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An Epistle at the apex: Paul and the the Biblical basis of Libertarianism

Posted by nouspraktikon on November 15, 2017

From Turtles to Principles

You have probably heard the story of that old woman who insisted the Earth rested on the back of an enormous turtle.  If queried what the turtle rested on, she would respond, logically enough, “Another turtle.”  However if a persistent questioner asked what, in turn, the second turtle rested upon, she would laugh derisively, “Sonny, it’s turtles all the way down!”

This infinite regress of turtles is akin to the view that many Christian libertarians and constitutionalists share with regard to “the charter of our liberties.”  Now rest assured that I consider this to be the enlightened view with regard to the origin of human rights, that “We are endowed by our creator….” and that the contents of this endowment has not been left to the vague recollection of tacit understandings, but rather, made clear in major historical documents which have spelled out the liberties of free men and women without prevarication or ambiguity.  I applaud my fellow freedom lovers who have embraced the theory that the natural rights made explicit in  human covenants is founded on the will and ways of God.

None the less, it seems to me that there is a gap in the understanding of most libertarians, even among those who profess Christianity in one form or another.  On the one hand, freedom is said to be founded on the basis of a “Judeo-Christian ethos.”  On the other hand, the content of this ethos is held to have been been specified by such major documents as the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Constitution of the United States of America (1787), and the Bill of Rights (1791).  These are sometimes called “founding documents” but in fact they represent the fruits of a tradition, not an origin.  Now what was the immediate inspiration of these documents?   This is well understood and well researched, and we can trace what F.A. Hayek called “the constitution of liberty” back step by step through the Whig Revolution, the English Civil War, the conflict between King John, the great barons and the church, and even into the misty years subsequent to the Norman Conquest.  Each of these epochs left a deposit of law in the form of written covenants, of which the Magna Carta (1215)is only the most famous.

However if we ask, “What is the ultimate (not immediate) origin of the Bill of Rights, etc.” we come up against a situation similar to that infinite regress of turtles which are needed to support the Earth.  All we get is a string of documents which leads back from the Magna Carta to the Norman Conquest and then, for a combination of linguistic and documentary reasons, stops.  Beyond that where do the precedents come from?  On the one hand, there are those who hypothesize a kind of Anglo-Saxon democracy as the matrix from which both political liberty and common law sprang.  On the other, there are those, such as Hayek himself, who wish to tie the British tradition of liberty back to the classical political philosophy of Cicero, Stoicism etc..  Keep in mind that Hayek was an evolutionist, albeit more of concerned with cultural than a biological evolution.

On the other hand there are Christians who state that the series of freedom covenants published in the course of British and American history have their ultimate root in the “Judeo-Christian ethos.”  However the “Judeo-Christian ethos” does not constitute the first item in a series of written documents.  It is indeed a case of “turtles all the way down” where “down” is not the true bottom or rather a quasi-bottom begging for further explanation.  Of course, Christians are in possession of a document which provides them with written warrant for thought and action, and it happens to be called the Bible. Note the irony of the ambiguous “Judeo-Christian ethic” being promoted as a basis of politics and rights theory by the same Christians who would insist on a scriptural warrant for any issues outside of politics.  It would seem that there is a special fear of becoming excessively scriptural when it comes to the Biblical foundations of politics.

And as a matter of fact, this fear is well founded.  For there are at least two deviations into scriptural politics which are likely to have catastrophic results, if indeed they are not outright heretical.  I will give a capsule critique of these theological tendencies before moving on to what I consider the true scriptural basis of politics.

Bad Axioms: The Violent Bear It Away

In our search for the axiomatic we don’t want to endorse the catastrophic!   Humanity is always looking for a principle to predicate its violence upon, a “causus belli” as it were.  Marxism is the best contemporary example, though there be others.  Those sects within the church which have been unknowingly or knowingly coaxed by Marxism into a united front frequently march under the banner of “New Testament Christianity.”  In this context, “New Testament” means up to and excluding the cross.  It is the moral teaching to, and subsequently of, the twelve disciples, led by Peter. I don’t think it is putting too fine a point on this teaching to characterize it as perfectionism and communism.  It was a teaching appropriate to those who were striving after moral purity to separate themselves from an apostate Judaism, along lines similar to John the Baptist, or the Essene community at Qumran.   After the cross these teachings were replaced by the gospel.  Though they remain edifying and historically important narratives, they are not Christianity, at least, they are not the heart of Christianity.

However these teachings, perfectionism and communism, are useful for those who seek to sow confusion among Christians.  The virtue of these principles, for Marxists and other enemies of the cross, is that they don’t work, thus their adoption gives people the impression that Christians are not a church but as a camp of confused idealists. This vast camp of deluded Christians, who are not just those at the fringe of “liberation” theology so-called, but the majority of those within the mainstream denominations, are no doubt earnest in their desire to put their politics on a Biblical basis.  Unfortunately they have wrongly divided scripture, not realizing that, in truth, much of the so-called “New Testament” is in fact a continuation of the Old Testament, that the four evangelical witnesses which we call “gospels” are historical and biographical narratives which are only a preface to the Gospel of Grace proclaimed in the letters of Paul, this latter being the only operative gospel for our age.

At the other extreme from “Liberation theology”, there are genuine Christians who fuse together New and Old Testaments into a single covenant theology.  When this is applied with great rigor, the result is a rigidly legalistic system, such as was classically illustrated by Calvin’s Geneva, or the early Massachusetts Bay colony.  Unlike Marxist-inspired theology this covenant view is not a deception, but an honest error.  None the less, it is an error which has burdened and oppressed people in the past, and is likely to do so in the future, if there is any chance of its adoption.  No, we cannot go back to Moses.  Not that Moses is to be despised, for we are edified by the history of Israel.  But to treat Moses as a living letter of law is a misapplication of scripture, and inimical to the true gospel, just as Paul explained to the church in Galatia.   It is to Paul whom we must now turn.

The Pauline Basis of Christian Libertarianism

The way to make progress in ethics is through more geometrico, the much abused and needlessly feared geometrical method.  That is, in morals we ought to start with an axiom and end up with a body of legislation.  What we are offered today is, by and large, the reverse, since we begin with one or another collection of precepts in bad need of simplification and adaptation.  The precepts might alternatively be “the Judeo-Christian ethic” or New Testament theology, or the Mosaic code.  In all such systems the starting point is vague, complicated, and casuistic.  Now, reasoning out cases (casuistry) is a good and very necessary thing, but it should come at the end of a process of deduction, not at the beginning.

Fortunately, scripture is true to its word and provides us with the axioms necessary, not just for our salvation, but for organizing our societies.  The tendency towards axiomatic thinking is evident even in the pre-resurrection teachings of the Savior.  Christ’s willingness to group the precepts of the law into a hierarchy, with the law of love at the apex, contrasts sharply with the predominant rabbinical teachings on the law.  According to the rabbis each of the precepts stood on its own merit, without need of justification by any higher principle.  Conversely, a constant theme of Christ’s teaching was to point out how these independent precepts, if taken literally, would lead to rote behavior drained of empathy for one’s fellow creatures.  This early teaching to the disciples, as noted above, was not Christ’s authoritative message  to the church, which would commence on the road to Emmaus  and climax on the road to Damascus.  However the former teaching was prophetic in the broadest sense, not as prognostication but as propaedieutic, i.e., a kind of introduction.  It was hinting that Christian ethics, unlike rabbinical tradition, would be fundamentally axiomatic rather than casuistic.

The Apostle Paul is the primary revelator and redactor of church truth.  If we search his letters we are sure to find, among many other treasures, the key axiom upon which the organization of a godly society depends.  This axiom is found in a few verses within the most controversial and difficult chapters in the entire Bible, the 13th chapter of the book of Romans.  Now I realize that the very mention of Romans 13 is enough to cause alarm among Christian libertarians, and it is true that this is a portion of scripture which has been notoriously wrested into a shape cut to the specifications of tyrants.  However this reading, which we may designate as the authoritarian reading of Romans 13, I believe to be profoundly in error.

On the contrary, it is Romans Chapter 13 which, read aright, contains the authoritative formulation of the non-aggression axiom.  I am not aware that this has been previously noted, even by commentators who are generally considered sympathetic to libertarianism.  Generally, commentators are mainly interested in soterological issues, therefore those portions of scripture dealing with civil society, like Romans Chapter 13, are passed over without extended comment, except to note that obedience to legitimate governance is enjoined.  Few have done entire commentaries where the primary focus is on politics, economics, or civil society.  One exception is Dr. Gary North, who has written an Economic Commentary on Romans.  Yet even Dr. North who’s  quasi-libertarian views are well known, veers off from the fundamental moral issues discussed in Romans 13, in order to pursue some rather technical observations on the morality of debt, to the exclusion of other considerations.  His commentary on the heart of Romans 13, which are found in verses 8 through 10, is worth reading, if only to note its extremely narrow approach to the content of the epistle.

“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” John Murray does not think that love is an obligation. Rather, the sense of the passage is this: “Owe no man any thing, only love one another.” “He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” But what does this mean? Does it mean that dealing with others justly is the way that we should demonstrate our love toward them? Or does it mean that loving them fulfills the law? Which law? Moses’ law? Christ’s law?

Paul says which law: the Mosaic. “For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” The summary follows the Septuagint’s translation of Deuteronomy 5:17-21.The final clause is based on Leviticus: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:18). Here is the same theme as the one Paul introduced in the previous chapter: no personal vengeance. Christ used a similar approach in his summary of the Mosaic law. “And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 19:16-19).

Love is mandatory, Murray writes. “If love is the fulfillment of the law this means that no law is fulfilled apart from love. . . . It is only through love that we can fulfill the demands of justice.”Murray places the decalogue, and through it, the Mosaic law, at the heart of Paul’s injunction. “This appeal to the decalogue demonstrates the following propositions: (1) the decalogue is of permanent and abiding relevance. (2) It exemplifies the law that love fulfills and is therefore correlative with love. (3) The commandments and their binding obligation do not interfere with the exercise of love; there is no incompatibility. (4) The commandments are the norms in accordance with which love operates.”

The closest that North (here following, rather surprisingly, Murray) gets to the non-aggression axiom is his observation on the prohibition of vengeance.  Murray, North, et al, are wrong to think that Paul is endorsing the Mosaic law, although as covenant theologians we ought not to be surprised that they follow this line.  Rather, Paul is using elements of the decalogue the same way that an artist would use pigments of primary colors to paint an entirely new composition.  Romans 13 vv. 8-10 is not just a rehashing of Moses, rather, it is an entirely new revelation establishing human relations on the firm foundation of the non-aggression axiom.

In order to come to an understanding that Romans 13 is nothing less than the divine promulgation of the non-aggression axiom, it is helpful to divide the chapter into three portions.  I. 13:1-7 on civil governance, II. 13:8-10, the non-aggression axiom, III.13:11-14 provision for the coming of the Lord.  Although most readers of the scriptures read sequentially, which in the case of Romans 13 leads to highlighting the section on civil governance, as if it were the topic paragraph of an essay, an alternative method sometimes used by discerning Bible students is to structure the passage according to its “chiastic” pattern.  According to this method, the key elements in a Bible passage are liable to be found in the center of the reading, with the former and latter verses forming mirror images around a core concept.  Thus in the case of Romans 13, we would have the pattern,

I. 13:1-7 human governance ( duties towards civil magistrates)

               II. 13:8-10 the non-aggression axiom

III. 13:11-14 divine governance (duties in preparation for the return of the Lord)

Note how the non-aggression axiom seems encased like a jewel between present and future worlds, humanity and divinity.  This draws us into the center and substance of the relationship between sovereignty and justice.  Thus the student of scripture is compelled to take a closer look at the key text vv. 8-10, which appears following (in E.W. Bullinger’s translation).

8
Owe no one any thing, if not to love the other : for he that
loveth the other hath fulfilled…law.
9
For this,“Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not
kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,Thou shalt not covet;”
and if there be any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, namely,
“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
10
Love worketh no evil to his  neighbour: therefore love
is…fulfillment of…law.
Although Paul is doing something more than simply reiterating the Mosaic revelation, the selection of Mosaic elements through which the new message is expressed is very precise and gives us the key to the new law.  Note that only those elements of the decalogue which prohibit aggression are listed.  To be sure, the decalogue also requires positive obligations such as honoring parents, but the empahsis here is on prohibitions not obligations.  Specifically, these are commandments which prohibit the violation of the rights of others.  One might quibble at the inclusion of the tenth commandment against envy, in so far as this is a psychological state and not an active violation of someone’s rights.  However this list is not a bill of particulars, but the anatomy of aggression in general, and psychological realism informs us that envy is the primary motive force for the violation of personal and property rights. What we have in vv. 8-10 is in reality a type of equation, and a very exact equation at that, such that…
Decalogue 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10=the Law of Love
Everybody who knows even the first thing about Christianity has heard about the “law of love”…in the formula “love thy neighbor etc.” the problem is to define what love really means in this context.  This is what the central passages of Romans 13 reveals to us.  Again, substituting one side of the equation,
Do not (6,7,8,9) violate your neighbor’s rights, in fact (10) don’t even think about it!=the Law of Love
or if we phrase it in terms of political theory
The Non-Aggression Axiom=the Law of Love
This formulation will startle many people on the grounds that “love” in this context seems to be divorced from passion, and typically we think of love as a passion.  However, when we are trying to approach revelation on its own terms we are not obligated to define its words according to our own preconceptions and feelings, rather we have to let context determine exegesis.
From Paul to Locke
Skeptics will claim that I am reading the Lockean theory of natural rights back into Paul.  On the contrary, I suggest that John Locke, writing at the turn of the 17th and 18th century may have got his inspiration, not just from Christianity in a general way, but from a study of Paul’s first century epistles.  We know that Locke was a close student of scripture, and of Paul in particular.  To be sure,  Locke has always been problematic for Christian orthodoxy, which is why he was received into the cannon of the West as a philosopher, not a theologian.  However here we are speaking of the divine promulgation of rights theory, and its meaning for our own times, not the question of what  John Locke as a believer thought of the Trinity, or the non-Jurors, or the Book of Common prayer.
From John Locke the tradition of natural rights flowed on to the Whig radicals, on to the writers of the American founding documents, on to the abolitionists and other social movements of the 19th century, on to the populists of the American guilded age, on to the Old Right and non-interventionism, on to those movements which today call themselves libertarian.  However this Whig/Classical Liberal/Libertarian thinking has manifested as more than bare ideas, it has been written into covenants which have rendered rights explicit and binding.  To be sure, the non-aggression axiom has passed through non-Christian, even anti-Christian minds, notably Herbert Spencer, who is always mentioned in that regard.  But this does nothing to mitigate against the possibility, to my mind the virtual certainty, that the non-aggression axiom is ultimately a thing of divine institution.  Need we, like overzealous Donatists, fear that the sacrament of liberty has been defiled because it has passed through unclean hands?  Certainly not!  None the less, at the level of documentary tradition, what  a wonderful thing it would be if we could be sure that there was an unbroken chain of binding covenants, beginning with Paul’s writings and continuing down to the Bill of Rights and beyond.  Indeed, how enlightening it ought to be, for anyone to grasp that the non-aggression principle and the law of love were two but aspects of the same divine axiom.
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Is Shakespeare’s Coriolanus a key for our crises?

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 30, 2017

Shakespeare’s unknown Roman play and what it bodes for us

With its popularity trailing far behind Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus is perplexing on a number of levels.  Not lacking in ether violence or passion, the bard’s not-so-secret formulae for success, Coriolanus seems saturated with the wrong sort of passion, and by comparison to that  other dark horse, Titus Andronicus, not nearly violent enough to make an Elizabethan B-grade movie worthwhile.  Coriolanus features a Rome without romance.  Women, yes, men, yes…but in the form of a nagging mother, and a wife long past the honeymoon stage, these against a background of uncountable war widows.  In other words, it focuses on the reality of relationships, not their rosy initiation.  Today people might, out of a sense of guilt, be willing to pay to see that kind of fare, but the Elizabethans were far too sensible to put up with it.   Yet they put up with Coriolanus, and so should we, for in that play Shakespeare is telling us a story which is political in a way that is far different from his other productions. It is closer to instruction than entertainment, although, for those with an eye for the nuances of history, far more interesting than simple entertainment.   Furthermore I maintain that Coriolanus speaks to us today in a prophetic voice that few past generations could have decoded.  After a few preliminaries, I will attempt a decoding…with what success, you may be the judge.

There is a difference between narratives where politics is embedded in human (especially sexual) relationships and those stories where relationships are embedded in politics.   Yes, and I know that “embedded” will be taken as a bad pun!  None the less, we don’t go to see Anthony and Cleopatra because we want to understand how the Second Triumvirate unraveled.  For the Elizabethan, sex and circuses were still an intermission within the normal life of the body politic.  Above sex, circuses, work, and all the other activities of civil society was the dreadful, and indeed numenous, question of sovereignty.  I say numenous since sovereignty entailed not just power over life and death, but, keeping in mind that the Reformation was still playing itself out, possibly power over eternal life and eternal death.  Thus, the dark shadow of the Tower of London fell across the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe theater, at least mentally, if not quite physically.  For frequenters of the Globe, politics was close, perhaps closer than for all the intervening generations between them and us, we whom are beset by social media, and for whom politics is becoming all-in-all.  Against this dreadful background, theatergoers were torn between the drive to escapism and the drive to understand.  Arguably, Coriolanus satisfies the latter urge.

Not only that, but in addition to being political rather than erotic, Coriolanus is political in a way which is uncharacteristic of Shakespeare, and shows a surprising grasp of issues which one might have surmised were far beyond his scope of knowledge and interests.  Arguably, Coriolanus is the only Shakespearean play in which the dramatic action takes place in the context of a still-vigorous constitutional republic.  Normally, we expect a Shakespearean narrative to take place against a feudal background.  Even where the background is nominally republican, it is likely to be a Venetian facad or a Rome in transition to empire.  After all, Shakespeare was a subject of the Tudor, and briefly, Stuart, dynasties.  Yet Coriolanus reveals that Shakespeare was fully capable of appreciating the problems of electoral politics in a state where sovereignty was divided among different authorities.  A deeper look as Shakespeare’s life and times will soon show that he had a good knowledge of 16th century Italy, where republican institutions, though mostly usurped, were still a living memory.  Furthermore, he lived at a time of emerging republican sentiment in northern Europe, stimulated by the Reformation, and various constitutional experiments, conducted by the armed prophets of the more radical (Calvinistic, Zwiglian, Anabaptist etc.) branches of the Reformation.  But whether due to his sources, contemporary events or the universal solvent of his imagination, the bard could write with conviction and with empathy about life in a republican context.

Now, allow me to briefly spoil the play for you.  Apart from eccentrics (e.g., myself) and undergraduates under harsh curricular discipline, few will ever pick up the written play, and even fewer are likely to see a stage enactment, so spoiling is eminently justified.  If you know the ways of the bard you won’t be surprised to learn that he lifted the plot from Plutarch.  Plutarch in turn based his narrative on events which allegedly happened around 493BC in Rome.  This wasn’t our Hollywood Rome of the glittering marble temples, rather, it was a village, or perhaps a federation of villages, built of mud and straw and unified by a surrounding fortification, a wall or a ditch, allegedly built by Romulus, founder of the city.  None the less, this early Rome was already showing signs of its future destiny, encroaching on the surrounding tribes and subjecting them to its sovereignty.  Most importantly, for understanding Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the Roman state was already divided among distinct socioeconomic classes, notably the plebian class and the senatorial class.  Furthermore, the fundamentals of the state’s constitutional order had recently been consolidated, with a republic being declared one generation prior with the expulsion of the last monarch, King Tarquin.

Going by the standard sources, mainly Plutarch, the most successful Roman military leader (a.k.a. “general”) around the year 493BC was a certain Caius Martius .  As per already established Roman custom, he acquired the cognomin “Coriolanus” when he conquered Coriolus, a city of the hostile Volciian federation.  Of course, there are recent critics who claim that Coriolanus is entirely mythical.  I don’t know on what grounds this is maintained, but I do know that making these claims is a great way to gain notoriety and possibly promotion in the academic world.  Indeed, I would wager that Coriolanus was not only an actual historical person, but that about 80% of Shakespeare’s dialogue gives us, while certainly not a verbatum transcript  of what transpired in 493BC, at least the gist of the historically salient events.  The contemporary reader of Shakespeare has to be tolerant of his occasional anachronisms, and keep in mind that the historical Coriolanus was speaking proto-Latin (significantly, intelligible to nearby Italian tribes) not Elizabethan English…and of course wearing neither a ruff collar nor buckled shoes.

Even so, if anyone wants to doubt the historical existence of Coriolanus (the person) it need have no bearing on the value of Coriolanus (Shakespeare’s narrative) as useful matrix for political thought.  To that end, all we need is a capsule summary of the the story’s highlights.  The play begins as Coriolanus, a Roman senator, returns victorious from beating the Volcii, and capturing one of their cities Coriolus.  He is promoted by his friends as candidate for counsel, the supreme magistrate of the Roman republic.  However Coriolanus refuses to make the obligatory and traditional appeal to the masses (the plebs) by showing his war wounds publicly.  The representatives of the pleb class, the tribunes, distrust Coriolanus from the start, knowing that he despises the common people as cowards and moochers on the public purse.  The inability of Coriolanus to change his public image by pandering to the masses gives the tribunes an excuse to revoke the election of Coriolanus to the consulate.  This causes a row with Coriolanus counter-claiming that the tribunal authority has been abused and that the office of tribune should be abolished.  Through all these altercations both the friends, i.e., senatorial class peers, and family (mother and wife) of Coriolanus urge their stubborn leader to tone down his rhetoric and appease the common people with flattery, or at least tolerance.  These attempts fail to make any headway with the proud and stubborn Coriolanus.  The issue is decided in favor of exiling Coriolanus, on the grounds that he was plotting to unilaterally change the constitution (abolishing the institution of the plebs’ tribunes) albeit exile is a milder sentence in lieu of capital punishment.  Bitter and seeking revenge, the exiled Coriolanus shows up at the doorstep of his, and Rome’s, arch-enemy Tullus Aufidius, leader of Antium, chief city of the Volcian federation.  Coriolanus offers to join his invincible military skills with that of Aufidius in a war against Rome.  Aufidius agrees and together they conduct a successful military campaign all the way up to the gates of Rome.  The terrified Romans send out emissaries to Coriolanus asking him to have mercy on his own people.  Coriolanus, in character, refuses all attempts at compromise and threatens to sack the city.  At last his mother and wife come out of the gates to beg mercy from their son and husband.  Moved to pity by this maternal and conjugal appeal, Coriolanus at last relents.  Hence the Roman General of the Volcii, having liberated the lands that Rome had taken from her enemies, even though sparing Rome itself, returns to Antium, expecting to be hailed as a hero.  However Aufidius, jealous of being overshadowed by his Roman ally, gathers together conspirators from those who’s families were harmed by Coriolanus during his earlier, anti-Volcian, campaigns.  They assassinate Coriolanus in the public square of Antium.  As soon as they are satisfied by the death of Coriolanus, their mood instantly changes and they decide to grant full honors in burial to him as a military genius and ally.  Thus ends the play.

Pondering this old story from the perspective of the here and now, situations and personalities jump out which are disturbingly familiar.  The old saw about history repeating itself tempts us to judgement.  And yet…not quite so fast, for as soon as we think we have recognized a familiar face, the image dissolves into a kaleidoscope of incoherent fragments.  Therefore it will behoove us, before we join in the chorus of moral indignation, to familiarize ourselves with some classical political concepts.  Don’t worry, I will soon lead you to where we all want to go…an encounter with the clear and present dangers, here in America, now in the 21st century.  But if we want Coriolanus to serve us faithfully as a tool of political analogy to our own times, we will have to take a leisurely stroll through the forum of political conflict.  Then, perhaps, we will be able to separate ideas from innuendo.

The Fourfold Root of Classical Political Analysis

Why is Coriolanus important?  Not, as Freudian critics might wish, because it yields novel insights on the mother-child relation.  Indeed, not due to the depth of any of  its corporal characters or their mutual esteem or lack thereof.   Rather, the republic itself, is a kind of intangible lead character in its own right. Coriolanus is important because it deals exhaustively with the problem of sovereignty.  Our contemporaries have lost sight of the ultimate significance of sovereignty, and would rather avoid its correlative truth, which divides the ethical world into four parts, two pertaining to the sovereign, and two to the subject.  If the fundamental concept of politics is sovereignty then all permutations on politics will pertain to valuations of either the sovereign or the subject, which may be expressed as positive and negative couplets.  The classical term for wicked sovereignty is tyranny, while the classical term for the condition of being a wicked subject is treason.  Conversely, the good subject is the loyal subject.   The only terminological issue is how to characterize the antithesis of tyranny.  Coming at the end, not of history, but of Whig history, libertarians and conservatives are apt to characterize the couplet as liberty vs. tyranny.  However this opposition, however dear to us it might be, is not as robust a characterization as the classical usage which simply contrasted tyranny with justice.  So our classical couplets are justice/tyranny and loyalty/treason.  Obviously we can schematize this as a four cell diagram and use it as a general framework for any political situation involving sovereignty. This might refer to this as a political quadrilateral, namely, tyranny:justice::loyalty:treason.

I have outlined what seems to me the common sense framework for understanding politics.  However, there are numerous others,such as the Marxist interpretations. There are infinite variations on modern positivist and quantitative political analysis, some of which, and I am thinking particularly of the Public Choice school, have considerable merit.  Then there is Leo Strauss and his school, which sees misdirection, obscurity and esoteric meaning behind every political movement and manifesto.  While all these claim to be schools of politics, for none of them is sovereignty paradigmatic, rather, they embrace a bevy of other notions such as class struggle, human choice, literary deception, or simple “force.”  Any of these might be, for all I know, the key to the kingdom, but they differ from the classical consensus about the state and sovereignty.  The latter was a useful tool in the days of Aristotle and also those of Cicero, and it was also the mental window through which Shakespeare’s audience enjoyed and understood his political works, plays such as Coriolanus.  Even today, it still lies at the bottom of libertarian and conservative political theory, but usually in tacit form.

Armed with this classical framework, we should be able to read Coriolanus as something other than a simple morality play.  To be sure, our purpose should be to extract some moral conclusions from the work, however it will not be a “morality play” in the sense of positing a war between predetermined “children of light” and “children of darkness” from the outset.  We shall be called upon to judge, but our judgement should strive to be Christian, not Manichean.

First I will show how one could treat Coriolanus using a populist-leftist formula, and subsequently show how the same material could be used as the apology for a dictator.  Neither of these completely faithful to Shakespeare’s narrative, and both are unedifying for contemporary political discourse.  They both stop short of recognizing that  the dramatic action in the play consists of an exchange of places between the tribunes and Coriolanus who are each in turn tyrannical and just, loyal and treasonous to the Roman state and its constitution.  In other words, if we go beyond persons to principles we will see that there is no one character or group of characters who personifies either justice or tyranny.  Rather, in unpleasant reflection of both past and  current politics, the protagonists exhibit, by turns, integrity or corruption of character depending on their ever-changing relationship to the political order.

 

How to misinterpret Coriolanus, Personality over Principle, the Left-Wing variation, “The tyrant exposed.”

Unfortunately, Marxism (defined as including those schools which are derived from it) seems to be the main highway of contemporary literary interpretation, preeminent on account of popularity, ease of understanding, and safe passage through the labyrinth of academic acceptability.  Honestly, I don’t have any particular critic in mind, but the method is so obvious that you or I can quickly whip up a dissertation with all the aplomb of a literary short order cook.  For starters, we can take it as axiomatic that Coriolanus is a simple tale of conflict between good and evil, between the masses of humanity and fascism.   It is an edifying and cautionary bit of ancient lore, featuring a particularly obnoxious villain as its protagonist.  The moral?  Stick on the right side of history and “the People”…or risk an unpleasant end.

Because the theme of Coriolanus is perennial, the left-wing critic need never fear obsolescence or  lack of employment, since in every generation the nuances of politics will easily reduce themselves to the same common denominator.  All that needs to be done is to find your man, your Coriolanus, your aristocratic bully, and voala! therein lies the contemporary political analogy.  But today, circa 2017, there is no need to search around for a scapegoat since ubiquitous Trump-hatred makes the choice obvious.  We all know that Donald J. Trump is bad, and with just the right reading of Coriolanus we might actually discover, if not precisely why he is bad, certainly just how bad he truly is.

While, obviously, I am being sarcastic toward the left-wing method, I am not saying that it is completely inaccurate.  Since left-wing literary criticism is always a species of propaganda, it behooves us to remember that effective propaganda must invoke a sufficient array of sound facts and verities to convince the target audience.  There is something incontestably sound in the identification of Donald Trump with Martius Caius Coriolanus.  We easily see the blowhard egoist in both, and frequent resonances of an all too familiar and obstinate pride in Shakespeare’s prose.  Coriolanus, like Trump, is not willing to stick to anyone’s script, however well intended or lovingly suggested.

A very little I have yielded to.  Fresh embassies and suits,  Nor from the state nor private friends, hereafter will I lend an ear to.  Coriolanus Act. 5, scene 3

But there is more to both Donald Trump, and even Coriolanus himself, than pure villainy.  The problem for the left-wing method is that it dare not go beyond this initial purview, lest the power of moral condemnation be dissipated within the complexities of the play.  It is only a safe method as long as the critic is restricted, either freely or under duress, to the stereotypes of class conflict.  It doesn’t particularly matter how these classes are defined, whether as a classical proletariat or the numerous victim classes of contemporary cultural Marxism.  What is important is that everything be seen from the point of view of distributive justice, that is, an unequal distribution of “stuff” among concrete persons and groups of people.

Now as the left-wing critic would surmise, Coriolanus has lots of “stuff” which the plebs lack.  Naturally, a significant part of this rests on an economic foundation, and an important conflict within both the play, and the early Rome which it portrays, was the bread dole for the non-landed citizens.  Whether to provide or withdraw this entitlement serves as an initial ground for the conflict between Coriolanus and the tribunes of the people.  However the most prominent “stuff” which Coriolanus flaunts, and the tribunes envy, are the intangibles of life such as dignity, reputation, virtue (especially courage) and power.  It is the attacks on these intangible disparities which drives Coriolanus to fits of self-justification, therefore confirming his status as a “hater” according to the nomenclature of modern leftism. Thus Shakespeare portrays him as cursing the common man, and under the only condition that Coriolanus would stand a chance to respect: man-at-arms.

You souls of geese, that bear the shapes of men, how have you run from slaves that apes would beat!  Pluto and hell!  All hurt behind.  Backs red, and faces pale with flight and augued fear!  Mend, and charge home, or by the fires of heaven I’ll leave my foe and make my wars on you.  ibid, Act 1., scene 4.

Vitrolic words, but prophetic ones as well!  For we observe General Coriolanus progressing from “international” conflict to internecine class conflict and finally waging war on Rome itself as a kind of one-man government in exile.

The list of putative villains, especially of the “fascist” ilk, could be extended almost indefinitely.  But Donald J. Trump?  Really?  Yes, really, albeit in a reality which is dictated by the rules of left-wing interpretation.  You see, the secret of left-wing interpretation is that it isn’t interpretation at all, rather, it is what more properly is called imputation.  The difference between interpretation and imputation is that interpretation uses observation and induction to guess the nature of external things, while imputation determines unilaterally the nature of external things based on its own unchallenged and supreme judgement.  A good example of imputation, and the one most germane to our inquiry, is the indisputable (within the sphere of political correctness) fact that Donald Trump is a fascist.  True, Donald Trump might be mentally and emotionally opposed to fascism, and his actions might also be inimical to fascism, but none of these factors count from the point of view of left-wing criticism.  The criteria of left-wing criticism regarding whether a person is a fascist or not, lies in whether fascism has been imputed to the person in question by the left-wing critic.  Of course the critic does not exercise any autonomous authority, but rather exercises a mandate, within the bounds of a specialized field, derived from the collective will of society.  The collective will of society, in turn, derived its authority over reality by displacing the sovereignty which had once been the prerogative of God.

 

 

How to misinterpret Coriolanus, pt. 2 Personality over Principle, Right-wing version, “The strong man pushed out” or “The scapegoat.”

 

Coriolanus starts off his career as a harsh but just military taskmaster.  That he is a hero of the republic is admitted not only by his peers in the senatorial class but even the common people, although the tribunes are uncomfortable with this admiration and seek to subvert it.  However Coriolanus gets into the danger zone when he, at the behest of his friends, begins to seek high civil office.  Although the masses of the people recognize his merits, they are offended by the aristocratic pride which is inseparable from the career of a roman warrior during the early republic.

The symbolic gesture, or rather non-gesture, which brings this antagonism to a crisis, is the ritual showing of the warrior’s wounds, an acceptable “political advertisement” in early Rome which is all but guaranteed to secure office for a qualified (i.e., wounded) candidate.  Coriolanus is over-qualified, with more than a score of war-wounds to his credit, but he refuses to show them in public, on the grounds that this would be pandering to the sentiments of the masses.  The refusal of Coriolanus to remove his robe might be  mischaracterized as  “a failure of disclosure.”  This, however, is one instance where a concrete action reverses the psychological reality behind the symbol.  If Coriolanus had divested himself of his robe and shown his wounds, he would have joined the ranks of candidates who were willing to purger themselves behind a mask of false humility.  However in failing to remove his clothes Coriolanus actually exposes his psychological nudity, revealing to the masses his proud contempt for their opinions.  A possible modern misinterpretation, though far closer to the spirit of the events than any anachronistic  notion of bodily modesty, would be that Coriolanus was “refusing to play the victim card.”  On the contrary, these ancient wounds were a source of pride, like the “fruit salad” ribbons worn on modern uniforms.  Remember that this (5thc.BC Italy) was still a primitive era and military decorations for the Roman army were far in the future.  In the mind of Coriolanus, the wounds were not too cruel, but too honorable, to be exhibited in public.  The non-landed classes had not earned the right to view them.

Although this is a major turning point early on in the drama, it does not manifest a clear division in the body politic over legitimacy or sovereignty.  There are as yet no clear tyrants or traitors.  The refusal of Coriolanus to reveal his wounds is a breach of custom, not the constitution.  It hurts his electoral chances, but not so badly that he doesn’t squeak by to victory at the polls.  The common people, or at least the politically aware among them, are deeply offended by the attitude of Coriolanus.  However offense is a psychological state, not an institutional reality.  Shakespeare shows himself wiser than our Postmodernist philosophers, and never conflates public action and objective states of affairs with the psychological reactions of his characters.  His masterful art in portraying the latter shows that this is not the result of an inability to portray mental states, but a respect for the independence of public institutions from subjective consciousness.  Significantly, in the play which bears his name, Coriolanus never engages in soliloquy, which further encourages us in the belief that this drama is fundamentally about political actions and institutions rather than psychology or human nature in general.

Actual constitutional problems start to arise in Coriolanus when the tribunes, further appraised of Coriolanus’ intended austerity and disciplinary program, threaten to revoke their election of him as councilor magistrate, Rome’s highest civil office.  Arguably, the tribunes have, through violation of due process, put themselves in a potentially seditious posture.  They are understandably incensed at what they consider a threat to the interests of the class which they represent, but this does not justify voiding the election.  One of the tribunes warns of Coriolanus,

Did you perceive he did solicit you in free contempt when he did need your loves, and do you not think that his contempt will not be bruising to you when he has power to crush. ibid, Act. 2, scene 3

The senatorial class rallies around Coriolanus and, for a while he is saved from the crowd, albeit his office is in jeopardy.  Due to the the impetuous and possibly unconstitutional stance of the tribunes, the impeached consular magistrate is in a position of relative strength which his friends and family urge him to capitalize on through a judicious and moderate appeal to the public.

Instead of moderating his tone, the irascible Coriolanus ups the ante by calling for the abolition of the people’s tribunes.  Now it is Coriolanus himself who seems to be threatening the constitutional order, hindering his friends from saving his career and possibly his life.  A decree of exile is passed, and Coriolanus leaves Rome, a putative tyrant but still not a traitor.  The final step is taken when he arrives at Antium and offers his services to Aufidius, the premier military leader within the Volcian federation.  As Coriolanus himself explains the situation,

Farewell, O world, thy slippery turns!  Friends now fast sworn, who’s double bosoms seem to wear one heart, whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise are still together, who twin as ’twere in love unseparable, shall within this hour, on the dissension of a doit break out to bitterest enmity; so fellest foes, whose passions and who’s plots have broke their sleep to take the one the other, by some chance, some trick not worth an egg, shall grow dear friends and interjoin their issues.  So with me, my birthplace hate I, and my love’s upon this enemy town.  I’ll enter.  If he slays me, he does fair justice; if he give me way, I’ll do his country service. ibid, Act 4, scene 4

This is the penultimate turn, with Coriolanus cast as traitor against just Rome.  Unfortunately for Coriolanus, the potentially ultimate turn of events, which would have featured the sack of Rome as the epitome of a tyrannical city, and the apotheosis of its conqueror as the incarnation of justice, is averted by the timely supplication of his wife and mother.  Failing to nip Rome in the bud, the reputation of Coriolanus is hence fixed in amber as not so much a tragic as a pathetic figure.

However one must question whether, even if Coriolanus had sacked Rome, whether his action would have been rendered just simply on account of his success.  Indeed, Shakespeare’s play is a testament against the “might makes right” philosophy which the left has inherited from Machiavelli.  In the end Coriolanus recognizes that triumph over his native city would have been an empty victory, and there are higher principles of justice than military success and avenged pride.  The tendency of modern criticism, influenced by Freud and feminism, is to highlight the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother, and indeed much can, and has been, said in that regard.  However the general’s abdication of final victory can also be seen as a surrender to higher principles of political morality, albeit the sanctioning power of this Platonic ideal is conveyed through the very tangible force of maternal and conjugal affection.

This principle of justice restrains both collectives as well as individuals.  The minions of Coriolanus refer to him as an “engine” which in Shakespeare’s English means a siege mechanism such as a battering ram or a siege tower.  When the “engine” comes to a halt before appeals to pity, we have a good example of a “right wing dictator” being stopped in his tracks.  However we have also observed that tyranny and justice are categories which can be occupied by the same people or groups of people successively.  Significantly “democracy” is a word which never drops from the lips of the tribunes, although it would have been totally within their character to use the term.  Rather, Shakespeare shares with most pre-Enlightenment thinkers a wary suspicion of what has, since Rousseau, been called the general will.  Although the late modern terms “democracy” and “general will” were not current in Renaissance times, Shakespeare and his contemporaries were well aware of the general formula.  Thus a tribune declares,

What is a city but its people.   ibid, Act 3, scene 1

The events which transpire throughout the drama show that Shakespeare, though recognizing the populist formula as a truism, was keenly aware of the mischief which results when raising it to a supreme political principle.  The rejoinder of Coriolanus, though he speaks as an antagonist, and no doubt a villain in the eyes of the tribunes, utters verity when he cynically observes,

That is the way to lay the city flat, to bring the roof to the foundation and bury all which yet distinctly ranges in heaps and piles of ruins.    ibid.

Principles above Personalities: The Constitutional Reading

Both the action of the tribunes and the action of Coriolanus, taken to their extremes, threaten to ruin the city.  The injured pride of the general, unchecked, will burn the city to the ground in vengeance, while the envy of the tribunes, in promoting a forced equality, threatens to reduce the order of society to chaos.  In spite of their atavistic tendencies, neither the tribunes, nor Coriolanus, nor any of the other characters can escape the equilibrium of the political quadrilateral, namely, justice:tyranny::loyalty:treason.  Loyalty to justice is treason to tyranny, while treason to tyranny is loyalty to justice.  The principles involved are transparent, however the placement of particular individuals and groups within the quadrilateral are, at least in real life, opaque.  One virtue of the stage is that heroes and villains can reveal their status with impunity to the audience.  Shakespeare is notoriously complicated, and instead of heroes and villains we often get synthetic hero/villains.  So in a psychological play like Hamlet these compound characters lend themselves to a kind of psycho-analysis, with fragments of the protagonist’s mind in constant motion.  However Coriolanus is a political play, and the various dramatis personae, while retaining their unity of character, move about within the space of the political quadrilateral, being treasonous villains in one instance, and loyal heroes the next.  Now, if you don’t see something very contemporary about this, I suggest you may be living on a desert island.

There is no better support for this assertion than to note how Coriolanus would have been a tragedy even if, or especially if, the treasonous general had been unconvinced by the supplications of his wife and mother.  If Coriolanus had sacked Rome he probably would have emerged as a king, the first king of a new dynasty.  Ironically, we are told that at the age of sixteen he was one of the heroes of the fledgling Roman republic, and had fought to expel the last Roman king, King Tarquin.  Unquestionably, Coriolanus sincerely believed in the principles of the republic, and that King Tarquin had been a tyrant.  If he had set himself up as a king at the end of his life, he would have effectively canceled his actions on behalf of the republic during his youth.  In effect, he would have annihilated the meaning of his own life.  As it was, listening to the plea of his family, he simply vanished from history, a tragic character perhaps, but not a true villain.

So yes, we may call Coriolanus a tragedy by common consent.  However when we resort to that label, without reflection, we are in fact highlighting the fate of personalities rather than the application of principles.  From an institutional point of view, Coriolanus is actually a comedy, in the sense of a drama with a fortunate ending.  After all, the republic is saved.  It is saved primarily from the revenge of Coriolanus, but in such a way as preserves the prestige and influence of the senate over the tribunes.

So what is the moral of this story?  And does it profit us in the least?

 Coriolanus is a play in which the  dramatis personae exhibit a chameleon-like shift of moral meanings, where a man’s virtues in war may be vices in peacetime.  It is Shakespeare’s gift to us, showing us, on the one hand, that politics has made a hell out of the blessings of creation, and on the other that personalities in the political world are not so much good or evil, as droughts on a checkerboard who take on their meaning from their position.  None the less, it is not an illusory or relativistic world.  The positions, the quadrilateral of justice:tyranny::loyalty:treason, are timeless principles.  Rather, the personalities and factions which occupy them are subject to maturation and degeneration, from time to time exchanging position, which creates the illusion that the categories themselves have undergone a metamorphosis.

Once we recognize the difference between personalities and principles, it will be safe for us to handle the knowledge which Coriolanus imparts.  The main principle which Coriolanus can teach us is that the problem of sovereignty is fundamental, however that sovereignty works itself out differently in a republic than in a monarchy.  If sovereignty is real, then each of the terms of the political quadrilateral is also real, and there can be no escape from coming to terms with justice, tyranny, loyalty and treason.  The sanctions which underpin sovereignty may be terrifyingly present, like the axe and bound rods carried in front of magistrates of the Roman republic, which give us the root of our word “fascism.”  Or the sanctions may be conveyed through some subtle nemesis, like the persuasive, maternal, embrace of a treasonous son.  However the sanctions are just symbolic of a higher reality, which is sovereignty itself.

However in a republic the political quadrilateral is not fated to to go through the endless cycles of musical chairs characteristic of a monarchy.  If “republic” and “justice” are synonymous, then the fatal symmetry of the political quadrilateral can be broken by bracketing out “tyranny.”  Hence in the schema of a republic may be represented as  Justice:[tyranny]::loyalty:treason.  The constitution provides a touchstone which prevents the formula from endless iteration among favored personalities, a relativistic cycle which leads ultimately to nihilism.  In a republic loyalty is absolute loyalty and treason is absolute treason, for which reason probity and forbearance is more important in a republic than any other form of government.  Thus Coriolanus and the tribunes are on alternative occasions absolute traitors and absolute loyalists, because the system is asymmetrical and unchanging.  How radically this differs from Shakespearean dramas which take place in monarchical contexts, plays such as Romeo and Juliet with their factional cries of “Montague! Montague!” or “Capulet! Capulet!”  In these factional states, it is hard to feel any strong dramatic appeal to justice, rather pathos is the predominating sentiment.  However Coriolanus, while personally pathetic, is just one personality in a drama with broader implications for justice.  If Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s most republican play, then it is the one which comes closest to an adequate treatment of the relationship between sovereignty and justice, a relationship which can only be resolved (at the human level at least) by a republic.

It is characteristic of our present, globalized world, that  people have lost their belief in sovereignty.  It is a corollary of modern atheism, especially prominent in the peculiar atheism of people who profess to be religious, and who may even profess to be Christians.  We moderns, in our desire to be both enlightened and spiritual, find it most convenient to worship a god who has been emptied of the primary characteristic of God.  This theology is not without ramifications on the mundane level, and has led to a hollowing out of the social order.  It is leading to the abandonment of the nation state, to what one commentator has called the abolition of “borders, language, and culture.”

However if the question of sovereignty is inescapable, then it behooves our contemporaries to consider which kind of sovereignty is more palatable, monarchy or republic.  A republic is characterized by division of powers and geographical limitation.  Rome was a republic because there was a division of powers between the senate, the tribunes, and various other institutions.  Even more fundamentally it was a republic because it was limited by boundaries.  Originally this boundary was the ditch plowed by Romulus, but ultimately the boundaries became the limits of the known world.  In the process of boundary expansion and effacement, freedom was lost.  Coriolanus represents an early, unsuccessful, attempt to breach to the wall.  Much later, Caesar would successfully breach the Rubicon, a kind of symbolic wall.  The former action was, both dramatically and politically, comic, the latter tragic.  Today the citizens of sovereign nation-states should consider whether, as bad as the tin-horn dictators of yore might have been, whether our masked globalist elite (remembering that Greek for mask is “hypocrite”) is playing their role of the vengeful spoiler today, and with far greater sophistication.

 

 

 

 

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In the aftermath of Irma, these volunteers won in Florida

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 19, 2017

We were still surrounded by the debris of Hurricane Irma when the Volunteers showed up

Actually, it was a football game, one of those compulsive rituals which neither “the powers that be” nor the hoi poloi can ever say no to.  After all, who could deny the local fans their bread and circuses in the aftermath of a disaster?  Well, everything depended on who won…whether the spectacle would go down in the record books as a morale booster or moral misdemeanor.  As providence (do I hear someone say luck? Nah!) would have it, Florida won in the last seconds of a crazy game who’s merits on either side will be endlessly debated.  The Tennessee Volunteers returned home, perplexed and saddened.  Florida had, once again, been saved from itself.

But there were other volunteers in town that day.  Linemen of a different sort, hailing from Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, and even parts of the state which were nursing their own hurts.  They weren’t watching football, although sometimes they worked within earshot of cheers and jeers from the high-tension game.  And yes, they were volunteers, even though they had been sent down by mammoth utility firms and could expect to draw overtime.  This is still America and nobody is forced to do any job they can walk off from.  But instead of “You can take this job and  shove it!” they arrived in large numbers, willing to work 24/7 in the humidity, often in the dark, and among the local fauna (think “gators” of the non-football ilk) which were spreading out into newly flooded zones.

In our neighborhood we had transformers down.  On the night of the storm, people had heard the  blast and seen the blinding blue ark light as the lofty cylinders seemed to turn into electric grenades.  Then darkness.  Days later there was still no electricity, and the Florida jungle was beginning to reclaim its own.  No heat, no cool, no refrigeration, no communication, and living off of canned and dry goods.  It could have been far worse as the water mains had kept their integrity.  Still, we were starting to wonder…

Then we saw the trucks.  We noticed (by we I refer to those who could read a map) a seal with the outline of the state of Indiana on its sides.  They had come a thousand miles, but the hardest part of their journey were the days of street by street, block by block progress until the worst hit part of town was rewired and on line.  They weren’t all from Indiana.  The man who went up in the bucket to replace our utility pole was from Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Bowling Green, Bowling Green

I wish I was in Bowling Green

Good old Bowling Green

And I bet he did!  But he had heeded the call to do a job which required a critical mix of physical endurance and intelligence.  The dead transformer was dangling in a virtual cats-cradle of wires and woods. When I murmured, “I can’t see how you will ever get that pole up.”  The Kentuckian answered, “Stick around and you may see more than you wager for.”  By literal hook and crook, mechanized to be sure, it all got up, poles, wires, transformers, until we heard the go ahead signal and the power returned.

I couldn’t help thinking that these men, who had come down from the regions around the Ohio river, were lineal descendants of the “volunteers” of yore, legendary men like Boon and Crockett, and the countless others who never became legends.  Historians can argue ad infinitum whether or not these were the men who “made America great,” or as per cultural Marxism, they were just land-pirates building a sand-castle civilization called the United States.  What is not arguable is that on short notice, their descendants had been mobilized and formed into an effective army to see that the swamp (here literally!) didn’t reclaim that network of urban humanity which calls itself modern Florida.

My general impression was that the whole operation, as befits volunteers, looked more like a “spontaneous order” than a command structure.  This was not to say that there was no planning, of which there was much evidence, but that the planning was horizontal rather than vertical, with the local agency and the out-of-state personnel cooperating on a case by case basis, combining local knowledge with volunteer can-do.  The federal government was invisible, although you could say that Floridians were the beneficiaries of a “national” effort by localities which had sent their people and resources across state lines to get the job done.  In military lingo you couldn’t say they weren’t regulars…just regular folks.

And that, my friends, is what makes America great.

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A god who failed: William F. Buckley and his “conservative” movement

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 30, 2017

A Fabian Conservatism?

There are two systems operating on this Earth.  According to one, every man, woman, and child strives with carnal jealously to grasp and hold on to their rights to self and things, and when there is more than enough, the excess is disposed of, given away, or traded on the open market.  That is the better of the two systems.  According to the other system, men and women quest for virtue and renown, seeking to bring the Kingdom of Heaven down to this world, by violence if necessary, and we are further told that at the end of this process a man shall appear who resembles Christ in certain regards.  It is this second system which attracts the best and the brightest.  The late William F. Buckley Jr., 1925-2008, practicing Catholic, family man, nominal patriot and putative spy, Yale graduate, novelist, journalist, polymath and polyglot, yet above all things, “intellectual”, was certainly among the brightest of his generation.  As a general principle, we ought not speak ill of those whom God has loved and endowed with great talents, yet it is incumbent upon anyone who wishes to preserve both truth and memory to render judgement on matters of public record, and especially those actions or omissions which have led the American body politic down its present primrose path.  If we are the proverbial tin can, well then, Mr. Buckley was a chief contender among those who kicked us down the road and into the ditch.  Assuredly, we have every right to inquire into his mind and motives.

My first memory of William F. Buckley is the televised image of two posh, erudite men engaged in a furious altercation over the merits of the Republican presidential nominee in 1964.   The one on the left (from the viewers perspective) was a scandalous representative of the liberal avant guard, an inconsistent and curmudgeonly  libertarian/left/democrat, surely an entertaining character if one were to consider him in isolation.  However he could barely gain a point against the other man, the one on the right (again keeping perspective in mind) who seemed an utter novelty, the Adam of a new race which was awaiting formation, or rather self-formation.  Gore Vidal, (stage left) has kept a loyal following of fans and detractors, yet Vidal by himself would never have become an epochal, or a defining figure of those crisis years.  It was Buckley’s, not Vidal’s, video debut , which marked off a new era, not (sadly) of American political thought, but of rhetoric and reality television.

Thus was born, at least in the viewing public’s mind, that oxymoron, the “conservative intellectual.”  The hokum of Dogpatch, an image of the American right as rustic buffoons so carefully crafted by liberal opinion makers was momentarily shattered by a visible presence.  Since I was a kid, I didn’t know that Buckley had already attained considerable celebrity in literary and journalistic circles, as early as 1950, with the publication of his  God and Man at Yale, but now the word had become flesh, visible to millions upon millions of couch dwellers and potato chip eaters.   He spoke, and he spoke well, interspersing his verbal darts with the flick of a serpentine tongue across tightly drawn lips.  Suddenly, the viewers glimpsed a crack of light shining through the deadening conformity of consensus politics.  Was this the chiaroscuro dawn of a new day, or just a hoax?  It was ominous when, in a fit of peek, the new god dropped his smooth mask to coin a notorious neologism.  Vidal, he fulminated, was an “octo-moron!”  In those days of civil discourse you didn’t just go calling someone an eight-fold idiot in front of America’s families…not to mention the lexicographers!

Fast forwarding to the present, and the perspective of the post-Trump, post-civil discourse era, it becomes painfully clear that this erudite “conservatism”  has failed. Someone once observed that Hegel only “died” in 1933, a watershed beyond which many conceded that his “dialectic of history” bore scant resemblance to the logical deductions of some charitable and edifying Deity.  We might likewise reckon that  Buckley “died” in 2016, when it became abundantly clear that the chattering of the political class could no longer be confined to a salon discussion constrained by the niceties of an Americanized high tea.   Today we must reluctantly acknowledge that even domestic politics is war, perhaps not quite violent war, but war none the less.  But then, shouldn’t we have known that all along?  If we didn’t it was mainly our own fault, yet no thanks to Bill Buckley and others who were only too happy to perpetuate our fond illusions.  Hence, those moderates who have managed to wake up to the situation often discover that they are very late into a long war of attrition conducted by the left, poised on unfavorable terrain, and desperately short of intellectual ammunition.

Not that all possible ideologies which might be denominated as conservative are bankrupt, rather, it is especially the smug, above-the-fray “conservatism” defined by William F. Buckley which circumstances have rendered impotent.  Herein is the real eight-fold idiocy, not that Buckley was able to concoct a new ideology, which he had the brains and the perfect right to do, but that he usurped the nomenclature of a previous movement, the Old Right, and applied it to his novelties.  A guileless Buckley would have decanted his fresh ideological wine into new, or at least newly labeled, wine-skins.  Accordingly, Buckley might have dubbed his concoction “Fabian Conservatism” or some such critter…but he insisted on preserving the illusion of continuity with the anti-New Deal coalition.   Ironically, the moderate Socialists of the early 20th century showed a greater respect for intellectual property rights by relabeling themselves as Fabians, thus permitting the revolutionary Bolshoi to maintain their identity as “Reds.”

Actually, “Fabian” would have been a far better moniker for whatever Buckley was up to.  For one thing, the progressives, then and now, have never intended to give up a single inch of political gain.  It is always a matter of advance to the front, either slow and Fabian or fast and revolutionary.  In contrast,”conservatism” as it was reinvented by Buckley’s National Review in in the 1950s, has been much closer to the strategy of Quintus Fabius “the delayer”(Rome, 3rd c BC)…defining itself as the weaker side and then enlisting for a long, indeed perpetual, retreat.  Today we are experiencing the results of this capitulation.   Buckley, much like Keynes “in the long run”, did not live to see the full consequences of this “Fabian” defeatism, a nation in which the conservative brand as a whole has been discredited, and where only a retrenched populism and leftism remain as the primary  engines of our uncivil  discourse.

Pied Piper of the Establishment

Was Buckley’s defeatism a matter of principle?  Was it motivated by an Oswald-Spenglerian ennui in the face of irresistible winds of change?  Or was it something else, something less intellectual but more human, a quest for power and social acceptance by a man with the smarts and social connections to become a celebrity, combined with a secret contempt for moral absolutes?   John F. McManus considers this question in his William F. Buckley Jr.: Pied Piper of the Establishment, a look at the public words and actions of America’s most famous, so to speak, “conservative.”  In this concise and readable work McManus illustrates how virtually every major premise of conservatism was contravened by Mr. Buckley and his associated writers at National Review.  Did Buckley really “delay” the advent of the current unpleasant situation through judicious compromise, such as might merit the title Fabian Conservatism?  Or did he hasten on the day of reckoning by sapping the bulwarks of more authentic brands of resistance?  Mr. McManus doesn’t rush to judgement, but judge he does, by patiently building up a bill of particulars which will strongly incline the reader to embrace the latter hypothesis.  The major, though not the only, items that McManus itemizes in the antithetical “conservatism” of Mr. Buckley are the following.

  1. Buckley substituted an unidentified “conservatism” for the explicit definition of good government found in the Constitution.
  2. He shielded an unholy alliance between leftists, capitalists, and statists, or what Mr. McManus calls, “the conspiracy” from the public, by denying its existence and targeting its foes.
  3. By accepting membership in the Council on Foreign relations, he supplied dignity and cover to a key element of this conspiratorial apparatus, or what today might be called the shadow government of the deep state.
  4. He contributed to the undermining of the nation’s morality.
  5. He led Americans away from involvement in the kind of principled activism (a.k.a. any continuation of the anti-war, non-interventionist Old Right conservatism, such as flourished in the Robert Taft era).

If Mr. McManus has been able to give us a comprehensive account of Mr. Buckley, his ideology, friends, and actions, it is because, as a young conservative he was a Buckleyite himself.  Initially having no alternative to the narrative introduced by National Review which smeared the remnants of the Old Right, and in particular its revival in the organizational form of the John Birch Society, Mr. McManus was an enthusiastic “Fabian” conservative.  However the providential arrival of a letter from a total stranger (in those days before the internet when it was hard to canvass opinions beyond one’s circle or standard journalism) led McManus to question the spin which National Review had put on the distinction between “right-wing” and “conservative.”  Subsequently, McManus did his own investigations which forced him to completely rethink the ambiguous ideology of William Buckley and embrace a principled philosophy of freedom.  This in turn led to membership and later leadership in his once-scorned but now beloved John Birch Society.

Now in order to form a just estimate of William Buckley, such as McManus and others have attempted, one has to understand the context of the world into which this new “conservatism” (Buckleyite, Fabian, or just “faux”) emerged.  The Second World War had been a global victory which came at the price of weakening every domestic institution in America other than the state, and the conscience of the Old Right urged a return to something like a peacetime society and economy.  It was well understood, and not just by conservatives, that there was a natural iteration between times of war and times of peace, and that a condition of perpetual war was a recipe for tyranny.  True, there was the very real threat of Communism to be dealt with, but it had to be dealt with in such a way that the very institutions used to fight Communism did not replicate the evil they were designed to overcome.

However the wisdom of turning America back into a normal society was not so easily put into practice.  The vast wartime tangle of bureaus and red tape (into which many actual “Reds” had insinuated themselves) proved easier to dedicate to new missions than to mothball.  Predictably, the same political party which had given America the New Deal were enthusiasts for the National Security State (activated by legislation passed in 1947) which perpetuated and legitimated all the essential wartime security and military apparatus.

This rapidly consolidating system was rightfully seen by many conservatives as “Orwellian” (a coinage of that era, since 1984 was written in 1948).  Moreover, for objectors the remedy was both obvious and Constitutional, i.e., “Throw the bums out!” and restore a peacetime, lassez-faire economy.  According to the myth of the two party system, that was the expected order of things, with frequent turnarounds in power both affirming the sovereignty of the people and harmonizing  extremes of policy.  Around 1954, similar to the Trump election of 2016, enemies of the status quo envisaged that if their party won fair and square the “loyal opposition”  would consent to a fundamental reorientation of national policy.  Alas, then as now, the concept of “loyal opposition” proved to be an oxymoron…if not an eightfold idiocy!  Whatever the hardships and tragedy of the New Deal and the Second World War, the truly sinister development wasn’t triggered until, after a twenty years hiatus, a Republican administration was finally inaugurated.  To the shock and dismay of genuine conservatives, rather than a return to normality, under Eisenhower the progress towards a managerial welfare/warfare state was affirmed and even accelerated.

It was at this juncture of history that William F. Buckley Jr. appeared in the forums of public life.  Initially National Review shared the outrage of the Old Right, sill smarting from the primary defeat of Taft, at the wholesale adoption of New Deal programs and apparatus by the nominally Republican administration which had replaced Truman.  McManus notes that…

In December 1957 Buckley himself scolded President Eisenhower for his sorry leadership.  During a forum in New York City sponsored by National Review he excoriated Ike for having allowed the “problem of internal security” to grow to “to a state far worse than that under Mr. Truman.”  Insisting that “Mr. Eisenhower must, inevitably, be repudiated.”  Buckley lamented that he didn’t expect anything to be done because “Eisenhower does not take stands, except against [Senator Joseph] McCarthy and the Bricker Amendment [stipulation that treaty law did not supervene US sovereignty].”  His remarks were later published in the National Review.

Thus, early on in the editorial career of the National Review, a policy line was taken which seemed indistinguishable from the base of the Old Right/Taft Republican movement.  However as soon as these conservative bona fides were established, Buckley took a new tack, ingratiating himself to left and center by taking a more establishment approach to the issues, and, most importantly, positioning himself on the acceptable side of the “right-wing extremist” vs. “conservative” divide.   Conveniently, the criteria for judging this distinction were largely devised by Mr. Buckley himself. An initial omen of this strategy was McCarthy and his Enemies (1954) a book coauthored by Buckley  on the anti-Communist investigator, an ostensible defense which contained so many unseemly observations of its subject and his cause that it diminished both.  By the early ’60s it should have been clear that Buckley had done a two-step, 1) appropriate the label “conservative” through his initial appeals to the Old Right, and  2) change the definition of “conservative” by stigmatizing most of the positions traditionally held by the Old Right.

It is important to remember that the Old Right (used here as equivalent to the anti-New Deal coalition) was a lassez-faire, generally anti-war, limited government movement.  It was not “right-wing” in the pejorative sense that subsequent political rhetoric has framed the term.  Significantly, such genuine rightists as existed in the America of the ’30s and ’40s seldom opposed the New Deal in principle.  The segregationist “Dixicrats” were all aboard FDR’s gravy train, and the scattering of minuscule groups which sought to ape European fascism could only complain that the New Deal was insufficiently centralized, militarized, technocratic, paganized or dictatorial.

The making of a god

However, if one is positioning oneself as the ascending god of public opinion, it is not sufficient, though it may be necessary, to redraw a nation’s ideological cartography.  As McManus repeatedly points out in his criticism of Buckley, which is in fact a criticism of the way conservatives “do politics,” ideology is generally overrated as a ground of human action.  Contrary to whatever Richard Weaver may have intended, it is people, not ideas, who create political  consequences…at least in the short run.  To put it according to the myths of the old pagans, whether one is Oedipus or the King of Alba Longa, one must slay the god of the harvest if one wishes to establish a new religion.  In the case of William F. Buckley Jr., it was not enough to displace, disparage, and assume the mantle of a bloodless abstraction such as “conservatism” or the generic, and geriatric, “Old Right.”  As in days of yore, a living sacrifice was necessary.

Now it so happened that, preceding and shadowing the career of our Ivy League tyro was another man, a very different sort of fellow, a practical businessman and independent researcher, yet one who, in the technical definition of anthropologist Rene Girard might be reckoned as Buckley’s “double.”   That man was Robert Welch, who founded the John Birch Society in 1958.  Whatever the merits of Girard’s theories might be, it  is said that in a mimetic universe (that is, a society populated by imitative creatures, which indeed sounds rather familiar) it is impossible for doubles to long coexist.  Buckley and Welch were doubles in the sense that one or the other was destined to become the rallying point of the conservative cause.  One or the other, not both.

To translate from mythic to political terms, an assassination was in order!  Fortunately for Welch, especially considering Buckley’s career in operational intelligence, assassination of character was deemed sufficient.  Welch, having eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil  (something Buckley was especially dedicated to preventing among his fledgling “conservatives”) was cast out of the paradise of polite company, and into the valley of wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Except that Welch neither wailed nor gnashed his teeth, but took his public stigma, or what Girard would call his “skapegoating” with charitable fortitude.

Just as Girard’s mimetic theory would predict, it worked like a charm, this exchange of fates between Welch and Buckley.  McManus quotes Buckley biographer Judis on the potent effects…

Buckley’s attack on the John Birch Society also transformed him as a public figure.  He [Buckley] was no longer the pariah of the McCarthy days.  He was a public representative of the new conservatism that television producers and college deans could invite to appear without provoking an outcry.  Whether intentional or not, Buckley’s attack on the John Birch Society prepared the way for his own celebrity. (McManus p. 153)

[N.B., Pay attention to how  “without provoking an outcry” appears, from the vantage of the present,  on the forward side of a half-century historical parenthesis! Intimidation of speech outside of the left’s allowed parameters is not a novelty of the post-Trump era, but has been a frequent academic constraint in both 20th and 21st century America.  Perhaps the intermission of good feeling and toleration was only due to “Fabian” self-censorship on the part of conservatives.]

The scapegoating of Welch and the new ideological cartography mutually reinforced and validated each other.  One doesn’t have to be a Harry Turtledove to imagine an alternative historical scenario, a world in which Welch did the scapegoating and Buckley became the sacrifice.  The major obstacle to the realization of this alternative universe was the basic decency and fair-play of Welch himself, who refused to be drawn into mimetic rivalry with fellow conservatives.  Welch illustrated his own attitude by prefacing his response to the scapegoating with lines from the poet Edwin Markham…

He drew a circle and shut me out–

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!  (McManus p.154)

Furthermore, the inverted ideological map of the alternative universe would actually make far more sense, with Welch positioned as the centrist and Buckley as “far right-wing.”  Most people at the mid-point of the 20th century would, setting aside propaganda, have regarded Welch as the solid “bourgeois” and Buckley as the scheming, effete, aristocrat.  Indeed, it was this almost French Bourbon air of amorality and private immunity which gave Buckley much of his charm and influence.  And if such quirks of character were not enough enough to make one suspect that Buckley was far to the “right” of Welch, what about the secret societies, the espionage, the pornography and similar intrigue?  I won’t go into the details here as McManus documents them extensively in his book.  However it might be  useful to take a synoptic glance at what McManus evidently considers Buckley’s most damning characteristic.

Barking up the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

To reiterate, Buckley made a sacrifice of Welch, thus becoming a divinity, the god of a new conservative movement formed in his own image.  However, there is a curse attendant on all mortals who pretend to godhood, that they must sleeplessly patrol the bounds of their sacred groves against the onslaught of fresh rivals.  We may liken Buckley to the cherub charged with guarding paradise, however the tree that he was set guard over was not that of life, but rather concerned a very specific form of knowledge.

To be sure, Buckley was not against knowledge or intellect, and with the exception of one particular form of knowing, he was pleased to spread abroad all sorts of chatty information and innuendo.  This included exposure of the more outrageous left wing follies, and to this was added his police function as a maintainer of conservative standards of belief and decorum.  In short, he was smart, and he was on a mission to save America from its own stupidity, stupidity and error of such magnitude that it threatened to lose the Cold War and bring Western Civilization to an untimely end.  Nor was he against knowledge in the sense of “carnal knowledge” and he had a Playboy interview to prove it.  That too was smart, in the sense of currying favor with “the smart set” of the ’60s.

Most significantly, as intellectual-in-chief, Buckley enjoyed the role of contrarian, stimulating all sorts of fascinating conversations by reversing conservative thought on key social and economic issues.  Should Richard Nixon have instituted wage-and-price controls?  Well, why not give it try?  Contrary to everything which the Austrian school of economics had painstakingly demonstrated, that wage-and-price controls would sabotage production and exchange, Buckley felt that one had to be open minded on the topic.  Should the Supreme court have had authority to determine whether abortion was murder?  Why not?  True, two-thousand years of Christian teaching had already provided a clear answer to this question.  However Mr. Buckley, though a Catholic, felt that discussion on the topic needed to be opened up and freed from dogma.  In addition to abortion and price controls, Mr. McManus lists over a dozen “indefensible positions”(pp. 220-229) where Buckley either reversed the conservative stand or introduced moral ambiguity.  And should we have been surprised?  After all, settled doctrines don’t sell magazines or increase the ratings of televised talk shows the way that controversy and factional in-fighting do.

Yet for all his delight in upsetting the apple cart of knowledge, there was one angle which Buckley declared taboo.  With regard to American government policy, and to some extent other institutions of society, all investigation had to take place within the smart/stupid framework.  The alternative framework, the good/evil framework, was strictly out of bounds.  Any policy commentator who suggested that there was a conspiracy in high places actively engaged in undermining America’s best interests, was just a dog barking up the tree of forbidden knowledge, and needing to be silenced.  These barking dogs were many, including not just Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Robert Welch, and Herbert Hoover, but ironically Buckley himself together with the staff of National Review, prior to his apotheosis as the god of a new conservatism.  Yet as early the mid-’50s it was clear that a new paradigm was taking hold.

In August 1956, at about the same time that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was warning of a “conspiracy so monstrous” that one “cannot believe that it exists,” Buckley offered his contrary view that America’s problems were occurring “spontaneously, not in compliance with a continuously imposed discipline.”  In effect, he was saying, “Don’t listen to Hoover, the House Committee, or the Senate Subcommittee.  Ignore even my own statement in McCarthy and His Enemies.  The bad that happens to our nation is the result of spontaneous stupidity, not orchestrated design.”  (McManus pp. 128-129)

Apart from questions of historical accuracy, why is this still a big deal?  Of all the trees in the political garden, why does the fruit of this one matter in a unique way?  Let’s pay attention to the observations of Mr. McManus….

Concluding that willful conspirators rather than mere bumbling do-gooders are at the root of such problems stimulates activity because of human nature’s most powerful instinct: self-preservation.  Most who decide that the disastrous transformation of America is the work of deliberate evildoers will do whatever they can to save their country, themselves, and their loved ones.

But those who become convinced that the damage being done results from well-intentioned mistakes will do little except grumble.  Even while witnessing the ongoing destruction, they will shrug their shoulders, continue working to keep their heads above water, and naively expect others in government and elesewhere to eventually see the error of their ways and take corrective action.

Today, as never before, many are willing to impute evil to their governing officials.  Unpleasant as this might be, it at least gives us grounds for reevaluating Buckley’s assessment that stupidity and not conspiracy was at the root of America’s ills.  Fewer and fewer people today would concur with this assessment, however time and energy have been lost through distractions…not the least of distractions being Buckley’s influence, an influence which both intellectualized and demoralized political discourse on the right.

Postscript on Intellectuals and Pseudo-Intellectuals

It was a balm to the pride of conservatives in the 20th century that thinkers on the left consisted not of actual, but of false or “pseudo”, intellectuals.  In contrast, Mr. Buckley and his cohorts could be trotted out as examples of the genuine article.  To be sure, Buckley and his friends were more erudite, not to mention amiable, than your average Weatherman.  However, in some ultimate sense Mr. Buckley was as “pseudo” as they came, and for reasons that should now be apparent, that, being a conscientious objector to the war against evil, he whiled away his time in the garden of ideas.

That is not to say that ideas cannot be serious.  However the number of people for whom ideas are central to existence is few indeed.  For Bill Buckley ideas were toys, baubles of the mind which could be entertained as hypotheses, not principles which compelled moral action.  How many of us can say that we deal with ideas in any other way?  Are we all not pseudo-intellectuals to one degree or another?  Perhaps that is our nature, the nature of those of us who are less than gods.  Perhaps it is good to be only a pseudo-intellectual.

Those who truly sought salvation in ideas have nearly vanished from the Earth.  Plato, Plotinus, Hypatia of Alexandria, and later during the Renaissance, Pletho and  Pico before his conversion by Savonarola, and perhaps a few others.  William F. Buckley was not among their company, and neither was Jesus of Nazareth.  So in spite of old Bill’s long list of sins, which I have barely touched upon here, this speaks well for his soul, that he was not an intellectual in the absolute sense.  There is always hope.

 

 

Posted in Appologetics, Christianity, Constitution, Culture & Politics, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

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!

 

 

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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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