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Setting History’s Course

Thursday, October 1, 2009
Lenin Leading a Revolutionary Worker

There is a wonderful concluding scene in the movie Trading Places, when the leading characters Louis and Billy Ray toast their crushing victory over the nasty Duke brothers. Stretched out on the beach, drink in hand, Billy Ray yells, “Looking good Louis.” Louis stands in his yacht with a glass of champagne in one hand and Jamie Lee Curtis in the other and yells back, “Feeling good, Billy Ray.” In 1991, the American foreign policy and academic communities were filled with Billy Rays and Louis’s.

The response in the United States to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and more generally to the “Leninist Extinction” — the abrupt, accelerated, and comprehensive demise of Leninist regimes worldwide — was a growing and euphoric expectation and declaration that a global democratic capitalist revolution led by and modeled on the United States was imminent.1 The same prophetic ideas and expectations had failed to materialize after World War I and World War II, however. Victory in World War I led President Woodrow Wilson to call for democratic self-determination in Eastern Europe and the creation of a League of Nations to prevent aggression. The United States failed to join the League, the League failed to prevent Italian, German, and Japanese aggression; and by the mid 1930s, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, all of Eastern Europe was led by monarchical or military dictators.

Nonetheless, anticipated victory in World War II led President Franklin Roosevelt to call for a United Nations where the Soviet Union and the United States would continue their wartime cooperation, prevent further instances of aggression, and oversee the democratic decolonization of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Only three years after that victory the Soviet Union created a set of geographically contiguous replica regimes in Eastern Europe, and the Cold War had begun. As for decolonization, it produced dictatorships not democracies, socialism not capitalism, from Ghana to Egypt to Indonesia.

The United States failed to join the League, the League failed to prevent Italian, German, and Japanese aggression.

Never mind. When the ussr collapsed, people thought, “Perhaps third time lucky.” After all, the Soviet Union had been a much more substantial military, economic, and ideological challenge and threat to the West than Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany. Furthermore, defeat of the major threat to liberal capitalist democracy was accompanied by a purported democratic tsunami, or at least a “third wave” of democratization, sweeping the world. If any further proof was necessary of liberalism and America’s final and complete (to borrow a Stalinist phrase) victory in the world historical battle against communism, one had only to look at the mass transformation of Western socialist academics to postmodern film critics.

Francis Fukuyama, in his 1989 essay “The End of History?” offered the most radical and theoretically sophisticated interpretation of the West’s unique victory. In his words, “the triumph of the West, of the Western Idea” was “evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” He continued: “At the end of history it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society.” Because in Fukuyama’s mind liberalism has essentially, if not yet practically, let alone completely, solved the problems of war, poverty, equality, and scientific discovery; there is no room for new world historical competitors, only critics.

Fukuyama’s philosophical argument was supplemented at a lower level of generalization by Thomas Friedman’s apologia for globalization, the technological logos for liberalism’s victory. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman saw globalization as the future, the global name and reality replacing the Cold War. According to Friedman, globalization was the world’s “tiger” — an irresistible, benign, homogenizing force that would make nation-states relics. Globalization would make the world flat, a world in which everyone from Brooklyn to Burundi would drive a Lexus while being allowed their own little ethnic flourishes, like pinching bottoms in Italy and beheading adulterers in Saudi Arabia. But Friedman did more than supplement Fukuyama’s idealist determinism of global liberalization with a materialist technological one. Friedman also introduced an active element, an agent for bringing about a global democratic capitalist revolution. If globalization was the “tiger” of the global democratic capitalist revolution, then America, in his words, was the tiger’s most adept rider.

The primary feature of world history tends to be cultural, institutional, and ideological diversity.

The September 11 attacks on the United States radically revised the relationship between a liberal end to history and America’s role in that process. The George W. Bush administration concluded that Fukuyama’s timetable was too laissez-faire, not nearly attentive enough to the levers and agents of historical change. History, the Bush administration concluded, needed deliberate leadership, direction, and action. The possibility of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of those who wanted to end our history called for a very different understanding of how to ensure a liberal end of history.

In response to 9-11, President Bush replaced Fukuyama’s Marxist-like teleology with a “Leninist” understanding of American agency.2 Friedman’s global Lexus and olive tree were to be replaced by the American Humvee and the apple tree — the rider and the tiger were to be one and the same thing.

The Bush administration’s conflation of a particular agent, the United States of America, and universal processes like globalization and democratization, speaks to something historically rare and revolutionary. As a rule history is “protestant,” not “Catholic.” The primary feature of world history tends to be cultural, institutional, and ideological diversity. But episodically a “universal” ideological “word” becomes institutional “flesh”; an authoritatively standardized and centered institutional format dominates a highly diverse set of cultures. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that for any ideology with universal potential to escape a parochial fate, to establish itself practically and authoritatively across a diverse range of cultures, one entity must successfully monopolize that ideology’s political, institutional, and strategic definition for a critical period of developmental time. During Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Roman Catholicism, with its standardized mass, universal use of Latin and international stratum of bishops authoritatively centered in Rome, was one such instance. Liberalism with its gold-standard, parliamentary democracy, and free trade, authoritatively centered in England, was another example. And Leninism between 1947 and 1989 — with its “vanguard party,” correct line, collectivization, and combat industrialization authoritatively centered at least until 1961 in Moscow — was a third.

In this regard, it may well be that George W. Bush was on to something that Fukuyama ignored, Friedman straddled, and Hegel identified. Hegel argued that a particular nation actualizes history’s purpose during a strategic period of developmental time. A particular nation becomes dominant in world history and, as he put it, during that time “other nations no longer count in world history.” This actually happened in the aftermath of World War II when the universal “idea” of liberal capitalist democracy became identified with and nearly identical to the United States. It may not have been determined metaphysically, but empirically it happened: The United States saved, stabilized, revitalized, and defined the liberal idea in history, specifically in Western Europe and Japan.

World war ii ended with the emergence of something extraordinary, two imperial nations, one liberal the other Leninist, led by elites convinced of their superior political and ideological calling, capable of generating a surplus of power, prestige, and in the American case, production.

In the aftermath of World War II, one could say of the Americans and Soviets what Virgil said of Mnestheus’s men: “They are strengthened by success, they have the power because they feel they have it.” For a critical period of time, beginning in the late 1940s, the United States powerfully and authoritatively offered itself as the exemplar of Western liberal capitalist democracy everywhere from Japan to West Germany. Japan and Western Europe might have had socialist, even communist, parties with substantial constituencies, quite different welfare traditions, and marked ambivalence towards the United States, but all the authoritatively defining institutions during this critical period were American: the Marshall Plan, nato, the imf, and the dollar. In a striking expression of the conflation of American, Western, and international power, the United Nations, far from being located in neutral Switzerland, Sweden, or Ireland, was located in the “Empire State,” in New York City. The United States of America succeeded in creating a global political, economic, and military reality, a liberal-capitalist-democratic one led, disciplined, and concretely embodied in the United States.

Move forward in time from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War. To the collapse of the Soviet bloc add the remarkable fact emphasized by Perry Anderson and Francois Furet that the gigantic historical upheaval occasioned by the demise of the Soviet bloc “seemed to bear no new principle within it.” If feudalism contained a successor principle (capitalism) and capitalism a presumed successor principle (socialism) then socialism, in both its revolutionary and reform expressions, had turned out to be a futile not fertile principle of historical evolution. All the more reason in the 1990s for all the Louis’s and Billy Rays in the United States to agree with Fukuyama about the liberal end of history, to read Friedman’s description of the global tiger and its rider with sheer delight, and even support Bush’s American effort to make sure history ended the right way.

Enjoying the unique reality of a unipolar world at the end of the Cold War, the Bush administration readily embraced a powerful — by no means exclusive — element of American political culture: its messianic one.  Thomas Paine expressed it most vividly in the context of the American Revolution when he declared that “We [Americans] have it in our power to make the world over again.” Like many of his predecessors, Democrats and Republicans, President Bush agreed with Paine, and he added that every culture and person in the world innately possessed the God-given desire and ability to be democrats, or even better, Republicans.

The United States saved, stabilized, revitalized, and defined the liberal idea in history, specifically in Western Europe and Japan.

Acting on this unfounded theological premise and Paine’s utopian and radical claim — not Edmund Burke’s conservative beliefs — the Bush administration identified the Middle East — specifically, Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime — as the greatest obstacle and threat to an American-led liberal end to history. Removing Saddam would allow an Eastern European-like development in the Middle East; i.e., a civil society would emerge, Sleeping Beauty-style, ready and able to create a liberal capitalist democracy with, of course, Iraqi features. In turn, a democratic Iraq would act as a model and stimulus for democratic regime change throughout the Middle East, beginning with Iran, whose educated, affluent, and cosmopolitan middle class would topple the widely disliked mullah oligarchy. Iranian democracy would then stimulate democratic changes in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. For a change, the dominoes would be democratic.

But none of this has happened. In part because the highly uncivil, ethnically and religiously sectarian Iraqi middle classes in no way resemble those that have historically favored liberalism in the West; in part because unlike Eastern Europe, with its very high post-1989 potential for ethnic incivility and violence, Iraq was not adopted by a socially civil, economically attractive, culturally proximate, and politically democratic entity like the eu; and in part because the cosmopolitan Iranian middle class had moved to Los Angeles. Regarding Iran, at this point it should be evident that any profound political changes there will be due to internal developments, not to any “catalyst” provided by the American invasion of Iraq.

Above all, the Bush administration’s democratic-capitalist regime-change effort was doomed by the utopian voluntarism inspiring the project at both the academically liberal “transition to democracy” level and its politically neoconservative one. The Republican Party’s utopian neoconservatives would have been well served by taking an introductory course in cultural anthropology, or even better, reading Marx and Engel’s essay, “Utopian Socialism,” in which utopian socialists are defined as “those for whom historical action is to yield to their personal inventive action, historically created conditions of emancipation to fantastic ones, and the gradual class organization of the proletariat [substitute for this “the emergence of a democratic civil society”] to the organization of society specially contrived by academic inventors.” Prescient!

The Republican Party’s utopian neoconservatives would have been well served by taking an introductory course in cultural anthropology.

While these observations may explain failure in the Middle East, they do not fully answer the big question: Why in today’s historical circumstances, which are even more favorable than those following World War II, has an American-led liberal end of history not occurred?

Hegel provides a metaphysical explanation. In Philosophy of Right, he not only argued that a particular nation embodies the world spirit and, doing so, rightfully claims dominance in the world. He also added that this “chosen” nation does not occupy that status permanently. Rather, at some point it loses its unique power, it becomes an ordinary nation, and another is selected to further develop the world spirit. Even more importantly, Hegel says a given nation can only enjoy the privilege of embodying the universal principle once.

Typically, Marx offers a more pungent (and quotable) but still similar explanation for America’s failure after the Cold War to repeat its success after World War II. On the first page of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, contrasting Napoleon I and Napoleon III, Marx characterized historical phenomena this way: first time tragedy, second time, farce. Vivid and wrong! America’s role in and immediately following World War II was majestic not tragic. And at the beginning of the 21st century its actions are better understood as mundane than as farcical.

What then does explain America’s failure at the end of the Cold War to successfully appropriate and practically embody the principle of liberalism and extend it globally the way it did regionally after World War II? The obvious reason is that the period after 1991 was significantly different than that after 1945. Unlike after World War II, Western Europe was not prostrate. While the eu might be Venus and the United States Mars, in 1991 Venus was economically developed, politically confident, and assertively independent, with two nuclear powers. Also, in 1945 the third world barely had a number. Pakistan and India would become independent in August, 1947. And it would be another seven years before the Bandung Conference and the appearance of the so-called nonaligned movement. By the 1980s, in fact earlier, things had substantially changed. Poor and weak third-world countries like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Lebanon (not to mention Vietnam) could successfully veto the military efforts of much stronger developed countries.

Finally, in contrast to the period after World War II when General Motors’s net value was greater than the Italian economy, by 1991 the eu and Asian economies were robust, and in 2009 the Italian carmaker Fiat was bidding to take over gm in Europe and Chrysler in America.

Hegel says a given nation can only enjoy the privilege of embodying the universal principle once.

In addition to changes in America’s international environments, important changes had also occurred in the United States. Not all appraisals of America’s national condition prior to the end of the Cold War were as euphoric and triumphalist as the neoconservatives say. One of the most astute students of American society, the late Christopher Lasch, forcefully argued that “members of the American elite have lost faith in the values, or what remains of them, of the West. For many people, the very term ‘Western civilization’ now calls to mind an organized system of domination designed to enforce conformity to bourgeois values and to keep the victims of patriarchal oppression . . . in a permanent state of subjection.”3 That certainly applied to American elite universities from Harvard to Berkeley. In a similar vein, James Kurth suggested, “the most significant development for Western civilization . . . has occurred within its leading power. Increasingly, the political and intellectual elites of the United States no longer think of America as the leader, or even a member, of Western civilization. . . . The American political and intellectual class instead thinks of America as a multicultural society.”4 This may well apply to President Barack Obama.

But the most insightful observation about America and the West came from Daniel Bell. In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), Bell addressed the historical evolution of the West, and specifically the United States, at the same general level as Fukuyama and Hegel, but in sociological not philosophical terms. He wrote, “we are coming to a watershed in Western society: we are witnessing the end of the bourgeois idea.”5 Which meant, I think, that the unique cultural and institutional discipline of religious, economic, and political individualism that had unified and distinguished the West was beginning to disintegrate. For Bell, a once extraordinary civilization, the West, was becoming ordinary, if still powerful. Bell’s observation resonates with Hegel’s comment about the nation that loses its world historical charisma: “perhaps [it continues] to drag itself on as a particular state or circle of states, and spends itself in various random . . . enterprises and foreign broils.” Like Afghanistan and Cuba?

What then about America and the end of history? While at one level Robert Kagan was quite right to argue that in the Western world America is the warrior and the eu the merchant, he missed the more important point that today neither America nor Europe is heroic, neither has the world historical charisma that was theirs from the time of the Normans to the landing at Normandy.6 The most notable feature of the West and the world is that heroism is temporarily exhausted and absent. It has no ideological, political, or social expression, just varied national expressions from Bush to Putin of what Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, referred to as “convulsive self-importance.”

This means that to date Fukuyama has been correct. No anti-Western ideology with global potential centered in a country able to generate technological and military power has yet emerged. However, the absence of a global challenger is a temporary not permanent reality, and the primary reason is cultural not philosophical, sociological, or economic. Liberal capitalist democracy is a partisan phenomenon; it addresses and emphasizes only part of the human condition. Far from being universally shared, Western liberalism should be considered an (invaluable) historical anomaly, a radical mutation, and a cultural phenomenon at odds with the rest of the world’s cultures. Liberalism in the West, and most of all in America, ideally, and in good measure practically, privileges the individual over group identity, while groups themselves are less identity-greedy than in non-Western settings. The West also privileges achievement over security and rational impersonalism over heroism. The “rest” of the world reverses these Western preferences.

Add to this fundamental difference between the West and the rest, the routinization of Europe and America’s once charismatic qualities the current Western-based global recession, and the persistent perplexity and resentment of the rest towards the West, and the possibility exists that a new world historical threat will emerge in the near future to confront America and the West.

I am not referring to the powerful but mundane non-ideological challenge posed by anti-liberal mercantilist state-nations like Russia and China. In their current form both countries fit quite well within the Fukuyama framework of nations, able for an indeterminate period of time to reject liberal capitalist democracy, but intrinsically unable to generate a systematic ideological alternative to the West — i.e., one that in critical respects transcends the nation and acts as an independent source of allegiance and discipline. Contemporary mercantilist state-nations are largely bound by their rejection of liberal capitalist democracy. Liberal democratic capitalist nations, on the other hand, have a shared ideological identity that in critical circumstances can offset their national competition and provide a supranational base for institutional innovation.

What I am referring to is the possibility of world historical challenges to Western liberal capitalist democracy from particular parts of the “rest” and the possibility of substantial, even radical, changes within the West itself. Changes of this magnitude can occur rapidly. The idea that “change, even sea changes, take place gradually,” has very little basis.7 The novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez grasped, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the reality of rapid and massive change with this phrase: “The world was so new and things in it so recent, it was necessary to point.” Examples of rapid radical change are numerous.

The absence of a global challenger is a temporary not permanent reality, and the primary reason is cultural.

On more than one historical occasion language has lagged behind political change. Joseph Ellis notes that in the 1790s “the leadership of the [American] revolutionary generation lacked a vocabulary adequate to describe the politics they were inventing.”8

The scientists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge have offered the theory of “punctuated equilibrium” to explain this phenomenon of “evolutionary jerks,” rapid, often massive change.9 And as suggested, there is more than enough historical evidence of such. For St. Paul it occurred with lightning-like speed. In Benjamin Franklin’s case lightning played a different role, but within a five-year span he went from being a fervent British loyalist to fervent American patriot. Benito Mussolini, who entered World War I a revolutionary socialist, emerged a fascist. Lest one think such radical rapid change is limited to the micro level, note the extraordinary political change in Germany between 1928 and 1933; and in Russia, which transformed from Tsarism to Stalinism between 1917 and 1929. Meiji Japan and contemporary China provide dramatic instances of massive rapid economic change. And in decades the eu has united the western and eastern parts of Europe, which had been separated for centuries. It is not only the dinosaurs who experienced rapid and massive change.

The possible changes I have in mind include an innovative reform of liberal capitalist democracy that substantially reconfigures the nation-state as its flying buttress and extends the ideological tenets of liberal capitalist democracy, e.g., the meaning of individualism in general, citizenship and entrepreneurship in particular, in an institutionally more integrated Western (not global) world. The United States and the eu are best positioned for such a development, though there is an opposing obstacle in each case. In the American case the obstacle is its essentialist, indelible, view of national sovereignty. In stark contrast, “unbundling” — to use Michael Mann’s term — national sovereignty into its various dimensions and functions is the eu’s novel achievement. The obstacle to innovation in the eu, even within the framework of liberalism, is the eu’s allergic response to any ideologically majestic enterprise. To substantially reform the current Western liberal nation-state, the United States would have to become more European in its attitude toward sovereignty, and the eu more American in its acceptance of liberal ideology, not simply liberal practicality, as its inspiration.

As noted, every successful ideology with universal potential depends on a local carrier for its realization.

Another much more radical possibility, should the current crisis dramatically expand, is the appearance of a novel post-liberal ideology that decisively revises liberal capitalist democracy’s historical legacy and replaces the nation-state as the basic unit of production, power, and allegiance. This would be a genuine world historical event comparable to the emergence of the liberal capitalist nation-state itself in England in the 17th century.

As noted, every successful ideology with universal potential depends on a local carrier for its realization. Liberalism depended on the nation-state. And at particular historical points, on specific nation-states. For close to two centuries, the liberal nation-state has been a remarkable combination of the instrumentally effective and emotionally affective in increasingly mobile Western societies. However, like Western bourgeois civilization itself, the fixed Western nation-state may have exhausted its powers of adaptation in a more mobile global world. While the Western nation-state’s staying power has been regularly underestimated in the course of the last century, it has no “platonic” claim on permanence.

It is far from fantastic to consider the emergence within Western civilization, a uniquely fertile environment for innovation over the last 500 years, of radically novel changes at both the ideological and institutional levels; changes that decisively recast the national-liberal amalgam of the past two centuries the way a revolutionary Western national-liberal capitalism reconfigured a historically unique Western feudalism. The West may have reached what Gerschenkron called a “nodal point,” one that allows for, but in no way necessitates, radical change. A point where in a relatively short period of time we will witness, experience, and perhaps participate in aesthetic, ideological, strategic, and finally, institutional redefinition.

There is, of course, an additional possibility, a malignant one, the emergence of an anti-Western “Movement of Rage,” informed and disciplined by an ideology, like Nazism and Leninism, whose scope is civilizational, not merely national.10

Anti-Western “Movements of Rage” privilege “heroic” violence, often to the point of nihilism, and in the 20th century have been virulently anti-Western. Their defining features include a belief in the intrinsically valuable, purifying effect of violence. Frantz Fanon, one of their most eloquent spokesmen, says, “Violence is . . . comparable to a royal pardon. The . . . man [colonized by the West] finds his freedom in and through violence.” He continues: “Violence alone, violence committed by the people . . . organized by its leaders makes it possible for the masses to understand social truths and gives the key to them.”11

The ethos of these movements is one of angry humiliation and violent desperation, and typically clusters in urban slums, but more especially among the elites of provincial cities. Theirs is the rage of the semi-educated; those invited to, but not included in, their countries “modern” Westernized elite; those who live in two worlds — provincial and cosmopolitan — but are uncomfortable in each, not fully a part of either, and who wish to destructively transcend both. Their rage is typically directed at what is seen as the most powerful, identifiable expression of and infection from the West: the capital city. At one and the same time the city is detested as the site of Western corruption, desired because of its material temptation, and hated for its personal rejection. The city is a composite of Jabba the Hut, Bonfire of the Vanities, and Satanic evil.

Movements of Rage are violently desperate, magical, and utopian responses to failure — failure to create economic development, social justice, and political dignity in and for their country. They are a response to and expression of the desperate and often hysterical sense that no existing political program or ideological designation has worked, to a history of failed monarchy, military rule, fascist, communist, or attempted democratic rule. In the 20th century, most of these movements appeared in small, peripheral countries: the Iron Guard in Romania; Sendero Luminoso in Peru; the Taliban in Afghanistan; and the most nihilistic and murderous third world Movement of Rage, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. But one, the most powerful of all, the Nazis, appeared in the center of Europe. The Nazi phenomenon suggests that the most powerful Movements of Rage, those that pose the greatest danger to Western civilization, are most likely to occur in marginally Western countries.

If state mercantilism in Russia and China should fail, then the absence of robust democratic movements in each country, the presence of xenophobic elements within society and, undoubtedly, the military would facilitate the emergence of a Movement of Rage and its transformation into a regime of rage. Add to this the level of technological development, education, and military power in Russia and China and the West would face a threat that, like the Nazis, combined a perverted heroic ethic and military technology that the Nazis could have only dreamed of.

But in contrast to these extraordinary developments, both benign and malignant, the near future will most likely be a continuation of the present and recent past because of the extraordinary power of institutional inertia, the remarkable capacity to “privatize” disappointment, frustration, and anger, and the unpredictable nature and timing of ideological innovation. America may substitute a casual Obama for a strident Bush, political apology for political theology, but the level of political endeavor will remain mundane. We will continue to live nationally and internationally, in a violently weak and mundane world, one that fails to experience what Marx described as the heroic “rude glory” of the Normans but also the “bloody mire of [new] Mongols.”

1 Ken Jowitt, “The Leninist Extinction,” New World Disorder (University of California Press, 1992).

2 Ken Jowitt, “Rage, Hubris and Regime Change,” Policy Review 118 (April & May 2003).

3 Christopher Lasch, “The Revolt of Elites,” Harper’s (November 1994).

4 James Kurth, “The Real Clash,” National Interest (Fall 1994).

5 Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Basic Books, 1976).

6 Robert Kagan, “Power and Weakness,” Policy Review 113 (June & July 2002).

7 Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (Norton & Co., 2008), 232.

8 Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers (Knopf, 2000), 186.

9 Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge introduced this controversial concept in 1972.

10 I first introduced this term in my 1979 piece on international communism, “Moscow Centre,” and then again in my article “The Leninist Extinction.”

11 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Grove Press, 1963).