Democracy and its contradictions: Revolt

[The following is the third of three posts inspired by a reading of François Furet’s magnificent history of the “idea of Communism,” The Passing of an Illusion.  Here are links to part one and part two.]

The destruction and dismemberment of the Soviet Union at the hands of Russian nationalists was a prophetic event, though few grasped this at the time.  Nations bundled together under the abstract principles fashionable after World War I were coming undone:  Yugoslavia in 1992, Czechoslovakia in 1993, the Levant in 2011.  This, too, passed unperceived within any unified field of vision.  A tidal wave of particularism, of political fragmentation, was about to sweep over the globe, leaving little untouched.  None saw it coming, and only a handful, even after the fact, understood what had transpired.

The overwhelming reality at the end of the Cold War was the triumph of the last universal doctrine:  liberal democracy.  American elites interpreted the conflict, retroactively, as an ideological equation working toward a single inescapable solution.  Democratic nations would show the way.  Undemocratic nations, with a little help from the marketplace, would become democratic.  No alternatives existed.  The world had arrived at the fulfillment of history:  “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Francis Fukuyama’s thesis has been the object of much criticism and derision, yet it was and remains, in its essence, correct.  No universal system challenged liberal democracy in 1989, when Fukuyama wrote “The End of History?”  None can be found today.  In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, some argued that religion had provided a challenger:  specifically, that Islam was at war with democracy.  But the Taliban, in Afghanistan, is a tribal entity.  The Islamist groups the US has engaged militarily, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, are sectarian and particularistic, closer in spirit to Hitler’s worship of the mystical volk than to any universal principle.  Whatever bonds of faith and behavior are meant by “Islam,” the fact remains that there is no political unit with that name.  Islamist grievance derives exactly from this fact.

If humanity is foreordained to reach universal governance, then the future must necessarily be democratic and transnational.  That was Fukuyama’s insight.  In the placid afterglow of the Cold War, many intelligent people imagined that the hour of destiny had arrived.  V. S. Naipaul, nobody’s idea of a dreamer, could write in the 1990s of “our universal civilization.”  But universalism is a choice, not a historical necessity of any sort:  and democracy holds within itself the possibility of striking off in another direction.  Even at the height of its prestige, having knocked out the last totalitarian champion, democracy remained caught in contradiction.   It promotes individual freedom and tolerates an immense amount of contingency.  An individual may seek meaning or identity in difference:  qualities that separate a person, group, or nation from the human herd.  The democratic system that seemed, in 1989, like the “final form of human government,” allowed plenty of room for the particular.  Fukuyama’s Hegelian argument failed to take this dialectic into account.

The Cold War had locked two opposed universal doctrines into postures of rigid confrontation.  With the withering away of Marxism-Leninism, contingency rushed back into history – and was immediately cashed in.

So we enter the present moment with the forces of particularism and fragmentation utterly dominant.  Democracy contained this choice, and great numbers of the public, in many parts of the world, have so chosen.  For the first time since the defeat of fascism and National Socialism, nationalism has been re-sanctified.  Though accused of being a “populist” stance, it is popular enough to help win elections in the US, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Austria, and elsewhere.  Certain features of twenty-first century nationalism recall the fascist past.  The nation, locus of meaning and identity, is said to be in precipitous decline:  it must be saved from its tormentors.  Donald Trump promised to “make America great again,” while Vladimir Putin’s calling has been to rescue Russia from the mutilated corpse of the USSR.  History, carrier of the universalist plague, has become the enemy.  Transnational aggregations of power, far from being ethically superior, have assumed the part played by the Jew under Hitler:  that of self-serving manipulators of national decadence.  Thus the European Union has been charged by Viktor Orbán of Hungary with “stealthily devouring ever more slices of our national sovereignty.” In a similar temper, the British public has voted to break loose from the EU – first overt shock dealt to the old order by the particularist revolt.

The contrasts with historic fascism, however, are much more striking and fundamental.  The nation, in politics, is always a lever:  a pivot-point.  For Hitler and Mussolini, nationalism was the pretext for conscripting the public into a mass movement controlled by the totalitarian state.  Only through the dictatorship of the avatar could particularism come to life:  this was the leadership principle.  Today the political polarities have been reversed.  Power erupts from the bottom upwards.  Modern government, perceived as a putrid “swamp,” elicits repudiations no less ferocious than those aimed at transnational organizations.  Both are in the hands of an elite class intent on foisting alien abstractions – multiculturalism, political correctness, “swinish capitalism,” economic globalization – on unsettled societies.  This governing class has become the target of the public’s rage.  Contemporary nationalism, in brief, is at war with national government – at war, it may be, against every form of authority.  The leadership principle dissolves into rant and ridicule in the age of social media.  Unlike the elaborate justifications for fascism and National Socialism, the anti-authority impulse lacks a coherent ideology.  It gives no thought to a mythical past or a revolutionary future:  therefore, its negations often resemble an escape to nihilism.

The nation, today, is a pivot to fractured identities.  Even as Britain demanded a break with the EU, the Scottish government has demanded a break with Britain.  The democratically elected officers of Catalonia were thrown in prison by the democratically elected government of Spain, to forestall secession.  In the US, state and local Lilliputians have learned to lash down the Gulliver of federal authority.  Republican governors fought a relatively successful guerrilla war in the courts against Obama administration policies.  Local jurisdictions “resisting” Trump have openly proclaimed their refusal to enforce federal laws.  At the top of the pyramid, where fascism posited the greatest concentration of political strength, one now finds weakness and failure.  David Cameron tried to keep Britain in the EU and failed.  His successor, Theresa May, tried to negotiate a divorce from the EU and has so far failed at that.  Angela Merkel wished to insert a transformed, tolerant Germany at the center of a multicultural empire.  Her policies have broken her power at home and boosted the electoral fortunes of anti-EU forces in Europe.

Absent the dictator to signify the center, the mass migration from the universal to the particular has gotten lost among a tangle of narrow and contradictory pathways.  The exercise of personal freedom has sometimes wandered beyond politics to private islands of identity, inaccessible to the rest of humanity.  “I am,” a young person assures us (by way of illustration), “queer, trans, Chinese American, middle class, and able bodied.”  Each label here denotes a boundary in the space open to debate.  To speak “as a woman” or “as a gay person” is to reject the possibility that outsiders can penetrate the group’s perspective on truth.  Those who try can be silenced by the charge of “cultural appropriation”:  that is, theft of sectarian property.  But the accumulation of labels leaves the bearer entombed in a private and subjective reality.  Communication with the world, including one’s fellow citizens, is scarcely possible.  Participation in liberal democracy, as currently practiced, is scarcely possible.  The individual can only make claims and demands on the whole.

At this point, the flight to the particular has left nationalism and even sectarianism far behind, to plunge into a featureless landscape darkened by loneliness and grievance.  The nihilist temptation – the wish to re-enter the world by smashing at it – is always present, close at hand.

***

The triumphant doctrines of the last 100 years have held history to be the handmaiden of universal abstractions.

Under this scheme, government’s task is to realize abstractions in a scientific manner.  The objective of politics is predetermined:  the end of history in a rational, humanitarian society.  Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the methods of politics are expected to be democratic and peaceful.  The dictatorship of the proletariat has gone out of business.  Revolution has fallen out of favor.  This engenders much uncertainty about when and how the golden age will arrive – but the line of progress is clear enough.  Fukuyama wrote confidently about “a process that gives coherence and order to the daily headlines.”  Twenty years later, Barack Obama could still chide global actors he disapproved of with being “on the wrong side of history.”

The natural form of government for such an interpretation of history is heavily top down and obedient to expert opinion.  Political disputes occur over technical matters, within a narrow band of possibilities.  The big picture is given to those in the know.  They own the map to the future, and differences among them are tactical, almost sporting.  This is the ideology of the political and intellectual elites who have run the world since the end of World War I.  The democratic carnage of the twentieth century, they believe, has been justified by its teleology.  It was the price of admission to the next stage of human evolution.  Without the vision of ordained human progress, the elite class can imagine only moral horror or political chaos:  that is, fascism or anarchy.

Nonetheless, a substantial portion of the public is now defecting from this austere, abstract system.  The movement represents a reinsertion of the particular into democratic politics, and the return of contradiction, and hence of contingency, into history.  The rise of a strangely personalized nationalism is only part of the story.  An exaltation of freedom contradicts, without ever grappling with, a culture of endless grievance.  The lack of a unifying ideology is willful:  doctrine means oppression, an unacceptable reduction in the range of possibilities.  In truth, all politics are now willful.  There is no priestly caste to interpret the future, no predestined utopia, no religion of progress or science.  There is only the human will – what Ronald Reagan called “the energy and individual genius of man” – pitted against the gathered forces of history.  By a process of association, the elite class has been condemned to play the part of history in the present drama.

The public is less interested in governing or justifying the past than in disturbing the peace in the present.

In the middle of the scuffle one finds, inevitably, the question of equality.  That too has returned with a vengeance, though also with the lack of clarity typical of our age.  The established order, ideological to the core, seems unable to consider the concept without becoming entangled in archaic, almost meaningless formulas.  Thomas Piketty’s attack on capitalism thus recapitulates Marx and the forgotten world of the nineteenth century, with one crucial difference:  in the place of revolution, Piketty inserts a tax on the rich.  Instead of a new dawn in human relations, the wretched of the earth will get a slightly larger Leviathan.  The disproportion of ends and means is immediately apparent, and probably self-refuting.

The public in all its iterations, on the right and the left, populist and sectarian, has chased after equality in a manner similarly riddled with political nostalgia and contradiction.  Donald Trump descended on a golden escalator from his Fifth Avenue penthouse to speak on behalf of “the forgotten men and women of our country.”  Trump’s economic policies betray his generational origins:  tax cuts and import tariffs would look at home in the twentieth century.  On the other side of the spectrum, the politics of identity begin with a desperate cry for equality and tolerance but end with demands for special privilege and the silencing of hostile opinion.  “Antifascist” street fighters seek to reprise Berlin of the 1930s in contemporary Berkeley, California.  Digital culture, “a world that is both everywhere and nowhere,” source of so much of the political turmoil in the real world, preached in its origins a flower-child version of egalitarianism.  Today a handful of giant corporations decide, opaquely, most of what can be said and done online.

The universal ideologies that rivaled religion in the past century appear exhausted at last.  The public has sickened of a diet of abstractions:  it has deeper needs, and is moving to supply them in the particular, that is, in the nation, the sect, and the self.  In the flight from the universal, the public has scattered all over the landscape – and a question for democracy is how citizens can communicate intelligibly at such immense distances from one another.  Particularism, by definition, means fragmentation.  Pure assertion of political will, absent a program, ends with a babble of angry voices.  The lack of a conceptual framework, now confused with liberation, is in fact an unsurmountable obstacle to finding common ground.

Yet to be persuasive, even feasible, any such framework must first wrestle with the contradictions inherent to the idea of equality.  This isn’t a search for Platonic definitions.  The concept must be adjusted and made accessible to the digital age.  The fundamental question is whether equality is seen to entail the expansion of freedom or a decrease in difference.  All else follows from this choice, and each direction carries a long train of secondary questions.  How much actual inequality, for example, can be absorbed as the price of freedom?  What means of promoting equality can be considered legitimate in an open, democratic society?  Should speech be controlled to protect marginal groups or persons?  How wide is the circle of acceptable political dispute?  What lies beyond the pale?

Much intellectual work needs to be done.  It might be argued that, in a fractured environment, this effort might amount to nothing more than talking to oneself:  but that is an exaggeration.  Half the human race speaks English and is connected through Facebook.  One can dine on kimshi in Fairfax County, Virginia, and on Kentucky Fried Chicken in Seoul, South Korea.  In strictly descriptive terms, Naipaul (as usual) got it right.  The outlines of a universal civilization are visible from every corner of the earth.  The task is precisely to endow this civilization with democratic content.  This is a tall order, to be sure, but not an impossibility, and certainly not a reason for self-fulfilling pessimism.

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