Systems of freedom, systems of control

Janet Daley chronicles the death agonies of “democratic socialism,” 20 years after its totalitarian sibling expired.

So a generation after the collapse of totalitarian socialism, its democratic form is finally crumbling as well. And, oddly enough, the latter may take longer than the former to unravel. The one virtue of totalitarian governments is that they can be swept away in a single blow, either through violent overthrow or – as in the case of Soviet communism – by their populations simply walking out from under them. But social democracy has the supposed legitimacy of the consent of an electorate which has exercised a free political choice.

This is a second death, which makes the present state of socialism, in Europe and elsewhere, not so much democratic as zombie-like.  Originally socialism was an ideal of  social justice and brotherhood.  The current version is about the satisfaction of appetites:  mindless bodies tumbling about in dark streets, looking for fresh meat.

Zombie socialism has gone terminal because it lacks justification, other than the pleasure principle.  Looking over the world, I find this to be true of the regimes which today challenge and condemn liberal democracy.  Politically they might be strong or weak, but intellectually they are hollow.  They are defined by negation and, to paraphrase John Adams, can’t explain themselves to themselves.

Unlike the Marxist-Leninists, the fascists, the Nazis – all of whom could spin endless reams of bogus political theory – the despots of the moment are reduced to weak hypocrisies or awkward silence on the subject of their own systems of government.  The glorification of the state, once the key to transforming human nature, now emanates quite nakedly from a Nietzschean will to power.

Take the case of China, a country usually portrayed as the rising superpower.  What’s the Chinese model?  In essence, a political mafia – the undead carcass of the Chinese Communist Party – lords it over the most untrammeled capitalism on earth. Why does this mafia have the right to rule?  It used to be, because they were the vanguard of the proletariat.  Are they now the vanguard of the plutocrats?

The mind reels.  This isn’t a system:  it’s history.  It’s thugs in power for one reason clinging to power for whatever reason.

Or take Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and his “Bolivarian revolution.”  What does that label mean?  Other than a sincere anti-Americanism, nothing much.  In a sense, Chavez is a throwback Latin American caudillo, basing his power not on any system but on strength of personality.  He believes he’s doing his country a favor by shutting down the opposition and talking endlessly on TV.  But unlike the classic model of the personalistic dictator, Chavez has been unable or unwilling to dismantle Venezuela’s  democracy – and has been weakened by its continued existence.

Chavez has pauperized an oil-rich nation.  Even if his Bolivarian spoutings amounted to a true model, few would be interested in testing its consequences.

Islamist radicals oppose a caliphate to liberal democracy.  But politically “Islam” is a fiction lacking a path to reality.  The old caliphates – Arab and Ottoman – were political empires conquered and held together by the sword.  We are back in a history which is particular and can’t be borrowed or loaned.

The same applies to the political arrangements of the companions of Muhammad, a shining ideal, equivalent to “pure communism,” for Islamist terrorists like Osama bin Laden.  Here the appeal to history is a pretext for nihilism and revolution:  for a war of destruction against the pervasive Western flavor of the present.  Only a handful of Muslims – and of course no infidels – wish to live under such a dispensation.

As for the Iranian model, I have written elsewhere that it is more Platonic than Islamic.  In Iran, a corrupt religious clique sheathed itself in democratic-sounding institutions – and, like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, may well have been fatally wounded by even this slight brush with democracy.

Of the Kim dynasty’s “Juche” model in North Korea, and the Castro brothers’ Caribbean communism, the less said the better.  These are family businesses, not political systems – and both families are slouching toward senility and bankruptcy.

One by one, the great systems of control have lost legitimacy, until only a single true system remains, bestriding the world:  and it’s a system of freedom.  Liberal democracy rests on the sovereignty of the individual and the constraint of state power.  These were once parochial concerns, evolved in the history of Western Europe and America, but they have seized the imagination of much of the human race, and they have taken root in Latin America, Asia, Africa.

From an accident of history, liberal democracy has become the global path to personal happiness and material plenty.  For this reason, its only real challenger since the death of the Soviet Union has been democratic – zombie-style – socialism, which rejected the free market, contested the meaning of democracy, and promised a morally superior path to happiness and plenty.

Beijing and Caracas uttered angry defensive sounds:  but a flood of righteous smugness burst forth from Brussels and Paris, Madrid and Rome.  Posturing masked a pervasive hedonism.  Zombie socialists looked in the mirror, and passionately loved what they saw.

This was never a system, but it was about control.  The zombie state infantilized its citizens by denying them any meaningful life decisions.  It educated them at length, cut their hours at work, and allowed them to retire young.  In a democratic setting, this required a lot of money.  So long as citizens remained semi-adults, they continued to produce and reproduce, but with the inevitable regression to infantile behavior they have done less and less of either.

The paradox of zombie socialism is that triumph meant bankruptcy.  It can’t compel people to work on pain of death, as did Stalin, and it can’t embrace the markets without losing its aristocratic sneer of superiority.

Hence the second death.  According to Daley, the peoples and governments of Europe have woken up from their dream of eternal childhood, taken out their steely knives, and now seek to slay the insatiable monster:

On this side of the Atlantic, there is now a broad understanding that the social democratic project itself is unsustainable: that it has grown wildly beyond the principles of its inception and that the consequences of this are not only unaffordable, but positively damaging to national life and character.

As Europe retreats from social democracy, the midterm elections put an end to the Obama administration’s plans to Europeanize the US.

Daley thinks the end of zombie socialism will be “quite appallingly traumatic.”  The moral sovereignty of the individual will have to be resurrected somehow; the social contract will be edited beyond recognition.

“How can the mechanisms that entangle government in virtually every aspect of our personal and communal affairs be disengaged?” she wonders.  “And how can populations which have, perhaps against their better judgment, become dependent on the state, be enabled to take back what should be their rightful liberties and responsibilities?”

Maybe so.  Growing up is hard to do.  Accepting that money isn’t a social construct but must be earned in the sweat of one’s immaculately coiffed brow must be even harder.  But the world has gotten over more beautiful fantasies than that of aging populations playing at schoolchildren – it will get over this second death, and look back, I suspect, appalled that it didn’t happen sooner.


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