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?

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