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Constitutional Contrary or Conundrum? The Imperial Presidency vs. the Unitary Executive

Posted by nouspraktikon on June 4, 2017

Strong President, Weak President

Setting boundaries and limits to power is the essence of politics in a republic.  No Latin word was ever belabored more than imperium in the era prior to Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon.  Originally it referred to the “sphere of power” which was exercised by a magistrate, great or small, beyond which the office holder infringed upon the rival authority of some other elected official.  With the atrophy of the Republic, it became a personal noun, the Imperator, the root of our term for a King of Kings, an “Emperor.”  The word, thus transformed, described a  person who’s “sphere of power” had become the whole world, thus annihilating the use to which its root had once been put, namely, to define and limit power.

Last year I predicted that Donald Trump, if elected President, would not become a fascist dictator, an “Emperor” so to speak.  Rather, the tremendous forces arrayed against him would ensure that the office would be brought to heel to a much greater degree than those who fear an Imperial Presidency are wont to imagine.  None the less, even I have been surprised by the extent of the weakness in the executive.  If we have passed any Rubicon, it seems rather that we have passed over from a concealed, to an open, form of oligarchy.

One way of coming to grips with this non-revolution is to admit from the outset that 1) the Imperial Presidency, and 2) the unitary executive, are contraries, not complements.  If we were to talk about official spheres of power with the fastidiousness of the ancient Romans, we might call the first, the President’s “lateral power” and the second the President’s “upright power.”  Imagine that presidential power is a rectangle of fixed area which loses depth whenever it is stretched horizontally.  I know that is a rather strange image to put in the service of a radical hypothesis, but bear with me.

Why the unitary executive is a great Constitutional doctrine

Generally when we ( and by “we”I mean, libertarians, conservatives, traditionalists, natural rights advocates, strict constructionists, etc.) hear the word “president” modified by the word “strong” we go into a fit of moral indignation, if not outright hysteria.  Yes, generally heads of state should be weak, lest they turn into tyrants.  However the American presidency is a unique institution, one which the founders of the Republic intended as a safeguard of liberty, just as much as the legislative and judicial branches.  To begin with, the very notion that the American president is a “head of state” is an extra-Constitutional notion, one which arises from the necessity of adjusting American nomenclature to the standards of  diplomacy.  Indeed, since the Congress is our premier branch of government, the Speaker of the House has a fairly good claim to be the federal head of state, on the analogy of parliamentary systems.

Leaving aside the symbolic, and rather silly, issue of heads of state, let’s turn to a more fundamental question which impacts on the idea of the unitary executive.  Each of the branches of the Federal government must conduct its internal affairs in hermetic isolation of the other, while being in constant cooperation as corporate bodies to conduct the governance of these United States.  Naturally, each of the branches will attempt to extend its sphere of authority, or what the Romans called, their imperium.

Now the matters which are of concern to each branch are well spelled out in the Constitution, but each of the branches always attempts to grow its authority by multiplying those things by which it exerts authority.   Thus the legislative branch attempts to grow its authority by increasing the volume and complexity of legislation, while the judicial branch attempts to grow its authority through the multiplication of rulings, judgements, and injunctions.  On the other hand, it is primarily the executive branch which attempts to grow its authority through the multiplication of offices.  Sad to note, but the three branches may remain evenly balanced while all of them grow in concert, disrupting the larger balance between governmental and non-governmental institutions in civil society.

Whatever cure there might be for the exponential growth of government in the legislative and judicial spheres, the theory of the unitary executive provides both a unique analysis and possible cure for burgeoning bureaucracy.  How so?

Strictly speaking, in the American republic there can never be more than one government officer at a given time.  The name of this officer is the President of the United States!

Oh yes, if you must quibble, there is also a deputy in case of death or incapacitation, the anomalous Veep.  None the less, two officers is a pretty strict limit for the bureaucracy of a large republic.  It reminds one of the twin consuls of Rome, a historical precedent which was never far from the thoughts of the American founders.  In terms of modern political theory we have arrived at genuine “minarchism”…an ungainly word which has been coined to express the most limited of limited governments.

Of course, for true unity of will and purpose, a person can never really trust anyone else to do their own job.  Hence the most pristine unitary executive would be one in which the President did all the work of executive branch personally.  We can imagine a President who, dispensing with the service of a secretary, was able to handle all executive correspondence personally.  (NB: The reason we can imagine it is that we live in a world of word processors, computers, and the internet.)  However other things, such as warfare, might be a bit more tricky, unless our chief magistrate had the strength of the Biblical Samson or a modern-day comic super-hero.

So to be on the realistic side, even our pristine unitary executive would, of necessity, need to contract out for a few staffers.  Hopefully these would all be temporary workers.  After all, the chief magistrate himself is a temporary worker, limited to four, or at the maximum, eight years of employment by the American people.

Now before you dismiss this as nothing more than utopian swamp fever, perhaps we should take a look at the way the doctrine of the unitary executive has played out in the history of the Republic.

 

The historical roots of a weakening unitary executive

Unfortunately, while the imperial Presidency is the most realistic of real-political realities, the concept of a “unitary executive” is little more than a constitutional doctrine which has had to go hat in hand through the corridors of history in search of application.  To put the theory in its clearest form, the unitary executive is the President himself, who is at once both the only employee of the American people, and also the boss of every federal office holder outside of the Congress and the Judiciary.  The theory seemed most incarnate in the reign of those generals who seemed to be able to wield their authority with the same imperious might in the Oval Office as on the battlefield.  One thinks of Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt.

That was then, and now is now, when Mr. Trump’s executive leadership seems more like an exercise in herding cats.  Yet people with even a tad of historical lore under their skulls recognize that The Donald didn’t suddenly fumble the unitary executive to the horror of his fans and the delight of his detractors.  Common wisdom suggests that the unitary executive began to unravel, at the very latest, in the aftermath of the Watergate (1973) scandals.  Legislation which sought to limit the presidential imperium resulted in severe checks on arbitrary presidential power.  However these reforms failed to check arbitrary governmental power in general, or to stave off the multiplication of executive projects, expenditures and offices.  Rather, by setting up checks and balances within the executive branch of the federal government, they added to the executive bureaucracy.  And this went to the extent that the “special prosecutors” who were the plumb in the cake of the post-Watergate reforms threatened to become a “Fourth Branch” of trans-Constitutional governance.

Those who can see beyond the historical horizon of Watergate are more likely to see the first unraveling of the unitary executive in the New Deal, and the multiplication of those “alphabet agencies” such as the ICC, TVA, and NRA, each of whom were endowed with judicial as well as executive authority.  Yet an earlier starting point is the Progressive era, which saw the rise of the intellectual in the federal administration, a creature who was less likely to be constrained by, or even understood by, whatever folksy president inherited the legacy of those hybrid characters like Wilson who both studied and practiced administration.

Loyalty vs. Merit

However these movements were actually just footnotes to the unitary executive’s original fall from grace, which coincided with the rise of a merit based civil service.  It was the Pendelton Act of 1878 which consolidated the system of permanently employed government service.  After that there was little reason to think that officers would be loyal to a politician who’s term of office was likely to be far shorter than the duration of their career.   Like all sea changes in the policy of the republic, the effect of this reform was not immediately apparent.  After all, presidents in the late 19th century were just expected to be “weak.”  Think Grover Cleveland.

Today, because we read history from public school textbooks, the pre-reform civil service gets a bad press.  Typically it is referred to as the “spoils system” which conjures up images (not entirely unsubstantiated) of bribery and largess.  However there is another side to this issue.  We should at least try to be “Mugwumps” that fanciful word for a person who was willing to consider the merits and demerits of a permanent civil service.  In the interests of fairness, I would like to exercise a bit of Mugwumpery and dub the temporary civil servant system the “Loyalty System.”  After all, the politically appointable (and removable) civil servant would at least have no vested interest sabotaging the chief executive who, unlike him or herself, was directly chosen through the electoral mechanisms of the Republic.

In certain moods our progressives and our conservatives might even agree that disloyalty is a bad thing and moreover presidents should at least have the chance to formulate policy on their own turf before being challenged by either the courts or the legislature.  However there is a libertarian remnant which stubbornly insists that a strong president is a bad president, and indeed that a strong administration is nothing more than a step along the primrose path to empire.

However, as illogical as it may seem, the presidency became “weak” before it became imperial.  After WWI and as the 20th century wore on, there was need to have an emperor to complement the existence of an empire.  However the discipline of the bureaucracy which manifested itself at this time was not due to the charismatic appeal of those politicians who became, willy-nilly, chief magistrates of the republic.  Rather, it was due to the professional association of those who had a vested interest in the expansion of state power, both internationally and domestically.  Presidential orders were obeyed because presidents of whatever party were (to a greater or lesser extent)  aligned with the expansion of a robust administrative state. In 1952 Sen. Taft of Ohio lost the Republican nomination against General Dwight Eisenhower.  Taft was the last mainstream presidential candidate to seriously challenge the operational premise of expanding state power.  Barry Goldwater and Ron Paul would later mount doomed, albeit educational, campaigns dedicated to challenging that same premise.

Then in 2016 Donald Trump was elected after campaigning on many of the same anti-statist planks that animated Taft, Goldwater, Paul and (very inconsistently) Reagan.  Trump had the good sense to mix his contrarian rhetoric with a dash of jingoist appeal.  So far, the bureaucracy is in somewhat less than full scale revolt.  But only a very naive observer would be surprised that the doctrine of the unitary executive has been utterly abrogated.

The not-so-deep-state and the demise of the unitary executive

Today when “deep state” has become a household expression, it is easy to substitute James Bond intrigue for fundamental political analysis.  No doubt there is a great deal of skulduggery going on in high places these days, but the unitary executive would have floundered without any alienation between the Oval Office and the intelligence services.  It is not just the Praetorian Guard who are in revolt, but the clerks…and there are a lot of clerks.  It is not just a cabal, but the system, a system in which managers are independent of elected policy-makers.  In the EU this system appears in its most naked form.  In the US it still has to make end runs around the remains of a Constitutional Republic.

As Richard Weaver said, “Ideas have consequences!”  One of the great, pure, ideas of the 19th century was civil service reform.  However in creating a permanent state independent of politics, civil service reform ensured that all future reforms would be bound inside the parameters of the managerial state.  The owl of Minerva takes flight at night, and only now do we see the luster of those single-minded individuals whom the progressives have been eager to denounce as dictators-in-waiting.  The aristocratic Washington, the Jacobin Jefferson, mean old Andy Jackson, the imperious Polk and (though they were already compromised by the permanent state) later figures such as Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.

Finally, we can at last see the wisdom of the Founders in endowing one third of the federal government with a vestige of monarchy.  At very worst a monarchy, but never, ever, an empire, since a strong individual, unencumbered by bureaucracy and backed by the people, might indeed succeed in ruling the daily affairs of one nation…but then it would be bedtime.

 

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The Trump fizzle….the R3volution that wasn’t (and the one that was)

Posted by nouspraktikon on May 27, 2017

Trump’s non-revolution as an educational device

As of this writing pretty much everything which was promised in the salad days of Mr. Trump’s MAGA tours has been either hung up in pending legislation or put on the back burner.  Nobody, at least nobody who wasn’t born yesterday, really expected Ms. Clinton to go to jail or a physical wall to be built on the Mexican border, even assuming such things were desirable.  However few anticipated that  the President would morph into a double of his worst enemy, a.k.a., Sen. John McCain, which is pretty much what happened on foreign policy.  On the domestic front we now hear that refugee resettlement, something which is very different from voluntary immigration, can be expected to reach record highs.  The politics of blow-back, “invade the world and invite the world” is still as much the order of the day as it would be under any hypothetical Democrat administration.

I still retain a basic gut-level sympathy for Mr. Trump and his family, and a chivalrous disdain for the libelous attacks of the old-line media on their reputation.  None the less, I have lost any sense that a Trump revolution is afoot, unless that means a rebellion of Trump’s subordinates against their titular boss.  In place of a revolution, the most that conservatives and libertarians are likely to glean from this (possibly short-lived) administration is what, in patronizing terms, we refer to as a “learning experience.”  Yes, we are getting “a-lot-a-learning” taught to the tune of something far worse than a hickory stick…a broken heart.

On a deeper level, anyone who thought that a “Revolution”  was possible at this stage of American history is deluded.  However if we spell it R3volution, on the understanding that this is a counter-counter-revolution ( and if you see where the “3” comes in you are very clever!) then perhaps we have the basis, if not for hope, at least for a coherent narrative.

Put into schematic form that would be.

1.The original (libertarian) revolution against state absolutism. (a.k.a., the “Spirit of ’76)

2.The counter revolution of the administrative state under the pretext of various ideologies (egalitarianism, socialism, scientism).

3.The various attempts at counter-counter revolution launched against the New Order of the administrative/managerial state, usually labeled with that awkward term “conservatism.”

Basically, we are stuck at item 2, since we live in a historical situation where the administrative state has entrenched itself to the extent that most attempts at push-back fail before they become a credible threat to the New Order.  Mr. Trump’s revolution-manque is only the most recent and glaring example of this process.  Probably the best description of this situation was a series of essays written by an ex-editor of the Saturday Evening Post around the mid-point of the 20th century.

The Revolution Was

The man was Garet Garrett, a curmudgeon of the anti-New Deal resistance.  His thesis was that conservatives and moderates didn’t need to fear the advent of socialist revolution…since it had already occurred.  Of course by “revolution” he meant the authoritarian counter-revolution, not the American revolution, let alone any R3volution to restore the ideals of ’76.

Furthermore, Garrett underscored the permanence and near irreversible nature of the administrative state by articulating three reinforcing spheres in which the state made itself dominant and absolute. The welfare state, the system of international managed trade, and the system of collective security.  These were all solidly in place by the end of the Korean war.  These were each covered by an installment in his trilogy of essays, The Revolution Was(1938), Ex-America(1951), and The Rise of Empire(1952). (Note: the whole trilogy was packaged as The People’s Pottage , 1992)

Subsequent to Mr. Garrett’s analysis, but implicit in it, we see that so-called conservatives cavil at the welfare state, but accept it as the price of empire, while so-called liberals cavil at the empire, but accept it as the price of the welfare state.   Thus the people, through their representatives in Congress, were not liable to overrule the autonomy of the state bureaucrats, since the policy outcomes were always amenable to one or other section of the politically active classes.

A New (albeit false) Hope

Garet Garrett pointed out that at no specific point was the system of Constitutional government abrogated.  Rather, the Constitution was simply ignored and a substitute system of norms evolved to face changing contingencies.  Mr. Garrett dubbed this “Revolution within the form,” or in more exact nomenclature “counter-revolution within the form.”

The remedy therefore became opaque, since it was not a question of  legislating a new constitution, but of reasserting the salient provisions of the original, but neglected, law.  At the time of FDR the judicial branch occasionally still used it powers to limit the scope of the federal administrative state, a stance which was commonly thought to be the main justification for the doctrine of judicial review.  However, since that time, and especially since the ’60s the courts have become progressively (pun intended) subversive of the idea of any sphere of authority outside the administrative state.

An alternative to judicial redress was the possibility, however unlikely, that the American people would elect a libertarian president, or at least a kind of anti-FDR who would restore the Republic to its original vitality.  I had occasionally heard such sentiments voiced in libertarian and conservative circles prior to the election of Mr. Trump, however most people were surprised when the scarcely hoped for became incarnate in the form of a celebrity non-politician.  Or as it turned out, not.

We are left with what we should have started with, the prospects for political education and its impact on the legislative branch.  We now know that the “Hail Mary! pass” to a heroic chief executive doesn’t work.  Why? Because the theory of the unitary executive only works when it is in the interests of the administrative state.  When the chief executive opposes the interests of the (albeit “his own”) managerial class, the unitary executive crumbles like a sand castle at high tide.  We are at the high tide of statism.

If there is a silver lining to the present circumstances it is that the legislative branch can still throw a monkey wrench into the works, for good or evil.  In theory, a legislative branch that responded to the long range interests of the people, which is not that of the managerial state, could reverse the (counter-) revolution.  In theory, the right way to the right kind of freedom can be found…if only after exhausting every other way first.

 

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How Churchmen are changed into Ducks

Posted by nouspraktikon on May 9, 2017

George Whitfield (1714-1770)

Among the more formidable characters in church history is George Whitfield (sometimes spelled Whitefield but pronounced without the “e”) the preacher who spread a Calvinistic variety of Methodism in colonial America.  You must understand that at the time Methodism was, as the very name indicates, a methodology and not a sect.  It was Whitfield’s aggressive preaching method, not to the taste of some, which had such a tremendous effect on forming the unique spirituality of early America.

His odd looks (he was cross eyed) and forceful rhetoric must have convinced many that Whitfield  was more an angel than a man.  It was related that he could pronounce a word as neutral and exotic as “Mesopotamia” in such a way as to draw tears from his audience.  For some this was sorcery, but for others it was salvation, and the crowds that he was able to gather were a mighty tributary in that powerful river of revival which we call America’s Great Awakening.

Like his rival in preaching the good news, John Wesley, Whitfield was a life long clergyman in the Anglican church.  Oddly enough, this evangelist with Tory sympathies earned the esteem of freethinking Benjamin Franklin, and the two struck up a friendship which lasted throughout their mature lives.  None the less, it is hard to imagine Whitfield, who died five years before the outbreak of the American Revolution, throwing in his lot with the founding fathers.  For Whitfield being an Anglican was not a doctrinal affirmation, and indeed he despised most of what today would be called “Anglican theology.”  For him, membership in the established church was just the normative state of being born into the British branch of Christendom.  In the Whitmanian view, the established church didn’t get you into heaven, but you couldn’t get out of the established church.  A questionable deal, but a deal nobody could refuse in Britain or its colonies.

To Whitfield’s amazement, many of the Americans whom he had converted on matters spiritual in the 1740’s were loath to join his church, preferring to form into autonomous assemblies, notably Baptist associations.  Whitfield sighed, in reference to the immersion of his converts, “It seems that my fledglings have become ducks!”  From our modern perspective this seems odd as well, why would someone get evangelized by a preacher from one denomination and then go out and join another denomination?  Why did the Whitfield Christians “become ducks”?

Erastianism

To begin with, “denominations” in our contemporary sense didn’t exist, although there were already a multitude of sects.  What did exist was a passionate clash of opinions over ideological and theological issues which today seem obscure and unimportant.  A key word in these debates was “Erastianism” which dropped out of our household vocabularies a century and a half ago and has not been missed yet.

However, unless we know how this “Erastianism” could get people hot under the collar (both clerical and lay collars) we wont understand how churchmen became ducks.  Fortunately there is a term of  recent coinage which conveys much the same meaning to modern ears.  Among libertarian, Constitutional, and conservative circles “statism” has become the contemporary opprobrium of choice for what the colonists called “tyranny.”  Today we can define Erastianism as “statism applied to church governance”, or church-statism.  Keeping that in mind, and equipped with a Bible in one hand and the Declaration of Independence in the other, we are well underway to unravel the ecclesiastical conundrums of 18th century America.  We know what the outcome was, the rise of the Methodists and Baptists and the decline of the Anglican/Episcopalians.  Was this due to the vagaries of demographics or was there some underlying principle working itself out in the lives of Christian men and women?

Going back to the mid-18th century British America, one must keep in mind that Erastianism was not just a theory but a practice.  Take the colony of North Carolina as an example.  The Church of England was established as a public institution, essentially an arm of the state.  Did this mean that those early Tarheels were enthusiastic Anglicans?  Hardly!  In fact the region was largely unchurched during its early history.  None the less a system of church vestries (lay committees) was established paralleling the civil administration, and all subjects were required to pay taxes to maintain this apparatus.

As in all monarchical church-state systems the organization was pyramidal.  Yet, curiously, within British North America this was a truncated pyramid.  Above the vestries and the occasional parish priest, there were no high church officials.  North Carolina, and all other colonies (mostly outside New England) where Anglicanism was established, reported to the Bishop of London.  This led to a curious ambivalence on the part of the colonials.  Some persons, of an Episcopal persuasion, were eager to have cathedrals and bishops established on American shores.  They blamed the crown for foot-dragging on this issue.

Another, and presumably larger, party was heartily glad that the bishops had not yet arrived.  Their fear was that the crown was scheming to impose a hierarchy on the colonies, a hierarchy which would coerce believers in matters of doctrine and impose heftier church taxes.  This was a major item of contention among the colonists in the run up to the revolution, and the fact that it was not directly mentioned in the Declaration of Independence is, like the dog that doesn’t bark, rather a testimony to the seriousness of the issue than the contrary.  It was, like slavery, one of those issues that divided the Founders at a time when it was crucial to present a united front against the crown.

Voting with their (webbed) feet

Keeping these things in mind, perhaps it is easier to understand why the fruits of the Great Awakening, sparked by the evangelism of Anglican priests, did not redound to the Established Church.  Again, taking North Carolina as our example, there are records of a great increase in the membership of Baptist assemblies, while the Established Church remained largely a bureaucratic skeleton.  Converted by the Spirit (through the preaching of Whitfield, Wesley et al) the rustic colonists saw no need to perfect their salvation through works, where the “works” in question were attendance on the ceremony and obligations of local established parishes.  Moreover, such were were added on top of (prior to the revolution)the “work” of paying the church tax…that is regardless of one’s belief, atheist, dissenter or whatever.

Really, Whitfield ought not to have been surprised, for the Spirit was working through his eccentricities, not his Anglicanism.  The crowds swooned at his uncanny words such as “Mesopotamia”…I know not whether they would swoon at “Mother England.”

We too should cry when we hear the world “Mesopotamia”!

These things are of interest to me since I am persuaded by a kind of Calvinistic Methodism myself.  Albeit that I am only a Calvinist in supposing that all people are sinners, while my Method has little in common with that of the Wesley brothers.  Rather, the method consists in this, that (at least under ceterus paribus conditions, a.k.a., all things being equal) freedom is a good thing and coercion is wrong.

Now today in Christendom (or rather post-Christendom) we are no longer so clearly divided into and Established Church and Dissenters.  However the same perennial urges resurface under different guise.  Thus today we have Liberal churches and Conservative churches.  In both these “denominations” there are churches and individuals who seek to become an Establishment.  Both seek to establish a church-state, albeit according to a different view of what the proper function of the state might be.  The liberal churchmen, and churchwomen, want to be the altruistic cheerleaders of the journalistic-academic-welfare-health complex, while the conservatives want the church to be an official apologist for the military-industrial-banking complex.

However there is always a remnant which has been granted the wisdom to understand human folly.  Among the greatest of follies is what has been called “the tyranny of good intentions.”  This is when we try to force something good on someone.  If we try to force Christ on someone we get the Inquisition.  If we try to force “democracy” (a problematic concept in itself!) on a people we get…well, we get something like the contemporary Middle East, a region in constant turmoil where two thousand year old Christian communities are today on the verge of extinction.

It is we, not Whitfield’s auditors, who should weep when we hear that old name for Iraq and its neighbors…”Mesopotamia”!

Yet through the gloom of it all, let’s remember that Jesus loves us.  I’m afraid I may have increased the gloom by throwing a heavy theological tome at your head.  But at least I warned you…

Duck!

 

 

Posted in Appologetics, Charismata, Christian Education, Christianity, Constitution, Constitutionalism, culture, Culture & Politics, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Traditionalism | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Africa through the Leftist looking glass

Posted by nouspraktikon on April 4, 2017

Leftist “Afrocentrism” is not Africa-centric at all, rather, it is Negative Euro-centrism

The cardinal, and supposedly indisputable, fact which determined modern Africa’s destiny is what people generally refer to as “The Partition of Africa” as if Africa were a huge cake that was cut into slivers by greedy and importunate dinner guests.  Indeed, there was a conference held in 1885 to ratify the European states’ spheres of influence in Africa, and it set the standard for determining the boundaries, not just of colonial Africa, but the territorial limits of today’s independent states.  Thus this phrase, and the image it evokes, has endured as the beginning of all disquisitions and inquisitions into the matters and morals of modern Africa.

Unfortunately this notion of “partition” fails the reality-test.  Apart from the history of European diplomacy, the “Partition of Africa” has no utility or even meaning.  In order to divide something up, the “something” has to first exist as a unified entity, and (except as a geographical concept) there never was any such thing as “Africa” to divide up.  In contrast, when historians speak of the division of Poland in the 18th century, they are referring to something concrete.  There was indeed a unified historic Polish state which suffered dismemberment at the hands of Prussia, Russia, and Austria.  Poland disappeared, its neighbors were enlarged.

This is not what happened to Africa.  Granted, something very important did happen in and on the continent of Africa during the late 19th century, and it happened (primarily) through the intervention of the European powers.  However, the actual process was precisely the opposite of a partition.  What happened circa 1885 to the various peoples of Africa was a process of forced unification, not forced division.  From the point of view of genuine Afro-centrism, or what might be more objectively called “ethnological realism” the 1885 event is better described as the (forced) unification of the African territories.

Yet somehow the myth of a division of a non-existent country called “Africa” has persisted in the collective imagination of world history.  The original impetus for this myth was, as everyone might suspect, the ignorance, chauvanism and pride (I abjure the term “racist” but you get the general point) of the European ruling classes at the height of Western world power.  It no doubt flattered them to think that they were able to enforce their will on territories who’s indigenous populations had no say in the matter whatsoever.

I won’t be going into the pros and cons of colonialism, a vast subject.  Rather, what I am arguing is the reality or otherwise of a single thought-construct, the “partition” of Africa.  After 1885 Africans found themselves inhabiting much larger political units than they had ever experienced before.  Some aspects of life in these larger units were beneficial, some were degrading, and let the chips fall where they may in each department of evaluation.  However what happened post-1885 was a unification rather than a sundering.  Sundering did occur in isolated instances, as when a boundary was arbitrarily drawn through the middle of a village, or though the grazing territories of a nomadic tribe.  However these were the exceptions which proved the rule.  The rule was that Africans woke up to a new reality, and in this reality they now were thrown into political relations with people whom they had had little contact with previously.  And these other people were not just the Europeans, but, most importantly, other Africans as well.

It is this unification which was the salient reality at the dawn of modern Africa, not sundering.  However, to say that unification was salient is not by any means a value judgement.  The pros and cons of this unification are all arguable, what is not arguable was its reality.  In fact the history of African politics, and of the rest of the world’s attitude towards Africa, largely revolves around the pros and cons of large political units.  Indeed, this is a theme which is hardly unique to Africa.  What is a nation?  What is a state?  What is the relation between these two, and are either of them or both of them good or evil?  This has been a universal theme since at least the times of the American and French revolutions.  However events on the African continent can throw these themes into either sharp relief or obscurity, depending on what kind of moral handle one has on the issues.

My thesis is that the political left has grabbed these issues at the wrong end, and that conventional discourse has slavishly followed the tone set by the left.  It is as if we had a telescopic view of Africa but were looking through the telescope from the wrong end.  This has had disastrous consequences, both for Africans and for everyone else.

Ethnographic realism and Federalism, Negative Euro-centrism and the unitary State

The seemingly abstract discussion above has more than historical relevance.  It is true that much of  Africa experiences debilitating social and economic conditions.  Furthermore, it is true that outside agents play a disproportionate role in the affairs of African states.  However it is singularly unhelpful to label these concrete conditions the result of “neo-colonialism” when in fact they are manifestations of the same globalist system which interferes in the affairs of non-African regions.  Due to the weakness of African political systems organizations such as the IMF, the World Court, and the so-called “peace keeping” UN military play the exaggerated role that they would like to assume throughout the world at large.  The reason why they are unable to play this role universally is that states outside Africa are stronger and less amenable to outside pressure.

And why are African states notoriously weak?  The general consensus is that “tribalism” (variously defined) keeps the political situation of all but the most stable African nations in a state of perpetual turmoil.  This is certainly true, however people have been analyzing the phenomenon of “tribalism” through the leftist looking-glass for several generations, and still no solution has been found to this problem, if “tribalism” is indeed a problem.  The leftist-Marxist view is that every African nation should have a unitary state, which will then enact economic and social planning to lead its population out of poverty and dependency.  Any groups which stand between the individual and the state are seen as running interference with this program are deemed reactionary.  Prominent among these groups are tribes, ethnic, and kinship organizations.

Does this sound familiar?  It should, since this has been the left’s prescribed rout to utopia throughout the world, not just Africa.   Worldwide, this started at the end of the 18th century, when the Paris Jacobin government abolished the provinces (the “tribes” of France) in favor of direct rule over localities by centrally appointed “prefects.” (N.B.:  This policy was extended to French West and Central Africa in the 20th century, and was inherited by the Francophonic states after independence.)

However in the case of Africa, the left ultimately envisions a continental union.  Hence the Marxian endorsement of the outmoded and Eurocentric notion of a “division” of the African continent circa 1885AD.  This is bad historiography but shrewd politics, since it gives substance to the myth of an undivided continental polity which should be restored in the future.  In fact what happened was not a division, but a forced unification of vast territories which have now become the nations on the African map.  If there had been no such forced unification there would have been no general problem of “tribalism” since the forcibly unified tribes would have been nations in themselves.

What has been done has been done, and today’s African political units are, and will remain, multi-ethnic.  This can be either a blessing or a curse.  If we look at it from the left-wing viewpoint, which I am equating with advocacy of political centralization, it interferes with the smooth operation of a unitary state.  However there are alternatives to this viewpoint.

The salient alternative is federalism, or having weak central governments and strong local governments.  The fewer rewards which can be contested at the national level, the less likely it is that various groups, ethnic, religious or otherwise, will have an opportunity to come into conflict.  Thus federalism, in any region, but notably in Africa, is likely to diminish the likelyhood of inter-group friction.

Advocates of political centralization generally fail to contest the above premise.  Rather, they claim that strong unitary states are necessary to resist outside pressure, generally framed as “imperialist” or some kindred threat.  However, even here the case for centralized unitary states is dubious.  In fact it is far easier for outside political forces to subvert a single political head than to deal with a multitude of layered political agencies.

Yes, the root problem in Africa is the one factor that the left refuses to blame: excessive political centralization.  Federalism would keep contentious ethnic forces from each other’s throats, and furthermore would minimize, though not eliminate, outside political interference in the affairs of the various nations.  The forced political unifications of 1885 are irrevocable, but their negative effects can be mitigated through decentralization.

Should be be surprised that the political solution for African nations is the same as the political solution for other regions of the world?  After all, the root human condition is the same everywhere.  That is what the left professes to believe.  Why doesn’t it endorse local autonomy and limited government everywhere on Earth?  Perhaps because it has simply adopted its historiography from its alleged imperialist enemies.

“Division of Africa” indeed!  Would that it were so.  We need smaller political units on every continent, so that people can easily trade, cross borders, and be friends.

 

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