Slouching Toward Byzantium

Saturday, April 30, 2005

The urge to international understanding is an admirable one. But it runs into problems when we look at the realities. The world that Americans, and other Westerners full of goodwill, want to mount and ride, feed and pat, is not a sweet-tempered pony but a huge, vile-tempered mule.

The words “United Nations” have a splendid sound. The United Nations has been offered to the world over and over again as the highest representation of humanity.

Not so fast. It is a “union,” of course, not of nations but of states. And many U.N. states exist—even not counting ones recognized as “rogue”—that in no sense embody a civilized past, present, or future for the world or for themselves. Its members include governments largely or totally opposed to their own citizens’ liberty and, of course, to Western culture in general. It lost some prestige when, for example, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights elected Libya as its chairman. Sudan is also a member, but the United States was dropped in 2001. Israel is in effect permanently barred. Meanwhile, Syria was elected to the presidency of the Security Council.

It is not, therefore, a body whose powers can be allowed to include rulings contrary to our principles. It is a forum for discussion, compromise, adjustment, and possible agreement on certain general issues. Of course, even apart from the United Nations, states that “recognize” each other and exchange diplomats have to observe certain amenities. The United Nations itself is an arena in which views are publicized and interests pushed and a venue for negotiation. At best, it is more like a stock exchange or a hockey field than a nice family picnic.

For a short time in 1950 I was a first secretary at the UK delegation to the United Nations. I was at a number of sessions of the Security Council—you can see on TV (or could) behind each top delegate two or three of us ready to take his messages, bring his materials. In the breaks, we would be briefed in taking on and getting the support of various groups in the General Assembly.

In those days, it was usual, though not habitual, for the “democracies” to get their views accepted, even if toned down. But a major difference between then and now is that there were then many fewer states represented, so that they could be approached more or less individually. It was more like a town meeting than a football crowd.

And now? The major trouble, from the point of view of the civilized world’s addressing the real problems, is that the unreal, high-flown, old Continental vocabulary now dominates. It is not merely that some European states or political classes tend to push these verbalisms but that these have become the main language of their and other representatives—in fact of most of the world’s diplomats, and especially those sent to U.N.–sponsored organizations and conferences.

If the United Nations is regarded as having the potential to become a world government, one can only say that this potential is very weak and could only develop when the majority of states become politically civilized—in reality rather than rhetoric.

It is even maintained that binding the United States or the United Kingdom by signatures to a treaty is automatically a Good Thing. The obvious objections don’t seem to register in some critical minds: Not only do some of the states putting ink to paper fail to carry out anything like their obligations in the real world, but permitting international bodies to intrude into the law-and-liberty countries also involves the institutionalization, on purely abstract grounds, of an, as yet, primitive apparat. A very important trouble with international arrangements of all types has also been that Western governments sign on to policies that have not been properly (or at all) argued or debated by their publics or legislatures. Thus these arrangements are a means of giving more power to their own executive branches and, of course, more power to the international bureaucracies and permanent staff, whose interests are so deeply involved.

The Rise of “Pink Fascism”

Assuming the defeat or containment of the immediate enemies of the Western political order and its longer-term penetration and pacification of the world, are there other signs of a negative future? Is there nowadays any particular tendency that can be seen as disturbingly retrogressive? That is, do we face the possibility of a politically and intellectually, though not necessarily technologically, static society or worse?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes. We face—so far more in Europe than in Britain, more in Britain than in the United States—strong tendencies that, if they continue, must lead to a society in mental (though not only mental) decline.

It would perhaps be generally admitted that the civic order in Western countries is now more at odds with the centralizing bureaucratic element than has been the case for a century. We now have, and especially in Brussels, a large stratum for whom only the term “hyper-bureaucrat” seems adequate. They might be called “regulationists,” which sounds like an early-seventeenth-century sect. The civic, consensual culture has always had to cope with attempts by the executive to increase its power as against the powers of the individual, the locality, the community. Recent troubles may, in one respect, be viewed as galloping elephantiasis of the executive as it usurps new areas of decision—and this is true not merely of those theoretically committed to state socialism but also of the managerialist, “technocratic” conservatives.

There have been instances in the past when an ever more rigid bureaucracy and an ever more constricted mentality have developed. One thinks of the classical world’s decline into Byzantium and the closing of the Academy in Athens in a.d. 529 and the earlier abolition of the Olympic Games. It is doubtless unfair to take these well-known instances. And Byzantium was better than most other polities of its time. But the mind, outside internecine theology, had by earlier standards fallen low, become desiccated. Instead of Aristotle, for example we find synodic records described by Edward Gibbon as a mass of “nonsense and falsehood.”

In addition to the current international changes and challenges, there is a tendency in the West to move in the direction of a non-totalitarian but nevertheless single-minded corporatism—stultifying and intrusive on law and liberty.

The long-term prospect, in fact, is what a French commentator has called “pink Fascism.” There is no need of a monolithic party if the effective apparat is in general agreement, makes the same assumptions. The totalitarian attempt to control all aspects of life was untenable in the long run. A far greater leeway on small matters, even disagreement on tactics, is much more viable.

This dilute corporatism does not exclude a contest of political parties. But these parties have become more and more alike, differing only on what would have been thought peripheral in earlier days.

We are in the presence of a general diffusion of power, and the largest and most intrusive and expanding element is, of course, the new bureaucracy—not only as an instrument of others but, in itself even at its lower levels, as what might be called a petit bourgeoisie. That alone may be thought a recipe for the long-term decline of pluralist civilization. When one adds that the bureaucratic elites and sub-elites and sub-sub-elites are largely inclined to uncritical acceptance not indeed of ideology but of a package of old and new ideas, the prospect looks yet worse.

Most people will have come across, and many novelists have written about, the types who seek power in a village, a college, or a business and often with a high level of justification. In a statewide, or continent-wide, bureaucracy, there is a great deal of room for this unfortunate temperament.

In America, large firms and the state have to employ bureaucracies to cope with and satisfy one another. One major result, everywhere, is the continual increase, in numbers as well as power, of a new, largish cadre educated with this in mind. Indeed, institutions such as universities are now bureaucratized past belief.

Bureaucracy brings with it what may legitimately be called “bureausophy,” providing a high-minded justification for the whole phenomenon—not merely for the results but for the existence (and enlargement) of the institutions themselves. To support the transition from the aim of efficient administration to that of major agendas of state-enforced change, it inevitably follows that transcendent justifications are needed. There is a great emotional difference between “I am doing a useful service” and “I am fulfilling a sublime mission.” And then the indoctrinated meet those who have not joined for any particular purpose, but rather to gain employment, like any other job. These in turn begin to feel they are fulfilling a high purpose—or, even if themselves privately cynical, go along with attitudes that provide increasing power and prestige.

And—as indeed in Byzantium—the power, the conformism, the mind blockages are to be found not merely in the bureaucracy properly speaking but in all the peripheral institutions—above all, perhaps, in the educational stratum and among the organized media (such as the BBC).

Brussels—Bureaucracy Run Amok

The most striking current example of bureaucratic extravagance and decadence is, of course, the European Union. Not that it appears to be viable in the longer run. Brussels is not Byzantium.

But for now the European Union is the supreme attempt to build a regulationist superstate. And it figures, above all, as a supposed focus of mental glamour, socialism having petered out but the psychological thirst for a higher aim remaining—like a movie cartoon figure (Mr. Magoo or Sylvester) still walking on air after his girder has collapsed. They are impelled to grab whatever alternative may appear plausible.

These, I believe, are the main defects of the European Union:

  • It is an attempt, by a stratum that needs, and no longer has, a justificatory “Idea” like “Socialism” to synthesize one.

  • It is an attempt to build a state from populations that have none of the qualifications for nationhood, neither historical nor ethnic.

  • It is an extravagantly expensive bureaucratic nightmare that, in pursuit of a supposed high and even transcendent aim, pursues a vast over-regulation of human life.

  • It is a project imposed from above and maintained by misrepresentation.

  • It is divisive to European culture, omitting the Europes overseas.

The latest European subsanity, as I write, is to make the expression of xenophobic views illegal. This is the simple notion that a thing is bad, so can be made illegal—logically and empirically a view that has been the basis of trouble and, often, of tyranny. (But, of course, xenophobia does not extend to anti-Americanism. And to liken George W. Bush to Hitler is, at worst, a little slip.)

This (and a mass of other Brussels intrusions) calls for a law to be passed in Westminster to the effect that “any rule or regulation affecting the citizens of the United Kingdom, brought in by treaty without the approval of parliament or the people, is hereby declared invalid.”

At best, we find bureaucracy sprinkled with a few particles of general words or paragraphs signed by a few delegates or by a handful of inattentive politicians, after which the regulationists take over.

In fact, the most profound and disturbing piece of Eurocracy is, of course, the increasing subordination of English common law to the Roman, or Napoleonic, legal arrangements of Europe. This even goes so far as to propose that Britons will not be covered by habeas corpus. It was urged that this measure should be accepted by the UK Parliament with the understanding that Britons could be arrested under its provision and deported to the Continent under European warrants—contrary to traditional British law—without evidence being provided if suspicion is established. One of the Laws Lords rightly queried this.

The English and American common law, especially its protection from the executive, is central to our culture. And it is, in this, better than, different from, and incompatible with the Continental model.

Others have recorded further objections to the European Union in depth and in detail—including journalists, television editors, experts, and others brought to Brussels to provide favorable publicity, which they found themselves unable to give, and even members of the E.U. apparat itself who are equally, or more, disillusioned. Here I will merely note the substantial objections: above all that the whole basis for the European superstate is absent. There is no “European” nation; instead there is a muddle of intellectuals and interest groups who seem to think that one could be created from above. There cannot be a democracy where there is no demos.

Instead of the real protection of rights found in England, Europe provides the usual generalities, with supposedly relevant detailed deductions arising from them. As a result, Britain finds itself sinking in a swamp of regulations it unknowingly accepted in treaty form, which is to say without any sort of popular or democratic approval.

It is only recently that a full account of the earlier phases of the European Union has emerged, with documents hitherto unavailable showing the concealed maneuvers that accompanied it from the beginning (see Christopher Booker’s 2003 book The Great Deception).

The Downward Slope

But it is the downgrading of the mind, the advance of political stultification implied, that is the more basic trouble, of which the European Union is only part, though a potential disaster not only locally but on a world scale. At any rate, if these trends continue in the West, it is downhill, into a citizenry appeased by entertainment, with thought narrowed to a meager spectrum.

Beyond a certain point, the larger the section dependent on the state, the more difficult it is for an elected government to keep its economy balanced, or to save it from disaster. And this is as true of an excessive bureaucracy as it is of a vote-rich underclass.

The downward slope, unless interrupted, can scarcely lead to anything but corporatism. The only probable interruption would be due to the buildup of resentment against the system. That is to say, this etatism may itself produce the catastrophe from which it purports to save us. Let us hope we survive.