposing Middle Eastern tyrants has shown us there are indeed worse evils. I suppose the one consolation we have is that while President George W. Bush was a true believer in the American gospel, spreading peace and democracy everywhere we go, whereas President Obama seems rather indifferent. This hasn't really affected our involvement in the Middle East since foreign policy is conducted by the same people under both Presidents, other than they do seem to have learned that Americans really don't want boots on the ground in the Middle East.

All of this might be less objectionable if our Deep State hawks were a little better at what they do. Instead, we get what Jerry Pournelle calls Incompetent Empire. We are exceptionally good at the breaking things and killing people part of Empire, what we are less good at is the political maneuvering afterwards. One needn't look far to find examples of competent Empire. Both the British and the Romans were quite adept at this kind of thing. The Deep State seems largely to be populated with folks who share whiggish understandings of human nature: democracy and liberty are culturally neutral goods sought by everyone at all times and in all places.

Something in John's favor is that he did understand that forms of government are culturally dependent, and that not all things are possible in all times and all places. John correctly notes that Iran is not liable to same weaknesses as many other Middle Eastern states. Some sort of state has existed in Persia for a very long time, the people there identify with their history and their nation. The last time we interfered in their internal affairs to any great effect, the Iranians rose up and threw us out. On the other hand, John felt that Iraq was a fictional country [it is], with a widely despised government [it was], such that you ought to able to depose one government and put another in its place without too much fuss [possible?].

If we were better at the game of Empire, perhaps we could have done this. As it turned out, we did not succeed.

War Plans

For the last week or two, we have been overwhelmed with plans for the war with Iraq. The invasion will happen next spring and involve a quarter-million regular Army troops, or it will happen almost immediately with just a few thousand members of the special forces. It will be a matter of all heavy armor or just air power, according to taste. The war will last some time between 72 hours and six months.

There really is a range of respectable opinions about strategy. Newspapers get an anonymous quote or two from someone associated with the military when they publish stories about these things, but I don't give special credence to these "leaks" from the Pentagon. In reality, the press has just been stating the obvious.

For me, at least, the obvious strategy has always been to shut down all intercity movement and communications in Iraq for a few days, install a provisional government based in the north and south, and then bring heavier forces to bear against the government's bunkers and other redoubts. From what I understand, the Iraqi military is largely irrelevant to the war it would have to fight. The heavy armor it favors simply cannot be used when the enemy has air supremacy. Small forces could defeat the large Iraqi military because that military would never be able to concentrate. The slow, massive, campaign favored by the US Army would obviate the advantages that Iraq offers.

A lightning campaign ought to foster or even create uprisings in the north and south of the country; the Iraqi government could be deprived of most of its territory at a blow. Additionally, the US should seek to eliminate the Iraqi government as a diplomatic actor within hours of beginning the assault. Ideally, that government should be unable even to communicate with its UN delegation. We might see not only most of Iraq's military quickly defecting, but also its diplomatic corps.

We have also recently seen another class of stories related to the war. These are assessments depicting the chaos that would follow the removal of the Baathist regime from Baghdad and the opprobrium in which the US would be held for doing such a thing. Unlike the matter of military strategy, such stories do not reflect a range of plausible opinions. They are uniformly tendentious. George Bernard Shaw, in his silly old age, opposed the British declaration of war against Germany in 1939. "What on earth would happen if we did defeat the Germans?" he would ask. "Is our policy to overthrow the governments of Germany and the Soviet Union, and replace them with the British constitution?" The difference between today's anti-war propaganda and that of 1939 is that Shaw was honestly stupid.

There is such a thing as overreaching, however. We see an example of this in Reuel Marc Gerecht's Weekly Standard article of August 5, "Regime Change in Iran?" The piece acutely points out that President Bush's approach to the war on terror is a species of "liberation theology." The article does not propose invading Iran while we are in the neighborhood, but simply that we should promote the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, not seek to engage it.

There are mysteries in this matter that do not apply to Iraq. One can plug and unplug the governments of most Middle Eastern countries because they are make-believe states to begin with. Their peoples barely tolerate them. This is particularly true of the Baathist government of Syria, the removal of which is the key to solving the Palestinian situation. Iran, in contrast, is a real country. It has a lively civil society and a notable cultural life, both rarities in the region. It even has an imperfect democracy. Gerecht's argument is that, with a little push, Iran could become a secular, democratic state like Turkey.

Maybe, but I have misgivings. For one thing, the Wilsonianism-with-teeth that the Weekly Standard promotes really is a "liberation theology," even if the people who favor it imagine that they are encouraging secular neutrality. Muslims often look on Western secular humanism as a kind of Protestant Christianity, and they have a point.

Islam is not a "medieval" civilization awaiting its Reformation. Mohammed was a sort of Luther, who brought simplicity and egalitarianism to the orthodoxies and heterodoxies of the Middle East. He even brought "sola scriptura," which would not enter Christianity for another 900 years. Islam is in fact a fossil Reformation. You can shatter a fossil, but you cannot get it to grow again.

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The Long View 2002-07-25: An Unexpected Abyss

Baron Julius Evola

This is where you will find John's real view of the Global War on Terror. It wasn't, and isn't, possible for any of the various counter-insurgencies, civil wars, and bush wars currently raging in the world to bring down the United States of America. To think so is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in general, and America's power in particular.

The alternatives currently on offer simply cannot fill the mental space that America currently occupies in the world. None of our declared enemies have the ability to bridge that gap, let alone dislodge us from our position. This is not to say that America deserves to be on top because it is better, or that our enemies merit failure because they are wicked.

The argument is simply that civilizations exhibit something very much like a lifecycle, and not all things are possible at all times and all places. This argument at least has the benefit of empirical evidence, although the sample size is small.

However, there is a viable alternative. It is simply not a visible alternative. And that is all part of the plan.

I used to find John's discussions of Tradition rather mysterious. What exactly is this Tradition thing? It is not the people you usually find called traditional, or traditionalists. John often referred to René Guénon and Baron Julius Evola, but they just seemed marginal figures of European history. Who exactly is it that subscribes to the one twentieth century ideology that never had a state? Then I met a man who did.

I couldn't exactly figure what unsettled me about this man until I re-read what John wrote here:

While there are groups that promote one or more aspects of the Politica Hermetica, there is no great conspiracy behind it. René Guénon called it "Tradition," which comes close enough, though even that exaggerates its coherence. In any case, it is a mode of thought that political science tends to overlook. It is characterized by self-appointed elites who represent a cause rather than human constituents. This implicit devotion to hierarchy, however, coexists with a tactical anarchism. This is the world of "direct action" anarchists, but it is not confined to them. No doubt we have all met "conservatives" who would not leave one stone of the modern world standing on another. Their loyalty is not to this world, but to a transcendent realm. If they are conventionally religious, they adhere to some ineffable orthodoxy that excludes most of their nominal co-religionists. To some extent, this is just a matter of personality type. Still, when we find such people, I suspect we will often find some direct ideological influence from writers associated with Tradition or the Conservative Revolution.

Ah. That described him perfectly, and explained why I felt so odd about him. I had read this twelve years ago, and while my memory isn't what it used to be, I doubtless retained at least some faint memory of it. That memory served as a Gestalt, even as faint as it was. This was a man who would destroy everything; he would not leave one stone stacked upon another.

Sometimes you hear that the left-right political spectrum is not a line, but a circle. Tradition is where the two lines meet.

An Unexpected Abyss


I don't believe that we are experiencing a crisis of capitalism, or that we could be defeated in the current Jihad. I think this way because I believe that capitalism and liberal democracy are strong. However, many people seem to think that the success of liberal capitalist democracy is assured simply because there is no alternative. The worst outcome they can imagine is a spate of "chaos" until the liberal order is restored. I increasingly appreciate that this is not the case. The outcome might not be chaos, but a quite different order.

Francis Fukuyama was largely correct in The End of History: communism, and even socialism, have been permanently discredited. The events of 1989 really did constitute the end of the line of ideological evolution that began in the Enlightenment. Communism today is not an alternative. However, one might argue that it was not a likely alternative even in the 1930s, which was the last time the real alternative surfaced. It's too simple to call the alternative "fascism." The fascist states of the first half of the 20th century still had mass political cultures; to some extent, they remained parodies of democracies. At their hearts, however, there was the esoteric alternative. For lack of a better term, we will call it the Politica Hermetica (which should in not be equated with the journal of that name and the annual symposium that deals with the subject). It antedates the Enlightenment, though of course it has undergone development over the last two-and-a-half centuries. Nonetheless, it has a content that is not merely reactionary.

I mention this now because bits of the Politica Hermetica keep turning up in the news. There is the esoteric Islamic connection, which had a long history even before the postwar fascist-Muslim links. There is the reunification of Europe, which might seem like a good idea on the merits. There are the increasingly successful attempts to remove the Catholic Church as a public voice. In some ways, the most alarming development is the attacks on capitalism and the market. Though some commentators don't seem to appreciate the fact, the Politica Hermetica has always appeared on the left as well as the right, among Greens as well as Black Metal fans.

While there are groups that promote one or more aspects of the Politica Hermetica, there is no great conspiracy behind it. René Guénon called it "Tradition," which comes close enough, though even that exaggerates its coherence. In any case, it is a mode of thought that political science tends to overlook. It is characterized by self-appointed elites who represent a cause rather than human constituents. This implicit devotion to hierarchy, however, coexists with a tactical anarchism. This is the world of "direct action" anarchists, but it is not confined to them. No doubt we have all met "conservatives" who would not leave one stone of the modern world standing on another. Their loyalty is not to this world, but to a transcendent realm. If they are conventionally religious, they adhere to some ineffable orthodoxy that excludes most of their nominal co-religionists. To some extent, this is just a matter of personality type. Still, when we find such people, I suspect we will often find some direct ideological influence from writers associated with Tradition or the Conservative Revolution.

My own problem with the Politica Hermetica is that I find parts of it intrinsically attractive. The Perennial Philosophy, as explained by Aldous Huxley's book of that name, is a sunny doctrine. It is more or less explicit in the work of writers I admire, such as Robertson Davies. As for its political implications, I think it is one of those "self-evident" truths that government requires some transcendent basis; even democracy is not self-legitimizing. For that matter, I am also one of those people who keep referring to the impending "end of modernity." The Politica Hermetica makes similar assumptions, but then takes them to places where no sane person would want to follow.

What happened in the 1920s and 1930s was that many did follow, because they did not know that there were such places. In those days, when people despaired of democracy and capitalism, they thought the alternative was some familiar form of authoritarian government. Even those who supported "socialism" did not understand what a break with the past it would mean. At the international level, the respectable great powers laid aside their informal policing roles in order to deal with their internal problems. They thought that the worst that could happen would be distant disorders, of little interest in a world of diminished global trade. The scope of the disaster was made possible by a failure of imagination.

There is no great wave of political hermeticism poised to overwhelm Western civilization, but then neither was there one 75 years ago. My point is that, when the system imploded, the result was not Bolshevism, or chaos, or a return to the virtuous past. Rather, an alternative way of organizing the world seemed to appear out of nowhere. In fact, it had been there before. It's still there now.

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The Long View 2002-07-18: Morose Delectation

I had been a reader of First Things before I knew John wrote some articles for the magazine in its heyday, when Fr. Richard John Neuhaus was editor. Thirteen years later, I am still a subscriber, probably one of the more unusual ones, since it is primarily a journal for clerics and professional philosophers. Presumably, the average age of subscribers is also older than me, since many of the advertisements are for Catholic colleges. I am in the market for that kind of thing, but not for a long time.

John's prediction about the Federal budget deficit seems to have been correct. This also illustrates one of his consistent complaints about the Republican party: they have consistently advocated cutting taxes no matter what the consequence will be for the actual amount of money we will spend. He had a name for this: capital gains zombies. Gainsss! Gainsss!

John also believed that American evangelical Christians had an unseemly attraction to gum up the works Constitutional amendments, on the theory that government is a necessary evil. As a Catholic, John, and I, have no time for this kind of thing. This has informed my own views of the Tea Party movement. They are true believers that government is a necessary evil. This view simply has no place in Catholic political thinking.

Morose Delectation

Many thanks to Fr. Neuhaus of First Things for finding an English equivalent for "Schadenfreude." The term "morose delectation" was apparently used in some older guides to spiritual life to refer to the sin of taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. Fr. Neuhaus mentioned the term in "The Public Square" section of the August/September issue of First Things. He assures us that this is not what he felt about the disgrace of the hurriedly retired Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee. No, not one bit.

I actually share the lack of the sentiment. Rembert Weakland was a nitwit who deserved public repremand for undermining orthodoxy in the Benedictine Order and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee these many years. No point of principle was vindicated when he was discovered to have used hundreds of thousands of dollars of diocesan money to buy silence from a boyfriend. His personal failings were largely irrelevant to the harm he had done. One may be tempted to take satisfaction from the death of a suicide bomber who blows himself up prematurely in his basement, but not when he blows himself up in a crowd. That is pretty much what the archbishop did to the reputation of the American episcopate.


* * *

The New York City commission charged with deciding what to do with the old World Trade Center site has issued some tentative proposals. The disdain that met them was polite enough, considering the emotional sensitivity of the project and the natural contrariness of New Yorkers. Most people thought that the architecture in the six proposals was too timid. This was understandable, since the proposals really did not have much to say about architecture, but were mostly about where any new construction should be. The commission first wants to settle the street grid and the matter of the memorial. There is some sentiment that at least the holes where the Trade Center Towers used to be should be preserved. There are some people who want the whole 16 acres turned into a memorial park. The commission has tried to compromise.

For myself, I will begrudge every yard of open space as Osama's Victory Garden. Something superlative has to be done with the whole site to wrest it back from barbarism. The demand for real estate in the area is secondary; so, frankly, are the opinions of the families of those who died on September 11. Let the dead have a memorial that is among the wonders of the world, but the memorial cannot be a ruin.

Though I suspect the project needs no further promotion from me, I give my endorsement to Derek Turner's New World Trade Center. It consists of five towers, four at the corners of a square and one in the center. They would be connected by walkways every ten stories. Two garden levels transect all the towers. There would be a glass pyramid on top. Most elevators would be in the center tower, thus solving the familiar high-rise problem of elevator space. Redundant stairs and other escape mechanisms are in each tower. The whole thing would be over 1,700 feet tall, the largest building in the world. The memorial would be in the garden at ground level; each victim would be represented by an specified tree. The dead would not just get plaques. They would get their own forest.

Turner's plan calls for multiple use: commercial, residential, and retail. Also, the layout is open enough that the area in which the towers sit could become one of the world's great pedestrian malls. Maybe this particular plan is a pipe dream. Nonetheless, it would be a great improvement over not only the official proposals, but also the old World Trade Center itself.


* * *

Trent Lot was recently kind enough to send me a Republican Party Opinion Survey. The survey comes with a return envelope. The survey suggests, as an afterthought, that I post any spare dollars I might have on me along with the survey form.

Anyone who has ever done direct mail knows that the you don't tinker with a good package, even if it is full of obsolete information and misspellings. So, I can understand why these "polls" still ask whether I should be allowed to keep more of my hard-earned money, or whether I should pay higher taxes to conduct experiments on embryos. What none has asked recently, however, is whether the federal budget should be balanced, come Hell or high water.

The Republican claim about the current deficit is true: this year, at least, the deficit was not caused by the recent tax cuts, but by the downturn in the economy. However, that may not be true in later years. It is arguably the case that the cuts lock in a structural deficit for later in this decade.

The degree of seriousness with which the Republican Party deserves to be taken will turn on how it deals with this problem. If it gets into the habit of raising and lowering taxes in response to the real behavior of the economy, then the party will have a future. However, if it turns to bogus notions, like a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, then we know the party will come to a bad end in this world and the next.

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The Long View: World Government

If I hope John is remembered for something, it would be his indefatigable efforts to wrest the idea of world government away from the kooks. It seems likely that some sort of universal state is the political future of the West, although how likely and how universal are matters of some uncertainty. John felt it was pretty likely, and what we do over the next two or three generations will have a lot to do with how it all turns out.

This topic grew on its own. World government is a theme that plays a large role in many eschatological scenarios. It is also often touched on in foreign policy these days, at least obliquely.

The image to the left is a modification of Thomas Cole's Consummation, from his series, The Course of Empire (1845).



How Civilizations Die (David Goldman, also known as "Spengler," gives us another Demographic Dreadful.) The Katechonic Commonwealth (A comparative approach to the Western Universal State.) The Origins of Political Order (Francis Fukuyama explains the origins of the state.)




Caritas in Veritate (Benedict XVI's specifications for an ecumenical polity.) Rites of Peace (Adam Zamoyski recounts the oddly neglected Congress of Vienna.) The Next 100 Years (George Friedman does a geopolitical projection of the 21st century.)




Empires of Trust (Thomas Madden updates the analogy of Rome to America for the 21st century.)


The Return of History (Robert Kagan makes short work of Fareed Zakaria and Francis Fukuyama.) The Post-American World (Fareed Zakaria reveals an Indian future for America in an anti-apocalyptic model of history.) The Nomos of the Earth (Carl Schmitt reveals how the Belgians unhinged the Eurocentric world.)


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The Long View: Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

Wilsonian is a term not often used to express admiration or approbation, but perhaps President Woodrow Wilson deserves another look. This is a fine piece of mild historical revisionism, putting Wilson in historical context, something the man himself would appreciate. How many of us now remember that before Wilson was elected to the presidency, he was generally considered a conservative? He was also a best-selling author and the first President from the South after the Civil War. He was a preacher's son, and his oratorical style exemplified that background:

[T]he man whose faith is rooted in the Bible knows that reform cannot be stayed, that the finger of God that moves upon the face of the nations is against every man that plots the nation's downfall or the people's deceit; that these men are simply groping and staggering in their ignorance to a fearful day of judgment.

Wilson was a passionate advocate of state's rights, even to the point of risking war with Japan over a California law preventing Japanese from owning land. Wilson also re-segregated the civil service, appointing Southern whites to positions held by black Republicans under Teddy Roosevelt. These acts are not surprising given his Southern birth, but the label of "Progressive" can easily confuse us today.

Even Wilson's most [in]famous accomplishments, the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, could perhaps be considered something of a success. The League implemented the Treaty, and then closed up shop when that task was accomplished. Even though the United States never joined the League, most of its goals were accomplished, and it had the form that Wilson intended for it; by and large, Wilson got what he wanted at Versailles.

Eerie, in retrospect, is this quotation from his whistle-stop tour to advocate for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles:

You are betrayed. You fought for something that you did not get. And the glory of the armies and navies of the United States is gone like a dream in the night, and there ensues upon it, in the suitable darkness of the night, the nightmare of dread that lay upon the nations before this war came; and there will come some time, in the vengeful Providence of God, another war in which not a few hundred thousand men from America will have to die, but as many millions as are necessary to accomplish the final freedom of the peoples of the world.

A presentiment of doom was common in fin de siècle Europe, but this is a disturbingly accurate prediction of the rest of the twentieth century. In many ways, Wilson set the tone for the American century, in concert with his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt.

Some of the premises from which Wilson operated perhaps were ill-considered, but his projects often had the right goals in mind. Both the premises and the goals are still with us, no matter how little regard we have for the man who fostered them.

Woodrow Wilson
A Biography
By August Heckscher
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991
745 Pages, US$35.00
ISBN: 0-684-19312-4


Reviewed by
John J. Reilly


Since the end of the Cold War, it has become a commonplace to say that the two great revolutionaries of the 20th century were Vladimir Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, and that of the two Wilson has proven to be the more successful. Nonetheless, Wilson has become an oddly disliked figure. The term "Wilsonian" is often used as a derisive synonym for "utopian," and the man himself is recalled as a hectoring minor prophet, too inflexible even to see his pet nostrum, the League of Nations, through to ratification by the United States Senate. This biography of Wilson, written just as the Cold War was ending, puts some of the grosser calumnies against Wilson to rest. Readers should note that the biographer is a fan: August Heckscher is a former president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Still, the book at least touches on the failures as well as the successes of Wilsonianism. We also get personal information essential to understanding Wilson, especially his medical history. More important, though, the book gives us a starting point to discuss an issue that Wilson first broached and whose relevance has only increased since this biography was published: the relationship between democracy and world order.

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was born "Thomas Wilson," a name that he would gradually drop as his education advanced, though there were always a few friends who called him "Tommy." The place of birth was Virginia. He would become the first president from the South after the Civil War, after having experienced defeat and then occupation in the aftermath of that conflict. In Heckscher's account, however, Wilson was an eccentric Southerner. All four grandparents were born abroad in Scotland or Northern Ireland; his mother came from Scotland. His family on both sides were Presbyterians. Many of his relatives, including his father, were ministers. Old-fashioned Presbyterianism has a reputation as one of the more somber versions of Christianity, but the Presbyterianism of the Wilson family was neither gloomy or old-fashioned: this reviewer was reminded of the minister's family in Norman MacLean's novel, A River Runs Through It. As the biographer puts it:

Indeed, the religious faith the young Wilson derived from his father's teaching was not the sort manifesting itself only in dark moments, but grew stronger in times of confidence and elation when God's watchfulness seemed to be validated by outward experience. The coming together of worldly good fortune with a feeling of inner blessedness could make the Presbyterian of liberal faith, as it made Wilson in his happiest periods, a charismatic figure.

Actually, if one is looking for literary analogues to Wilson, one might consider the young H.P. Lovecraft. Both had boyhoods given over to fantasy and dreaming, and both were generally thought to suffer from some mild disability. Both would also acquire a taste for writing self-consciously archaic prose, which Wilson would employ in his popular histories. (The biographer thinks those works, such as A History of the American People and George Washington, were terrible potboilers, but they did sell well). One major difference was that young Lovecraft was precocious, while Wilson did not learn to read until he was nine; debate continues about whether Wilson was dyslexic.

A greater difference was that Wilson's father did not die young, but saw Wilson through undergraduate school, law school (Wilson practiced law for only a few months), and then graduate school. The bulk of Wilson's academic career was spent at Princeton University, which was still called "The College of New Jersey" when he entered as a sophomore. He would teach at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan University (in Connecticut), and at Johns Hopkins, where he also did his graduate work in the newest German methods of historiography, but he returned to Princeton and would eventually serve as its president from 1902 to 1910. His career as a young scholar coincided with an expansion of higher education in the United States unmatched until the 1950s. Wilson frequently received invitations to teach at, and sometimes even to head, new universities in the Midwest. He was tempted by these offers, but seemed to understand that his chance of influence in his own lifetime required that he not stray too far from the Boston to Washington DC corridor.

Though he trained as a historian, Wilson's academic reputation rested on his work as a political scientist. His first book, Congressional Government (published 1885 and still in print) deplored the eclipse of the executive branch in the years after the Civil War and argued for more effective government through greater cooperation between the president and Congress. Indeed, Wilson seemed sometimes to argue for something like a parliamentary system. His desire for more effective government was characteristic of the Progressive Era in which he played so conspicuous a part. The sentiment was remarkably nonpartisan: progressives were Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal. The progressive agenda was variable, expanding from a core of issues that all sane people saw had to be addressed to more speculative issues with even more speculative solutions. The reformers' to-do list ran from reform of the banking system to female suffrage to ending child labor, and on through assuring the safety of the food supply and the criminalization of the recreational use of narcotics, not to mention the breaking up of business monopolies and the public ownership of utilities and even of the railroads. Wilson once deplored the fact that the term "socialist" had been appropriated by an eccentric school of economics, since obviously all public policy should be concerned with the good of society as a whole. In Wilson's sense, a policy of lowering tariffs to promote competition (something he did during his first term as president) could be characterized as "socialist."

Towards the end of Wilson's career, Oswald Spengler would predict, in characteristically cryptic fashion, that the final public morality of the West would be something called "Ethical Socialism." Spengler was no doubt thinking of Bismarck's social policy, but the term far better fits Spengler's contemporary, Woodrow Wilson.

Theodore Roosevelt is the contemporary to whom Wilson is most often compared, but there are stronger parallels (or at least it seems to this reviewer) between Wilson and Oliver Wendell Holmes. They shared an organic view of historical development and a fundamentally historicist metaphysics. The organicism no doubt puts them in the great conservative tradition of Edmund Burke; indeed, during his academic career, Wilson was generally regarded as a conservative. As a historian, Wilson favored narrative that attempted to recapture the texture of the period under discussion. (In this he anticipated the historiography of people like R.G. Collingwood; Wilson even attempted to employ the prose style of the period he was writing about, with results that were not invariably happy.) However, for Wilson there was a characteristically Progressive Era twist to the historical cast of mind. Burke emphasized the incremental and non-programmatic development of society as part of an argument against projects of social engineering. Wilson, in contrast, looked to organic models of change for an argument that change is possible, even mandatory.

The author notes Wilson's antipathy to the philosophy of Jefferson the Founding Father (though he gave high marks to the record of Jefferson the President). From this we may surmise that Wilson disliked Jefferson's appeal to universal, ahistorical, self-evident truths. This is very much the view that Holmes held toward natural law, and particularly to attempts to impose any theory of pre-existing, non-textual rights through constitutional judicial review. As a practical matter, these concerns met: Holmes spent much of his career as a jurist trying to persuade the courts not to strike down the social legislation that people like Wilson were enacting. Holmes argued that it is fundamentally lawless for the courts to overturn laws on behalf of "rights" not found in the text of the Constitution. This issue would surface again, in another context, in the later 20th century.

The parallels to Holmes should not be overstated. Holmes was an agnostic Social Darwinist who adopted historicist pragmatism as the last resource against nihilism. In Wilson's view, both business and government had an essentially moral basis. Wilson needed historicism as a medium through which Providence could transform the world. If Wilson rejected the idea of primordial self-evident truths, that was because he believed the future could do better. Though the term does not occur in this biography, Wilson seems to have been a postmillennialist of a very thorough and sophisticated sort. The complaints heard in the early 21st century that the government of the United States is being theocratized in an unprecedented fashion must contend with statements like this from Governor and then President Wilson:


[T]he man whose faith is rooted in the Bible knows that reform cannot be stayed, that the finger of God that moves upon the face of the nations is against every man that plots the nation's downfall or the people's deceit; that these men are simply groping and staggering in their ignorance to a fearful day of judgment.
Sometimes, according to the author, Wilson seemed to think there were two kinds of law: law that simply codifies the facts of society as they exist, and law that runs ahead of the facts to fix the moral parameters of the living generation. Where Wilson differed from Lenin, and for that matter from contemporary and later exponents of the "living constitution," is his insistence on fostering revolution through legislation enacted by democratic means.

If the biographer is to be believed, Wilson displayed a taste for social revolution even as president of Princeton, but in a characteristically Wilsonian fashion. His first concern was to raise academic standards. As a college administrator, he set his face against preferential treatment for athletes (and, perhaps not incidentally, undertook to suppress the riot and vandalism for which the burgeoning college populations of the day were notorious). He attempted to bring the system of elective courses under control. Students should have some control over what they studied, but he insisted that every course of study include some exposure to the whole field of learning. Despite his training in German historiographical methods (or perhaps because of it) he opposed the attempt, then very popular, to make the liberal arts conform to the methods of the physical sciences. He shared Matthew Arnold's insistence on the priority of liberal learning.

The revolutionary element appeared in Wilson's plan to suppress Princeton's famous "eating clubs," or at least to diminish their importance to a point where they would no longer be the organizing principle of undergraduate life. The eating clubs, Wilson argued, were the preserves of the very rich. Their existence tended to divide the student body on a class basis. Wilson's remedy was to reorganize the campus on the basis of residential quadrangles, which would function something like the system of residential houses at Harvard. In a not unrelated move, he wanted to incorporate Princeton's new graduate schools into the body of the campus. Wilson argued the merits of the arrangement for the coherence of the university. He also made clear his desire to prevent rich alumni from controlling the development of the new schools: Princeton had been offered large gifts conditional on the new schools being located in palatial campuses of their own, far from the main body of the university.

In carrying out his academic initiatives, Wilson honed his practice of turning controversial questions into matters of principle, with himself occupying a moral high ground from which there could be no retreat. This worked better with some issues than with others. His reform of the curriculum was well received. As university president and as lecturer, Wilson was wildly popular with the students, even the ones in the eating clubs. Long after his tenure as president, the quadrangle plan was carried out. The graduate schools, however, are still over the hills and far away.

Wilson did have flaws. His marriage to Ellen Axon ended only with her death in 1914 (they had three children: all daughters). We are assured that Wilson's reputation as a womanizer was grossly exaggerated, but there is good evidence for one affair toward the end of Wilson's time at Princeton, during the long, separate vacations that the Wilsons were in the habit of taking:


These complex relationships show the dualism that often characterized Wilson. He could appear to be different men, the one scarcely aware of what the other was thinking. Thus he seems never to have felt the need to make a choice between [Ellen] his wife and Mary Peck. The same post that in 1909 carried from Bermuda letters to Ellen that might have been those of a bridegroom to his bride, carried to Mary passionate assurance of how ardently she was missed.

One cannot help but note the same duality in Wilson's dealings with Germany in 1918. In one telegram, he might offer to serve as a mediator between the Central Powers and the Allies; in the next telegram, he might write as a belligerent who required the capitulation of his interlocutor. One cannot also help noting how often this strategy worked, on the public and private level.

In any case, as a political scientist and a lecturer on government reform, Wilson developed a national reputation of a size that even the politicians noticed. Thus came the invitation from the Democratic Party bosses of New Jersey to run for governor of the state, an eminence to which he was duly elected and served from 1910 to 1912. His platform as a candidate was typical of progressives of both parties: direct election of United States senators, a worker's compensation system, primary elections to select party nominees for almost all offices, the creation of commissions to regulate public utilities. There were differences in emphasis in the bipartisan progressive movement of the time. At first, for instance, Wilson was skeptical of such progressive measures as the referendum and recall elections. Not until he became president did he support suffrage for women, and he never endorsed the prohibition of alcohol. Wilson believed as much as Theodore Roosevelt in the need to expand the functions of government, but he took longer to come to the conclusion that these functions had to be exercised at the federal rather than the state level. Only reluctantly did he abandon the view that business monopolies could be broken up through ordinary legal processes, rather than preserved and regulated in the manner that Roosevelt pioneered.

Wilson's election to the presidency in 1912 capped the strangest presidential campaign in the 20th century. The Republican Party self-destructed when former president Theodore Roosevelt, denied the Republican nomination, ran as the candidate of the Progressive (or Bull Moose) Party. The incumbent president, Robert Taft, seems to have stayed in the race as the Republican candidate to ensure that Roosevelt would not win. Meanwhile, many progressives who might ordinarily have voted for Wilson voted instead for Eugene Debs, the candidate of the Socialist Party, who received almost a million votes. Wilson actually received fewer popular votes than Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan did in 1906, when Bryan lost. Nonetheless, not only was Wilson elected, but his party controlled both Houses of Congress.

Wilson adopted the term "The New Freedom" to describe his program. As the biographer points out, it had a substantially different coloration in his first term from his second. During the first four years, Wilson was concerned with institutional reform. He got Congress to create the Federal Reserve System, which gave the United States a central bank for the first time since the administration of Andrew Jackson. This measure made the financial system less disaster-prone (although, as later events would prove, not disaster-proof). Perhaps more remarkable to contemporaries, he succeeded in lowering tariffs and reforming the tariff system. He did this despite the vampiritic flocks of lobbyists the issue attracted to Capitol Hill, much as business taxes do now. Wilson created the Federal Trade Commission to take some of the responsibility for anti-trust regulation from the Justice Department.

A worldwide recession was starting as Wilson took office, but despite the increase in unemployment his administration was seen as competent and effective. He won reelection in 1916 by a narrow but respectable margin. He had planned to devote his second term to what we would now call "social issues": an eight-hour day; an end to child labor; provision for cheap credit to farmers. He did make progress towards these goals. He also intervened in some major labor strikes in a way that reassured the labor unions that the federal government was on their side. However, regarding Wilson's domestic initiatives, one must note that his record on racial issues was appalling from first to last, even by the standards of the time. During his first term, the federal bureaucracy began to be racially segregated. Far from extending patronage jobs to black Democrats, which he had hinted in 1912 that he might do, he routinely appointed white southerners to jobs that had been held by black Republicans appointed by Roosevelt and Taft. Wilson declined to tell California that its new legislation barring Japanese from owning land was plainly contrary to United States treaty obligations. In effect, he risked a war with Japan to support a doubtful interpretation of states' rights.

Wilson had not even mentioned foreign affairs in his first inaugural address. His appointments in this area suggested that it was not one of his priorities. William Jennings Bryan was his first Secretary of State; Bryan was no fool, but he did serve grape juice rather than wine at diplomatic receptions, and his pacifism made him increasingly irrelevant as relations with the Central Powers deteriorated. He would eventually resign, to be replaced by Robert Lansing, a lawyer with a better education and a smaller imagination.

Actually, Wilson's foreign troubles began long before the First World War. His administration found itself called on to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate revolutions; or perhaps better, revolutions that marked important social transformations from mere changes of dictators. Wilson did not always do this well, particularly with regard to Latin America, and most especially with regard to Mexico. Wilson wanted to see land reform in Mexico in order to ensure the survival of electoral democracy, so he often found himself supporting the more radical alternative against the party with the better chance of maintaining stability. The policy backfired badly when Poncho Villa, whom Wilson had once supported, began making raids into the United States.

Wilson would later identify the Russian Revolution as a "deep" revolution. He deplored the Bolshevik turn that the originally liberal revolution of 1917 took, but believed that it was just a phase, like the phases of the French Revolution. He had no patience with the English, and especially the French, proposals to back counter-revolutionary forces in Russia, though some Americans were among the Allied troops sent to guard facilities in Russia from the Germans.

From the outset of the First World War, it was Wilson's position that the strategic interests of the United States lay with an Allied victory, or at least with a conclusion to the fighting that did not diminish the roles of France and Britain in the world. A decisive German victory, he thought, would require the United States to militarize on a permanent basis, a stance Wilson believed incompatible with the institutions of American government. However, the perhaps unfortunate slogan of his 1916 election campaign, "He kept us out of war," was perfectly sincere. The optimum outcome was "peace without victory," resulting in a situation in which the differences between the great powers could be settled by arbitration. The process of arbitration, Wilson also immediately surmised, would have to be permanent, requiring a permanent international institution to coordinate a permanent peace. Even when the United States became a belligerent in 1917, Wilson was very slow to attribute the principal blame for the war to Germany. Neither was he ever altogether willing to abandon the hope of acting as the intermediary between the two sides and negotiating a peace on neutral principles. Wilson's unilateral issuance of the 14 Points as a statement of war aims reiterated this aspiration.

Strange as it may seem for a southerner, Wilson's model throughout the war was Abraham Lincoln; and moreover, the mystical Lincoln of the Second Inaugural Address. In that statement, Lincoln prescinded from a discussion of the merits of the arguments made by either side for fighting the Civil War. Instead, he directed the nation's attention to the inscrutability of Providence in the course of the war and its effects. Neither side got what it expected or what it desired. Lincoln then spoke of a postwar America reunited "with malice toward none, with charity for all."

Few nobler words have ever been spoken by a statesman. However, what Wilson the war leader never entirely took on board was that those words had been spoken after victory for the North was assured. It also bears repeating, perhaps, that Wilson's notion of a postwar settlement was implemented more fully than Lincoln's ever was, but the post-Versailles peace of Europe was at least as unsatisfactory as America's Reconstruction Era.

The 14 Points had not been issued in a vacuum. There had been quiet diplomacy at the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918 that suggested a negotiated peace might be possible. The 14 Points specified the withdrawal from occupied countries, forbade crushing indemnities to be laid on either side, and sought to dampen the ambition to acquire new colonies by reconceptualizing the colonial empires as a system of trusts for the benefit of their peoples. Meanwhile, there would be an orderly transition to self-determination by the small nations of Europe. All these good things, of course, were to be overseen by a League of Nations. Lincoln could not have done better. However, the magnanimity of Lincoln's Second Inaugural evaporated when the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk were announced. Though the terms were not uniquely harsh for a country as badly defeated as Russia had been, they showed that Germany had no intention of helping to create the world of neutral principles that Wilson envisioned. Wilson's reaction to this rebuff (and of course to the Germans' offensive that spring, which sought to win the war outright) reflected an essential feature of liberalism even at its finest: the enemy was not simply criticized, but delegitimized. The war could now be prosecuted without restraint, because the German Empire had, in effect, seceded from rational humanity. Wilson would again offer to intercede for Germany, but only on the condition of the end of the regime that had distained the principle of universal justice in the form of the 14 Points.

We see this same evolution in Wilson's own position toward his domestic opponents. Here is a vintage Wilson rejoinder, from as early as the election campaign of 1916, to a telegram from an irate Irish American who accused Wilson of Anglophilia:

I would feel deeply mortified to have you or anybody like you vote for me. Since you have access to many disloyal Americans and I have not I will ask you to convey this message to them.

The worst excesses against civil liberties during Wilson's Administration occurred after his major stroke when he we was no longer running his own government, but perhaps there really was less place for dissent in Wilson's scheme of things than was in Jefferson's theory of natural rights, or even in Holmes's pragmatism. There came a point in any controversy with Wilson in which to oppose him was to oppose History. Wilson made it his business to ensure that history won.

This biography points out that Wilson got quite a lot of what he wanted at the Versailles Conference in 1919, especially during the first session. The League of Nations itself was much as he had proposed it. It was made integral to the Treaty of Versailles (the League Covenant is articles 1 to 26 of the treaty). He certainly succeeded in preventing the French from turning the League into an anti-German alliance, and he helped limit the dismemberment of Germany. He had some success with regard to colonial questions: the European empires at least made their territorial acquisitions in the form of League trusteeships; the Japanese were harder to restrain. His greatest single failure was in connection with reparations to be paid by Germany, especially the open-ended reparations that the Conference initially contemplated. It is not true that there was no negotiation with Germany over the final form of the treaty; Wilson was instrumental in getting the terms clarified, and in some instances mitigated, in response to the German protests at the first draft. However, he opposed a renegotiation of the treaty. He was not unduly concerned with the details of the treaty: its terms would take years to implement, and its more irrational features could be rectified through negotiation under the supervision of the League. That was not so different from what actually happened, but the League turned out to be less important than he had hoped, in part because the United States never joined.

The biographer's account of Wilson's doomed attempt to get the Treaty of Versailles ratified by the United States Senate may strike some readers as revisionist, though in fact the information is not new. The Democratic Party had lost control of Congress in the elections of 1918 (partly because Wilson was suspected of being soft on Germany), so Wilson's strategy seemed to have been to take a maximalist stand to limit the concessions he might have to make later. Publicly he said that the treaty had to be approved without amendment or reservation, on the grounds that the treaty could not be renegotiated and the Allies would regard conditional approval as a rejection. Privately, however, he prepared a draft of acceptable reservations and gave it to Senate minority leader, to be presented to the Senate only on the president's instruction. Some senators were in fact proposing amendments that were designed to kill the treaty, but some proposed reservations simply clarified that the League Covenant did not override the Constitution of the United States, particularly with regard to the power of Congress to declare war. Such reservations would have been well within the limits of diplomatic practice. With modifications, in fact, the League seemed to enjoy majority popular support.

Nonetheless, there was opposition among isolationists in the West and Midwest against the League in any form, and Wilson felt that he could not proceed to concessions until it was clear that he had the public unambiguously behind him. So, he undertook the famous whistle-stop tour of 1919, stopping at places large and small to deliver jeremiads like this to increasingly enthusiastic audiences:


You are betrayed. You fought for something that you did not get. And the glory of the armies and navies of the United States is gone like a dream in the night, and there ensues upon it, in the suitable darkness of the night, the nightmare of dread that lay upon the nations before this war came; and there will come some time, in the vengeful Providence of God, another war in which not a few hundred thousand men from America will have to die, but as many millions as are necessary to accomplish the final freedom of the peoples of the world.

Strong stuff, and it seemed to be working. However, it was obvious to those around him that Wilson was falling apart. He had actually suffered some minor strokes as early as his tenure as president of Princeton, and there had perhaps been another two incidents during the Versailles Conference. Under the unrelenting stress of the Western Tour he began to seem almost like the politician in the film The Candidate, who is reduced to incoherence in the later part of his campaign. Wilson started saying things that were not his policy, such as that reservations to the treaty were the same as amendments and both were unacceptable. In any case, he eventually suffered a major stroke (another parallel with Lenin, actually). The League campaign lapsed because Wilson was no longer able to negotiate with the Senate and would not allow others to do so for him.

Not long after the death of his first wife, Ellen, Wilson had created a mild scandal by marrying one Edith Bolling Galt. Edith Wilson is sometimes said to have been the first female president of the United States, because her control of the presidential sick room gave her effective control of the government. This exaggerates her role. Certainly she diminished the influence of Wilson's gray eminence, Edward Mandell House (best known by the courtesy title "Colonel House"), and of and Joseph Tumulty, Wilson's secretary and political advisor from Jersey City. However, as the biographer points out, neither Edith, nor Secretary of State Lansing, nor the relentlessly unassuming Vice President John Mitchel, ran the government during the last year and a half of the Wilson presidency. After some weeks, Wilson was able to conduct carefully controlled courtesy interviews, but he could do little work beyond saying "no." He did understand his condition. He confined most interaction with the executive departments to occasional advice, which he left to the discretion of the cabinet secretaries. In the case of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, his lack of oversight was to have very unfortunate results.

After leaving the White House, Wilson recovered somewhat. He was able to greet visitors, make a few public appearances (especially on Armistice Day), and even to make a few speeches. He carried on a limited correspondence (he still typed, though less well than formerly) and published one essay on the theme that the way to combat Bolshevism was to reform capitalism. When he died in 1924, he was scarcely a forgotten man, but one with an ambiguous historical reputation. He and Edith are buried now in the nave of Washington Cathedral.

Judging by this biography, Senate approval of the Treaty of Versailles was a far nearer thing than we usually imagine, so much so that we must ask ourselves whether it would have made much difference if Wilson had completed his Western Tour and reached an accommodation with the Senate. The idea of a permanent body to administer the terms of a complicated multilateral agreement is far from utopian. The Congress of Vienna, which settled Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, continued after a fashion as the Concert of Europe to oversee the peace. The Concert was an alliance rather than a perpetual diplomatic conference like the League, but the principle was not so different. Wilson, by the way, despised the Congress of Vienna: an odd assessment, considering that the Viennese settlement was far less vindictive than the Treaty of Versailles would be.

The addition of the United States to the League would have augmented its capacities, and maybe also its sphere of attention (certainly the League would have paid more attention to Latin America and to East Asia). However, it is hard to believe that the effectiveness of the League would have been fundamentally increased, or that World War II would have been prevented. The harsher features of the Treaty of Versailles had already been renegotiated by the time the wheels started to fall off the international system in the 1930s. In any case, it simply was not true that the United States was an isolationist power in the 1920s. The US was deeply involved with the Bank of England in managing the world's monetary system; there were even quite a few US military interventions. US interest in international cooperation waned during the 1930s, and there is no reason to think that US membership in the League would have altered that trend.

Indeed, one might think of the League as a relative success whose posthumous reputation was blackened by comparison with the rhetoric of its founding. The League was created to oversee the implementation of the treaty of Versailles. Within a dozen years the treaty had been implemented or was obsolete. Soon thereafter the League went out of business. Is that really so surprising?

But what of the high hopes that accompanied the founding of the League? Wilson's arguments for the League echo Immanuel Kant's proposal for "perpetual peace" guaranteed by a universal confederation of liberal republics. Wilson's logic also reflects the Augustinian principle of the Tranquility of Order. As Wilson put it:


The world can be at peace only if it is stable and there can be no stability where the will is in rebellion, where there is not tranquility of the spirit and a sense of justice.

There is some sense in which this has to be true: no order, including a world order, is going to be durable unless the people who live under it accept its demands and benefits as legitimate. No doubt, in the working of the Providence in which Wilson set so much faith, some such legitimate world order will eventually appear. The problem is the premise that the predicate of legitimacy is neutrality, that no just order may retain historically conditioned content, or perhaps may not even serve any moral principle. Oddly enough for a philosophy named after a man with such a lively appreciation of historical context, Wilsonianism makes the organic the enemy of the just.

Again, there are parallels between Wilson's thought and that of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes famously asserted that law should be made for the "bad man," for the subject who could not be expected to act from higher motives, but would do whatever he could that did not incur legal sanction. This is a clarifying principle that has its uses. However, taken literally, it would mean that everyone subject to the law would have to be treated as a potential criminal. Similarly, Wilson's hope that the peace after the First World War would be a peace without victors might have odd implications if it were made a universal principle. A world without victors would, in effect, be a world in which every country was treated as a conquered country. Whatever was not mandated by the universal consensus of neutral principles would be forbidden. Opposition to the consensus would be delegitimized, in much the way that the government of imperial Germany was delegitimized by its refusal in early 1918 to accept Wilson's offer of arbitration on the basis of disinterested reason.

These criticisms do not mean that Wilson's goals of effective government and universal peace through justice are either misguided or unobtainable. They do suggest that some of the basic premises of this enterprise need to be rethought.

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The Long View: Fascism: A History

Calling one's political opponent a fascist is still a popular political slur, but the actual occurrence of fascist ideas on the Right remains somewhat unclear. John was undubitably correct to note that the rise of popular parties on the right in Europe has mostly been tied to immigration, and also that anti-semitic ideas and Holocaust denial do have genuinely popular appeal nearly everywhere [not only on the Right].

John also notes that the world has in some ways only just returned to the conditions that prevailed before the Great War. International finance, and the relations between nations are beginning to relax again after the extended crisis that started in 1914, and only truly ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The interesting question for us is: how will it be different this time around?

Fascism: A History
By Roger Eatwell
Penguin Books, 1996
$14.95, 404 pages
ISBN: 0-14-025700-4

One More Time?

"Fascism is on the march again. Its style may at times be very different, but the ideological core remains the same -- the attempt to create a HOLISTIC NATIONAL THIRD WAY [Italics in original]...[A]n ideology that places so little emphasis on constitutions and rights, and so much on elite-inspired manipulation, must always be mistrusted. Beware of men -- and women -- wearing smart Italian suits...the aim is still power, and the fantasy of the creation of a radical new culture."


----"Fascism," page 361


This is the very alarming conclusion of this general history of fascist ideology by Roger Eatwell, a Reader in history at the University of Bath. It is all the more alarming because this is not a very alarmed book. Certainly it is free of "anti-fascism," which in this context often means the sort of Marxist analysis that assumes the whole political spectrum beyond the radical left is fascist in some imprecise but irredeemable way. What we do get is a brief description of the common intellectual heritage of fascism from the late nineteenth century, plus short histories of the fascist movements in Italy, Germany, France and Great Britain. The sections dealing with fascism in these countries after World War II, and especially the more recent New Right, are the most interesting in the book.

Since we are not dealing with a partisan tirade here, it is genuinely disturbing when Eatwell ends the book by suggesting that, though fascism died in a sense in 1945, it may well be about to experience a resurrection in time for a bright future in the 21st century. Whether this hypothesis proves correct or not, still this analysis does illustrate yet another way in which Western civilization at the end of the twentieth century has returned to many of the problems that faced it at the century's beginning.

The ideological component of fascism has often been neglected in favor of psychohistories of fascist leaders and morbid prose poems about national character. This is understandable, since one of the defining features of fascism is ideological syncretism. Usually, this has meant combining "socialism" with some form of nationalism, but even this minimum requires qualification. The study of fascist ideology is made even more difficult by the fact it was most systematically expressed where it had the least influence, in France and Britain. (Eatwell is not an admirer of British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, but he does give him credit for producing the best thought-out fascist party-platform. The best platform so far, that is.) In any case, at the local level, fascism often had little theoretical content, beyond the privilege of beating people up with impunity. Nevertheless, fascism does have an intellectual history, and the phenomenon as a whole is not so diffuse as to defy definition.

Fascism would not have been possible without Friedrich Nietzsche. There has been no lack of anti-theistic philosophers both before and after Nietzsche, but he is almost alone in honestly facing the consequences of living in a world in which everything is permitted. Most thinkers have sought to preserve some fragment of the intellectual structure that depended from the hypothesis of the Christian God, and so they appeal to reason or history or science. Nietzsche would have none of it. If the skies are really empty, then there are no imperatives. There is, however, life, which in the case of human beings expresses itself not just as biology but as the will. Now Nietzsche, unlike Schopenhauer and unlike many of his own followers, recognized the will is itself a composite entity. It is not a primary physical force, and it is not a god. It does, however, actually exist, and its exercise is all the meaning that life can ever have.

The proposition that the meaning of life is the exercise of the will leads to two kinds of conclusions. The most obvious, and the most popular, is the cult of cruelty. Naturally, the street-fighters who normally figure in the public activities of successful fascist parties are rarely well-read in the literature of philosophical nihilism. Nevertheless, even the nihilist violence of the German SA and the Italian "squadristi" chimes with high theory. Fascism promotes ruthlessness for the same reason that it promotes conspiracy theories: for a fascist, nothing is going to happen unless some will makes it happen. One suspects this consideration is also a factor in the usual fascist suspicion of free markets.

The other conclusion to which an ontology of the will leads is the transformation of politics into art. Whole societies become instruments for the expression of the will of elites, or often of a single great individual. In fascist theory, this is all that politics ever was, no matter what purportedly disinterested purposes the ruling elites of the past believed they served. The difference that Nietzsche made was that this reality could become conscious.

Fascism is not quite coincident with the great man theory of history. Since human beings are social animals, the will is to some extent a social phenomenon. Thus, reality is an intersubjective construct, a fable that people make up amongst themselves. The construct is not entirely arbitrary. Most fascists have also posited a strong racial or biological element conditioning the way that leaders and their peoples behave. Still, even in highly racialized forms of fascism, the leader stands to the people as the will stands to the individual. Politics, then, is not an arbitrary art, but an art whereby the leader makes the unconscious will of the people explicit.

In addition to Nietzsche, the other seminal influence on fascism whom Eatwell discusses at length is Georges Sorel. Now Sorel is remembered as the chief theorist of socialist syndicalism, and like Nietzsche his thought has influenced people who are not fascist by any definition. Nevertheless, he seems to have been a primary source of the nuts-and-bolts of practical fascism, which was chiefly concerned with integrating restive populations of industrial workers into fragile national communities. (The widespread use of the word "community" to refer to classes of people who could not possibly know each other is mostly Max Weber's fault, though to me it has long carried fascist undertones. Well, that is another story.)

Sorel's socialism was of the sort that combined plans for the betterment of the masses with considerable contempt for their intelligence, indeed contempt for almost everything about them as they actually existed. Sorel believed that the masses could be integrated into a social force only through slogans and myths. Sorel's favorite myth was that of the "general strike." Actual general strikes, in which the whole of a country's organized labor force walked off the job at the same time, have been tried a few times, with mixed success. The myth of the general strike, however, is like the vision of Judgment Day. It is the goal in whose name organizers organize, it is the reason to pay union dues. It is an ultimate threat, like the strategic doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, that creates a world by defining its limits. It is not entirely dishonest; the leaders may believe it in a heuristic sense. Such subtleties, however, are not for the people they lead.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the political systems of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy was precisely their use of myth and symbol. (As Salvador Dali once remarked, Nazism was essentially surrealism come to power.) The widely-bought if sparsely-read "Myth of the Twentieth Century," by the Nazi Party ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, seems to have used "myth" in a Sorelian sense, the myth in this case being the origin of the Aryan race in Atlantis and its leading role in later history. More generally, both the Nazi and the Italian Fascist regimes seemed to be exercises in government by grand opera. (Götterdämmerung and Don Giovanni, no doubt.)

The myths used to organize the elites were not necessarily those provided for the masses. The Nazi leadership in particular cultivated a sort of occultism (though if figures like Julius Evola are any indication, this enthusiasm was not absent from Italy, either). The people, however, were pushed with more conventional forms of nationalist xenophobia and pulled with quite prosaic promises of economic improvement and social welfare (promises on which both regimes could in large measure deliver). This difference of integrative principles was consistent with the fascist notion of society as an organic entity. Organism implies differentiation, so it was only proper that elites and masses be organized through different means.

Was antisemitism an integrating myth for the people? Certainly this was not the case in Italy, where fascism made much of cultural chauvinism but tended to mock biological racism. It was only in the late 1930s that Mussolini promulgated anti-Jewish legislation in order to please Hitler. The legislation was never as harsh as that in Germany, and was in any case ignored by the people and the government with some enthusiasm. (This changed after the Allied invasion of southern Italy in 1943, when Mussolini became a puppet ruling a rump-state under German control.) As for Germany, there is little evidence that antisemitism ever added to the Nazis' popularity. Certainly the Nazis downplayed the Jewish theme when electoral victory became a real possibility after 1929. While it is true that surveys taken after World War II showed high levels of antisemitic feeling in Germany, this is as likely to have been an effect of the Nazi regime as one of its causes. The truth of the matter seems to be that, if antisemitism was a Sorelian myth, it a myth embraced by the elites rather than the masses.

England and France both had proto-fascist and self-consciously fascist movements between the wars. Eatwell notes the many writers with fascist leanings in France during this period, some of whom, such as Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, commanded large popular followings in the 1930s. (Charles Maurras and his Action Française were too traditionally conservative to quite qualify as fascist.) As a serious political movement, French fascism needed the Popular Front politics of the Left to fight against, and so it pretty much collapsed along with the Popular Front government in the mid-'30s. English fascism started off just after the First World War on a disarmingly dotty note, with a tiny party that advocated, among other things, lowering taxes on gentlefolk so they could reduce unemployment by hiring servants. However, the movement was dominated in the 1930s and after the war by Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. Mosley, not unlike Churchill, was a black-sheep establishment figure, an institutional outsider but not quite a mere eccentric. He maintained a measure of credibility quite late into the decade; he was even briefly touted by the press-lord Rothermere. Still, in neither France nor England did any fascist party come within shouting distance of playing a major role in national government, much less of inaugurating a fascist revolution. Eatwell emphasizes two key reasons why they did not go the way of Germany and Italy.

The first major difference was that Britain and France had respectable national right-wing parties during the 1920s and '30s, while Germany and Italy did not. In Italy, a proper conservative establishment never got a chance to form. To a large extent, the Kingdom of Italy had always been something that northern Italians did to southern Italians (and this without the blessing of the Church, which was still annoyed at the way the Papal States had been annexed in 1870). Therefore, the local notables who might have formed the backbone of a conservative party were alienated from the national government. In Germany, of course, the old establishment had been discredited by the war. The lack of responsible right wings meant that irresponsible persons in these countries had a chance to fill the political space such parties normally occupy. The opportunity came when the narrowly-based political establishments appeared to be incapable of dealing with a national crisis.

For France and Britain the interwar years were for the most part dreary decades, but in neither country were they attended by a general sense of social crisis. France, despite the proliferation of socialist theorists of all descriptions and the growing strength of the Communist Party, seems to have been singularly immune to Red Scares. Unemployment was muted even during the Depression, partly because the country was still so rural that unemployed industrial workers simply went back to the land. For England, the '20s was in many ways the more troubled of the two decades, with intractably high unemployment even during good times and the General Strike of 1925. In the '30s, on the other hand, the effect of the worldwide depression was not nearly as severe as in other countries, and for much of the decade the economy was conspicuously innovative and dynamic.

Italy's crisis came early. In the years between the end of the war and Mussolini's March on Rome in 1922, revolution was in the air, particularly in the rural areas of the north. As in Spain during the prelude to that country's civil war in the '30s, local socialist governments were often uninterested in protecting private property from seizure by workers. Right-wing terror squads, usually led by strong-men without any particular ideology, also enjoyed official indulgence in some regions (as well as a measure of popular support). Mussolini, a sophisticated socialist with anti-clerical leanings, came to power by organizing the strong-men and convincing at least a section of the establishment that he could bring social peace. When he first met the king to demand the primiership, Mussolini wore a fascist uniform. For the second meeting, he wore proper morning clothes.

Hitler wore morning clothes, too, when he went to see President Hindenburg to be sworn in as chancellor 11 years later. Germany's crisis was far more a matter of economics than Italy's had been, though exasperated by the fact the legitimacy of the Weimar Republic was even more fragile than that of the Kingdom of Italy. Eatwell takes us through a quick review of the "Who Was To Blame" literature regarding Hitler's final ascension to the chancellorship. He finds little merit in the theory that Hitler (or Mussolini, for that matter) was essentially a tool of big business. What he does suggest is that the acquiescence of a weak establishment was a necessary precondition for such an improbable figure to be appointed head of a government.

Since the early 1930s, there has never been another coincidence of a weak establishment, a crisis, and a group of men with the proper ideological predispositions necessary for the formation of a fascist state. Franco's Spain was not fascist because Franco was not an artist, but a cop (or, as they used to say in my old high school, a "Prefect of Discipline"). The rulers of Vichy France, for all their authoritarian tendencies, were hardly in a position to view themselves as bold supermen. After the war, fascism was an enthusiasm only of cranks everywhere in Europe except in Italy, where the former regime never lacked for a small party of defenders. (Mussolini's widow got a regular ministerial survivor's pension.) Until the end of the Cold War, this looked like it would be the state of things for the foreseeable future. The problem with the end of the Cold War, of course, was that it made the future much less foreseeable.

In the 1990s we have seen a historically fascist party, led by Gianfranco Fini, achieve junior-partner status in an Italian government. (The party he leads changes names. Not long ago it was "The Italian Social Movement." Latterly it has been "The National Alliance." The Communist Party of Italy has undergone similar mutations in nomenclature, and also claims to have mellowed ideologically. Maybe they have.) Jean-Marie Le Pen's "Front National" in France seems to have a lock on from 15% to 20% of the vote. In Germany, in contrast, the party system has rebuffed the attempts to organize New Right sentiment. (This is not the case in Austria, where Jörg Haider's "Austrian Freedom Party" has polled up to 28% of the vote.) Throughout Europe, just as after the First World War, small groups of violent youths with proto-fascist leanings became conspicuous. Perhaps the most alarming thing we have discovered about the German Democratic Republic is that it did not so much extirpate Nazi ideas among the people as preserve them in ice, like dinosaurs in a science fiction movie that wreak havoc when defrosted.

One may, of course, quarrel about whether the European New Right as a whole should be consider proto-fascist, or crypto-fascist, or even fascist at all. Still, the deeper you look into any of these organizations and their leaders, the less comforted you are likely to be.

On a popular level, the issue which has the most resonance for the New Right is immigration. Everywhere in Western Europe (and in much of the United States), ordinary people are spooked by changing demographics. They are also alienated by the tendency of establishment opinion to dismiss this concern as mere reflexive racism. Persistent levels of high unemployment, often seen as a function of the presence of too many foreigners, similarly undermines the credibility of the governments of the major European states. Issues like this, however, are not the stuff of which revolutions are made, fascist or otherwise. Additionally, while right-wing leaders are at pains to keep themselves free of the least taint of racism in general or antisemitism in particular, the fact is that at ground level their organizations are, for the most part, virulently antisemitic. There is a significant public for Holocaust-denial theories. However, in no country are such things electorally useful.

The distinctive thing about fascism, however, is that it has always been a doctrine for masters rather than followers. Eatwell has some very alarming things to say about the growth of "up-scale" fascism, of ideological resources for people who either belong to existing elites or would very much like to start one. This has been made immensely easier, at least in my own view, by the spread of relativist philosophies in the Nietzschean tradition in the last quarter of the 20th century, particularly at the elite schools. No matter the intent of the instructors, it always seemed singularly ill-advised to me to tell young people, who by virtue of native intelligence and social position were going to wind up running a fair slice of the world anyway, that life was really just about power. There is always some danger they might believe it.

A sentiment that seems to find increasing currency is what might be called "Euro-fascism." While fascist parties between the wars built their followings on nationalistic platforms, still from the very beginning fascism has always had a universalizing streak. Nietzsche pronounced himself a "good European." In these days when political theorists speak in terms of the clash of civilizations, New Right theory seems to be moving in the direction, not of renewed hypernationalism, but of an integrating theory for the European Union. Eatwell notes that the EU as it stands is a disedifying entity, run by bland bureaucrats who are most concerned with setting standards for bottled jam. Current plans for future integration will go no further toward turning Europe into a true political community (that word again). Eatwell asks whether anyone is ever going to be willing to die for the Bundesbank. Maybe what Europe needs is a Sorelian myth to hold it together. Work is in progress.

So, are we really just back where we started at the beginning of the 20th century, waiting for some crisis that will delegitimize the existing establishments and start the ball rolling again? One way to look at the 20th century is as one long recoil from the process of globalization. It was only in the 1990s, for instance, that international capital flows again reached the levels relative to the economies of the major countries that they had reached before the First World War. Similarly, it is only recently that international trade in general became as important as it was around 1900. What happened thereafter was that the governments of the leading nations sought to gain unprecedented control of their countries' destinies. Partly this was accomplished by war, partly it was accomplished through the creation of command economies. Stalinism was simply Lloyd George's "War Socialism" made permanent, something that happened in greater or lesser degree throughout the West. In every case, the goal was to replace the power of capital with the power of the will, whether the will was that of an electorate or of a would-be Nietzschean superman. When, starting in the 1980s, the military and economic systems of command began to be relaxed, the world economic system began to look again something like the way it had looked before these measures were implemented. The process of globalization began again. So did the attempts to stop it.

It would be wrong to say that all attempts to stop globalization of economics and communications and culture are fascist. Most resistance to universalism comes from a positive desire to preserve local identities and traditions. Such things may or may not be worth preserving. The balance between the local and the universal is not something that can be dictated categorically. Fascist nationalism, in contrast, was perhaps just an improvisation, made necessary by the fact that nations states were the largest units that fascist elites could hope to control. At a deeper level of fascism is the ideal of the universal empire, of the whole world subject to a single will. The goal is repeatedly deferred only because it is obviously so much harder to achieve.

Fascist statecraft is by its nature manipulative, a game that elites play with deluded masses. The fascists in the '20s and '30s did not come to power by promising to create a society beyond good and evil. They did it by promising people things that really were good, such as safe streets and private property and a country with a culture they could recognize. The opponents to fascism too often fell into the trap of opposing these things simply because the fascists endorsed them. This is an important point for the world's liberals (or progressives, or whatever they call themselves locally) to keep in mind. As for the conservatives, they must beware of the company they keep.

This article originally appeared in the November 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Please click on the following line for more information:

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Active Faith

This one is now eighteen years old, but it has only gotten more pertinent, as American politics fossilizes into the Late Republican phase. We find ourselves doing the same things over and over, because there really are no other options left. This is what is meant by the End of History, not the ceasing of events and intrigue, but a limitation of the possible. By way of example, read John's concluding paragraph, and tell me whether this is an apt description of the Tea Party:

If this is to happen, there will be a great deal for people on the right to reassess. They will have to learn that the way to control crime is not harsher laws but more and better police. They must be wakened from the fantasy that local government is necessarily good government. They must undertake the arduous study needed to understand that the security of the United States is determined by the state of the world. Before any of this is possible, of course, there is one lesson in statecraft they must learn: On coming to power, the first you do is not close down the government.

It will be interesting to see how the election of Pope Francis changes the landscape of Catholicism in America. With John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we had over thirty years of politically conservative papacy. Francis is definitely a man of the Left, although nearly everyone forgets he is also completely orthodox. If you want a vision of what a politically engaged Catholicism might engender, post-WWII Europe is an excellent example. France, Germany, and Italy all implemented something very much like Christendom reborn. It all went off the rails seventy years later, but no one can expect any political program to have a shelf-life better than that.

Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics

by Ralph Reed

The Free Press, 1996
$25.00, 311 pp.
ISBN: 0-684-82758-1

All Dressed Up and No Place To Go


It is not Ralph Reed's fault that he looks like Antichrist to some people. Sure he has slicked-back black hair and unnaturally perfect teeth. Sure at 35 years of age he has the sort of perpetual adolescent appearance that gets police detectives assigned to work undercover at high schools. Sure he has an unfortunate predilection for having his picture taken back-lit (as the jacket of this book illustrates). None of this is evidence of dark ambition or bad character. It is the press, ignorant of religion and terrified of resurgent cultural traditionalism, that has made this very sharp Executive Director of the Christian Coalition into the face of liberalism's nightmare. The fact that he and his organization are, usually, punctiliously reasonable only makes them the more threatening.

People looking for strange opinions in "Active Faith," such as those that so richly inform the books of Reed's mentor, Pat Robertson, are likely to be disappointed. Judging by this memoir, he is a prosaic, perceptive man. A doctor's son, raised as a conventional Methodist in the New South, he has been a Young Republican since high school. He was the sort of student who interns with the state legislature and who works on political campaigns for the sake of working on political campaigns. In early adulthood, his faith became evangelical, a matter he disposes of in a few sentences. After a brief stint in Reagan's Washington, he went on to acquire a Ph.D. in American history from Emory University. (Are history doctorates now to play the role in political life that law degrees once did?) We learn a great deal about his views on how today's Christian politics fits into America's tradition of political reform sparked by religious revival. By his own account, it was just as he was finishing his doctoral thesis in 1989 that he got the call from Pat Robertson about becoming director of a new Christian lay organization whose creation Robertson was considering. The rest is history.

Reed takes up a lot of space explaining what the Christian Coalition is not, sometimes to rather disingenuous effect. Thus, we are repeatedly assured that the Coalition is not a partisan political organization dedicated to the promotion of Republican candidates. Those candidate information summaries they hand out at churches across America just before election day are merely objective accounts of the candidates' positions on issues important to people of faith. Oh, the things people will say to keep their tax deductions. Since I don't believe the National Conference of Catholic Bishops when they make similarly coy claims about their peace-and-justice activities, I don't see why I should find the Christian Coalition's far more blatant politicking any less political. Rather more plausibly, he insists that the Coalition is not a front for white racists. Indeed, for political reasons if nothing else, he fervently desires the expansion of the Coalition to include more black churches, more evangelical Hispanics, more of all those who still cling to the disintegrating raft of the New Deal's "majority of minorities." Perhaps the stereotype he rejects most convincing is the conventional wisdom (found not only in the liberal press) that the Coalition consists of the "poor, the ignorant, and the easily led." In reality, as Reed is at pains to instruct us, his membership tends to be richer and better-educated than the population as a whole. (It is also somewhat older and more female.) As events of the past few years have demonstrated, those who assume that the Christian Coalition is simply the nation's white trash in arms will suffer unpleasant surprises.

The most important thing that the Christian Coalition is not is the Moral Majority. "Active Faith" gives you as lucid an account as you are likely to find of how the rise of evangelical participation in American politics, marked in the 1970s by the election of the genuinely pious Jimmy Carter to the presidency, stumbled badly during the Reagan years. The Christian Coalition is one form that the recovery from that stumble took. Culturally conservative Christians have learned from their mistakes. One suspects that they are in for the long haul. What they lack, however, is what their critics are most afraid of: judging by this book, the Christian Coalition has no real plan for the future, nor any idea how to develop one.

Evangelicals faced two problems when their resurgence began in the aftermath of the cultural chaos of the 1960s. The first was purely practical. They had withdrawn from politics for most of this century, particularly on the national level. Politics was tainted, worldly. While it might be morally permissible to pay taxes to Caesar, to actually enter his service was to risk criminal conviction in this world and damnation in the next. Evangelicals could and did run for office, of course, but not for he most part on peculiarly evangelical platforms or with the help of self-consciously evangelical organizations. Thus, there was no effective organizational mechanism for representing this important sector of the American people.

The South, where they were demographically strongest, was traditionally Democratic. The Democratic Party therefore would have been the logical vehicle for the evangelicals, as it had been at the beginning of the century, in the days of William Jennings Bryan. However, while the Democratic Party had never lost the moralistic tone which it acquired in the days of the Social Gospel and the Populists, the content of its worldview had proven to be extremely malleable. In Prohibition days the party was Progressive, during the New Deal it was Social Democrat, during the first half of the Cold War it was the supply train for the great anticommunist Crusade. By the time the evangelicals had need of it, however, it was firmly in the grip of the cultural revolutionaries of the 1960s. That left the Republicans, who had no idea what they were in for.

The Republican Party had grown from the Abolitionist movement, one of the social reform movements that owed their impetus to the Second Great Awakening of the 1830s. As is often with case with successful crusaders after the crusade, by the turn of the century the party had lost it moral fervor and become a party of economic interests. It frowned on the enthusiasms of Bryan and his native Populists and on the largely immigrant labor movement, both of which had so much to do with the making of the Democratic Party in this century. Under the inspiration of people like Theodore Roosevelt, it did give some play to the muscular Christianity of the Social Gospel, but this tradition within the party tended to become more and more attenuated with the passage of time. Thus, by the time of the final insult of Goldwater's defeat in the 1964 presidential election, the Republican Party really did not have many ideas of its own about social or cultural issues.

What the Republican Party did have was a great need for new members. Therefore, when evangelicals and some conservative Catholics began drifting into the party as the Democrats became stranger and stranger, the newcomers were more than welcome. After all, in the beginning, they did not act as a self-conscious faction within the party. All you had to do to win their support was buy them off with a few token phrases about the defense of the traditional family and opposition to abortion. They rarely showed up at meetings, but they would vote Republican like clockwork, at least for president. Poor, ignorant and easily led, so the party's traditional leaders thought, they made the perfect electoral cannon fodder for high-visibility races.

The problem with this strategy was that it succeeded. When Ronald Reagan was elected Emperor of the Last Days in 1980, his devoted followers among the cultural conservatives thought they were owed something. Jobs in the new administration would have been nice, but more than cursory attention to their agenda would have been better. As it happened, they got nearly nothing. Reagan would not even address the annual anti-abortion rallies in Washington in person. They had not just been slighted, they had been deprived of access to the only political institutions they could consider using. They therefore began to build their own institutions. At first, they did this badly.

Evangelicals and conservative Catholics had no permanent local political organizations. Politics for them was largely something that happened on television. Thus, while they might be important for presidential politics, they were much less important in deciding who sat in Congress or on local school boards. (Most important, they had little say about who would be nominated to run.) There are two general strategies for mobilizing an inchoate voting block, a "rally" strategy or a "grassroots" strategy. The first is a strategy of mailing lists and television. It is the sort of politics for which the term "hot button" was coined, meaning any issue that is certain to attract the attention of easily defined constituencies and, hopefully, provoke them to donate money. A "grassroots" strategy sounds like it should be something homey and neighborly, but in fact it simply means political organization as it has been traditionally understood. It means building permanent local organizations of volunteer workers and precinct captains, people who may pay regular dues but who, much more importantly, can be counted on to donate some of their own labor to a campaign. It has long been known that the best way to maintain such an organization is as a collateral activity of some other institution. Labor unions are very good frames to hang a political party on. The Christian Coalition would eventually show that local churches are, too.

Before the evangelicals proved the power of organized religion in politics, however, they first tried a rally strategy. This is what the Moral Majority organization was all about. It was certainly conspicuous enough. The press loved it, like vampires love young women who neglect to wear crucifixes around their necks. It lived and died by its own knack for publicity. It was a remarkably clerical organization: at one point, all but one of its board of directors were ordained ministers. Since the televangelists of the 1980s could claim an audience in the tens of millions, ignorant reporters translated these figures into millions of political followers. The problem with the Moral Majority was that there was really nothing to it. Being a member simply required writing a check, so it had little control over what the prominent people associated with it did. More to the point, it had no troops on the ground. After a while even reporters began to notice that the only actual representative of the Moral Majority in a state where it claimed hundreds of thousands of members might be a single pastor with no staff. It was not a "majority" by any reasonable construction of the word. Then the garish downfalls of the great '80s television preachers amidst charges of embezzlement and sexual scandal suggested that it wasn't particularly moral, either. By the end of the Reagan Administration, it appeared that the era of the evangelical in politics was over.

The Reverend Pat Robertson thought otherwise. His experience during his run for the presidency in 1988 gave him some notion of what actual politics was like. If he conceived the "long march" of the Christian Coalition by himself, then he must be a very smart man indeed. But even if, as Reed suggests, Robertson was at first uncertain about whether to continue with the rally strategy or try the grassroots method, then he at least deserves credit for continuing to support what at first must have seemed like a doubtful enterprise. He is also, perhaps, to be given credit for having the good sense to limit his public association with the Coalition as much as possible. Everyone knows, of course, that Robertson provided the inspiration and backing to get the Coalition off the ground. Indeed, Reed began work in a warehouse amidst the old posters, office furniture and mailing lists of Robertson's 1988 campaign. However, the Coalition was never just a branch of Robertson's ministry, nor indeed a particularly clerical organization at all. Its board of directors, says Reed, contains only a single ordained minister. I do not think it is being cynical to suspect that Reed is exaggerating the independence of the Coalition from Reverend Robertson. Nevertheless, the Coalition has benefited immensely from not being structured as a preacher's fan club.

Unlike the Moral Majority, its has a professional lobbying presence in Washington that does not go away. This means that it can exert pressure, not just on the sort of hot button issues that were sometimes manufactured in the past to keep evangelicals placated, but on day-to-day legislation affecting welfare and education, or for that matter on things like telecommunications reform, which might seem to be peripheral to the Coalition's concerns. Even more important, legislators hear about the Coalition's positions not just from lobbyists, but from their own constituents. The Coalition is adept at organizing letter-writing and telephone call-in campaigns, as well as delivering live bodies to party caucuses and other meetings.

In some ways, the most interesting successes of the Coalition have not been in Washington or national politics, but in their ability to win races at the local level. Their special forte has been school board elections. They do not, perhaps, win quite so many of these as the consternation they cause among liberals may suggest. Still, they everywhere have served the function of slowing the advance of multiculturalism into the primary grades. Local party organizations in the United States have come to be notoriously skeletal affairs, easily dominated by small groups of enthusiasts. Since the 1960s, the enthusiasts have mostly been on the Left, and have turned their attention to the Democratic Party. With the Christian Coalition, we see the beginning of a similar process on the Right with the Republican Party.

The Christian Coalition makes no claims to be a "majority" (it has 1.7 million members). An well-organized minority is important enough. There is nothing about its demographics which suggests that it could become the dominant force in American politics. Nevertheless, it is seven years old and a force that must be reckoned with. One can easily imagine it and organizations like it becoming as important as the unions were in their heyday. The problem with this picture, however, is that the unions knew more or less what they wanted. Because they had some vision of how society as a whole should work, they were able to advance beyond their original concern with wages and hours to present coherent policies on everything from foreign affairs to the structure of the health care system. The Christian Coalition, as Reed himself recognizes, is in contrast characterized mostly by what it is against.

The failing is fundamental, indeed theological. The fact is that evangelicals have no coherent political theory in their tradition. American evangelicalism is without a theory of natural law, or even of good government. Reed calls his agenda the "pro-family" agenda, a characterization that I doubt many people find informative. Certainly it is an extraordinarily pale allusion to the ancient certainties that an organization purporting to represent Christianity in politics should have. Evangelicals have a foggy premise that government must be bad because the world is bad. They then reach the equally foggy conclusion that the best government is the least government. Thus, they manifest an inordinate preference for gum-up-the-works amendments to the Constitution, such as the proposals for limiting the number of terms legislators may serve and requiring super-majorities to increase not just tax rates, but government revenues. To Reed's evident discomfort, they are without a clue about foreign policy, except for the premises that foreigners are wicked and international organizations are wickeder. They are, of course, consistently in favor of support for Israel, but the Middle East is fast becoming a backwater as the focus of world history shifts eastward.

Liberation theologians like to say that they are formulating a theology "from below," giving revolutionary voice to the voiceless masses. American evangelical political theory, such as it is, really is "from below." It has been formulated by people who have never thought of themselves as rulers and, consequently, have no idea how to rule. It is not enough.

The Catholic Alliance is perhaps the most daring of all Pat Robertson's innovations. It was designed to provide a political home for culturally conservative Catholics. The fact that the Alliance has been as successful as it has is probably the fault of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. While the bishops themselves are for the most part faithful and intelligent men, their national organization is served by the sort of fatuous liberal bureaucracy that has done so much to destroy the mainline Protestant denominations. The bureaucrats can tolerate, because they must, the traditional Catholic opposition to abortion and euthanasia, but they seek without respite to submerge these things in a popular front agenda that is otherwise indistinguishable from that of the most reactionary-left elements of the Democratic Party. Like the evangelicals, culturally conservative Catholics have turned to the Republican Party and its collateral organizations for lack of a hospitable alternative.

Reed shows a certain predilection for aspects of Catholic social theory. He admires the ability of educated Catholics to frame moral issues in terms of natural law. He quotes Pius XI on the need for limited government. Like most people interested in devolving functions from a central government, he is intrigued by the notion of subsidiarity. However, the fact is that Catholic statecraft and evangelical political theory cannot survive in alliance indefinitely. Catholic theory does not look on government as an unavoidable evil, but as a divine institution, the means whereby we achieve collectively that good which we could not achieve as private individuals. It is democratic, in the sense that it requires rulers to rule with the consent of the government, but it is not egalitarian. It does not find hierarchy suspect, whether based on learning or birth. It never quite came to terms with market economics.

If given its head, Catholic social theory will restructure society as did the great Catholic post-war statesmen of Europe. Adenauer in Germany, de Gasperi in Italy, and later de Gaulle in France, all created "christian democratic" regimes that worked spectacularly well for several decades, which I suppose is all that you can ask of any political philosophy. They produced what were in essence moralistic welfare states, which proved far more successful than the secular-left welfare state being built by the Labor Party in Great Britain at the same time. These states were friendly to religion, breathtakingly solicitous of families by American standards, and even good for business unless you wanted to start your own company. Doubtless they were doomed by the excessive faith of their creators in the ability of the state to control the economy for the common good, but there was nevertheless a great deal to be said for them. Still, I do not think they are what the Christian Coalition has in mind.

Perhaps America will do better. The Christian Coalition, in alliance with like-minded organizations, might be the template for a future Christian Democratic Party of America (which might, of course, be called the Republican Party). American Christian Democracy would, one hopes, have a clearer understanding than its European predecessors that wealth is easier to redistribute than to create. It would also, I trust, avoid the European mistake of supporting churches so much that they no longer have to worry about maintaining an active membership. Naturally, American Christian Democracy would also have to recreate a legal structure consistent with human life as we known it.

If this is to happen, there will be a great deal for people on the right to reassess. They will have to learn that the way to control crime is not harsher laws but more and better police. They must be wakened from the fantasy that local government is necessarily good government. They must undertake the arduous study needed to understand that the security of the United States is determined by the state of the world. Before any of this is possible, of course, there is one lesson in statecraft they must learn: On coming to power, the first you do is not close down the government.


This article originally appeared in the September 1996 issue of Culture Wars magazine. For more information, please click on the following line:
Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

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The Long View: On the Nature of the Coming World Government

As a proponent of a mild version of the cyclical theory of history, John thought that the development of a world-spanning universal state was inevitable in the 21st century. I am inclined to agree, and like John, I think it will probably be for the best. John felt that historical precedents made the terrifying states of the 20th century anomalous, and whatever is to come would be fundamentally unlike them.

This is good, in that ordinary people will probably be less affected by the worst the state has to offer. The downside is that ordinary people will also be less affected by the best the state has to offer. In John's view, the power of governments to motivate and corral their citizens peaked in the 1940s, and represented the culmination of modernity in the West. We should expect that as we slide into Empire, the reach of the state will gradually diminish along with the interest of the citizenry in the apparatus of government.

If you look at the average state of the world today, that is already the condition of much of the globe. A middle of the pack nation like Brazil is representative. They can host the World Cup, but can't maintain public order everywhere. Any world government will not be able to do any better.

On the Nature of the Coming World Government


John J. Reilly


I have every confidence that a political authority which is both sovereign and universal will be established sometime in the 21st century. The human world is now only a day or two wide, even by ordinary commercial transport. It is absurd to think that a society so concentrated could endure indefinitely without a government for the whole. During the time of the great European colonial empires, it required an act of will to keep worldwide social entities together. By the end of the 20th century, an act of will was required to inhibit their formation. In the 21st century, this resolve must inevitably weaken once, twice, maybe three times. Then the world will collapse into what Toynbee called a "universal state." This development is so inevitable that it is not even interesting.

The prospect of a state encompassing the whole planet occasioned much hope and anxiety throughout the 20th century. The hope was based on reaction to the militant nationalisms that framed the century's world wars. Since the right to wage war is one of the incidents of national sovereignty, it was thought that a world with only a single sovereign would necessarily be without war. The fear was based on the assumption that anything that is universal is also necessarily totalitarian. If government is only a necessary evil, the logic ran, then a universal government would be an evil of unprecedented proportions.

Both the hope and the fear are misplaced. They are based on extrapolations of the historically eccentric experiences of the 20th century. They overlook the common features that the universal states of particular civilizations have displayed in the past. They also overlook the nature of the society the coming world government will rule, which is to say, the civilization of Earth.

The key thing to remember about Earth is that it is essentially an advanced Third World country, rather like Brazil. This characterization is not necessarily an insult; there are Third World countries that have a lot to recommend them. The defining feature of Third World status, however, is not the presence or absence of democracy, or even the level of economic development. Taking the definition supplied by the former CIA analyst, Patrick E. Kennon, a Third World country is one in which the government, broadly defined, has little control over civil society. Using the sort of nautical expression so favored by the CIA in its Cold War period, he likens a Third World country to a great barge in a slow-moving river. It is hard to steer, hard to upset, and the very devil to right again if it somehow capsizes.

Countries can be like this for any number of reasons. They may have a tradition of tax avoidance. They may be so constitutionally constructed that governments cannot do very much and still remain legal. They may be chaotic places, with no law outside a few major cities. They may just be dirt poor. Whatever the particular circumstances, what Third World countries have in common is governments that lack the resources to either serve or police their citizens to any but the most rudimentary degree.

This is almost certainly what Earth would be like, should unification come late in the next century. The world in those days should have from 10 to 12 billion people in it. This is quite likely the figure that the human race will top out at for the foreseeable future, since the demographic transition to lower birthrates should have spread universally by then. This, of course, would also imply the general increase in living standards that goes along with the transition. Still, you are talking about an immense amount of territory, inhabited for the most part by relatively poor people. Also, since there are likely to be one or more world wars preceding unification, the infrastructure of civilization may be substantially damaged. The world government may be large, relative to that of national states. However, it will have to be relatively small compared to the society it purports to govern, simply because the per capita resources won't be available for more.

A universal state may have democratic features, but there has never been an instance of one with a genuinely democratic government. Even the Roman universal state, with its tradition of popular and aristocratic assemblies, rarely experienced effective Senatorial control. In the 20th century, of course, we see already that supranational bodies have only the most perfunctory democratic elements. This is not only true of the United Nations, with its General Assembly of rotten boroughs and its Security Council that serves chiefly to maintain the coalition that won World War II. It is also true of the European Union, which has an elected parliament, but one with very limited powers. (The system has been described as "The German Empire without the Kaiser.")

The truly "democratic" feature of universal states is their openness to "talents." They all rely heavily on bureaucracies, which are generally not recruited from the upper classes of the era of national states that precede them. These bureaucrats can enter government in the most haphazard fashion. The Roman Empire was administered in large part by "freedmen," who were former slaves. The Ottoman Empire was, to an appalling degree, run by people who still were slaves. (The empire's elite troops, the Janissaries, were a slave corps, recruited largely from Eastern European children.) China achieved universal states twice in its history, and by the second occasion, in the fourteenth century, it had a well-developed tradition of civil service tests to recruit staff for the new government. What all these examples have in common, however, is that world governments are open to some degree of influence from the lower parts of the social scale.

Something else that all universal states have in common, of course, is that they are all monarchies. For better or worse, the world government is going to be under the direction of an emperor, certainly in fact and perhaps also in name. Of course, the title "emperor" has meant different things in different contexts. It has been borne by men viewed by most of their subjects as a hated foreign tyrant, but then it has also been held by legitimate and well-loved rulers of partially parliamentary states. It will mean more than one thing in the coming universal state, too. Over the 500 years or so that a world government can be expected to exist, much of its political history is describable in terms of the transformation of the emperor from a military dictator to a ritual figurehead. Except at the very beginning, during the reign of the founder, the emperor rarely tries to employ the degree of initiative that the executive of a modern state routinely uses. What then does he do?

The function of emperors is to read their mail. That, at least, is the conclusion reached by Fergus Millar is his exhaustive study, "The Emperor in the Roman World." Most of the time, emperors waited for problems to come to them. They answered queries from their governors and they sat as the court of last resort in certain legal disputes. They answered a remarkable number of written petitions from private persons, even from slaves. However, except in extraordinary situations, and those mostly concerned military emergencies, they did not plan vast reforming "programs" for their reigns. They scarcely had "policies." Their policy was to keep the great barge of empire floating along with as little disruption as possible. They could act decisively to aid or punish individuals, even whole cities, but their capacity to affect life in the empire as a whole was limited.

Something like this also seems to have been true in China, to judge from Ray Huang's snapshot history of the Ming Dynasty, "1587: A Year of No Significance." In that case, the right of petition was rather more limited. It extended to local magistrates, who did not hesitate to pepper the imperial secretariat with memorials containing their bright ideas. The emperor exercised "government" by writing "approved" on the memorials he like or "acknowledged" on the ones he didn't. Except for a few large, continuing government functions, such as guarding the northern frontier and maintaining the dikes on the Yangtsee, that was the extent of administrative control that the central government would exert itself to exercise.

The social structures of universal states are not conspicuously unjust, compared to most times and places, but they are not very egalitarian. Social distinctions are most fluid at a universal state's beginning, which occurs after the most highly commercial phase of its civilization's history. By that point, traditional aristocracies have been exchanged entirely for far more flexible plutocracies. During the era of independent sovereign states, finance and commercial enterprises tend to slip beyond the effective control of any government. Universal states come into existence in part precisely to curb the power of money. However, class flexibility is one of the things that disappear along with the vulnerability of government to market fluctuations. By the second generation, there will be some attempt to return to a measure of ascriptive status. By the end of the empire, there will be an elaborate system of ranks and the beginnings of serfdom.

As for "peace," universal states are better at keeping it than are international systems, but this ability is not absolute. The argument that a world government will ensure the end of war is in part a semantic confusion. Certainly a world government can do away with the juridical state known as war. However, this is quite a different thing from suppressing all armed conflict. Insurgencies small and great clutter the history of every universal state. Sometimes the insurgents seek to be free of the world government, sometimes they accept it in principle, but want a change in administration. Not infrequently, and as we see in some areas of the world today, wars are merely random brigandage by groups with no particular goal or ideology. This sort of conflict requires any universal state to keep armed forces in being.

Historically, local universal states have also maintained militaries in order to control external barbarians. These efforts inevitably failed, but for most of a universal state's history, its standing army is remarkably modest in size. While Earth has no external barbarians at the moment, it could develop some in the form of breakaway space colonies. This could occur if the world government pursued a policy of colonization early in its history and later lost control of the settlements. There is also the possibility that extraterrestrial intelligence will be discovered. Even if the civilization is far away and lived long ago and could have no way of knowing that mankind existed, still the very possibility of a threat from space could promote the creation of warning systems and a force in space intended to counter it.

Whatever the rationale, we may be certain that the world government will have considerable military forces, though as is the case with everything else about a universal state, quite small forces in relation to the area and population they will be called on to police. On at least some occasions, particularly in the last half of the universal state's life, these forces will be used in civil wars between contenders for the imperial power. The wars in question will be smaller than those of the 20th century, but destructive enough in their own right. Additionally, they will be occurring in a civilization that is much less economically dynamic and demographically resilient than it was during the era of sovereign states. Damage that is done will often stay done. These remarks about the decline and fall, however, are premature, to say the least.

Let us rather imagine the universal state in its youth, in the 22nd century. There will be cities as huge and sparkling as anything imagined by modern science fiction. There will be other cities, perhaps more of them, not much improved from 20th century slums. There will even be notable ruins in the growing wilderness, as the world's population slowly retreats from its late modern climax. Politics at every level will be increasingly personal, a matter of family ambition and often of petty graft. Government on the ground will be tolerant, partly from conviction, partly from negligence.

It will be a more relaxed world, in many ways a more comfortable world than that of the modern era. The climate may even be warmer: it may help you visualize this future by thinking of white Panama suits and slowly turning overhead fans. The economy will chug along under fairly heavy state regulation. This will advance the interests of large enterprises, but also of job security for the growing portion of the world's population that works for them. People will have forgotten that, on the whole, living standards used to increase from year to year; they will complain only when they decline. New technologies will become a rarity, but the existing stock of industrial technique will still in many ways exceed those of the 20th century. For ordinary people living ordinary lives, things will not be so bad.

As for the world government itself, it will normally impinge on people's lives rather lightly. Taxes will be raised for it one way or another, though not necessarily through taxes on individuals. If there is an elective feature to the central government, participation in the elections is likely to be a ritualized matter. The people will love or mock the emperor and his government, but the universal state itself will be beyond question. It will seem to be the end of history, and few people will want to return to a world of sovereign states. Universal government will be considered not just inevitable but right, the only way that civilization could conceivably be organized.

This is scarcely an ideal future. Still, it is very far from the worst that might happen.



The Long View 2002-02-07: The Irrelevance of Peace

This entry of John's blog is pretty short, and pretty pithy, so I'm just going to copy the whole thing here.

John Derbyshire, unlike John Reilly, is rather a pessimist; John Reilly described himself as an inveterate optimist, and the mission of his blog was to view everything in the best possible light. Twelve years on, it is pretty clear the Reilly was more right about this little snippet than Derbyshire, Israel just keeps getting stronger. Lots of people hate the Jews, but the Jews seem pretty good at looking out for their own interests, and their immediate enemies seem feckless.

The rather more interesting part of this entry is the purported weakness of capitalist democracies. In his book review of A Republic not an Empire, John pointed out that a likely consequence of a German victory in WWI would have been to discredit the idea of capitalist democracies like Great Britain and the United States. In fact, that is not what happened, although we have no good reason to think it inevitable. Post-Cold War, it looks like Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama were on to something. All of the other theories of how to organize a state have been tried and found wanting. I think this is true even though China is currently surging in wealth and power. [you can blame John for my pessimism on China too.]

Democracies, when it really comes down to it, can be truly terrible opponents. Athens destoyed Melos for refusing to submit to their suzerainty. My own county is the only country to have ever used a nuclear weapon in anger. And then we used another one, to make sure both designs worked. And we firebombed the civilian populations of our enemies long before we had nuclear weapons, resulting in far more deaths. Jerry Pournelle calls this WARRE, "war to the knife, war to victory, fire bombs, nuclear weapons, death and destruction." Democracies, when threatened, respond the same way a mother does when you threaten her children: all rules are forgotten, and only victory matters. Kill them all and let God sort them out.

Finally, John touches on how South Africa avoided the fate of Rhodesia. Nelson Mandela certainly helped, although maybe not in the way you think. The collapse of the USSR was a bigger factor, as this allowed the Afrikaners to negotiate their way out instead of being lynched. Instead, we now have a slow-motion ethnic cleansing, as more and more Afrikaners are leaving South Africa, as they feel increasingly insecure and unwelcome. Neill Blomkamp keeps trying to make this point, but nobody is interested in listening.

The Irrelevance of Peace

John Derbyshire's column of January 31 in National Review Online [NB. I changed the link to point to Derbyshire's site, since the original link is broken], Israel's Future has this depressing assessment:

"I had better step out front and center here and admit that I am a pessimist…I think Israel will go down. The reason I think this is that I am British, and have been watching all my life, occasionally at very close quarters, the long struggle between the two constitutional nations of the British Isles and the terrorists of Sin Fein/IRA…The IRA now has offices in the House of Commons!"

The IRA, says John Derbyshire, graduated from terrorist to lobbyist through a combination of relentlessness, ruthlessness, and the fact that they do have a plausible case. Their argument for Irish unity may not be ultimately persuasive, but the mere existence of an argument can have a lethally debilitating effect on a democratic political system.

There is something to this. It seems to me that we are often inhibited from using decisive force against terrorists because of a category mistake about the principle, "violence never solves anything." It is true that violence does not answer questions of fact or logic; you cannot determine whether pi is greater than 3 by fighting a duel. On the other hand, violence can indeed determine whether people achieve their desires or not. Sophisticated terrorists purport to be interested in answering questions, but actually they are simply asserting themselves.

That said, though, I take exception to Derbyshire's premise. It is not true that capitalist democracies are particularly gullible, much less fragile.

Ever since such societies began to appear, their critics and enemies (groups that do not always overlap) have characterized democracies as weak and decadent. Democracies are supposed to be incapable of fighting wars. Supposedly they cannot maintain ordinary domestic peace, much less combat foreign subversion. Furthermore, they create the seeds of their own destruction. Every crisis is potentially lethal; it is only a matter of time before a crisis is actually fatal.

As General Norman Schwartzkopf said in that famous news conference at the conclusion of the Gulf War of 1991, "Ha!" The fact is that capitalist democracies are the most resilient societies that exist; maybe the most resilient that can exist. They have destroyed or eroded to dust all the great totalitarian monoliths that sought to supplant them. Sometimes democracies did this by direct assault, sometimes by patience. They can endure through economic hardships that shatter the most fearsome dictatorships. Democracies are mortal, of course, and they are not self-legitimizing: simply establishing a democracy does not mean that it will strike root. Nonetheless, even troubled democracies have an excellent record of fighting off deadly threats, terrorists included.

So why is a lobbyist from the IRA buttonholing MPs? The short answer is that the game of terrorism was no longer worth the candle. Elements of the IRA used to have all kinds of Khmer Rouge ambitions for the Ireland they hoped to create. By the 1990s, however, it was clear that all that remained to fight about was which province of the European Union that Ulster would belong to. Borders just don't mean that much in Europe anymore, including the one between the North and the Republic of Ireland. The IRA still has crank notions, but they see little point in blowing up perfectly good pubs to achieve them.

Possibly the greatest example of peace-through-irrelevance was the end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Since the 1950s, it was obvious that the shrinking white minority could not continue to rule the country indefinitely. Nonetheless, the government did everything it could to exacerbate the situation. Meanwhile, the radicals of the world licked their lips when they contemplated The Day, when the revolution would arrive in Johannesburg and the mass executions could begin. In the event, though, reason broke out in both the government and the African National Conference at the end of the 1980s, and they negotiated a frictionless transition.

Western human-rights activists like to take credit for the South African government's change of heart, much to the annoyance of activists in South Africa, militant and otherwise. The fact is, though, that Apartheid was able to die because the Cold War ended. The government understood that the Soviet Union would not subsidize the creation of a new communist state, like the one it helped create in Ethiopia. The ANC understood that, if their new regime hoped to get any support at all, it would have to come from the West. The stakes became manageably small.

There are occasions in history when disputes are settled by what Toynbee called a "knockout blow." Sometimes a state or class so completely annihilates another that later archeologists have to search very carefully to find any trace of the defeated. At least as common, however, are cases where the issues and even the desires that engaged the protagonists just don't mean much anymore. With the decline of national sovereignty, this kind of resolution becomes easier and easier. It is hard to see how this could happen in the Middle East, but don't write the possibility off.