The Conditions that Make for European Wars

I am currently reading two books about the build-up to WWI.

Sean McMeekin’s July 1914 and Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers. Both are very good and, in light of the current global crisis, both are terribly disturbing.

The general story we tell ourselves about WWI is that it was the outgrowth of nationalism, militarism, and imperialism, all three of which fed off one another. McMeekin and Clark do not tell an altogether different story. And yet what rises to the surface is how completely powerless Europe’s decision makers were in the face of popular sentiment. For example, both scholars spend much more time than is usually spent exploring the role Serbian nationalism played in the years and months leading up to WWI. Obviously this was the case in Serbia proper and particularly in Belgrade. But it also played out in Russia’s defense of Serbian nationalism, based entirely on shared Slavic ethno-religious nationalism, opposition to the dual monarchy, again almost entirely because of its Roman Catholic base, and the visceral hostility to the so-called “Turkish hoard,” whose vestigial  presence in Bosnia inflamed so much hatred among Serbian nationalists. While decision makers everywhere fashioned themselves leaders of the nationalists within their borders, the truth is that everywhere these decision makers could not help but play to these nationalists and their fears.

I think here of Vladimir Putin’s and Donald Trump’s love fest, which in both their own and their supporters’ imaginations fashions itself as a sign of military might and masculine virility. In fact, Putin and Trump are nothing more than vessels bearing about the venom of their supporters.

Scan the European landscape in July 1914 and there is no one at home capable of defusing the ticking time bomb that was WWI. Everywhere the decision makers were only reflecting, mirroring the hatred and mean-spiritedness of those over whom they “ruled,” but who in fact ruled them.

Evidence of this same dynamic hit me right between the eyes today while listening to a debate on Democracy Now between Chris Hedges and Robert Reich.

CHRIS HEDGES: . . . When you dispossess that segment, as large as we have — half the country now lives in virtual poverty — and you continue to essentially run a government that’s been seized by a cabal, in this case, corporate, which uses all of the machinery of government for their own enrichment and their own further empowerment at the expense of the rest of the citizenry, people finally react. And that is how you get fascism.

Both Mr Hedges and Mr Reich are legitimately frightened by the prospects of a Trump White House. Mr Reich described in some detail his own consternation as part of the Clinton White House over President Clinton’s neoliberal economic policy instincts. Mr Reich agreed with Mr Hedges that it was Jimmy Carter’s, Bill Clinton’s, and Barrack Obama’s economic policies that have led the people to react in support of Mr Trump.

ROBERT REICH: Chris, you know, I — again, I find this a frustrating conversation, because I agree with so much of what you have said, but the question is: What do we do about it? I mean, we are in a better position today, in the sense that Bernie Sanders has helped mobilize, organize and energize a lot of Americans, and educated a lot of Americans about the very issues that you have talked and written about and I have talked and written about. But it is—the question is: What is the action? What is the actual political strategy right now?

Mr Hedges is convinced that there is no reason for us to believe that Ms Clinton will abandon her tight relationship to Wall Street, but therefore that the policies she will adopt will push working families into the outstretched arms of the fascists. Mr Reich, by contrast, feels that a Clinton White House will give the movement time to mature, whereas a Trump White House will make movement building more problematic (and perhaps even illegal).

I am inclined to agree with Mr Reich. Yet I am also aware that a Clinton White House will likely move us in the wrong direction, albeit more slowly, than a Trump White House, because the people are beyond the point of turning back.

The other thing that struck me about Mr McMeekin’s and Mr Clark’s books is how very prevalent terrorist threats and attacks were in the years and months leading up to WWI, a fact that put everyone on edge and made them more inclined to support policy makers who would take action, any action, even war, to protect them and make things right again. Mr Clark, in fact, specifically identifies the current international climate as making readers more receptive to this new interpretation of WWI. Who in the 1970s would have believed that ethno-religous nationalism and militarism would once again be popular? Who in the 1970s would have believed that terrorist attacks would be coursing through the capitals of Europe?

Perhaps now we can better understand why and how something like a political assassination in the capital of a small nation on the fringe of Europe might blow up into one of Europe’s most costly wars.

The Economists’ Blind Spot

Back in the fourth century BCE, Plato composed the satyrical dialogue Gorgias to highlight the difference between rhetoric (convincing) and knowledge (teaching/learning). Gorgias says that he can convince anyone of anything. Socrates asks whether Gorgias can convince an expert. Of course not. So, Socrates asks, “What you are saying is that rhetoric is the art wherein ignorant people convince equally ignorant people that they are not ignorant?” Yes, Gorgias admits. There is no easy way out of this dilemma. The social conditions of knowledge are such that clear thinking requires security, leisure (freedom from necessity), and education. Absent these, all people are subject to Gorgias’ fine art. The left promotes universal health care, free quality education, and a strong social safety net not because they want to give people a free ride, but because these are the conditions of a well-functioning republic.

Sorry Paul, but the facts mean nothing to individuals for whom these conditions are lacking. But it is also clear that this creates a huge moral hazard even for those who enjoy good health, education, and freedom from necessity, since there are exceptionally high returns that can be realized from the ignorance of others. I count no fewer than five economic Nobel laureates (Mirrlees, Vickrey, Akerlof, Spence, and Stiglitz) who earned their prizes for precisely this insight; and yet economists still feign surprise when confronted by the minimal role facts play shaping public opinion.

“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”

One of my favorite all time movies is Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” And one of my favorite scenes from that movie comes towards the end, when a chorus of victims hung on crosses by Rome’s occupying forces in Palestine break out into song: “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

This scene from “Life of Brian” was brought to my mind when I began reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Just as there are many reasons irrespective of the evidence why individuals might hold that violence is declining, so there are many reasons why individuals might cling to the notion that violence is on the increase. Every four years in the United States the party out of power seeks to show that there has been a rise in violence during the tenure of the party in power, while the party in power seeks to show that violence has declined under their leadership. Yet, since the causes for violence — largely social and economic insecurity — are not so easily mitigated during a party’s term in office, such claims on both sides are needless to say completely meaningless. Nevertheless, as this week’s Republican convention illustrates, since politicians are pitching their rhetoric to voters whose only sources of information are sources interested in political outcomes, there is good reason to feel that, as another blogger noted earlier this week, we have entered a post-truth economy.

So, too, there are the perennial nay-sayers, pre-millennial Evangelicals, who are doctrinally committed to superimposing texts describing the destruction of the Temple in C.E. 70 and other apocalyptic events onto the current “end times.” The social, political, and economic climate of the world must get ever worse before the Messiah returns a second time to rid the earth of all God’s enemies; which is to say all of those identified in the Republican party platform. Or, on the other side, we have doctrinally disturbed Marxist-Leninists who also hold to a kind of Messianism: social, political, and economic circumstances will grow progressively worse until the global south and the militant north join hands, sing one round of “Kumbaya” or the “Internationale” (take your pick) before ridding the earth of the “running dog capitalist pigs” and their “lackeys.” And don’t forget the sophistication points we earn when we take dim views of the future.

The problem, however, is really one of framing. Are we talking about homicides, which form the central frame in Pinker’s book? Yes, without question, as state carceral institutions have grown more powerful and sophisticated, but also as states have developed more sophisticated means to defuse and deflect both legitimate and illegitimate rage, homicide rates decline. Moreover, if we look at political communities that divert a significant portion of their wealth to improvements in health, education, and welfare, homicide rates virtually disappear. Or, are we talking about state-sanctioned mass violence? In this case, we can restrict our frame to the last century, a century that includes the two largest state-sanctioned die-offs in history, World Wars I and II. We can then look at the last three quarters of a century and conclude, correctly, that state-sanctioned violence has declined. Although all of us have reason to feel that this decline is good news, we should not allow this good news to overshadow potential costs entailed by the reining in of state-sanctioned mass death. For example, to what extent can we ascribe this decline to the elimination of resistance to globalization, the eradication of whole civilizational forms whose members, for a variety of reasons, may not have been inclined to embrace the new world order? In what ways, therefore, might the decline in officially sanctioned mass death point to forms of discipline and domination that fail to meet the rigorous criteria we have set for what does and does not constitute “violence”?

But what happens when we broaden our frame to cover not the past century or so, but to include all of human history? Nor does this question arise, as some may suspect, from a purely theoretical interest in the macabre. For over a decade now I have been splashing the below image onto the screens of lecture halls:


For me it highlights an easily overlooked dimension of late medieval-early modern history. The crusades, which we often portray as excessively brutal and violent, make but scant appearance. Rather is it the conflict among Europe’s powers that exact the highest price. Why should this be?

To explain this dramatic rise in officially sanctioned mass death, we need to bear in mind that even these numbers are mercifully low when set in the context of the centuries that were to follow: the violent eradication of communities in the Americas beginning in the late 15th and then filling  the 16th centuries, wars of succession and the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, the revolutions and imperial violence of the 18th century, the European wars of the 19th century, but then the excessively violent 20th century. To be sure, since 1944, states have generally been satisfied to engage in low-level, although fairly constant, conflict that flies just under the radar. But, my point is that the continuous expansion of state sanctioned mass violence against which we are comparing this brief lull actually took off in the fourteenth century. Why?

Here, briefly, is the story my students have heard. For nearly all but the last .1 per cent of their 2.4M year history, human beings have clustered in smallish nomadic groups. Then, sometime between 6,000 and 4,000 years ago, at a number of points around the globe, roughly simultaneously, individual families located near arable land or rich supplies of fish and game, proved able to impound the labor of other families. To this impounded labor we owe the great architectural, artistic, and literary monuments of civilization, produced to satisfy the passions and egos of the families that ended up on top, built upon the efficiencies generated by families on the bottom.

But there is another story here that we rarely hear, told by those who neither built nor enjoyed the monuments to civilization. Because up until the dawn of the modern era, most families on the face of the globe did not labor on behalf of overlords. Most families escaped into the hills, into the deserts, onto the islands, or escaped to colder climates, with rockier soils, precisely to avoid having their labor impounded by the tyrants in the riverine valleys, the deltas, or rich, fertile coastal regions. We do not hear their stories because, having not appropriated the efficiencies produced by others, these communities proved unable to erect the dazzling monuments or pen the great works of literature we associate with civilization. Nevertheless, evidence of their presence never lies too far outside the story-line followed by more civilized authors. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Hebrew sacred text can be found clearly visible traces of their presence, in stories that usually cast these mountain, island, desert or forest people in the role of divine emissaries sent to warn the riverine or coastal peoples of divine wrath on account of their unholy practices and unjust ways.

For most of human history, the vast majority of human beings preferred such communities to the impoundment of their labor, goods, sons and daughters. They would rather flee that serve the interests of a royal family. And, so, while we focus our attention on these big families who left big footprints in history — we know their monuments, we know of their epic wars and conquests — the vast majority of human beings slipped away unnoticed under the radar. They also slipped away, however, because among such small, thinly scattered, nomadic communities, there is a distinct comparative advantage to flight over fight. Since the fowl and fauna are plentiful and the watering holes are well-known, the costs of fighting over this or that plot of soil far outweigh the benefits from simply fleeing to the next watering hole, the next mountain, the next desert oasis, the next island. Indeed, the fact that we know so little about these nomadic communities, even though they made up the vast majority of people on the planet, is ample evidence that they left virtually no footprint, their temporary homes quickly swallowed up under fresh vegetation, awaiting exploitation by the next wanderers who happened upon them.

Viewed with this wide lens, the period often under scrutiny, from 4,000 B.C.E. to the present, or more often 1700 to the present — scrutiny that often leaves entirely unexamined the mountain, desert, forest, and island peoples — we cannot help but end up with a very distorted picture indeed. This picture, viewed entirely from the vantage point of the state, shows how the state has gradually mastered tools of coercion and cajoling, laws and institutions, that have reduced our violence against one another (homicide), and, at least since 1944, violence between states (war). What these figures overlook is the dramatic spike in violence that accompanied the rise of the modern nation-state in the early modern period.

Let us assume that innovation and economic expansion are possible only through the accumulation and concentration of efficiencies. Under this assumption, it would surely be highly unusual for us to observe the kind of unprecedented innovation and economic expansion that we do in fact find beginning in the 14th century absent a concurrent accumulation and concentration of efficiencies. This concurrent accumulation and concentration of efficiencies is what we call capitalism, which emerged in 14th century Europe when the abstract time marched out on mechanical clocks (a Chinese innovation) was used not to measure intervals between prayer (its original application) but to measure the working day. This in itself was of course an efficiency-generating innovation since it enabled entrepreneurs to bypass messy negotiations with clergy, nobility, and trades over “just price” and “just wages.” Liberated from the distortions introduced by these negotiations, entrepreneurs could measure, precisely, how much time it took to make any good and then derive both wages and prices from this time given specific sets of market conditions. The first such illustration, in fact, that we have of clocks being used in this way is in Ghent in 1324.

But let us also assume that harnessing the efficiencies generated by labor in this way beginning in the 14th century required more than a revolution in time, as David Landes calls it. It required a top to bottom revision in an entire range of social, political, and economic regulations, all of which had originally been designed under the assumption that all of the major interest groups of the day — clergy, nobility, burgers, and tradesmen — would play an active, deliberate role shaping prices and wages and conditions at the local market. To give just one example, it had been the clergy’s traditional role to protect the welfare of baptized Christians — to, in effect, represent God’s interest for the poor, the worker, the widow, and the orphan — at the negotiating table. Similarly, trades organizations were advocates for their members, ensuring that tradesmen from other markets, where goods might be manufactured more cheaply, were either kept out or had to pay a high price to enter. The nobility, obviously, had an interest in general social welfare: keeping the peace. And all of these factors came under consideration when negotiating just wages and prices for any municipality. Now enters the entrepreneur who with unerring accuracy can pin-point the amount of time it takes and number of men or women it takes to bring any good to market. In the face of such indisputable evidence, who needs input from clergy or nobility or trades organizations?

Consider for a moment, however, the costs of realizing these new efficiencies. When just wages and prices were explicitly negotiated, prices reflected the “externalities” (economists would say) of poverty, effective demand, and social and political peace. When wages and prices are determined by abstract time, these externalities must be accounted for elsewhere. Karl Polanyi and EP Thompson have documented how, in order to enforce a new set of laws and regulations to ensure free markets, states also had to create a number of institutions to handle the exploding costs arising from externalities — from recently impoverished farmers pushed off traditional lands because those lands could now generate more money through grazing than farming; or from the explosion of “vagrants” and “vagabonds,” wanderers (from vagrer, “to wander”) into the countryside and city by new economies unleashed by market forces; or from the exploding industry of property disputes that required an expansion of courts and administrative offices.

And, yet, far more important from our vantage point is the carceral system required to bring a population that had been accustomed to the messy and inefficient procedures of purely local negotiations into line with market forces. Markets, after all, run most efficiently in the absence of distortions. Purely local laws and customs, therefore, almost by definition, introduce distortions into markets. There is thus an inherent violence or coercive necessity implied wherever communities are brought into markets. This was surely the case when European powers fanned out across the globe pulling one after another community into their markets and, in the process, laying waste to thousands of years of accumulated custom and tradition which they judged — correctly — to be inefficient. But before they could ever impose the rule of law and markets on communities elsewhere in the world, these European powers first had to impose them on their own subject peoples, their own citizens, in the expansion of a carceral system that aimed at eliminating purely local customs and traditions and at bending all communities to the single market system of the nation-state. Look wherever you will, this is the story of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. This accounts for the historically unprecedented spike in state sanctioned mass violence observed across the face of the globe.

So, what possibly could Steven Pinker be thinking? His book says it all. Yes, with the growth of this extensive, all-encompassing carceral state, homicides have declined. And, yes, viewed in the very, very short run, restricting our window to the modern epoch, we could say that even state sanctioned mass death has decreased over the past seventy years. But one senses that Mr Pinker wants to say more than this. He wants to say that the human race has become more enlightened, that we are more evolved, and that this has taken place because we have a clearer vision of how we are all connected to one another and our fates and fortunes are all intertwined as one.

One way to think about this holistic vision is metaphysically. If there is such a thing as a world spirit pulling all of the universe forwards, and if consciousness is an extra-human quality of which human beings have themselves only recently become aware or sufficiently aware, then the global proliferation of meditation circles, retreats, spas, health clubs, all connected to one another virtually on the World Wide Web is evidence enough that all of us are operating on a higher plane.

But another way to think about this vision non metaphysically is to recognize how the elimination of purely local, individual laws, customs, languages, traditions, religions, and spiritual practices and the spread of global laws, institutions, regulations and markets has brought us all closer together into a single, integrated, comprehensive, universal system of knowledge and truth: the modern, capitalist world system.

Is it too much of a stretch to call this comprehensive integrated system the current iteration of capitalism? And is it any wonder that it has appeared at the same moment that a holistic vision has arisen to comprehend its spiritual significance?

For Mr Pinker as for many others I think the significance of the virtuous trajectory is that it offers a quasi-scientific, non-theistic, but nevertheless spiritually rich way to talk about hope. Two problems: (1) I find it problematic that this trajectory coincides so perfectly with the appearance and expansion of global capitalism; and (2) I find it convenient that this perspective ignores 99 per cent of global history in order to make its case. A much stronger case, I believe could be developed were we willing to cast a critical eye on the crucial developments that unfolded in 14th century Europe, developments that eventually led to the complete destruction of nearly all of the cultural forms that until then had graced our planet. Yet, since this casts a critical eye both on the present and the future, my guess is that this approach will not be embraced as warmly as the story about our “better angels.”

So, with Monty Python, repeat after me: “Always look on the bright side of life.”

The Detour Around Weimar

For many years I have assigned my students Darrell Dobbs’ “Natural Right and the Problem of Aristotle’s Defense of Slavery.” We might think that the problem with Aristotle’s defense of slavery is that he defends it at all. Yet, to Mr Dobbs’ way of thinking — a way evidently shared by the vast majority of conventioneers in Cleveland this week — the problem is not slavery, but how we understand it. But my thoughts are drawn to Mr Dobbs’ article today not for his defense of slavery, but for a curious remark slipped in at the end of his article:

We must honor diversity in today’s pluralistic democracies and yet recognize at the same time that indifference to what is objectively good or just provides a precarious basis for tolerance of others. The classic understanding of natural right thus provides the theoretical underpinnings essential to the maintenance of liberal democracy; it maps the detour around Weimar (Journal of Politics 56:1 (Feb. 1994), 93).

The remark is curious not only because it suggests that pluralism might prove indifferent to what is objectively good, but because it associates this danger to the German Weimar Republic, the left-leaning democratic regime that prevailed in Germany during the brief interlude between World Wars I and II. And I am drawn to this remark because I fear that nearly all of the conventioneers in Cleveland and nearly all of those supporting the Republican ticket share Mr Dobbs’ criticism of Weimar-type pluralism.

In other posts, I have suggested that we would do well to compare the current moment in U.S. political history to Weimar. All evidence is that we are not moving along an emancipatory trajectory, but that, to the contrary, we are slipping ever further into the abyss of fascism. This slide it seems clear began well before the signal 1979/80 elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who would lead the UK and US down the path of what sociologist George Steinmetz has called “authoritarian post-Fordism” (“The State of Emergency and the Revival of American Imperialism: Toward an Authoritarian Post-Fordism,” Public Culture 15:2). We may not have see it coming in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was on its way. Our blindness was largely due to the huge demand-side expansion provoked by unprecedented government spending in the 1930s and 1940s to defeat nationalism in Japan and fascism in Germany. Policy makers deluded themselves into feeling that markets actually do tend to promote pluralism, democracy, and social welfare. If in the 1980s, the mask was torn from the face of this conceit, it was the response of George W. Bush to 9-11 and the acquiescence of U.S. citizens to this response that opened this, the final, chapter.

I have provided a link to Mr Dobbs’ piece for those who want to study it in greater detail. Dobbs it should be noted is a Straussian, which is to say, Dobbs reads the western classics through a frame shaped by the work of post-war University of Chicago political theorist Leo Strauss. Among Mr Strauss’ other noted disciples are included Irving and Nicholas Kristol, Allen Bloom, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, to name just a few. That Straussian frame treats political being as ontologically fundamental: that is, it holds that political action is the organizing principle of who we are.

Central to this organizing principle is Plato’s story about how the guardians should be selected in Plato’s Republic, πολιτεια. According to Plato, guardians can be identified by how they respond to this story whose aim it is to deceive. The name Plato gives to this story is γενναῖον ψεῦδος (gennaion pseudos, or “noble lie”):

. . . the earth, as being their mother, delivered them, and now, as if their land were their mother and their nurse, they ought to take thought for her and defend her against any attack, and regard the other citizens as their brothers and children of the self-same earth. . . While all of you, in the city, are brothers, we will say in our tale, yet god, in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule, mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious — but in the helpers, silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen. And, as you are all akin, though for the most part you will breed after your kinds, it may sometimes happen that a golden father would beget a silver son, and that a golden offspring would come from a silver sire, and that the rest would, in like manner, be born of one another. So that the first and chief injunction that the god lays upon the rulers is that of nothing else are they to be such careful guardians, and so intently observant as of the intermixture of these metals in the souls of their offspring, and if sons are born to them with an infusion of brass or iron they shall by no means give way to pity in their treatment of them, but shall assign to each the status due to his nature and thrust them out among the artisans or the farmers. And again, if from these there is born a son with unexpected gold or silver in his composition they shall honor such and bid them go up higher, some to the office of guardian, some to the assistanceship, alleging that there is an oracle that the city shall then be overthrown when the man of iron or brass is its guardian (3.314e-315c).

The story, Plato explains, is so designed as to “deceive the whole community, including, if possible, the Guardians themselves” (3.314b-c). But, why would one want to deceive the whole community? For Straussians, the answer is plain as day. Unless we are to suppose that all members of the community are equally equipped to reflect critically on and make responsible decisions regarding the fate of the community, then would-be guardians must be tested to determine whether they can fulfill  two functions. They must simultaneously convince those who are poorly equipped that they, the people, are in charge while, in fact, the guardians must retain policy making decisions for themselves.

Throughout the 1960s, Mr Strauss delivered speeches, wrote articles, and taught seminars denouncing the workers and students who had taken to the streets in opposition to U.S. foreign policy and demanding broader social, political and economic rights. Mr Strauss believed that such mass movements were in every respect similar to the socialists and communists during Weimar whom Strauss held responsible for the rise of the Third Reich. Yes, you read that correctly! The victims of Nazism provoked the regime that sacrificed them in the Holocaust. Similarly, Strauss held the workers and students who took to the streets in the 1960s responsible for the destruction of responsible political policy making in the 1960s — responsible, that is, for the democratization and broadening of the political franchise that in his view was ruining America.

Enter Mr Dobbs, Straussian classicist at Marquette University.

Mr Dobbs’ argument runs like this: other Straussians make the mistake of back-pedaling on Aristotle’s defense of “natural slavery” in order to save face, when, in fact, natural law itself rests on Aristotle’s defense of “natural slavery.” First, natural slavery; what is natural slavery? The natural slave, according to Aristotle, is the individual who, although ill-suited to being a master, requires the master’s care and consideration. And, while the master ought to make every opportunity for the slave to improve him or herself, even to the point of advancing beyond his or her servitude, allowance must also be made for the possibility — indeed, the likelihood — that the slave will always require the care and consideration of a master.

Mr Dobbs faults other Straussians because they overlook this “natural” social differentiation, or rather they criticize it from the vantage point of what they take to be a superior Aristotelian principle: the natural equality of all people. Two errors, according to Mr Dobbs, follow from this omission: first, it makes the respect we owe to the natural slave rest upon abstract qualities they do not in fact possess. For example, all citizens are equal before the law — except that those who for social, political, or perhaps even biological reasons (natural law theorists habitually fall back upon the cases of youth, people with mental illness, and the incompetent elderly) are either incapable of defending themselves, lack the resources to hire adequate defense, or who, for whatever reason, are unable to understand their rights and responsibilities. So, in fact, all citizens are not equal before the law. At the very least, the elderly, the mentally incompetent, and the young require the care and protection of others.

The second error Mr Dobbs faults other Straussians for is their mistaken notion that all people are equally fit to make decisions. When we broaden the social and political franchise to people less than fully fit to govern, we invite policy choices that cannot help but undermine the republic.

As he surveys the social and political landscape in 1993, Mr Dobbs feels that it is the consequences arising from this second error that he sees all around him:

The great appeal of natural right today resides in its combination of respect for the diversity of individual circumstances and recognition of a transmoral, ontological standard of human excellence — in other words, in its moderation with respect to the extremes of a purely formal universalism and relativistic situationalism. Just this combination seems to be essential if the spiraling heterogeneity of our citizenry is not to hurl us all into a nihilistic abyss (92-93).

Here we can see that while Mr Dobbs concedes that some dimensions of natural right might legitimately be construed in favor of diversity, he is specially anxious that these dimensions not be allowed to crowd out an objective, ontologically fundamental ground of human excellence. However much, therefore, we might want to defend and protect those who embody identities that differ from our own, we should not permit this desire to descend into either “formal universalism” — which would overlook genuine differences — or “relativistic situationalism” — which would treat these differences as equal in value. But it is what comes next that is truly astonishing. As he surveys the social and political landscape in 1993, what strikes Mr Dobbs is the “spiraling heterogeneity of our citizenry” because he fears that this heterogeneity may “hurl us into a nihilistic abyss.”

As I survey the crowds in Cleveland this week, I am happy to report that there is no danger — none, zip — of heterogeneity. Nevertheless, as I survey the rhetoric of its speakers, Mr Dobbs fear lives on in every last one of them: spiraling heterogeneity, grounded in relativistic situationalism, is hurling us into a nihilistic abyss. And it is this fear that provoked Mr Dobbs’ comment about mapping a “detour around Weimar.” For what struck Mr Dobbs about Weimar was not its democratic institutions, its progressive social programs, or its openness. What struck Mr Dobbs was its “spiraling heterogeneity,” which, unfortunately, it was never able to overcome. Therefore: Nazism.

Similarly, today, what strikes the conventioneers in Cleveland about our current social landscape is the increasingly brown hues of our citizens, the increasing diversity of their religious commitments, the diversity of their sexual orientations; in other words, the “spiraling heterogeneity” that is dragging the whole nation into its current “nihilistic abyss.” And, like Mr Dobbs, they too hold up an ontologically fundamental human being as their model, the archetype, the template: white, male, Christian, heterosexual.

It may be worth noting that Leo Strauss was the prized pupil of Carl Schmitt, who, after railing against parliamentary democracy throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, joined the National Socialists as Adolf Hitler’s leading constitutional expert. It may also be worth considering that, while his diagnosis is completely off base, Mr Dobbs displays uncanny insight into the seam that has torn open in the U.S. body politic: Ms Clinton’s professional managerial elite on one side, the popular uprising of the (at least economically) disenfranchised on the other. And, mutatis mutandis, there even may be some family resemblance here to Weimar. To be sure, the global economic collapse that pushed Germany over the edge was hardly its own doing. And the heterogeneity celebrated by some and feared by others is a far cry from what it could and should be. Income inequality under Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama — three democrats, three republicans — has mushroomed. And, to this degree, Thomas Frank is surely correct to fault Carter, Clinton, and Obama, as well as the DNC establishment, for digging their own (and perhaps America’s) grave. Yet, the fault line that has opened up between the center and the right — with Bernie Sanders out of the race, there is no viable left — is not unlike the gulf that opened up in 1929 between the fascists and the left as Weimar drew to a close.

Which may explain why I believe all of us need not to make a detour around Weimar, but to become experts. Sheepishly settling for the DNC has not gotten us anywhere. Even if Ms Clinton should miraculously pull a victory out of the electoral hat: (1) she is not likely to pursue economic or social policies that differ substantially from the neoliberal policies of Jimmy, Bill, and Barrack; (2) she will face a fascist opposition even more hostile and vitriolic than the opposition that plagued President Obama; and (3) she will find herself in a world tilting violently rightward. All of which suggests that, in any case, we will find ourselves hurtling toward and not away from the abyss; though not the one that Mr Dobbs and his friends in Cleveland fear.

What is to be done?

On Third Parties

A recent post to The Hill reports that forty-eight per cent of Bernie Sanders supporters intend to cast ballots for Jill Stein, Presidential Candidate for the Green Party. The reluctance of many Bernie Sanders voters to support Hillary Clinton is confirmed by the dozens of posts that cross my screen daily on FB and Twitter #AnyoneButHillary (posts I have reason to believe may be pushed by Trump’s campaign).

The #anyonebuthillary campaign offers a unique opportunity to explore the warrants behind supporting third parties in general and left wing third parties in particular. Support for third parties and third party candidates is a judgment call. It implies that “the moment is ripe,” that the price of supporting the compromise candidate is greater than the risk of throwing the election to the right wing opposition. Here, let us assume that Sanders supporters voting for Stein are fully aware that the next President will appoint a Supreme Court Justice to replace Justice Antonin Scalia. Let us assume that they are aware and are willing to accept the almost certain consequences for women’s reproductive rights, undocumented workers, and Muslims that will follow from a Donald Trump victory. They have counted the cost. And the cost of voting for Clinton are higher than the cost of a Trump presidency.

Let us also place to one side the condition — certainly not implausible, given current polling data — that, unlike 2000, when George W. Bush’s margin of victory in Florida was less than the vote for Ralph Nader, Trump’s margins of victory in key states is greater than the vote for Ms. Stein. In this case, since Ms. Clinton was not going to win in any case, votes cast for Ms. Stein were neither “thrown away” nor “cast for Trump.” In this unique case, a vote for Ms. Stein was — well — a vote for Ms. Stein. While not implausible, however, I think that this unique case is unlikely.

Finally, let us also place to one side the incoherent argument that, while some voters are casting ballots against their principles, others vote with their principles. This argument is incoherent because, presumably, principles are driving the decisions of all voters. Voters, for example, who support women’s health or who oppose mass deportations of Latin American men and women or who oppose singling out religious or ethnic groups for special legal scrutiny may decide, on principle, that a Clinton presidency is better than a Trump presidency. In other words, since all are voting on principle, “principled voting” as a criteria of judgment is incoherent. What, in fact, someone is saying when they say they are voting “on principle,” is that nothing could convince them to vote for a candidate whose principles are other than their own. While this criteria certainly enjoys validity, it also implies that I am not open to changing my mind no matter what arguments — climate change, women’s health, homophobia, Islamophobia, undocumented immigrants, etc. — are placed before me.

Which brings me back to the judgment call. The time is ripe. No matter what the cost, the cost of voting for Ms. Clinton is higher than the cost of a Trump White House. We have crossed the line. Casting a ballot for Clinton is no longer compromise, it is collaboration.

This takes me back to 1918 and 1920/21, when the likes of Rosa Luxemburg and Walter Benjamin duked it out over the role of violence under the civil war conditions that reigned in Germany following World War I. (For anyone who has not read these pieces or not read them recently, here are links to Ms. Luxemburg’s “What does the Sparticus League Want?” and Mr. Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence.”)

At first blush, the conditions in post-war Germany were so dissimilar to conditions in contemporary United States as to not warrant a first, much less a second take. Although it enjoyed superior fire-power and strategic planning, Germany had just been defeated. Armed right wing “freedom fighters” (Freikorps) battled “reds” in the streets of Germany’s cities. Germany’s infrastructure was gone. Civilian rule had disappeared. It was then under these conditions that Ms. Luxemburg and Mr. Benjamin penned their famous articles — one defending, the other counseling caution (I simplify) in the use of violence.

Why violence? In post-war Germany, the reasons for taking “violence” as the central organizing principle were fairly clear. Fascists and reds were, in fact, in the streets killing one another already. In this instance the question was whether to “go all the way” — were the conditions “ripe”? — and support the Spartacists (i.e., the Communists) or to compromise with the SPD. Mr Benjamin’s insight in this respect was that all law-making and law enforcement — left, right, center — follows from an initial act of violence, whether imposing a new order or establishing the legitimacy of an old order. In any case, under no conditions are laws made or enforced absent violence.

To imagine the conditions in post-war Germany, think of present-day Syria or Sudan or Afghanistan or Iraq. Imagine places so dismantled by war, neighborhoods so warn down under PTSD that violence and fear are hard-wired into the psyches of every infant born. This is Germany in 1918, where, or so it is thought, conditions were “ripe.”

But now recall that the largest and best organized party in Germany following the war was the Social Democratic Party, our equivalent of the Green Party. Here is the breakdown of the 1920 federal election results in Germany:

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That big blue pie piece, top right? That’s the Social Democratic Party. The red pie piece just underneath it? That’s also the Social Democratic Party, a break-away splinter group nearly as large as the SPD. Together they garnered 39.6% of the total vote. True, in absolute numbers the 17M who cast ballots for “People’s” parties outnumbered the 11M or so who cast ballots on the left. Yet, the right was so splintered by internal divisions that it would take a Great Depression to bring them together under the same roof. The SPD by contrast was remarkably united. One more thing. That slender shaft of red at the very top? That’s Ms Luxemburg’s Spartacists.

I know that some will want to compare our own “ripe” moment with Germany’s “ripe” moment in 1918 or 1920/21. They will point to the armed gangs trolling our streets. They will point to unremitting violence in our cities and countrysides. They will remind us that although they make up only 12–13% of the American population, African Americans make up 35% of jail inmates, and that 37% of prison inmates of the 2.2 million male inmates are African American. Like Germany in 1918, we too are at civil war, call it what you will.

Even supposing, however, that by adding Mr Sanders’ roughly twenty-five per cent of the electorate to the Green Party’s likely three per cent (based on 2000 results), we begin to approach (although still falling short) the SPD’s 1920 numbers, the German SPD was a seasoned party, familiar with and successful at organizing workers and professionals. No one in 1920 would have said that a vote for the SPD was a vote for the German National People’s Party. Far from it. In 1920, the SPD won the election, hands down. Conditions were “ripe.”

No one casting a ballot for Ms. Stein this November believes that she will win. 1920 is not 2016 by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, what they believe is that a vote for Ms Clinton only forestalls, but does not prevent, the inevitable conflict — the civil war — between the far right and the center-left that hovers just over the horizon. We have been moving toward this final conflict for the past forty years it is argued. And with each passing election — 1976, 1980, 1992, 2008 — the Democratic Party has adopted positions are further to the right than the 1972 Republican Party platform, while the Republican Party has since 2000 adopted positions much closer to the National Socialist Democratic Workers Party platform in 1932. (Don’t believe me? Check it out.) At what point does compromise morph into collaboration? At what point does choosing the lesser of evils forestall inevitable conflict and genuine resistance?

Which brings us back to violence. Say I vote for Ms. Stein in November. Or perhaps I simply sit this one out. Mr Trump is elected by a margin less than the total vote for Ms Stein in key battleground states: Florida, California, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania. A Republican Party energized by Trump’s election and by increasing its margins in both the House and Senate feels authorized to enact the full 1932 agenda: walls between the U.S. and Mexico, Joseph Arpaio-style sweeps of immigrant communities of both Muslims and Mexican Americans, expansion of internment camps, swift action on a new Supreme Court Justice with no pretense of respect for the U.S. Constitution, the rolling back of Rowe v Wade, of GLBTQ rights, of labor protections (what few remain).

Predictably, the left-center empties out into the streets Occupy-style, but with similar results. Police violence — now widely condoned and even praised by a Trump White House — quickly chases the managerial professional class back into their homes, giving the police and authorized vigilante groups sweeping powers to mop up the remaining refuse. The already highly developed private prison industry swells with new detainees, deemed “anti-American” under a strengthened Patriot Act. Under these circumstances, I can think of no scenario that prevents 2016 from quickly devolving into 1938.

The argument is that 1938 was where we were headed all along. The question is how slowly or quickly we will get there, get through the crisis and emerge on the other side better equipped to rebuild a just society. Violence is on the horizon. The only question is how quickly or slowly we meet and master our destiny. And if we lose? It has all been for a good cause. Better the end of the world as we know it than life under current conditions.

But let us suppose that Bernie Sanders’ supporters determine that the conditions are not “ripe.” Let us suppose that they appreciate why 2016 is not 1920 and therefore why they need to do a lot more organizing before the time is “ripe.” Their votes for Ms. Clinton push her over the top. At the very least, we get a Supreme Court justice who enjoys some familiarity with and passion for the U.S. Constitution. At the very least, we will not build a wall separating Mexico and the U.S. Joseph Arpaio is prosecuted, not emulated. Muslim Americans are accorded the same rights and protections as all Americans. Rowe v Wade is strengthened. Citizens United is overturned. And trigger-happy racists, instead of receiving departmental commendations, are put behind bars. To be sure, just as we expected, Ms. Clinton adopts a hawkish military stance around the world. And just as we expected the professional managerial class is rewarded with a regulatory regime that helps pad their bank accounts and continues to deprive working families of a living wage. Armageddon still hovers just beyond the horizon, but the center-left has won some breathing room, valuable time to organize and regroup for the next battle.

Think this through carefully. This is not a test. Bernie Sanders’ supporters need to focus more of their attention on precisely what it means for conditions to be “ripe.” Ripe conditions are not simply when one is “fed up,” or “tired,” or feeling “principled,” or feeling “bullied.” “Ripe” conditions are not conditions that happen to you, the product of history, or the dialectic, or frayed nerves, too much coffee, too little sleep. “Ripe” conditions are created out of painstaking organizing sustained across several election cycles, coalition-building, and electoral politics that begin with school boards, city councils, state legislatures and state houses. “Ripe” conditions are built in living rooms and in church, mosque, and temple basements, in board rooms, shop floors, and union halls. And, at the end of all of this organizing, maybe, like the SPD in 1920, just maybe you can claim thirty-nine per cent of the electorate; not a majority, which means, once again, you will have to make concessions to some other portion of the electorate with whose principles you do not agree.

If you want to hasten history to the final battle, I can think of no better way to do this than casting a ballot for Jill Stein this November. If you are not gay, African American, Hispanic, Muslim, or a woman, or if you are not willing to sacrifice your African American, Hispanic, Muslim, GLBTQ or women friends for the cause — I would strongly advise you to think this through again. You won’t get a do-over. It is a judgment call.

Samaritan Healthcare

Last Sunday following a tortured and torturing week of unremitting violence, I was relieved to discover that our homily would cover the story of the Good Samaritan. Rev. Mother Lizette Larson-Miller called our attention to several instances today when, as in the biblical text, the religious outsider proved the neighbor to religious insiders: Muslims protecting Coptic Christians, Coptic Christians protecting Muslims, Palestinians coming to the assistance of West Bank Jews, Jewish Israelis coming to the assistance of Palestinians, Hindus assisting Muslims, Muslims assisting Hindus. So you can imagine my surprise when, folding laundry this afternoon, I happened upon a one-month old installment of PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, hosted by Bob Abernethy. One story in particular caught my eye: the ministry of Samaritan Ministries International. Samaritan Ministries coordinates a health insurance practice that allows those who enjoy wealth to pay for the health care of others out of their wealth, just like the Good Samaritan in the Bible.

But, as the story unfolded I realized that this was not at all like the biblical story. In fact, it was the reverse of the biblical story. In the Bible, there is no litmus test for either the person giving or the person receiving assistance. To the contrary, it was precisely because the suffering man did not pass their test that the priest and the levite crossed over to the other side of the road. Samaritan Ministries makes sure that everyone donating or receiving payments is a good Christian — regular church attendance, no drinking, no smoking, and most bizarre of all, no homosexuality. Really? In the Bible, by contrast, the Samaritan is not the least interested in the beliefs or practices of the suffering man; and we can bet that the man suffering was not offended that it had been a Samaritan who bound his wounds and paid for his care.

Indeed, among the features of single-payer national healthcare that makes it a far more accurate copy of the original story is that all pay in and all receive care irrespective of their beliefs or practices. Sadly it is today’s Christians who stand in the position of the biblical priest and levite who wish to deny coverage to those with whom they disagree.