Hanged in the lovely month of October,
My troubles were not over. I thought Hell;
But went to Heaven, where bull-necked
Angels grabbed and threw me down.
Straight they dragged me to the edge
Of a cloud, where from a long bar
I was hanged again – and this time, drawn,
My bowels burned before my eyes. For
Hours the black drops welled and shot
Twisting to the old and distant earth:
Indescribable. But next day
I was healed; so they could melt me
To hipbones in a tub of cold lye.
In Heaven you never lose consciousness.
And there is no Hell – but this Heaven,
Unroofed against the freezing fog,
Whose God is Jean Cauvin’s,
Whose dirty work is His alone; nay He
Glories in it; so it went on. The
Cross? Oh, yes, the cross; many
Times; ingeniously refined. Did I
Cry, why? Many times. To no answer
But the ungentle angels. Finally
I understood; and some time later,
Was smelted of my crimes. My soul
Was good silver, thinner than paper,
Stamp-small; such remained; such
Big angels brought before the Lord.
Who spoke formalities, and sent me
Back to the one hell, this earth,
Where it is summer always, where men
Are animals, where I whisper
Like a leaf in the perfect breeze.
Archive for July, 2009
Hanged in the lovely month of October,
I promise that UR will not turn into the Carlyle Channel – all Carlyle, all the time.
However, we have yet to seriously examine Carlyle’s track record as a prophet. The true force of the mad sage emerges only when we compare his future to our past – and our present. If Carlyle’s predictions are significantly more accurate than those of his more conventional peers, his reputation as a true prophet and general Sith Lord is confirmed. If not, he is just another crazy homeless person in the library.
What we’d really like is Carlyle’s own history of the 20th century. Perhaps Rick Darby can help out with his ouija board. Until this channel opens, however, we are stuck with Google Books. (Question: does anyone at the Googleplex know they’re serving the Occasional Discourse? Does anyone at the SPLC read UR? If so, wouldn’t suing Google generate fantastic press? And say – how’s it coming with that diversity effort?)
Fortunately, it is not too hard to retrospectively construct a Carlylean interpretation of the 20th century. And for those who disagree, there is UR. (I would not be surprised if I’m the only human being who read Frederick The Great this year.) Just tilt your head and slip the mollusc in your ear.
Carlyle can be quickly identified as a predictor of unusual accuracy by two major correct predictions about the 20th century. One: the 20th would be a century of democracy, in which the political center moved consistently to the left. Two: it would be a century of murder, misery, tyranny and anarchy, “enormous Megatherions, ugly as were ever born of mud.”
The first prediction was pretty standard. The second was quite unusual. Their combination is distinctively Carlylean and, more broadly, Victorian and British. You will certainly have a hard time finding anyone outside these categories, except a grumpy old Mugwump or two, who believes in both these predictions. They are clearly correct, and they were on paper by 1850.
But why paraphrase? Why not go direct? For I am to Carlyle, as Saruman to Morgoth. Enter the true palace of darkness! Join in my iron oath to the Master!
Or perhaps Democracy, which we announce as now come, will itself manage it? Democracy, once modelled into suffrages, furnished with ballot-boxes and such like, will itself accomplish the salutary universal change from Delusive to Real, and make a new blessed world of us by and by? — To the great mass of men, I am aware, the matter presents itself quite on this hopeful side. Democracy they consider to be a kind of “Government.” The old model, formed long since, and brought to perfection in England now two hundred years ago, has proclaimed itself to all Nations as the new healing for every woe: “Set up a Parliament,” the Nations everywhere say, when the old King is detected to be a Sham-King, and hunted out or not; “set up a Parliament; let us have suffrages, universal suffrages; and all either at once or by due degrees will be right, and a real Millennium come!” Such is their way of construing the matter.
Such, alas, is by no means my way of construing the matter; if it were, I should have had the happiness of remaining silent, and been without call to speak here. It is because the contrary of all this is deeply manifest to me, and appears to be forgotten by multitudes of my contemporaries, that I have had to undertake addressing a word to them.
The contrary of all this; — and the farther I look into the roots of all this, the more hateful, ruinous and dismal does the state of mind all this could have originated in appear to me. To examine this recipe of a Parliament, how fit it is for governing Nations, nay how fit it may now be, in these new times, for governing England itself where we are used to it so long: this, too, is an alarming inquiry, to which all thinking men, and good citizens of their country, who have an ear for the small still voices and eternal intimations, across the temporary clamors and loud blaring proclamations, are now solemnly invited. Invited by the rigorous fact itself; which will one day, and that perhaps soon, demand practical decision or redecision of it from us, — with enormous penalty if we decide it wrong! I think we shall all have to consider this question, one day; better perhaps now than later, when the leisure may be less.
If a Parliament, with suffrages and universal or any conceivable kind of suffrages, is the method, then certainly let us set about discovering the kind of suffrages, and rest no moment till we have got them. But it is possible a Parliament may not be the method! Possible the inveterate notions of the English People may have settled it as the method, and the Everlasting Laws of Nature may have settled it as not the method! Not the whole method; nor the method at all, if taken as the whole? If a Parliament with never such suffrages is not the method settled by this latter authority, then it will urgently behoove us to become aware of that fact, and to quit such method; — we may depend upon it, however unanimous we be, every step taken in that direction will, by the Eternal Law of things, be a step from improvement, not towards it.
Not towards it, I say, if so! Unanimity of voting, — that will do nothing for us if so. Your ship cannot double Cape Horn by its excellent plans of voting. The ship may vote this and that, above decks and below, in the most harmonious exquisitely constitutional manner: the ship, to get round Cape Horn, will find a set of conditions already voted for, and fixed with adamantine rigor by the ancient Elemental Powers, who are entirely careless how you vote. If you can, by voting or without voting, ascertain these conditions, and valiantly conform to them, you will get round the Cape: if you cannot, the ruffian Winds will blow you ever back again; the inexorable Icebergs, dumb privy-councillors from Chaos, will nudge you with most chaotic “admonition;” you will be flung half frozen on the Patagonian cliffs, or admonished into shivers by your iceberg councillors, and sent sheer down to Davy Jones, and will never get round Cape Horn at all! Unanimity on board ship; — yes indeed, the ship’s crew may be very unanimous, which doubtless, for the time being, will be very comfortable to the ship’s crew, and to their Phantasm Captain if they have one: but if the tack they unanimously steer upon is guiding them into the belly of the Abyss, it will not profit them much! — Ships accordingly do not use the ballot-box at all; and they reject the Phantasm species of Captains: one wishes much some other Entities — since all entities lie under the same rigorous set of laws — could be brought to show as much wisdom, and sense at least of self-preservation, the first command of Nature. Phantasm Captains with unanimous votings: this is considered to be all the law and all the prophets, at present.
If a man could shake out of his mind the universal noise of political doctors in this generation and in the last generation or two, and consider the matter face to face, with his own sincere intelligence looking at it, I venture to say he would find this a very extraordinary method of navigating, whether in the Straits of Magellan or the undiscovered Sea of Time. To prosper in this world, to gain felicity, victory and improvement, either for a man or a nation, there is but one thing requisite, That the man or nation can discern what the true regulations of the Universe are in regard to him and his pursuit, and can faithfully and steadfastly follow these. These will lead him to victory; whoever it may be that sets him in the way of these, — were it Russian Autocrat, Chartist Parliament, Grand Lama, Force of Public Opinion, Archbishop of Canterbury, M’Croudy the Seraphic Doctor with his Last-evangel of Political Economy, — sets him in the sure way to please the Author of this Universe, and is his friend of friends. And again, whoever does the contrary is, for a like reason, his enemy of enemies. This may be taken as fixed.
And now by what method ascertain the monition of the gods in regard to our affairs? How decipher, with best fidelity, the eternal regulation of the Universe; and read, from amid such confused embroilments of human clamor and folly, what the real Divine Message to us is? A divine message, or eternal regulation of the Universe, there verily is, in regard to every conceivable procedure and affair of man: faithfully following this, said procedure or affair will prosper, and have the whole Universe to second it, and carry it, across the fluctuating contradictions, towards a victorious goal; not following this, mistaking this, disregarding this, destruction and wreck are certain for every affair. How find it?
All the world answers me, “Count heads; ask Universal Suffrage, by the ballot-boxes, and that will tell.” Universal Suffrage, ballot-boxes, count of heads? Well, — I perceive we have got into strange spiritual latitudes indeed. Within the last half-century or so, either the Universe or else the heads of men must have altered very much. Half a century ago, and down from Father Adam’s time till then, the Universe, wherever I could hear tell of it, was wont to be of somewhat abstruse nature; by no means carrying its secret written on its face, legible to every passer-by; on the contrary, obstinately hiding its secret from all foolish, slavish, wicked, insincere persons, and partially disclosing it to the wise and noble-minded alone, whose number was not the majority in my time!
Of course, this pair of predictions is just an example. Hindsight can easily identify correct predictions in the corpus of any essayist. We cannot consider Carlyle’s actual accuracy in retrospect without counting all his correct and incorrect predictions, then comparing them to those of a contemporary peer. Perhaps this could be a useful exercise for some anomic beaver with a spreadsheet.
We can produce a more interesting effect on the modern mind, however, by presenting ways in which Carlyle understands the 20th century better, in the 1850s, than almost anyone in 2009. Specifically, we can employ Carlyle to teach you about the 20th century – and if not you, your uninitiated friends.
Only one simple demonstration is required. You see, for Carlyle the pair of prophecies described earlier – the rise of democracy in the 20th century, and the extraordinary level of political murder in the 20th century – are not independent predictions. They are causally connected. The rise of democracy is the cause of the Holocaust, etc.
While this proposition seems self-evident to Carlyle, pretty much no one believes it today. Will historians eventually conclude that he was right? If so, Carlyle beats them by 150 years – and counting. Counting for a while yet, I suspect.
To the democrat, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, democracy appears as the cure for the 20th-century’s political ills. A cure born in serendipitous synchrony to its disease, like the Monitor for the Merrimack. It reaches the scene of the crime just in time to try to save the victims. Succeeding for most, sadly failing for some. So you may see some blood on its hands or clothing.
If this alibi were not interesting enough, any exculpation of democracy leaves the tragedies of the 20th century uncaused. If the narrators of democratic history were more confident that these events were indeed causeless, random and without pattern, they might be less addicted to the passive voice. Instead you see it every day in the papers: “three people were killed today in…” Or even better, the false active: “today, violence killed three people in…” Indeed. Thus in the 20th century, which was also the century of democracy, violence killed hundreds of millions of people.
Of course, neither Carlyle nor I can deny that North America and Europe in 2009 enjoy local peace, at least in the conventional military sense. Recent political violence in these areas has been minimal. But any hegemonic conqueror can and typically does suppress political violence: democracy, or Genghis Khan. This does not help us assess the net total of political violence in a counterfactual universe in which democracy, or Genghis Khan, had decided to mind their own business.
Surely the easiest argument against Carlyle’s hypothesis is that most of the atrocities of the 20th century were committed not by democracy, but by its enemies – totalitarian states of both the right and left. Again, democracy is at the scene of the crime only in its capacity as an officer of the peace. It is not just the blood of the victims which appears on its hands and clothing, but also that of the real killers.
Again, perfectly true. It is possible to construct a definition of an orthodox democracy, and possible to show that orthodox democracies have by far the cleanest hands in the 20th century’s military mass murders – under 21st-century principles of “human rights” , for instance, we see only a million or so civilians incinerated by urban firebombing. A peccadillo for the age. Sure.
But clean hands do not exclude causality. The fascist and socialist totalitarian states of the 20th century – Hitler, Mao, and Stalin, basically – existed as exceptions, throwbacks, in the age of rising democracy. Hitler, Mao and Stalin committed the crimes of Hitler, Mao, and Stalin, making them the proximate causes of these events. We still may ask: what caused Hitler, Mao, and Stalin? What was the origin and nature of these regimes? If we find the fingerprints of democracy behind them, we may continue to suspect it as the ultimate cause.
The argument that democracy caused Hitler, etc, may seem an unusual and abstruse one. In the democratic narrative of the 20th century, indeed, it makes very little sense. In the Carlylean narrative it is almost so obvious as to be unworthy of mention, as we’ll see.
The Carlylean explanation of Hitler, Stalin and Mao is that fascism and Communism are both, each in a very different way, democratic phenomena. They existed in the century of democracy because they could not have existed without it.
We will make this argument at length, later. It is a subtle point to explain, however. It is easily suspected of sophistry, or (as Carlyle would put it) Jesuitism. An introduction to Carlyle’s 20th century can only start with a much less subtle blow to the head.
To demonstrate how easy it is to retell history without changing any of the facts, let us supply a Carlylean reinterpretation of the events by which democracy gained its hegemony – the wars of 1939-45. The result will attribute ultimate causality for the Holocaust to the democratic movement in general, and the Roosevelt administration in specific.
First we must remove the existing cloak of hagiography. Beating the Nazis (a feat in which my own grandfather participated, quite enthusiastically) is perhaps the main moral claim to fame of our present democratic overlords. The moral logic is simple. Hitler committed the Holocaust, the Holocaust was evil, FDR fought Hitler and beat him, so FDR must be good.
A saint may fight against a knave. Alternatively, two knaves may fight. A dragon may be slain by St. George, or by another dragon. In the former case you are left with St. George, who deserves a reward for slaying his dragon. In the latter case you are faced with a dragon, which did only what dragons do. He was probably the bigger of the two, and now he is even bigger than that.
Unfortunately, there is no moral system on earth which assigns any points for either (a) the unintended consequences of one’s actions, especially when (b) these consequences do not actually happen. So if (a) America’s war had been undertaken, either by its leaders or its masses, with the intention of saving the Jews from Hitler, and (b) any significant number of Jews had been actually saved by this policy, credit on this count would most certainly be due. And we would see what we want to see – St. George slaying the dragon.
But I am not aware of any historical school which espouses either of these propositions, neither of which has any relationship to reality. In reality, the American authorities were only slightly less eager than their German counterparts to conceal the Holocaust. As any bail bondsman can tell you, this is called being an “accessory.” Not good. As for saving Jews, all contemporary claims that America was fighting a war for the Jews emanate from Berlin, not Washington. Goebbels was known to tell the truth on occasion, but not this occasion.
Moreover, the Roosevelt administration at its highest level knowingly concealed the crimes of its own Russian proxies at Katyn, an atrocity no less horrific in quality if not quantity. America in this war is just as responsible for Russian war crimes as Germany for the work of its Lithuanian special police. Total responsibility for the offenses of one’s dependents, clients and proxies is a clear case of natural law, both at the individual and sovereign levels.
One layer of camouflage is seldom sufficient. Lurking beneath the mythical war to save the Jews is the equally mythical Axis plan to conquer the world. Unlike the Holocaust, this is a genuine work of living propaganda – a device of British Security Coordination, which forged the infamous map in which South America is divided into Nazi Gaue. Quite simply, no such plan existed.
Hitler most certainly had a plan to conquer Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe is not the planet, and nor was it in any sense liberated by the war. Mein Kampf’s grand strategy was that Germany must expand to the East and remain at peace with the West – especially the British Empire. Hitler’s geopolitical fantasy, and the perennial core of his perennial peace plans, was a world in which Germany dominated the Continent with land power, serving as an equal but not a rival to British maritime imperialism. Curiously, the Third Reich and the British Empire are now equally defunct – another coincidence.
Of course, having conquered the East, Hitler or his successors might have developed new appetites, revised said plans, and decided to conquer the West as well. Those requiring the 20th century to constitute the end of history are yet another class of automatic apologist. Of course, after the Anglo-Soviet split, the West in any case faced a ruthless, militaristic Eastern totalitarian state with clear ambitions to world domination. (And actual domination of Eastern Europe.)
We thus begin to see the outline of the foreign policy that Carlyle would propose for America and Britain in the 1930s. A Carlylean judges the quality of a government’s actions by comparing them to what that government should have done, and he is not shy about using hindsight to construct this alternative.
Or, of course, the prophecies of the master himself. The Carlylean alternative being simple:
When the Continental Nations have once got to the bottom of their Augean Stable, and begun to have real enterprises based on the eternal facts again, our Foreign Office may again have extensive concerns with them. And at all times, and even now, there will remain the question to be sincerely put and wisely answered, What essential concern has the British Nation with them and their enterprises? Any concern at all, except that of handsomely keeping apart from them? If so, what are the methods of best managing it? — At present, as was said, while Red Republic but clashes with foul Bureaucracy; and Nations, sunk in blind ignavia, demand a universal-suffrage Parliament to heal their wretchedness; and wild Anarchy and Phallus-Worship struggle with Sham-Kingship and extinct or galvanized Catholicism; and in the Cave of the Winds all manner of rotten waifs and wrecks are hurled against each other, — our English interest in the controversy, however huge said controversy grow, is quite trifling; we have only in a handsome manner to say to it: “Tumble and rage along, ye rotten waifs and wrecks; clash and collide as seems fittest to you; and smite each other into annihilation at your own good pleasure. In that huge conflict, dismal but unavoidable, we, thanks to our heroic ancestors, having got so far ahead of you, have now no interest at all. Our decided notion is, the dead ought to bury their dead in such a case: and so we have the honor to be, with distinguished consideration, your entirely devoted, FLIMNAP, SEC. FOREIGN DEPARTMENT.” — I really think Flimnap, till truer times come, ought to treat much of his work in this way: cautious to give offence to his neighbors; resolute not to concern himself in any of their self-annihilating operations whatsoever.
Thus the Carlylean foreign policy for USG and Britain in the 1930s is the same as the Carlylean foreign policy for USG today: abandon, disown and release all foreign protectorates, dependents, “allies,” client states, puppet states, and other “little friends.” Rather, each sovereign nation should just mind its own business for a while and see how that works out.
After a Carlylean reaction, there is no world policeman, no world judge, world parliament, or world anything. Even the traditional practice of exchanging permanent diplomats is obsolete. Governments often have things to say to each other, but they can get used to saying it by email.
And if Bolivia and Paraguay wish to wage war, that war is the business of Bolivia and Paraguay. Washington has no particular interest in which side may be in the wrong. It is certainly either Bolivia, Paraguay, or both. Moreover, if Spain herself does pick a side, intervenes in favor of it, and eventually uses this as a pretext for reacquiring both Bolivia and Paraguay, the Flimnaps of Foggy Bottom shall gaze serenely down on the entire affair – requesting, at most, that all sides avoid weapons which might cause global atmospheric or marine contamination.
Thus, if we imagine this principle applied to Europe in 1933, a Carlylean regime in 1933 disavows all involvement in Continental politics, including the League of Nations and the protection of the various invented states of the Little Entente. All of which were, in 1933, much better-armed than Germany.
If Germany wishes to have a war with Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc, that is the business of these nations. If Czechoslovakia and Poland wish to defend themselves from Germany, they should arm sufficiently and band themselves together for the purpose. If not, they must accept German suzerainty. In the actual event, they behaved as if they were armed, but the arms on which they counted were not their own – but those of Britain and France, which in retrospect were obviously insufficient to defend them.
Meanwhile, of course, if these wars expel valuable refugees – especially a high-value population such as the Ashkenazi Jews – Britain and America will stand ready to snap them up, just as Frederick the Great was happy to snap up French Huguenots expelled by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
Thus under this strategy, Nazi Germany (assuming the most aggressive intentions) either enlarges itself to the East, or fails to do so. If populations are displaced, for crazy Nazi reasons or otherwise, they are relocated to the Western Hemisphere. (Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, for one, wanted as many Jews as he could get.) It is possible to construct a global military disaster, genocide, etc, emerging from this counterfactual scenario. But it does not seem likely, whereas with the road taken we know it is certain. Hindsight is a bitch.
And more damningly, the Carlylean answer answers a question we didn’t know we had. Remember: we have eliminated the two most frequently presumed rationales for the Allied side of the war. Roosevelt was not fighting to save the Jews, for he gives no appearance of giving a crap about the Jews. And he is not fighting to thwart the Nazi project of invading Mexico, for he knows there is no such project. What, then, is he fighting for? What is the nature of the Allied cause?
There is a three-word answer: “the United Nations.” Basically, the Anglo-American coalition (which in fact called itself by that name during the war) is fighting for a vision, which vision might well be described even better by the name it now carries: “the international community.” Skeptics will note that this phrase can always be replaced with the term “State Department,” with negligble change to the meaning of the sentence.
More concretely, the fundamental question of the war was: if Germany and Poland disagree, whose business is it? Germany’s answer was: it is the business of Germany and Poland. This answer is roughly coincident with classical international law, in which each nation is the only final judge of its interests. The Anglo-American answer was: it is the business of the international community. And so, in modern international law, it is. The Allies having defeated Germany, just as Germany defeated Poland. Might and right always converge in the end.
From the perspective of classical international law, Britain, which has been acting as the sole global hyperpower since 1815, and her new partner in crime America, are essentially asserting suzerainty over the Continent. They, and their stable of satellites, are to make the rules of international affairs henceforth. And indeed there is only one way for Germany to dispute this claim of suzerainty, which like all sovereign claims grows stronger the longer it is not disputed, and establish its status as an independent and equal country: make war, needless to say without permission, on the Anglo-American client states that after the last war were created out of its territory.
Thus, Anglo-American democracy causes the war, and its resulting terrors and destructions, because the nascent system of global suzerainty it set up in 1919 forces Germany to either accept a position which is permanently subordinate to the Anglo-American system or “international community,” effectively sacrificing her independence as a nation, or demonstrate its disobedience by violently attacking that community. The dog has been backed into a corner; it must either cringe and submit, or bite. It probably should have cringed.
But military causality is always a dark and difficult point to argue. This would be Carlyle’s explanation of these events, I think, but it is not his most powerful argument. Not only were Stalin, Hitler and Mao the products of bad democratic foreign policy, but their own movements could not have existed without democracy.
Rather, fascism and socialism (including the various Communisms) are inherently democratic phenomena. It is thus obvious that they came to exist in the century of democracy. This argument, too, may strike you as implausible – but wait and see.
Because first, this nasty pair suggests a cheaper, uglier, more banal explanation for Carlyle’s seeming success as a prophet. As Wikipedia correctly notes:
If Carlyle predicts that your house will burn down, and your house burns down, Carlyle is a prophet. But if he was seen on your porch with a can of kerosene, he’s an arsonist. The plot thickens.
To understand the 20th century, we have to understand what socialism is and fascism was. To understand it from a Carlylean perspective, we need to understand the relationship of democracy to each – and to Carlyle himself. To Carlyle, democracy is the ultimate cause of the Holocaust; to democracy (or at least to Wikipedia), Carlyle is that ultimate cause. He is both prosecutor and defendant in the case.
The essential step in understanding socialism and fascism is understanding the difference between these Megatherions. They are both Megatherions all right, and both born in mud. Moreover, both muds contain a significant concentration of Carlyle. But they are two very different muds – and mud should not be confused with Carlyle.
While there are no qualitative distinctions in history, the difference between socialism and fascism is about as close as it comes – it’s up there with virus versus bacterium. Or perhaps, for a closer medical analogy, liver cancer and lung cancer. Lung cancer can spread to your liver and/or vice versa, but the tumor is always descended from either lung or liver. Similarly, while the structure, apparatus and practices of socialism and fascism may in advanced cases converge, the origin of the malignancy is always precise and distinct.
Orthodox libertarians and, increasingly, conservatives have a particularly easy wrong answer available to them on this point. The wrong answer is that socialism and fascism are two forms, with negligible or cosmetic distinction, of one pathology of government – statism. Statism being the condition of having an enormous government which does all kinds of stupid, useless, and/or counterproductive things it doesn’t do.
This clicks naturally with the theory of Carlyle as villain. Carlyle is most certainly a statist in the abstract libertarian sense of the word. Libertarianism is in fact a revival of the Manchester liberalism of Carlyle’s time – whom the reader may meet as “M’Croudy, the Seraphic Doctor of Political Economy.”
From Carlyle’s end, Manchester liberalism is one of the principal symptoms of 19th-century democracy – the other being the philanthropism of Exeter Hall. Note that 21th-century democracy has boosted Exeter Hall to the nth degree, but retains some fragments of Manchester liberalism only grudgingly and with contempt. This too must be explained.
But here is Carlyle on M’Croudy – directly following the first passage on Democracy:
Or perhaps the chief end of man being now, in these improved epochs, to make money and spend it, his interests in the Universe have become amazingly simplified of late; capable of being voted on with effect by almost anybody? “To buy in the cheapest market, and sell in the dearest:” truly if that is the summary of his social duties, and the final divine message he has to follow, we may trust him extensively to vote upon that. But if it is not, and never was, or can be? If the Universe will not carry on its divine bosom any commonwealth of mortals that have no higher aim, — being still “a Temple and Hall of Doom,” not a mere Weaving-shop and Cattle-pen? If the unfathomable Universe has decided to reject Human Beavers pretending to be Men; and will abolish, pretty rapidly perhaps, in hideous mud-deluges, their “markets” and them, unless they think of it? In that case it were better to think of it: and the Democracies and Universal Suffrages, I can observe, will require to modify themselves a good deal!
Observant readers will note that Carlyle, the prophet, errs here. He asserts that Manchester liberalism is so simple and obvious that it can be explained to voters, who can (he seems to vaguely imply) be trusted to vote for it. This may have been true in the 1850s. If so, voters have changed – alas.
But let’s examine this Carlylean critique of libertarianism. Carlyle says: libertarianism is an epiphenomenon of democracy, because it is or purports to be a formula which dictates the actions of a sovereign – ie, the government must do this and must not do that. In democratic parlance – a position, platform or ideology.
Platforms are essential to the conduct of democratic government, because the only legitimate way to rule in a democracy is to construct a party which agrees on a platform. Thus, the simpler and more appealing the formula, the better. Thus the existence of libertarianism, from this skeptical and delegitimating standpoint, is explained. Thus Manchester liberalism got somewhere in mid-19th-century Britain, although libertarians with more or less the same platform got nowhere in late-20th-century America. Simpler and more appealing formulas, such as “hope” and “change,” having since been invented.
Thus, Carlyle helps us explains why libertarianism was a democratic trope in the 1850s, and also why the democracy of 2009 is fundamentally un-libertarian. Anti-democratic libertarians can begin and finish their thesis here. The idea of libertarianism as a fundamental form of government, and non-libertarianism (or “statism”) as an equally fundamental form, is most plausibly explained by the political needs of democracy, not any actual natural phenomenon.
That said, we will accept this category, “statist,” a little longer. Before we look at socialism and fascism independently, we need to observe the shared Carlylean roots around which both are built. In the Carlylean narrative, socialism and fascism are both corruptions of the Carlylean ideal. They combine Carlylean truths with un-Carlylean shams.
Carlyle is a “statist” in that he considers the State to have absolute responsibility for the well-being of the nation it governs, and absolute authority to take any act it considers necessary to optimize that well-being. Quite simply, the Carlylean likes a strong hand at the tiller. And a strong tiller, too. This taste he shares with the socialist and the fascist – his fellow enthusiasts of government power.
Here all three part ways with the tradition of classical liberalism, under which so many American and British institutions were founded and re-founded in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and whose central motif is the belief in limited and/or divided government. One cannot be either socialist, fascist, or Carlylean, without either abandoning this belief or warping it beyond recognition. (Carlyleans and fascists abandon it. Socialists warp it.)
But at the next stop, the Carlylean parts ways with his 20th-century buddies. It is he who stays on the bus, and they who get off. Socialism and fascism produce a mix of substandard and disastrous results, for a simple reason: both originate in democracy, a precancerous growth always pregnant with some malignancy.
In almost every historical case of democracy, factions have arisen which can be arranged along a right-left axis. In the Athenian era, for example, hundreds of city-states developed a factional pattern in which a nominally demotic party competed against an nominally oligarchic party. This pattern must be a consequence of human nature, for it appears in all eras and populations without any apparent structure of transmission.
The socialist one-party state arises through the total victory of a faction, party, or movement of the Left. The fascist one-party state arises through the total victory of a faction, party, or movement of the Right. (Note that victory is victory, by means legal or illegal.)
The stable two-party democracy remains pregnant with both. And its stability is illusory: the same nominal parties remain, but their actual positions shift inexorably toward the Left. Thus we see chronic rather than acute socialism, which has the same endpoint – sclerotic emphysema of Brezhnev – but slower, and with a lot less drama. Unless it breaks down, of course.
(Note that under this definition, it is impossible to argue that “Hitler was a socialist.” On the Weimar political spectrum, which was no different from ours, the NSDAP was a party of the Right. Thus its total victory can only constitute the condition of fascism. Of course you may use any definition of “socialist” or “fascist” you like, but the above will be found to closely match your intuitive sense of the matter.)
It is these democratic roots which fatally poison both socialism and fascism. Since the origin of the socialist or fascist regime is always a democratic party, achieving power at least partially through democratic tactics, the regime cannot escape democracy as a source of both external legitimacy and internal structure. The mark of Cain is always on it.
Your captain is a strong hand on a strong ship. But he is no Baptist. Will he round the Horn? Famously, if sober. Otherwise, in the belly of a fish. As an ingredient in government, even just a mixer, democracy is a deliriant – like Jimson weed. Cocaine sends you up, whisky brings you down, acid swings you around. But you never know what a man will do on Jimson weed. You might want to find another captain for the Southern Ocean.
This origin in democracy should not be confused with genuine popular sovereignty, or actual sailing of the ship by ballot-box. Such a thing is almost unheard of. It is not that socialist or fascist states actually extend significant decision-making power to the people at large. This is almost never the case, not even in working democracies with genuine contested elections.
If you look at any government of the 20th century and ask, who helms the ship around the Horn? Who tells the sailors when and how to reef the anchor, swab the mast or jibe the poop deck? Your answer will not be: the people who vote in “American Idol.” Your answer will be: the pros. Public servants. The people who always do it. Which is not to say they do it right.
However, a socialist or fascist state, being by definition the descendant of a democratic movement, (a) cannot cease to adore some mythic construction of popular sovereignty, and (b) cannot afford to lose the actual adoration of its subjects. Both are central to its legitimacy.
And both, as we will see, are central to its insanity – in two very different ways. Because both socialism and fascism must maintain the sham of popular government, they have the seed of mendacity always inside them. That seed always finds fertile soil, and indeed life in a socialist or fascist state always becomes life in a jungle of lies. Which is typically the least of your problems.
Thus in socialism and fascism, we see the worst of both worlds. The state is (or at least may be) strong. But it is also mad. Thus, sometimes, often or always, its strength is wielded in the service of Chaos and not Cosmos. In short, the 800-pound gorilla is on acid. No wonder the night-watchman state seems like such a tempting idea.
The Carlylean insists: the forces of sovereignty must be mastered. There is no alternative. To limit the State to what it should do, prohibiting it from doing what it should not do, is to commit an act of tautology. Suppose you make it promise? What use are the gorilla’s promises? Either you have mastered him, or not. If not, he will do as he likes. If so, you have taken his place.
Observe the fascist or socialist State again, through the eyes of the orthodox libertarian or classical liberal. We see an 800-pound gorilla on acid, whooping it up at the wheel of a running bulldozer. Your libertarian says: stop that bulldozer! Your Carlylean says: stop that gorilla!
A bulldozer, well-made, well-maintained and well-operated, is a positive force in the world. But only if it is controlled by a man and not a gorilla. If you saw a bulldozer driven by a qualified bulldozer operator, dear libertarian, would you cry: stop that bulldozer! I think not. You might be amazed at all the good works a qualified bulldozer operator can work with a bulldozer.
Of course, the world at present contains no such thing as a qualified bulldozer operator. Which is hardly the Carlylean’s fault. And it still contains men, who are not gorillas, and can learn. They can also be drug-tested.
But this analogy, though picturesque, is as far as we can go with the two together. Socialism and fascism are different things. We must examine them apart, each through the Carlylean lens.
Let’s do fascism first, because fascism is easy. Fascism is Carlyle, implemented by swine. Thus, you can go through Carlyle, finding Carlylean heroes, and replacing them with swine. The result will be fascism.
This exercise is exceptionally simple for those with a progressive education. Not only do you already know everything about the crimes of fascism, how to recognize it, how to fight it, etc, you cannot conceive of a Carlylean hero who is in fact a hero, and not a swine at all. Your mind rebels against the very thought.
Fortunately, history – which for you is the story of the 20th century, because progressives hate the past – demonstrates that in all cases, swine appear in the position at question. Therefore, the dispute is settled. With this assumption, proven by experience, let’s see how Carlyle is a fascist. We might, for instance, choose this passage from Shooting Niagara:
I always fancy there might much be done in the way of military drill withal. Beyond all other schooling, and as supplement or even as succedaneum for all other, one often wishes the entire Population could be thoroughly drilled; into co-operative movement, into individual behaviour, correct, precise, and at once habitual and orderly as mathematics, in all or in very many points, — and ultimately in the point of actual Military Service, should such be required of it!
Soldier-Drill, for fighting purposes, as I have said, would be the last or finishing touch of all these sorts of Drilling processes; and certainly the acknowledged king would reckon it not the least important to him, but even perhaps the most so, in these peculiar times. Anarchic Parliaments and Penny Newspapers might perhaps grow jealous of him; in any case, would he have to be cautious, punctilious, severely correct, and obey to the letter whatever laws and regulations they emitted on the subject. But that done, how could the most anarchic Parliament, or Penny Editor, think of forbidding any fellow-citizen such a manifest improvement on all the human creatures round him? Our wise Hero Aristocrat, or acknowledged king in his own territory, would by no means think of employing his superlative private Field-regiment in levy of war against the most anarchic Parliament: on the contrary, might and would loyally but help said Parliament in warring down much anarchy worse than its own, and so gain steadily new favour from it. From it, and from all men and gods! And would have silently the consciousness, too, that with every new Disciplined Man, he was widening the arena of Anti-Anarchy, of God-appointed Order in this world and Nation, — and was looking forward to a day, very distant probably, but certain as Fate.
For I suppose it would in no moment be doubtful to him That, between Anarchy and Anti-ditto, it would have to come to sheer fight at last; and that nothing short of duel to the death could ever void that great quarrel. And he would have his hopes, his assurances, as to how the victory would lie. For everywhere in this universe, and in every nation that is not divorced from it and in the act of perishing forever, Anti-Anarchy is silently on the increase, at all moments: Anarchy, not, but contrariwise; having the whole universe for ever set against it; pushing it slowly at all moments towards suicide and annihilation. To Anarchy, however million-headed, there is no victory possible. Patience, silence, diligence, ye chosen of the world! Slowly or fast in the course of time you will grow to a minority that can actually step forth (sword not yet drawn, but sword ready to be drawn), and say “here are we, Sirs; we also are minded to vote, — to all lengths, as you may perceive. A company of poor men (as friend Oliver termed us) who will spend all our blood, if needful!” What are Beales and his 50,000 roughs against such; what are the noisiest anarchic Parliaments, in majority of a million to one, against such? Stubble against fire. Fear not, my friend; the issue is very certain when it comes so far as this!
Fortified by your progressive education, which is at this moment flashing the red alert, see instantly that this program, implemented by swine, is fascism. And implemented by non-swine? It has no name – for history has yet to see its like.
And where do the swine come from? In the 20th century? Gosh, in the age of democracy, why would one find a sudden effusion of swine in government? A famous Hitler campaign poster showed him with Hindenburg, “the Field Marshal and the Corporal.” Traditionally, of course, any such fraternization would be a military offence.
Again, fascism is fascism because it arises out of democracy. Against the Left of intellectual consensus, universalist philosophy, bureaucratic disinterest, and bohemian disorder, it pits the forces of popular consensus, parochial tradition, vested or corrupt interests, and military order.
Each of the above has its place – both the Athenian perspective of the Left, and the Spartan judgment of the Right. A healthy society can see itself through any of these glasses, or all. But none in recent memory has combined the Athenian and Spartan virtues – it is a difficult merger. Carlylean order does not preclude the bohemian, but the combination is delicate at the least.
But to create this Spartan force in a democracy is to create, essentially, the Nazi Party. Or the Republican Party. If your party is just a theatrical production and has no actual intent of seizing power, it is the latter; if its plan, hopefully not a secret plan, is “one man, one vote, one time,” it is the former. Neither is a benefit to humanity, at least as described.
When the NSDAP seized absolute power, what seized absolute power was an organization which was more or less a government in exile, whose leader was a palpable nut, and whose supporters consisted largely of the lower-middle classes – relatively ignorant and ill-informed. This was not a military coup. It was the electoral victory of a democratic political party.
Had Weimar been terminated by a military coup, perhaps under Captain Ehrhardt or the like, the order that replaced it might have been a military order – a complete renunciation of democracy, a return to the Prussian traditions of Frederick the Great. Instead, as a democratic movement, the militarism of the Nazis had a notably paramilitary quality. For instance, calling the SA the SA was rather as if Youth for Western Civilization were to name its paintball brigade the “Special Forces.” It’s definitely not the way to get the actual Special Forces on your side.
It is this difference – the line between military honor and tradition, and paramilitary brawling and thuggery – that separates men from swine, and Carlyle from fascism.
The trouble is that if you try to modify the Nazi path to power to remove the swine, it is not clear that you have a path to power. There were plenty of non-swinish German nationalists competing with the Nazis. Only the Nazis, however, could build an entire party of swine. And even in Germany, enough swine and friends of swine could be found – which is hardly surprising, when you see that the choice was not the Nazis or nothing, but the Nazis or Weimar.
So once the Nazis seize power: power is held by a party of swine. With Hitler at the top. Many have joined the Party because they want to help restore Germany; many have joined it because they want to get ahead; some have joined it because they want to get revenge on the Jews. It is this organization, nominally under Hitler’s absolute rule but in practice more dangerous to him than he is to it, that now rules Germany. And at the bottom, below the Party, is the Deutsche Volk – whose opinions are coordinated by the propaganda techniques familiar to all, and coordinated quite successfully too. This too is a relic of democracy: popular sovereignty.
This is the outline of a Mafia state. This pyramid can impose order outside itself, but internally it is not and can never be ordered. Germany is a sea of warring acronymic agencies, increasingly corrupt. The Nazi system is still often dynamic and successful because it is so new and so young. Had it lived longer, however, the structure of bureaucracy and venality would have ossified, producing a transition not unlike that between the regimes of Louis XIV and Louis XVI. Hitler was certainly no Frederick the Great, and even Frederick’s system did not fare well under his dissolute heir.
Thus what we see in fascism is the last gasp of the European ancien regime, heavily contaminated by vices implicit in the attempt to restore order by democratic means. Fortunately, the whole question of fascism is of only academic interest in the 21st century, because no such attempt could now succeed. Only the very unusual conditions of postwar Germany and Italy made it possible to construct a successful fascist party, even one constructed with generous helpings of swine. Now and for the foreseeable future, there is no practical democratic politics of the Right – moderate or extreme.
On to socialism.
It is just as easy to find the link from Carlyle to socialism. Walt Whitman will find it for us:
Then the simplicity and amid ostensible frailty the towering strength of this man — a hardy oak knot, you could never wear out — an old farmer dressed in brown clothes, and not handsome — his very foibles fascinating. Who cares that he wrote about Dr. Francia, and “Shooting Niagara” — and “the Nigger Question,” — and didn’t at all admire our United States? (I doubt if he ever thought or said half as bad words about us as we deserve.) How he splashes like leviathan in the seas of modern literature and politics! Doubtless, respecting the latter, one needs first to realize, from actual observation, the squalor, vice and doggedness ingrained in the bulk-population of the British Islands, with the red tape, the fatuity, the flunkeyism everywhere, to understand the last meaning in his pages.
Accordingly, though he was no chartist or radical, I consider Carlyle’s by far the most indignant comment or protest about the fruits of feudalism today in Great Britain — the increasing poverty and degradation of the homeless, landless twenty millions, while a few thousands, or rather a few hundreds, possess the entire soil, the money, and the fat berths. Trade and shipping, and clubs and culture, and prestige, and guns, and a fine select class of gentry and aristocracy, with every modern improvement, cannot begin to salve or defend such stupendous hoggishness.
Whitman is not making any of this up. You will indeed see Carlyle, especially in his early works – before he has entirely rid himself from his old group of Radical friends, to be exact – take just this tack. Much of it is still found in Chartism (1840).
Carlyle will: criticize economic inequality; mock laissez-faire economics; deplore the growing dehumanization of the new British proletariat; denounce industrial pollution; call for massive national literacy campaigns; propose that government organize unemployed workers; etc, etc, etc. All these ambitions of the muscular State are distinctively socialist.
Of course, they are not exclusively socialist aims, since we see them also under Hitler. Aims alone do not enable us to distinguish socialist and fascist regimes, which are distinguished by origin rather than result. Over the long run, the two can develop a remarkably similar structure and apparatus – I suspect the Third Reich, had it survived, would have looked rather Brezhnevian by the 1980s. But this is parallel evolution: analogy, not homology.
For a deeper connection between socialism and Carlyle, we need to understand the shared inspiration of the two. Since Carlyle was considerably under the influence of Scottish Calvinism, and the roots of socialism run through (Calvinist) Puritanism, the religious connection does not require a great leap of faith. The Carlylean imperative of the State is to discover the laws of God and implement them on earth. This is a dream easily recognized in the progressive of a century ago, a Herbert Croly or Edward Bellamy or Benjamin Franklin Trueblood, none of whom would have had any qualms in describing his utopia as a New Jerusalem.
Finally, we need to recognize perhaps the most distinctive and subtle quality of socialism, which is that socialism (again in origin, though this quality disappears in the nasty end stages) is a fundamentally aristocratic movement. Moreover, it is aristocratic in the Carlylean sense: the actual meaning of the word, rule of the best. Socialism, always in origin and perpetually in the true democratic state which still contains a competing Right, is the alliance of the smartest, the wealthiest, the most powerful, and the most beautiful.
The Left is the faction of the professors, the scientists and the scholars, the cognitive elite. It is the faction of the true ultra-rich, the old money, the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts and Fords, and their trustafarian hipster junkie grandchildren. It is the faction of the journalists and the bureaucrats, the activists and astroturfers – the wielders of power. And, of course, it is the faction of movie stars and other celebrities, who for all their flaws have climbed a long greasy pole. The closer you get to the top in a democratic society, the more pervasive socialism becomes.
So Carlyle said to his readers: England is going to the dogs. A new aristocracy is needed to replace the old, stultified, dying hereditary caste of land and title. This must be an aristocracy of merit and service – a true nobility. It must cast aside the dogmas of laissez-faire and be unafraid to govern, to garden, to intervene and improve.
And indeed, the Christian Socialism of the Fabians and Progressives, rooted not only in Carlyle but in Ruskin and Morris and Dickens, developed precisely along these lines. Its goal was to improve society, both physically and morally, through the energy and nobility of the State. And indeed it outcompeted all major competitors. There is no school of Carlyleans today, but every school that isn’t a madrassa in Qom is a school of progressivism.
And the trouble was: it was all wrong. The results were exactly opposite the original intent. The poor were not morally uplifted and converted into gentlemen; they were degraded and converted into savages. A new underclass of unprecedented human degeneration appeared below the proletariat. The New Jerusalem did not arrive. New Babylons, new Haitis, new Armageddons beyond words, enormous Megatherions all, slithered up on their great bellies.
Alas, socialism can be explained in one sentence. Socialism is the last stage of democracy. The process may be fast and bloody, as in the French and Russian Revolutions, or slow and mostly peaceful, as in Britain. But it is not generally reversible by any conventional means.
By pouring their talents into the democratic movement, the new aristocracy of progressivism ensured the following results:
First, that bad ideas would blossom and good ones wither and disappear. Progressivism has become a veritable religion of quack goverment. Its policies are always counterintuitive: it preaches leniency as the cure for crime, timidity as military genius, profligacy as the acme of economics, “special education” as the heart of pedagogy, indulgence as oversight, appeasement as diplomacy. As it goes from one disaster to the next, progressivism never considers the possibility that the obvious, rather than its opposite, could be the case. Occam’s Butterknife is the only tool in its kitchen.
So everywhere that socialism or communism triumphs, we see the same phenomena: hypertrophy of the bureaucracy, destruction and/or assimilation of organizations outside the State, expansion and widespread delinquency of the underclass, decimation of the working class, decay and disappearance of manufacturing industries, persecution of upper classes and successful minorities, destruction of old cities and production of hideous totalitarian architecture, ubiquitous depression both economic and psychiatric. These effects are not pleasant to anyone, progressive or otherwise. But their production does not slacken.
Except for the occasional psychopath, a man to be found in all walks of life, this is never the intent of the socialist. My own grandfather was a CPUSA member, and this was certainly not his intent. Nonetheless, they all happened. (And the CPUSA is again best friends with the White House – just as if it were 1934. Or South Africa.)
But why? What causes this pattern of repeated failure? Why, with its intellectual firepower, can progressivism not self-correct? After all, its public-policy experts are supposed to be scientists. They publish papers – with numbers. Surely this makes them scientists, and science is self-correcting, ie, always right.
Alas. Not everyone who writes papers with numbers is a scientist. The most you can say is that your subject is either a scientist, or a pseudoscientist. Also, while it is correct to note that science can be self-correcting, it is incorrect to assume that it must be, ie, is incorruptible. Nothing whatsoever is incorruptible – certainly not science.
The Platonic guardians of the socialist state – scientists, planners, bureaucrats, or whatever you call them – persistently prefer bad ideas because of the organizational structure of the socialist state. Again, democracy is the fundamental and irrecoverable flaw.
Because socialism is democratic, it distrusts, opposes and tends to destroy organizational structures which are built on (a) hierarchical command, (b) personal responsibility, and/or (c) financial interests. Your socialist state will never produce a structure in which a single planner is responsible for, say, North Carolina; can fire whomever he likes in the administration of North Carolina; and gets fired himself, if North Carolina does not blossom into a subtropical Eden. This is an organizational structure that one might find in, say, the British Raj. It is not democratic in nature, nor socialist.
Instead, the socialist state divides power and spreads it as widely as possible – within itself, of course. Its decisions are not personal, but procedural. A procedure is a better procedure if it cuts more stakeholders into the loop – if it is a more open process. Here we see clearly what the State is doing: it is building a support base from its own employee roster, and it is purchasing support by exchanging it for power. The feeling of being in the decision loop produces a remarkable effect of emotional loyalty, no matter how trivial the actual authority may be.
There is just a slight downside to this: when socialism fails, no one is responsible. No system of ideas, even, can be responsible – for a system of ideas would be an ideology, and public policy is not determined by ideology. Thus many will tell you that economics failed in the crisis of 2008, but no one can possibly do anything about it. Certainly, no producer of economic wisdom in the universities, nor consumer in Washington, need feel even slightly threatened. Tenure is tenure, and civil-service protection is civil-service protection. Our masters serve for life.
Moreover, in an environment where failure confers no punishment, we would expect bad policies to outcompete good ones. Much as islands without predators are dominated by flightless birds. Freed from the need to actually succeed, the bad policies can offer everything to everyone – permanently. But alas, no dodo is forever.
Thus the power of socialism to take a perfectly good aristocracy, and corrupt it to the service of lies, incompetence and the Devil. The trouble is that for everyone to get a tiny slice of power’s pie, no one can actually do the job of ruling – a concept which conflicts with the entire idea of public policy. A government based on the principle of hierarchical rule simply does not have enough work for all the aristocrats who need to feel important. It is too damned efficient. Thus it is abhorred, and shunned, by all.
Second – and worse, to the Carlylean eye – because it embraces democracy only to contradict it completely, socialism has a permanent core of mendacity, which breeds new lies the way a clogged birdbath breeds mosquitoes. This sham aspect is at the root of all its failures. To the Carlylean, no structure built on lies can be expected to last.
For the progressive does not actually believe in the philosopher’s stone of democracy, the instinctive and growing wisdom of the masses, Walt Whitman’s wet-dream. He in fact despises (often, though not always, rightly) all ideas that flow from the masses up: these are “ideologies,” and their electoral manifestations “politics.” Nothing is so important as keeping government apolitical and non-ideological.
Or to be more precise, nothing is so important as keeping government in the hands of its Platonic guardians – the aforementioned progressive aristocracy. Who alone can round Cape Horn. For everything that the socialist state does – in Moscow then, in Washington now – there is an entire caste of scientists, exquisitely trained and rigorously selected, from whom all apolitical and non-ideological public policies flow. Not since the heyday of the Board of Rites or the Logothete of the Course has such intellectual firepower been trained on the problem of government.
The power flow of democracy is simply reversed. Rather than the sovereign People leading and directing their “public servants,” it is the servants who lead and the People who follow. The function of elections and elected officials in a progressive democracy is to educate the electorate, to speak from the “bully pulpit,” to help it become the progressive and enlightened People that it deserves to be. In classic astroturf style.
Thus, elections become simply another propaganda mechanism. If this mechanism fails every now and then, the progressive establishment has more than enough institutional inertia to wait out and defeat any temporary attack of the primitives. No permanent imprint on Washington can be or ever has been left by the post-progressive Right, from McCarthy through Bush. Indeed, in Europe, there is nothing at all like the Republicans, and daily life in Europe seems more or less the same for it.
So there is a sham here. To be fair, this sham is hardly a socialist invention: it is a staple of democracy in all eras. Robert Michels described it well as the Iron Law of Oligarchy, almost a century ago. It seems easy to excuse progressives for merely finding this natural tactical feature of politics, and taking advantage of it.
And in fact it is. But it is also interesting to examine the result. Lies are always interesting, and those who defend them still more so.
Those with a taste for historical scholarship of less august vintage than we usually prefer, here at UR, may enjoy Edmund S. Morgan’s Inventing the People (1988). In this multi-century survey, winner of the Bancroft Prize, the author – professor emeritus at Yale – repeatedly and deliberately describes the legal and constitutional doctrines of the democratic faction in Anglo-American history as “fictions.” The body of the book is quite well-composed and quite thoroughly damning, to my ear at least.
Professor Morgan, however, wants to make sure we do not take this as any kind of a criticism. Rather, he is a cold-eyed believer in what, here at UR, we call “psychological security.” In his introduction, he writes:
Government requires make-believe. Make believe that the king is divine, make believe that he can do no wrong or make believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people. Make believe that governors are the servants of the people. Make believe that all men are equal or make believe that they are not.
The political world of make-believe mingles with the real world in strange ways, for the make-believe world may often mold the real one. In order to be viable, in order to serve its purpose, whatever that purpose may be, a fiction must bear some resemblance to fact. If it strays too far from fact, the willing suspension of disbelief collapses. And conversely it may collapse if facts stray too far from the fiction that we want them to resemble. Because fictions are necessary, because we cannot live without them, we often take pains to prevent their collapse by moving the facts to fit the fiction, by making the world conform more closely to what we want it to be. We sometimes call it, quite appropriately, reform or reformation, when the fiction takes command and reshapes reality.
Although fictions enable the few to govern the many, it is not only the many who are constrained by them. In the strange commingling of political make-believe and reality the governing few no less than the governing many may find themselves limited — we may even say reformed — by the fictions on which their authority depends. Not only authority but liberty too may depend on fictions. Indeed liberty may depend, however deviously, on the very fictions that support authority. That, at least, has been the case in the Anglo-American world, and modern liberty, for better or for worse, was born, or perhaps we should say invented, in that world and continues to be nourished there.
Because it is a little uncomfortable to acknowledge that we rely so heavily on fictions, we generally call them by some more exalted name. We may proclaim them as self-evident truths, and that designation is not inappropriate, for it implies our commitment to them and at the same time protects them from challenge. Among the fictions we accept today as self-evident are those that Thomas Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal and that they owe obedience to government only if it is their own agent, deriving its authority from their consent. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate these propositions by factual evidence. It might be somewhat easier, by the kind of evidence we usually require for the proof of any debatable proposition, to demonstrate that men are not created equal and that they have not delegated authority to any government. But self-evident propositions are not debatable, and to challenge these would rend the fabric of our society.
It is not the purpose of this book to challenge them, and my use of the word fiction has no such intention. I have been troubled by the pejorative connotations attached to the word, but I have been unable to find a better one to describe the different phenomena to which I have applied it. I can only hope that the readers who persevere to the end of the book will recognize that the fictional qualities of popular sovereignty sustain rather than threaten the human values associated with it.
To which Carlyle has an answer, and a terrible one. I leave you with his words:
What is Democracy; this huge inevitable Product of the Destinies, which is everywhere the portion of our Europe in these latter days? There lies the question for us. Whence comes it, this universal big black Democracy; whither tends it; what is the meaning of it? A meaning it must have, or it would not be here. If we can find the right meaning of it, we may, wisely submitting or wisely resisting and controlling, still hope to live in the midst of it; if we cannot find the right meaning, if we find only the wrong or no meaning in it, to live will not be possible! — The whole social wisdom of the Present Time is summoned, in the name of the Giver of Wisdom, to make clear to itself, and lay deeply to heart with an eye to strenuous valiant practice and effort, what the meaning of this universal revolt of the European Populations, which calls itself Democracy, and decides to continue permanent, may be.
Certainly it is a drama full of action, event fast following event; in which curiosity finds endless scope, and there are interests at stake, enough to rivet the attention of all men, simple and wise. Whereat the idle multitude lift up their voices, gratulating, celebrating sky-high; in rhyme and prose announcement, more than plentiful, that now the New Era, and long-expected Year One of Perfect Human Felicity has come. Glorious and immortal people, sublime French citizens, heroic barricades; triumph of civil and religious liberty — O Heaven! one of the inevitablest private miseries, to an earnest man in such circumstances, is this multitudinous efflux of oratory and psalmody, from the universal foolish human throat; drowning for the moment all reflection whatsoever, except the sorrowful one that you are fallen in an evil, heavy-laden, long-eared age, and must resignedly bear your part in the same.
The front wall of your wretched old crazy dwelling, long denounced by you to no purpose, having at last fairly folded itself over, and fallen prostrate into the street, the floors, as may happen, will still hang on by the mere beam-ends, and coherency of old carpentry, though in a sloping direction, and depend there till certain poor rusty nails and worm-eaten dovetailings give way: — but is it cheering, in such circumstances, that the whole household burst forth into celebrating the new joys of light and ventilation, liberty and picturesqueness of position, and thank God that now they have got a house to their mind? My dear household, cease singing and psalmodying; lay aside your fiddles, take out your work-implements, if you have any; for I can say with confidence the laws of gravitation are still active, and rusty nails, worm-eaten dovetailings, and secret coherency of old carpentry, are not the best basis for a household! — In the lanes of Irish cities, I have heard say, the wretched people are sometimes found living, and perilously boiling their potatoes, on such swing-floors and inclined planes hanging on by the joist-ends; but I did not hear that they sang very much in celebration of such lodging. No, they slid gently about, sat near the back wall, and perilously boiled their potatoes, in silence for most part! —
High shouts of exultation, in every dialect, by every vehicle of speech and writing, rise from far and near over this last avatar of Democracy in 1848: and yet, to wise minds, the first aspect it presents seems rather to be one of boundless misery and sorrow. What can be more miserable than this universal hunting out of the high dignitaries, solemn functionaries, and potent, grave and reverend signiors of the world; this stormful rising-up of the inarticulate dumb masses everywhere, against those who pretended to be speaking for them and guiding them? These guides, then, were mere blind men only pretending to see? These rulers were not ruling at all; they had merely got on the attributes and clothes of rulers, and were surreptitiously drawing the wages, while the work remained undone? The Kings were Sham-Kings, play-acting as at Drury Lane; — and what were the people withal that took them for real?
It is probably the hugest disclosure of falsity in human things that was ever at one time made. These reverend Dignitaries that sat amid their far-shining symbols and long-sounding long-admitted professions, were mere Impostors, then? Not a true thing they were doing, but a false thing. The story they told men was a cunningly devised fable; the gospels they preached to them were not an account of man’s real position in this world, but an incoherent fabrication, of dead ghosts and unborn shadows, of traditions, cants, indolences, cowardices, — a falsity of falsities, which at last ceases to stick together. Wilfully and against their will, these high units of mankind were cheats, then; and the low millions who believed in them were dupes, — a kind of inverse cheats, too, or they would not have believed in them so long. A universal Bankruptcy of Imposture; that may be the brief definition of it. Imposture everywhere declared once more to be contrary to Nature; nobody will change its word into an act any farther: — fallen insolvent; unable to keep its head up by these false pretences, or make its pot boil any more for the present! A more scandalous phenomenon, wide as Europe, never afflicted the face of the sun. Bankruptcy everywhere; foul ignominy, and the abomination of desolation, in all high places: odious to look upon, as the carnage of a battle-field on the morrow morning; — a massacre not of the innocents; we cannot call it a massacre of the innocents; but a universal tumbling of Impostors and of Impostures into the street!
Such a spectacle, can we call it joyful? There is a joy in it, to the wise man too; yes, but a joy full of awe, and as it were sadder than any sorrow, — like the vision of immortality, unattainable except through death and the grave! And yet who would not, in his heart of hearts, feel piously thankful that Imposture has fallen bankrupt? By all means let it fall bankrupt; in the name of God let it do so, with whatever misery to itself and to all of us. Imposture, be it known then, — known it must and shall be, — is hateful, unendurable to God and man. Let it understand this everywhere; and swiftly make ready for departure, wherever it yet lingers; and let it learn never to return, if possible! The eternal voices, very audibly again, are speaking to proclaim this message, from side to side of the world. Not a very cheering message, but a very indispensable one.
Alas, it is sad enough that Anarchy is here; that we are not permitted to regret its being here, — for who that had, for this divine Universe, an eye which was human at all, could wish that Shams of any kind, especially that Sham-Kings should continue? No: at all costs, it is to be prayed by all men that Shams may cease. Good Heavens, to what depths have we got, when this to many a man seems strange! Yet strange to many a man it does seem; and to many a solid Englishman, wholesomely digesting his pudding among what are called the cultivated classes, it seems strange exceedingly; a mad ignorant notion, quite heterodox, and big with mere ruin. He has been used to decent forms long since fallen empty of meaning, to plausible modes, solemnities grown ceremonial, — what you in your iconoclast humor call shams, all his life long; never heard that there was any harm in them, that there was any getting on without them. Did not cotton spin itself, beef grow, and groceries and spiceries come in from the East and the West, quite comfortably by the side of shams? Kings reigned, what they were pleased to call reigning; lawyers pleaded, bishops preached, and honorable members perorated; and to crown the whole, as if it were all real and no sham there, did not scrip continue salable, and the banker pay in bullion, or paper with a metallic basis? “The greatest sham, I have always thought, is he that would destroy shams.”
Even so. To such depth have I, the poor knowing person of this epoch, got; — almost below the level of lowest humanity, and down towards the state of apehood and oxhood! For never till in quite recent generations was such a scandalous blasphemy quietly set forth among the sons of Adam; never before did the creature called man believe generally in his heart that lies were the rule in this Earth; that in deliberate long-established lying could there be help or salvation for him, could there be at length other than hindrance and destruction for him. O Heavyside, my solid friend, this is the sorrow of sorrows: what on earth can become of us till this accursed enchantment, the general summary and consecration of delusions, be cast forth from the heart and life of one and all!
Cast forth it will be; it must, or we are tending, at all moments, whitherward I do not like to name. Alas, and the casting of it out, to what heights and what depths will it lead us, in the sad universe mostly of lies and shams and hollow phantasms (grown very ghastly now), in which, as in a safe home, we have lived this century or two! To heights and depths of social and individual divorce from delusions, — of “reform” in right sacred earnest, of indispensable amendment, and stern sorrowful abrogation and order to depart, — such as cannot well be spoken at present; as dare scarcely be thought at present; which nevertheless are very inevitable, and perhaps rather imminent several of them! Truly we have a heavy task of work before us; and there is a pressing call that we should seriously begin upon it, before it tumble into an inextricable mass, in which there will be no working, but only suffering and hopelessly perishing!
If there is one writer in English whose name can be uttered with Shakespeare’s, it is Carlyle.
If we need a third, we can add Johnson. (Chaucer is too foreign.) Shakespeare, Carlyle, and Johnson: do you notice a pattern? If not, you are probably new to UR. If you’re not quite sure who Carlyle and Johnson were, much glorious learning awaits you. Fortunately you get to learn Johnson on your own – I know very little about the 18th century.
But you will find precious few who have read all three and will quarrel with this trinity. And all of them are fools. In my view. Then again, I named my daughter after Carlyle. If you are wiser and reserve your judgment, please allow me to etch away one or two of your reservations.
First, it is no daring literary act to exalt Carlyle as superhuman. Like Johnson, he was exalted as superhuman in his own time. Indeed, the proper way to introduce Carlyle is through the eyes of his peers.
Some of whom are still remembered. For example, one American wrote:
The way to test how much he has left his country were to consider, or try to consider, for a moment, the array of British thought, the resultant ensemble of the last fifty years as existing today, but with Carlyle left out. It would be like an army with no artillery.
That was Walt Whitman, in his 1881 obituary. People still read Whitman, but not Carlyle. There’s a reason for this. It’s not necessarily a good reason.
Because Whitman’s point of view – about as close as it comes to NPR avant la lettre – is so easy for the good citizen of 2009 to masticate, his introduction to Carlyle may be the best available. You see, the basic reason Carlyle is not in your high-school English reader, whereas Whitman is, is that Carlyle was what, here at UR, we call a reactionary. (Whereas Whitman is a progressive, or in 19th-century parlance a radical.)
A reactionary is not a Republican, a Democrat, or even a libertarian. It is not even a communist, a fascist, or a monarchist. It is something much older, stranger, and more powerful. But if you can describe it as anything, you can describe it as the pure opposite of progressivism. True reaction is long since extinct in the wild, but it lives in Carlyle – whose writings are now and forever available at a click, though they may be illegal in most states and the European Union.
But let Whitman introduce us:
All that is comprehended under the terms republicanism and democracy were distasteful to [Carlyle] from the first, and as he grew older they became hateful and contemptible. For an undoubtedly candid and penetrating faculty such as his, the bearings he persistently ignored were marvellous.
For instance, the promise, nay certainty of the democratic principle, to each and every State of the current world, not so much of helping it to perfect legislators and executives, but as the only effectual method for surely, however slowly, training people on a large scale toward voluntarily ruling and managing themselves (the ultimate aim of political and all other development)—to gradually reduce the fact of governing to its minimum, and to subject all its staffs and their doings to the telescopes and microscopes of committees and parties—and greatest of all, to afford (not stagnation and obedient content, which went well enough with the feudalism and ecclesiasticism of the antique and medieval world, but) a vast and sane and recurrent ebb and tide action for those floods of the great deep that have henceforth palpably burst forever their old bounds—seem never to have entered Carlyle’s thought.
It was splendid how he refused any compromise to the last. He was curiously antique. In that harsh, picturesque, most potent voice and figure, one seems to be carried back from the present of the British islands more than two thousand years, to the range between Jerusalem and Tarsus. His fullest best biographer justly says of him:
He was a teacher and a prophet, in the Jewish sense of the word. The prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah have become a part of the permanent spiritual inheritance of mankind, because events proved that they had interpreted correctly the signs of their own times, and their prophecies were fulfilled. Carlyle, like them, believed that he had a special message to deliver to the present age. Whether he was correct in that belief, and whether his message was a true message, remains to be seen. He has told us that our most cherished ideas of political liberty, with their kindred corollaries, are mere illusions, and that the progress which has seemed to go along with them is a progress towards anarchy and social dissolution. If he was wrong, he has misused his powers. The principles of his teachings are false. He has offered himself as a guide upon a road of which he had no knowledge; and his own desire for himself would be the speediest oblivion both of his person and his works. If, on the other hand, he has been right; if, like his great predecessors, he has read truly the tendencies of this modern age of ours, and his teaching is authenticated by facts, then Carlyle, too, will take his place among the inspired seers.
To which I add an amendment that under no circumstances, and no matter how completely time and events disprove his lurid vaticinations, should the English-speaking world forget this man, nor fail to hold in honor his unsurpassed conscience, his unique method, and his honest fame. Never were convictions more earnest and genuine. Never was there less of a flunkey or temporizer. Never had political progressivism a foe it could more heartily respect.
Then I find no better text, (it is always important to have a definite, special, even oppositional, living man to start from), for sending out certain speculations and comparisons for home use. Let us see what they amount to—those reactionary doctrines, fears, scornful analyses of democracy—even from the most erudite and sincere mind of Europe.
We slipped some Froude (Carlyle’s disciple as well as his biographer) in there with the Whitman. But the quote is Whitman’s own. Is it not a measure of Whitman’s own greatness – the archpoet of Democracy triumphant – that he gives such props to such a pure opponent? If Whitman can worship Carlyle and quote Froude – what Whitmans are there today?
There are two ways to process Carlyle in 2009. One is to buy in with Whitman: of course Carlyle was wrong as a prophet, though we acknowledge his importance as a writer. (Well, actually, most of us don’t. But a few professors will always have no choice.) As another contemporary critic (this one mercifully forgotten) put it:
By common consent, or nearly so, Mr. Carlyle died our greatest English Man of Letters. Of this claim on his behalf (which includes of course a recognition of him as a great intellectual and spiritual force) there can scarce, I should say, be much question. But one might very well admire Mr. Carlyle as a Litterateur (in this higher and larger sense) yet have only a modified belief in him as a Prophet, and question altogether his title to be called—except in a rather loose and inexact way—a great Thinker and Philosopher.
From this perspective, just as Froude describes, Carlyle misused his vatic powers. On behalf of “the cultural evils of nineteenth-century Britain.” And has suffered that justified oblivion which all false prophets deserve and receive. Evil having since been eradicated in Britain, of course.
If it can be swallowed in the 21st century with a straight face, a task demanding no small strength of gullet, this is a safe antidote which detoxifies Carlyle, and renders him safe for antiseptic scholarship of the Dryasdust school. Alternatively, one can embrace the dark side and simply study Carlyle, and of course his era, as the adversary: Satan personified. This is even safer, as the dead do not shoot back.
(But Hell has a carrel and a stipend for everyone who studied the past because he despised it, and a big corner office for those in the actual business of actual libel. Kids: if you hate your ancestors, hold your tongues. You will not feel like such fools later.)
The trouble with studying 19th-century Britain from the 20th-century American point of view is that no Victorianist can think seriously of a modern career in the field unless he shoots only through one or both of these two orthodox angles, Dryasdust or Hesperus Fiddlestring. Either camera can churn out any amount of scholarly product, and neither can be handled by anyone with an actual soul. The literary value of both together is about that of Marx-Lenin studies, though the former is useful from a strictly clerical standpoint. (Indeed, the Soviet understanding of the Victorians was exactly the same as ours, modulo a little Marx.)
If you did not have a soul, however, you probably would not have found your way to UR. Likewise, a brain. And this brain cannot fail to have had a certain reaction to Mr. Whitman’s argument against Mr. Carlyle. Was that reaction, by any chance, “um?”, or “what?”, or “okay,” or “sure, I guess?”
For example, when Whitman castigates Carlyle for not realizing that democracy will “gradually reduce the fact of governing to its minimum,” or “perfect legislators and executives,” or (best of all) train its own voting citizens “on a large scale” to be every year wiser and more well-informed, did your soul leap up and shout: “very true, Mr. Whitman! And we of 2009 know just how true it is!”
I actually did not excerpt Whitman’s principal argument against Carlyle. It is two pages of windy Hegelism – plainly free of content. Give it a go and see what you think. Whitman always was a sucker for the mystical, a hippie in the wrong century. (He was not alone in this.) But he was an honest man, not afraid to tell us “what a foetid gasbag much of modern radicalism is.” The good old curate’s egg – but still, say more, Mr. Whitman! Alas, men have declined, and poets too.
And when Whitman writes:
Carlyle’s grim fate was cast to live and dwell in, and largely embody, the parturition agony and qualms of the old order, amid crowded accumulations of ghastly morbidity, giving birth to the new. But conceive of him (or his parents before him) coming to America, recuperated by the cheering realities and activity of our people and country—growing up and delving face-to-face resolutely among us here, especially at the West—inhaling and exhaling our limitless air and eligibilities—devoting his mind to the theories and developments of this Republic amid its practical facts as exemplified in Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, or Louisiana. I say facts, and face-to-face confrontings—so different from books, and all those quiddities and mere reports in the libraries, upon which the man (it was wittily said of him at the age of thirty, that there was no one in Scotland who had gleaned so much and seen so little), almost wholly fed, and which even his sturdy and vital mind but reflected at best.
Carlyle, of course, was a historian. Reconstructing other worlds from books was his trade, actual time tourism not being an option. And his pithy little wisecracks about contemporary America are worth more, a century and a half later, than most present libraries.
But more to the point, I can rather easily imagine Carlyle’s response to present-day Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee or (Lord help us) Louisiana. If those states in 1881 might have shaken Carlyle’s faith in the downward course of democracy, a point on which we may defer to Whitman, I can’t imagine their present successors would achieve any such result.
In fact, if we could organize a joint tour of their ghosts, I rather imagine that Whitman himself would end up siding with Carlyle on many (if not all points). We have seen Whitman’s honesty, and we cannot imagine him arguing for the track record of democracy since he wrote, if only because all his arguments are plainly falsified. If Carlyle ignores this arguments, he ignores them because they are (and thus must always have been) worthy of nothing but ignorance.
Our society, of course, has its own mental defences against the Carlylean position. There is certainly no shortage of arguments for “republicanism and democracy.” They are just all different from Whitman’s arguments. Still, there are enough that most intelligent people consider the case overwhelming – to the point where they have never seriously considered it.
However, if we imagine Whitman dropping his own falsified arguments and picking up the latest and greatest replacements, we imagine a Walt Whitman who is not a poet but a defense lawyer. People have called Whitman many nasty names, but no one to my knowledge ever described him as a reptilian, two-tongued bureaucrat.
This does not tell us that there exist no correct arguments for “republicanism and democracy,” against Carlyle and reaction. It merely implies that if Whitman and Carlyle both had a chance to inspect the world of 2009, it is probably Whitman and not Carlyle who would feel chastened, and have to apologize; Whitman who would agree with Carlyle, not vice versa. But Whitman and Carlyle could both be wrong, of course.
Therefore we achieve a strange conclusion in our perspective of Carlyle. We begin to suspect that we should at least consider Froude’s second alternative:
If, on the other hand, he has been right; if, like his great predecessors, he has read truly the tendencies of this modern age of ours, and his teaching is authenticated by facts, then Carlyle, too, will take his place among the inspired seers.
But if Froude is right, we have only seen half the prophecy unfold. The teaching has been authenticated. The teacher remains unknown. This, dear reader, is why Carlyle matters.
For is this not what Froude should have expected? If democracy triumph – and it has – why should it bother to recall its enemy, Carlyle? Does it run out of friends, of Whitmans, to celebrate? Is it thus forced to sing the praises of its foes? What winner was ever short of friends? Ah, if only victory implied righteousness, and might made right. But there is no principle of which the democrat is more skeptical.
The case of democracy is a case in which the jury has heard only from the defense. Year after year, generation after generation, democracy’s lawyers trot out an ever-changing dog’s breakfast of alibis, character witnesses and Harvard scientists, all singing one tune: the ironclad innocence and stellar nobility of the defendant, who is no more and no less than Gotham’s finest citizen. As for the prosecutor, his corpse has been rotting in the men’s room for years. Sometimes the bailiff, who has a ninth-grade education, a Tennessee accent and a drinking problem, picks up a few pages from his brief and reads them out of order.
But is the trial over? It is all but over. The jury is utterly sold. If they could adjourn and assign the defendant the keys to Gotham for life, they would. They are not even aware that there is a trial. They think they’re deciding whether to award a gold medal or a platinum one. But alas: the verdict of history is never, ever in. Once it does find the truth, though, it tends to stay there.
For it is a terrible thing to see a prophecy come true, but more terrible to see just the first half. Time remains for the rest, and always will. It is never too late to read Carlyle; it has certainly never been easier. And when he takes his place, etc, I promise you: other things will change.
But what exactly is (I claim) authenticated? What did Carlyle believe, what did he foresee, and how does history validate it? And what did he get wrong? For he was not actually a god, of course. It is time to say goodbye to our Whitmans, and see the infernal regions for themselves.
Carlyle did not believe in democracy. But he must have believed in something. What, then, was this something? If you stop believing in democracy, quite a difficult mental step for anyone in 2009 – or 1859, in fact, which is much of what made Carlyle unique – what do you believe in instead? Hopefully you will hear a terrible, creaking noise, as your brain stretches to regard the awful answer. It is not my answer, it is Carlyle’s, but I take the liberty of translating.
First and foremost, Carlyle is a believer in order. To Carlyle, the old order is not “giving birth to the new.” It is rotting slowly into anarchy – or burning fast, as in France or later Russia. The destination is not an order at all, but a blackened waste with clumps of singed ferns. Nor does this observation make the old order good – the ancien regime was termite bait and a firetrap. But in Carlyle’s mirror, the pattern that the ordinary Whig historian and his ordinary student know as steady progress punctuated by brilliant revolutions, becomes a pattern of inexorable decay punctuated by explosions of barbarism.
Here is a characteristic passage, often quoted on this blog, from Shooting Niagara – Carlyle’s last great reactionary pamphlet. It cannot be quoted too often:
All the Millenniums I ever heard of heretofore were to be preceded by a “chaining of the Devil for a thousand years,” — laying him up, tied neck and heels, and put beyond stirring, as the preliminary. You too have been taking preliminary steps, with more and more ardour, for a thirty years back; but they seem to be all in the opposite direction: a cutting asunder of straps and ties, wherever you might find them; pretty indiscriminate of choice in the matter: a general repeal of old regulations, fetters, and restrictions (restrictions on the Devil originally, I believe, for most part, but now fallen slack and ineffectual), which had become unpleasant to many of you, — with loud shouting from the multitude, as strap after strap was cut, “Glory, glory, another strap is gone!”— this, I think, has mainly been the sublime legislative industry of Parliament since it became “Reform Parliament;” victoriously successful, and thought sublime and beneficent by some. So that now hardly any limb of the Devil has a thrum, or tatter of rope or leather left upon it: — there needs almost superhuman heroism in you to “whip” a Garotter; no Fenian taken with the reddest hand is to be meddled with, under penalties; hardly a murderer, never so detestable and hideous, but you find him “insane,” and board him at the public expense, a very peculiar British Prytaneum of these days! And in fact, THE DEVIL (he, verily, if you will consider the sense of words) is likewise become an Emancipated Gentleman; lithe of limb as in Adam and Eve’s time, and scarcely a toe or finger of him tied any more. And you, my astonishing friends, you are certainly getting into a millennium, such as never was before, — hardly even in the dreams of Bedlam.
We speak of prophecy. Well, what became of Britain, in this century of democracy? This millennium? In which the Devil became an Emancipated Gentleman?
Britain lost her Empire and most of Ireland, and became a political satellite of America. Her industries declined and largely disappeared. Her crime rate rose by a factor of 50 – not 50%. Her aristocracy was decimated by two Continental wars of unparalleled savagery, and permanently destroyed by punitive taxation. Many areas of London and other cities became unsafe by day, and more by night. Her lower classes, generously augmented by the dregs of the late Empire, achieved levels of squalor, ignorance and degradation perhaps unsurpassed in human history. Meanwhile, the Crown and the Lords disappeared as meaningful political entities, the Commons ceased to be a genuine forum for debate and became a parking lot for party hacks, and political power diffused into a vast, shapeless morass of Whitehall bureaucrats, Berlaymont Eurocrats, mendacious talking heads, and professors of incompetence.
And worst of all, most appalling of all – Britons do not feel they have a problem. Quite the contrary. They have never been better governed. The smarter and more informed they are, the more deeply they thank the 20th century from saving them from the evils of the Victorian age. The educated Englishman of 2009 considers himself the beneficiary of two centuries of steadily improving good government, from Castlereagh to Gordon Brown.
Indeed, if any faint shadow of anything like a Carlylean view persists anywhere as a living tradition, it is in America herself. Evaluated as pure reaction, American conservatism is the most confused, polluted, and diluted sample conceivable, but so long as we exclude elderly Chilean admirals it is far the most reactionary thing on earth. There is nothing remotely like a European equivalent. In Europe, especially the Continent, all is Left.
Yet Whitman wrote:
I have deliberately repeated it all, not only in offset to Carlyle’s ever-lurking pessimism and world-decadence, but as presenting the most thoroughly American points of view I know. In my opinion the above formulas of Hegel are an essential and crowning justification of New World democracy in the creative realms of time and space. There is that about them which only the vastness, the multiplicity and the vitality of America would seem able to comprehend, to give scope and illustration to, or to be fit for, or even originate. It is strange to me that they were born in Germany, or in the old world at all. While a Carlyle, I should say, is quite the legitimate European product to be expected.
In 2009, of course, warmed-over Walt Whitman is all we get from Europe – Britain with a few exceptions, the Continent without. The “legitimate European product” is not reaction, but socialism. Not Carlyle, but Pinter. Not Metternich, but Cohn-Bendit. Ah, if only might proved right! If only! We could all take another blue pill, and sleep with such sweet smiles.
Here we start to see the prophetic powers of Carlyle. 150 years ago it was imaginable that American “republicanism and democracy” would eventually triumph, but certainly not that it would eradicate every independent trace of indigenous Continental or even British thought. Carlyle does not even quite predict this. But if anyone could have imagined it, it was he.
Compare the great reactionary to a mere conservative of his time, if no mean one – Queen Victoria herself. Victoria, if you read her letters (which are well worth reading), emerges as no cipher either political or intellectual, and her view of the disturbances of 1848 is much the same as Carlyle’s. And yet in 1851, she writes to Leopold I of Belgium:
The position of Princes is no doubt difficult in these times, but it would be much less so if they would behave honourably and straightforwardly, giving the people gradually those privileges which would satisfy all the reasonable and well-intentioned, and would weaken the power of the Red Republicans; instead of that, reaction and a return to all the tyranny and oppression is the cry and the principle—and all papers and books are being seized and prohibited, as in the days of Metternich!…
In other words: Victoria believes the cure for acute democracy is chronic democracy. Canning and Palmerston have spent the entire post-Napoleonic era going around Europe fighting Metternich and all other defenders of the old European order, promoting British clients (such as Piedmont) under the banner of constitutional monarchy. Which Victoria, and many like her, consider the cure for “Red Republicanism.”
(Yes, Virginia, our own dear Republicans originated as the most left-wing party in the most left-wing country on earth. The name is not at all a coincidence. They were basically socialists, they adored ethnic minorities, and if their party had a color, it was red. How things change!)
Now curiously, today, everyone agrees that there is no such thing as constitutional monarchy. Constitutional monarchy in 2009 is a synonym for symbolic monarchy, which is vestigial monarchy at all – quite indistinguishable in reality from any “Red Republicanism.” Queen Victoria was not at all without actual power. Queen Elizabeth is. This outcome would not have surprised Carlyle. Nor might it have surprised Whitman, to whom all queens were dinosaurs. It would certainly have surprised everyone in between.
Thus the exercise of hindsight devastates the entire political center: liberal, moderate and conservative. Validation is available only to the reactionary and the radical (19th century) or progressive (20th), both of whom hold the only consistent position: the true spirit of democracy is anarchy, dissolution of hierarchical authority. To the radical, this flame, if not snuffed out, cannot be withstood. To the reactionary, the cancer will either kill the patient or be eradicated. To both, no stable compromise is possible or desirable.
How will the center of 2009 hold up in the light of 2159? It is a different center, of course – but this is hardly a promise of durability. Consider how you will react if the center of 2009 turns out to be to the right of the center of 2029, following the general pattern of human history. Consider the 20th century’s favorite centrist tract, The Vital Center (1949), by its favorite court historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. – a young crony of FDR, an old crony of JFK. Then consider Professor Schlesinger’s last work – The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (1991). You can read these books, but do you need to?
Escaping this trap of centrism is the first and most difficult task for those tempted to think outside the democratic box. Faced with the endless, mind-boggling whirl of mass political mania, the assumption that there exists some Goldilocks mean, not too hot or too cold, which just happens to correspond to the average public opinion of the current generation (which is absurdly left-wing in the eyes of the previous generation, and will be absurdly right-wing in the eyes of the next), and which therefore should be correct – or at least a starting point… alas. The more we focus our eyes on it, the more this island of seeming sanity melts and disappears.
We find ourselves in the middle of the ocean. We suddenly realize that we know nothing at all about human politics. We are forced not just to consider the set of theories of government which are popular now, but the set which has ever been popular. Most have applied their minds only to two theories of republicanism, the liberal and conservative as practiced today, between which there is almost no distance by historical standards.
And then we abandon our centrism, and we are comforted. We read Carlyle, and we see that there are only two logically consistent choices for our political belief. They can be briefly summarized as Carlyle and Alinsky.
What we see instead, from both the Carlylean and Alinskyist perspectives, is a monotonic slope. This is the slope of order. Order slopes up to the right: true right, which is reactionary, is always the direction of increasing order, and true left the direction of increasing disorder. It is especially valuable to have a clear definition of this polarization, which seems to have evolved independently so many times in history. David Axelrod would surely get along with the Gracchi, and Pinochet with Sulla.
Since most people do not know the Carlylean theory of order, but most do know the Alinskyist theory of disorder (I won’t be surprised if my daughter is introduced to “activism” well before kindergarten), there is an obvious temptation here. The temptation is to derive the Carlylean theory by simply reversing its equally-uncompromising Alinskyist dual. Thus, everything bad is good, and so on. For example, the ultimate act of good government is to shoot into a mob.
While this approach can be useful in an absolute emergency, I would encourage readers to at least be very careful with it. The practice of defining the Right by reversing the Left can lead one to idolize persons and practices who, in the true Carlylean cosmos, are quite unworthy. It is definitely not for the apprentice necromancer or candidate Sith Lord.
Indeed the Carlylean theory of order might just as well be stated as truth. Or justice. For Carlyle, truth, justice and order are all inseparable and perfectly desirable. There is no such thing as too much truth, too much justice, or too much order; the ideal society is one in which all these qualities are seen to their maximum extent. In the society that is Cosmos, truth, justice and order all pertain. In its opposite, Chaos, we see lies and injustice and disorder.
Indeed, Carlyle is often described as not just a prophet, but a theologian. And indeed there are 92 references to the word “God” in the keystone of his political work, the Latter-Day Pamphlets. You may not believe in God – I don’t – but until you understand Carlyle’s theology, you cannot understand his theory of government. Carlyle was raised a true Scottish Calvinist, an obsolete form of Christianity which actually believed in the concept of sin, and if you have some kind of irrational allergy to Christianity you will never be able to read his books. Sorry.
Order in Carlyle is obedience to the law of God in government, and enforcement of the law of God is the test of good government. And what is the law of God? Does it have anything to do with mixed fibers? It does not. It is no more than truth, justice and order – each of which reduces to the other.
While these buzzwords are easy to say, justice is a buzzword of the present regime and truth is not far behind. Order has escaped the owl-droppings, however, unless you live in Brazil. Thus it remains the best word with which to describe Carlylean thought.
Let us work up from order to Carlyle’s theory of slavery. If you can understand slavery through Carlyle’s eyes – and he is one of the few theoretical defenders of slavery in the last two centuries, the only other I can think of offhand being George Fitzhugh – nothing in Carlyle will shock you, unless you are unaware of current results in human biodiversity.
For once, I will paraphrase, because the Occasional Discourse should not be the first Carlyle you read, but the last. A good political education in Carlyle is: first Chartism, then the Latter-Day Pamphlets, then Shooting Niagara, then the Occasional Discourse. I would hate to spoil this progression. So again, I will not quote Carlyle on slavery.
Order, for Carlyle, is the set of bonds between the humans in society. A bond is any promise of importance. It may be a promise of payment, it may be a promise of work, it may be a promise of marriage. Regardless, a society is orderly if it is a society in which promises of significant human value, explicit or implicit, are made and kept.
Every promise is an obligation. By writing the promise, I compel my future self. If I promise to pay you $1000 in 2011, I am not exercising my human right of liberty if in 2011 I refuse to pay you. I cannot say: no, man, I would rather be free. By not paying you, man, I am exercising my human right to be free.
Consider the difference between the society in which I can get away with this hippie shit, and the society in which I can’t. The society in which obligations can be broken is the society in which loans are either risky, expensive and hard to get, or do not exist at all. Thus we see clearly that the society in which promises are made and kept, the society of order, is more civilized and humane. It is a better society. Once again, there is no Goldilocks effect, no golden mean.
We thus see that the enforcement of promises is a critical aspect of human society. Certain promises are self-enforcing: they are fulfilled because the promiser wants to fulfill them. Marriage, in the ideal, is such a promise. In most cases, however, a loan is not. A society that contains an impartial and irresistible enforcer of contracts is thus preferable to one which does not – although no contract with the enforcer itself can be enforced by definition.
So far the enterprising libertarian will go with you, although he will certainly quibble at the last. A society is richer if each individual in it has the right to bind her future actions by agreed obligations, in return for which others may exchange other consideration. Would this bother Ayn Rand? I’m afraid I’ve never read Ayn Rand. I know – it’s terrible – I should. It would certainly bother Rothbard, but sometimes this is a virtue.
Once we get this far, we are almost all the way to Carlyle on slavery. We have not agreed that a man can be born a slave, but we agree that he can sell himself into slavery. That is: he can sign a contract with a master in which the slave agrees unconditionally to obey and work for the master, and the master agrees unconditionally to protect and support the slave.
Moreover, this contract need not be a mere expression of sentiment. It can and should be enforced by the State, just as a loan is. If the slave changes his mind and runs away, the State will capture and return him, billing the master for the expense. Or at least, these are reasonable terms under which two parties might agree on the permanent relationship of master and slave.
Such terms could also be agreed on a non-permanent basis, yielding the relationship of indentured servitude – familiar to all American high-school students. The laws of early America and England were indeed both more flexible, and more orderly, than our own in permitting and enforcing this form of order. (The relationship of flexibility to order, and sclerosis to disorder, is a common one in Carlylean analysis.)
This still does not get us to classic Anglo-American slavery in the Southern or West Indian style, or of course the classic Greek or Roman forms. Most human societies, and in particular most civilized societies, have had some form of slavery or bondage. And typically this is involuntary slavery, not at all the nice libertarian type.
To despise these societies as a class is an anthropological solecism. Those who consider slave societies intrinsically evil, a word the 20th century would be well advised to keep well away from its tongue, would quickly change their tunes if forced, like this man, to function in an actual slave society. We are all Horatios; this world is not in our philosophy. When we judge it without seeing it or knowing anything about it, we only reveal ourselves as fools.
It is only a short step from seeing the State as an enforcer of voluntary and binding obligations, to an enforcer of involuntary and arbitrary obligations. No society can possibly exist without uncontracted obligations.
For example, property and in particular real estate represent a class of obligations behind which there is no principle but historical accident. I am obliged not to trespass on your land. I did not agree not to trespass on your land, but I am obliged nonetheless. And why is it your land, rather than my land? Because it is.
Moreover, everyone is born into a web of involuntary obligations: the family. No one gets to pick their parents. Moreover, every family is part of a human society and thus accepts the obligations of that society. You do not need to go to Carlyle for an explanation of the relationship between slavery, family, and community, for you can find it in Aristotle. Indeed, the definition of family in most times and places has included slaves.
The relationship of master and slave is a natural human relationship: that of patron and client. Like true familial relationships, these essentially feudal structures are bidirectional. The client must obey and serve the patron; the patron must care for and protect the client. On one side of the relationship is always authority; on the other side, always dependency. Either side may violate its obligations, resulting in state intervention.
In the most ordered and flexible feudal societies, the relationship of patron and client becomes a true governance relationship. The patron is personally responsible for all offenses of the client against society – this is a core tenet of Roman law, applying both to slaves and children. In return, the patron holds the power of the magistrate over his clients. In the old days of the Roman Republic, a father could order the execution of his son on his own word alone. This is even a bit extreme for me, but it demonstrates the concept.
We see the most palatable relatives of hereditary slavery in the feudal European societies, where we have not slavery in the antique sense but serfdom, slavery adscripti glebae – peasants bound to the soil. The 20th-century historian will generally describe this system as if it were something like the Gulag, or possibly even Auschwitz, or maybe just the Angola Penitentiary, and everyone was just biding their time and waiting to be free. This is what it is to be an enemy of the past – you are doomed to walk through life, lying. Try to imagine yourself visiting 13th-century France and recommending the liberation of the serfs.
Thus we see the root of democracy’s antipathy to slavery: its antipathy to feudalism. These structures are clearly in the same class. Is there a difference between being born bound to a person, and born bound to the land? There is, but not much of one. In both cases, you are born to obligations. You did not agree to these obligations, yet they are your inescapable burden. Had the luck of your fresh-minted soul been different, you might have been born to privilege instead. And good luck, Carlyle will tell you grimly, in abolishing luck.
But wait: when one is born a serf, bound to the land with obligations, one is bound not to a person but to a political entity. In the case of serfdom, assuming the extremity of personal restriction, this is a small political entity. This may be a problem if you are a restless fellow and like to get around, but seeing Europe was not the primary concern of most pre-industrial agricultural workers. Moreover, regardless of the size or nature of the entity to which you are born bound, allowing you to stretch your legs is no risk at all so long as that entity has the power to catch you and bring you back. Again, this is true for both serfs and slaves.
Suddenly we see the relationship between slavery and government. Serfdom and slavery can be described as microgovernment and nanogovernment respectively. In government proper, the normal human role of patron is filled by a giant, impersonal, and often accidentally sadistic bureaucracy, which is sovereign and self-securing. In serfdom, this role is filled by a noble house or other large family business, which in turn is a client of the State, and just as fixed to the land as its serfs. In slavery, mastership is exercised by a mobile individual whose slaves go with him.
(Democracy here appears as simply a mechanism for controlling subjects by deluding them into believing that they control the entire enterprise, a pretense which cannot be maintained in the context of serfdom or slavery. In this role it is certainly unnecessary, as physical enforcement technologies are quite sufficient. The mind-control state is obsolete.)
In all these relationships, the structure of obligation is the same. The subject, serf, or slave is obliged to obey the government, lord, or master, and work for the benefit of same. In return, the government, lord or master must care for and guide the subject, serf, or slave. We see these same relationship parameters emerging whether the relationship of domination originates as a hereditary obligation, or as a voluntary obligation, or in a state outside law such as the state of the newly captured prisoner (the traditional origin of slave status in most eras). This is a pretty good clue that this structure is one to which humans are biologically adapted.
Not all humans are born the same, of course, and the innate character and intelligence of some is more suited to mastery than slavery. For others, it is more suited to slavery. And others still are badly suited to either. These characteristics can be expected to group differently in human populations of different origins. Thus, Spaniards and Englishmen in the Americas in the 17th and earlier centuries, whose sense of political correctness was negligible, found that Africans tended to make good slaves and Indians did not. This broad pattern of observation is most parsimoniously explained by genetic differences.
A person makes a good slave if he is loyal, patient, and not exceptionally bright or stubborn. But even great intelligence is not necessarily a bar to a good experience in slavery, as the experience of many Greek slave philosophers, such as Epictetus, shows. A slave must carry the unique burden of personal dependency and obedience, which we are all used to expressing only toward impersonal government agencies.
One typically does not experience emotional bonds with, say, the IRS. Unless they are bonds of hate. There is nonetheless an emotional bond with Washington as a whole, a sense of being part of the team that is your owner and its other subjects. All psychologically normal subjects, serfs, or slaves feel this, so long as their government, lord or master is both sane and competent. Otherwise, any derangement may occur. Of course, the smaller the group, the more intense the feelings – for better or for worse. But in general, the normal case is real affection on both sides.
Moreover, just because the relationship of slavery or serfdom is personal by default, does not imply that it cannot be made impersonal, like the relationship of subject to government. If the client is not one of Aristotle’s natural slaves, has an IQ over 90, is an adult, and can provide his or her own personal guidance, the subject-government relationship may be a better fit. The master may maximize his economic benefit by simply allowing the slave to negotiate his own employment and living arrangements, and taxing him. Thus the parallel reemerges.
Conversely, the subject-government relationship easily becomes dysfunctional for clients who are natural slaves, ie, are not capable of guiding themselves to live in a human and humane manner. It is beyond question that such individuals exist, if only as a result of brain damage. And it is easily seen that they thrive under personal guidance, and wilt and grow foul in the arms of bureaucrats. If all long-term welfare cases were transferred from Washington to the authority of genuine, truly charitable nonprofits, for example, their new human supervisors could intervene on a personal, discretionary basis to compel them to get their acts together. This would be a step toward humanity in our society – and also a step toward slavery.
Probably the closest most Americans have come to idealizing slavery, without of course knowing it, is in the good press that large Japanese corporations once got for maintaining a policy of lifetime employment. Lifetime employment and slavery are, of course, practically synonyms, and indeed the same phenomena of reciprocal loyalty and dependency were said – repeatedly, in my memory, in the ’90s on NPR – to emerge. Right down to the company uniform and song. This, too, is a Carlylean bond, although a rather weird one to the Western eye.
We thus observe slavery not as a perversion, but as a natural relationship, like gay marriage. (Gay marriage is unquestionably a natural relationship, although history – for whatever reason – seldom has a good outcome for societies in which large numbers of males are born gay. Whitman and Carlyle both have points to score on this issue.)
Of course, like gay marriage (or ordinary marriage), slavery is not without its abuses. When we think of the word “slavery,” we think of these abuses. Thus, by defining the word as intrinsically abusive, like marriages in which one party beats the other, we can conveniently define away all the instances of slavery (or, for that matter, marriage) in which the relationship is functional.
Carlyle is in fact ready to be as indignant as anyone over these abuses. He reasons: since slavery is a natural human relationship, this bond will exist regardless of whether you abolish the word. And it does – if only in broken and surreptitious forms. However, if you are a genuine humanitarian and your interest is in abolishing the abuses, the best way to do so is to – abolish the abuses. So, for example, he proposes reforms such as stronger supervision of slaveowners, a standard price by which slaves can buy their freedom, etc, etc.
In this extreme example, we see the general pattern of Carlylean order. Again, order is about the bonds between members of society, which consist of obligations voluntary and involuntary, which are promises made and kept, and enforced by law where law is needed to enforce them. Especially critical to Carlyle is the hierarchical bond, the relationship of command, which is one critical form of social glue without which large organizations cannot function. Carlyle, who is not perfect, slightly neglects another important class of obligation, the financial. Financial obligations are more likely to be voluntary, but also more dependent on enforcement.
One of my own personal great moments of Carlylean enlightenment came not from Carlyle himself, but from his disciple Froude, also a great historian. (To add to the fun, “Froude” is pronounced just the way Keanu Reeves says “Freud” in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.) Someday I will read all of Froude’s twelve-volume history of England from Henry VIII through Elizabeth I, but I have only read a bit of the first volume. That bit was so impressive and stunning that I thought I might want to wait a year or two before taking in any more.
Froude describes a Tudor society which is completely ordered – which consists, from top to bottom, king to knave, of these relationships of mutual obligation. They are relationships of family, of feudalism, of guild traditions such as apprenticeship, of the Church, of political patronage, of commercial patronage and monopoly, and of course of law and government. It was impossible to live a normal human life outside this tapestry, and nor is it at all clear why anyone would have wanted to.
Misfits, screwups and parasites constantly fell out of the fabric, the era being after all primitive, and every arm of government was charged with eradicating this human bilge. If Tudor England, or any European sovereign of the era, had tolerated vagrants, beggars and the idle, it would have been inundated with a mountain of them in a second. As it was, it seems there were quite a few. The difficulty of operating in these primitive conditions demanded a social fabric at which the 21st century can only stare in amazement, like a general contractor contemplating a cathedral. And these people, indeed, built cathedrals. They were not libertarian cathedrals.
Thus order turns out to equal both truth and justice, because all three equate to promises made and kept. We have seen the reactionary end of the slope of order: Henry VIII. We then look at the radical end of the slope, for which we will accept three symbols: Haiti, Afghanistan, and San Francisco.
In Haiti, we see one aspect of life without promises made and kept: poverty, corruption, violence and filth. In a word: anarchy. Haiti is the product of the persistence of human anarchy, and an excellent symbol because it symbolized exactly the same thing to Carlyle and Froude. The latter visited; his observations are here. Haiti is far more anarchic than it was in 1888, of course, whose Port-au-Prince is a paradise next to today’s. Froude gets all enraged because he sees a ditch full of garbage. The 19th century’s Haiti is the 21st’s whole Third World.
If you are interested in the general subject of anarchy in the Third World, perhaps you have read Robert Kaplan’s famous 1994 essay in the Atlantic, The Coming Anarchy. Kaplan spends most of it berating the reader with a completely fictitious set of causes of this anarchy. The real cause, of course, is decolonialization. The cause of that was progressivism, ie, Carlyle deficiency. Of course Kaplan’s little anarchies would not surprise Carlyle for a moment.
Moreover, as Kaplan does not tell you but Carlyle would, the anarchy is indeed coming – to you. Because every year, the border between the Third World and the First is a little more porous. Here indeed are the seeds of true Ate, though this thorough and Biblical ruin (already taking place in South Africa) may well run another century. No one has yet shown me a magic pill that turns a Third Worlder into a First Worlder.
But at least most of the Third World is not an active physical danger to the lives of Americans. This cannot be said of Afghanistan, where Americans (and other Europeans, and yes, Afghans too) are dying every day for lack of Carlyle. More precisely, they are dying because America, the democratic nation, is and will always be completely incapable of doing the one thing it must do to succeed in Afghanistan, which is to rule the country.
Oh, no, you see. Americans are in Afghanistan to advise the self-governing Afghan people. Ruling is the last thing they could think of doing. America is just helping the independent government of Afghanistan, which of course it created lock, stock and barrel, to stand on its own two feet. But why should it? Do you think these people want America to go away, and all America’s dollars with it?
The two important discoveries for conquering India were, 1st: the weakness of the native armies against European discipline; 2dly, the facility of imparting that discipline to natives in the European service.
But America has no Afghans in its service. Except for a few interpreters, for whom necessity finds a way, the bond of command between American and Afghan is strictly forbidden. It is too Carlylean. Nothing like the Philippine Scouts, for instance, could be tolerated. As a result, Americans are running around screaming, quite ineffectually to the sight of any experienced parent or manager, at “their” Afghan soldiers, that they shouldn’t smoke hash before going on patrol. It doesn’t appear to be working.
Thus, Afghans are privileged to receive the full Orwellian force of the 21st century. They suffer the pains of not only anarchy but also civil war, for an indefinite time period in the future, for the sake of their own human rights. Is this a noble martyrdom, or what? If there is any justice in the world, the Afghans may very well inherit it. I’m not sure they will be too nice if they do.
The Afghan experience hits a couple of huge Carlylean hot buttons. Not only is it a clear case of anarchy, but it is also a sham. The civil war in Afghanistan continues because of the fraud, clearly palpable to all and defended by none, that the Karzai government is in some sense “independent.” It could only be more dependent if it was attached to Capitol Hill by an actual, physical umbilical cord. And yet, because Washington cannot summon the strength of reality needed to couple authority with dependency – the classic dynamic of mastery – anarchy persists, and so does war. Thus disorder, mendacity and injustice again go hand in hand, as Satan walks to and fro in the earth. Satan is a pretty busy guy these days.
And finally, we come down to San Francisco. This is not Afghanistan, and nor is it Haiti – although the city fathers of fifty years ago might be excused for imagining some relationship. But no, actually. San Francisco is not well-governed by any reasonable standard, but I live there and I can tell you that it’s a pretty nice place to live.
Still, however, the tapestry of promises looks like a moth attack at a dental-floss convention. About the only strong human bonds in San Francisco today are familial bonds, and there are precious few of those. (Although the birth rate is up about 50% in the last 10 years, in my zip code – a thing which makes one think there may be some turning of the tide.) Extended families are a rarity. Clans and tribes are found only among the primitive. There are no guilds, there are no real churches, there are no genuine, multigenerational neighborhood communal organizations. There are plenty of sexual bonds, friendships, affinity groups, and employment relationships, of course. But everything is casual.
Whereas fifty years ago, this city was an American Catholic city, full of Irish and Italians. It had community in spades. So did the entire country. America was in fact famous for her social cohesion. If you read Tocqueville’s actual American journals, he goes around America marvelling at the social fabric, marvelling at the strict discipline in the prisons, and being amazed that both can coexist with democracy – whose destructive side, being French, he knows well. It was a tough fabric, and took more than another century to totally decay.
But now, of course, it has – as another famous pundit has pointed out. (The same professor has, much against his will, even observed one of the causes.) American society is atomized and structureless. All decisions are as procedural and collective as can be made. The only exception is in the corporate, military and law-enforcement worlds, each its own little bitter holdouts of rationalized reaction. These are stubborn. But when they go, commerce and security go – and here is the true slide over the great falls.
Oh, and Shakespeare and Johnson? They were reactionaries too, of course. Johnson, of course, was a notorious Jacobite. But Shakespeare? Alas. Aside from notorious passages such as Ulysses’ speech on degree (which you are now fully equipped to understand), not to mention notorious plays, such as Coriolanus – let me simply note that if Shakespeare was a democrat, you’d of heard it.
If you must look further: Brownist. Note that Brownism begat Congregationalism and Congregationalism begat Universalism – so we are all Brownists now. By memetic genealogy, at least. Remember that next time NPR chews your ear off about the Bard.
And again, don’t let this be your only introduction to Carlyle. To repeat the course: Chartism, then the Latter-Day Pamphlets, then Shooting Niagara, then the Occasional Discourse. If this doesn’t stretch your skull, nothing will.
I feel it’s been too long since we had a purely technical discussion here on UR. Gotta mix it up a little more. I know UR has some technical readers. For everyone else, the summer is long.
Aside from being Billy Getty‘s freshman roommate (it is no longer a secret that Mr. Getty owned an illegal ferret named “Earwig”), your author was a graduate student in computer science around the same time as Messrs. Brin and Page, at a similar though different institution. Unfortunately, his interest was not search, but operating systems. This turned out to be the “old thing.” Thus your author is doubly familiar with proximity to great wealth and success.
Basically, MM thought search was lame. It reminded him uncomfortably of “library and information science.” As for the Web, it seemed a laudable improvement on FTP – without that nasty reverse TCP connection. It certainly didn’t involve any distributed shared memory or process migration, that’s for sure.
Your author has certainly seen the error of his young ways. He now agrees not only that full-text search is a good idea, but that distributed shared memory is almost always a bad one, and process migration is always a bad one. Indeed, it’s not really clear to me that operating systems is a valid academic field at all. If someone had axed its funding (the dirtiest word in the English language has seven letters and starts with “F”) in 1980, how different would your computer be? Bear in mind: someone would also have a few billion dollars to spend on something else.
But there were (and, sadly, still are) a lot of very bright people in OS, which is really what attracted young MM. And he did learn a trick or two. Some of which work for problems other than process migration. And so, when in the year 2009, he sees people (also very bright) making one of the same mistakes that these bright people taught him not to make in 1992 – he feels obliged to comment.
Indeed (as we’ll see), every decade since the ’80s, billions of dollars and gazillions of man-hours have been invested in this fundamental error, to end routinely in disaster. It’s as though the automotive industry had a large ongoing research program searching for the perpetual-motion engine.
The error is that control interfaces must not be intelligent. Briefly, intelligent user interfaces should be limited to applications in which the user does not expect to control the behavior of the product. If the product is used as a tool, its interface should be as unintelligent as possible. Stupid is predictable; predictable is learnable; learnable is usable.
I was reminded of this lesson by a brief perusal of Wolfram Alpha, the hype machine’s latest gift. Briefly: there is actually a useful tool inside Wolfram Alpha, which hopefully will be exposed someday. Unfortunately, this would require Stephen Wolfram to amputate what he thinks is the beautiful part of the system, and leave what he thinks is the boring part.
WA is two things: a set of specialized, hand-built databases and data visualization apps, each of which would be cool, the set of which almost deserves the hype; and an intelligent UI, which translates an unstructured natural-language query into a call to one of these tools. The apps are useful and fine and good. The natural-language UI is a monstrous encumbrance, which needs to be taken out back and shot. It won’t be.
This is hilariously illustrated by WA’s own Technology Review puff piece. Our writer, par for the course, spends seven pages more or less fellating Dr. Wolfram (for real technology journalism: L’Inq and El Reg), but notes:
The site was also bedeviled by an inflexible natural-language interface. For example, if you searched for “Isaac Newton birth,” you got Newton’s birth date (December 25, 1642; you also learned that the moon was in the waxing-crescent phase that day). But if you searched for “Isaac Newton born,” Alpha choked. Aaronson tested it with me and found it couldn’t answer “Who invented the Web?” and didn’t know state-level GDP figures, only national ones.
“Why won’t it work with two cups of flour and two eggs?” Gray asked, finally.
“Well,” Williams replied, “there’s a bug.”
But if you gave Wolfram Alpha every allowance–that is, if you asked it about subjects it knew, used search terms it understood, and didn’t care to know the primary source–it was detailed, intelligent, and graphically stunning.
“Wolfram Alpha is an important advance in search technology in that it raises expectations about how content that is stored in databases should be searched,” Marti Hearst, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Search User Interfaces, told me. But she added that it “has a long way to go before achieving its ambitious goals.”
Fun fact: when the author was a junior grad student, Marti Hearst was a senior grad student. How long will it be before intelligent search interfaces achieve their ambitious goals? Will Professor Hearst have, or have not, retired by then? Suppose we cut off her funding, etc? And how exactly did CS get to be this field that goes around in a circle, sucking cash and getting nowhere? That’s certainly not why I spent all my Friday nights in the Sun lab.
But what do I mean by control interface? The hypothesis turns on this definition.
Let’s examine this difference between Google and WA. Basically, Google is the exception: the UI that is not a control interface. Because Google’s search interface is not a control interface, it should be an intelligent interface, as of course it is.
Google is not a control interface because intrinsic to the state of performing a full-text search is the assumption that the results are to some extent random. Let’s say I’ve heard of some blog called “Unqualified Reservations” and I type it into Google.
Am I sure that the first result will be the blog itself? I suppose I’m about 95% sure. Do I have any idea what will come next? Of course not. Will I automatically click on the first result? Certainly not. I will look first. Because for all I know, the million lines of code that parsed my query could be having a bad hair day, and send me to Jim Henley instead.
Google is not a control interface, because no predictable mapping exists between control input and system behavior, and none can be expected. A screwdriver is a control interface because if I am screwing in a screw and I turn the handle clockwise, I expect the screw to want to go in. If the screw is reverse threaded, it will want to come out instead, confusing me dreadfully. Fortunately, this mapping is not random; it is predictable. (Yes, Aspies, by “random” I mean “arbitrary.”)
Because of this predictable mapping, people who screw in large numbers of screws are saved a large amount of cognitive load. The feedback loop becomes automatic. It embeds itself in muscle memory. Billions of lives made easier. Give it up for the standardization of the screw.
But any such mapping is inherently impossible for full-text search. Google’s problem is an intrinsically heuristic one. The result of the search is always a starting point for further analysis. There is never any automatic next step.
The advantage of this inherent unpredictability is that since a search request never implies any precise rules for the prioritization of results, a search engine can use arbitrarily fuzzy and complex heuristics to get the best results to the top. And, indeed, should. Thus, Google can be Google, and Google should be Google. And Google is Google. Give it up to teh Goog.
And here we come to Wolfram Alpha. WA is not the same thing as Google. Everyone knows this. Everyone does not seem to realize the implications, however. Let me explain why the natural-language interface of WA is such an awful idea.
WA is not a full-text search engine. It is a database query and visualization tool. More precisely, it is a large (indeed, almost exhaustive) set of such tools. These things may seem similar, but they are as different as popes and partridges.
Google is not a control interface; WA is. When you use WA, you know which of these tools you wish to select. You know that when you type “two cups of flour and two eggs” (which now works) you are looking for a Nutrition Facts label. It is only Stephen Wolfram’s giant electronic brain which has to run ten million lines of code to figure this out. Inside your own brain, it is written on glowing letters across your forehead.
So the giant electronic brain is doing an enormous amount of work to discern information which the user knows and can enter easily: which tool she wants to use.
When the giant electronic brain succeeds in this task, it has saved the user from having to manually select and indicate her actual data-visualization application of choice. This has perhaps saved her some time. How much? Um, not very much.
When the giant electronic brain fails in this task, you type in Grandma’s fried-chicken recipe and get a beautiful 3-D animation of a bird-flu epidemic. (Or, more likely, “Wolfram Alpha wasn’t sure what to do with your input.” Thanks, Wolfram Alpha!) How do you get from this to your Nutrition Facts? Rearrange some words, try again, bang your head on the desk, give up. What we’re looking at here is a classic, old-school, big steaming lump of UI catastrophe.
And does the giant electronic brain fail? Gosh, apparently it does. After many years of research, WA is nowhere near achieving routine accuracy in guessing the tool you want to use from your unstructured natural-language input. No surprise. Not only is the Turing test kinda hard, even an actual human intelligence would have a tough time achieving reliability on this task.
The task of “guess the application I want to use” is actually not even in the domain of artificial intelligence. AI is normally defined by the human standard. To work properly as a control interface, Wolfram’s guessing algorithm actually requires divine intelligence. It is not sufficient for it to just think. It must actually read the user’s mind. God can do this, but software can’t.
Of course, the giant electronic brain is an algorithm, and algorithms can be remembered. For instance, you can be pretty sure that the example queries on the right side of your screen (“June 23, 1988”) will always send you to the same application. If you memorize these formats and avoid inappropriate variations, you may not end up in the atomic physics of the proton.
This is exactly what people do when circumstances force them to use this type of bad UI. They create an incomplete model of the giant electronic brain in their own, non-giant, non-electronic brains. Of course, since the giant electronic brain is a million lines of code which is constantly changing, this is a painful, inadequate and error-prone task. But if you are one of those people for whom one of Wolfram’s data-visualization tools is useful, you have no choice.
This effect is unavoidable in any attempt at an intelligent control interface. Because any attempt at intelligence is inherently complex, the UI is effectively byzantine and incomprehensible. It isn’t actually random, but it might as well be. There is no human way of knowing when it will work and when it will crap out.
But because the attempt fails, the algorithm is incapable of producing actual divine awareness of the user’s intent, a user who is actually trying to use the control interface to get something done, ie achieve the normal task of selecting the dataset to query and visualize, cannot simply delegate that task to the UI. At least, not reliably. So she is constantly pounding her head on her desk. (As a toy, of course, Wolfram Alpha is great – a toy is not a tool, ie, not a control interface. As a toy, it would never have been built.)
Thus, the “flexible” and “convenient” natural-language interface becomes one which even Technology Review, not exactly famous for its skepticism, describes as “inflexible.” The giant electronic brain has become a giant silicon portcullis, standing between you and your application of choice. You can visualize all sorts of queries with Wolfram Alpha – but first you have to trick, cajole, or otherwise hack a million lines of code into reading your mind.
For serious UI geeks, one way to see an intelligent control interface is as a false affordance – like a knob that cannot be turned, or a chair that cannot be sat in. The worst kind of false affordance is an unreliable affordance – a knob that can be turned except when it can’t, a chair that’s a cozy place to sit except when it rams a hidden metal spike deep into your tender parts.
Wolfram’s natural-language query interface is an unreliable affordance because of its implicit promise of divine intelligence. The tool-guessing UI implicitly promises to read your mind and do what you want. Sometimes it even does. When it fails, however, it leaves the user angry and frustrated – a state of mind seldom productive of advertising revenue.
Now: as I said, we have seen this pattern before. In the department of intelligent control interfaces, everyone above a certain age will be reminded of one great fiasco of the past: the Apple Newton, and its notorious cursive handwriting recognition. (The Doonesbury clip is a perfect four-panel dramatization of the effect of an unreliable affordance.)
Again we see an intelligent algorithm attempt to insinuate itself into the control loop. Again, we see risible disaster. (One difference is that handwriting recognition is not a problem requiring divine intelligence – at least, not for everyone. But human intelligence is equally impossible. Apple actually still ships the Newton handwriting engine, but no one uses it and it still sucks.)
With both these examples under our belt, we may consider the general problem of hubristic user interfaces. For at the spiritual level, the sin here is clearly that of hubris – overweening pride that angers the gods, and drives them to ate, or divine destruction. By presuming to divine intelligence, of course, Wolfram Alpha has committed hubris in the highest degree. (Dr. Wolfram is certainly no stranger to hubris.)
At a more mundane level, however, we may ask: how do these obvious disasters come about? Man is flawed and hubris is eternal, of course. But really. Why, year after year, does the software industry piss away zillions of dollars, and repeatedly infuriate whatever gods there be, butting its head against this wall like a salmon trying to climb Boulder Dam? Why on earth do these mistakes continue to be designed, implemented, and shipped? By smart, smart people?
The simple answer is that both academia and the industry are, to a substantial extent, driven by hype. Hype gets press, and hype also gets funding. The press (Inquirer and Register excepted) is not a critical audience. The NSF is an even less critical audience – at least, for projects it is already pursuing. Again, if abject failure were an obstacle to continued funding, most of “computer science” would have ceased to exist sometime in the ’90s. Instead, Professor Hearst will no doubt be able to pursue her ambitious goals until a comfortable retirement in the 2030s. Long live science!
Hype also generates funding because it generates exaggerated sales projections. For instance:
“What Wolfram Alpha will do,” Wolfram says, “is let people make use of the achievements of science and engineering on an everyday basis, much as the Web and search engines have let billions of people become reference librarians, so to speak.”
It could do things the average person might want (such as generating customized nutrition labels) as well as things only geeks would care about (such as generating truth tables for Boolean algebraic equations).
Generating customized nutrition labels! The average person! I just laughed so hard, I needed a complete change of clothing.
Dr. Wolfram, may I mention a word to you? That word is MySpace. If there is any such person as this average person, she has a MySpace account. Does she generate customized nutrition labels? On a regular basis, or just occasionally? In what other similar activities does she engage – monitoring the population of Burma? Graphing the lifecycle of stars? Charting Korean copper consumption since the 1960s? Perhaps you should feed MySpace into your giant electronic brain, and see what comes out.
Like most hubristic UIs, Wolfram Alpha is operating with a completely fictitious user narrative. The raison d’etre of the natural-language interface, stated baldly, is to create a usable tool for stupid people who might be confused or intimidated by a tree of menus. The market of stupid people is indeed enormous. The market of stupid people who like to use data-visualization tools is, well, not. (And since the interface is not in fact easy but actually quite difficult, it achieves the coveted status of a non-solution to a non-problem.)
But there is a more subtle and devilish answer to the question of why hubristic UIs happen.
Strangely, to the developers of intelligent control interfaces, these interfaces appear to work perfectly well. Moreover, when the developers demo these interfaces, the demo comes off without a hitch – and is often quite impressive. This is not the normal result of broken software. This “demo illusion” convinces the developers that the product is ready to ship, although it is not and will never be ready to ship.
Demo illusion is caused, I think, by the same compensation mechanism that allows users to grit their teeth and use a hubristic UI. Again, the user who has no choice but to use such a monster develops her own internal mental model of its algorithm. If you are forced to use a Newton, you can, and this is what you do.
For example, the Newton user may note that when she writes a T with the bar sloping up, it is recognized as a T, whereas when the bar slopes down it has an ugly tendency to come out as a lambda. So she trains herself to slope her Ts upwards, or to always enter “one cup of flour” rather than “two cups of flour” and double the Nutrition Facts herself, or to jump through any other trivial and unnecessary hoop in order to placate the angry god inside the “intelligent” UI. By slow painful effort, she constructs a crude subset of the system’s functionality which happens to work for her, and sticks to it thereafter.
But for the actual developers, this compensation mechanism is far more effective. The actual developers (a) have enormous experience with the hubristic UI, (b) have enormous patience with its flaws, and (c) most important, know how it actually works. So their internal model can be, and typically is, orders of magnitude better than that of any naive user. So the product actually seems to work for them, and does. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make money by selling a product to yourself.
Now. UR is a positive, upbeat blog, and we never explore problems without offering solutions. And one of the reasons that Newton is such a fine example of hubristic UI is that Palm, a few years later, came along and did pen input right. It turns out, as some of us had always suspected, that pen computing is just not a very good idea, and the real solution is little keyboards. However, it is not impossible to make pen input work as a product – and Palm proved it, with Graffiti.
What Jeff Hawkins realized is that the human skull contains an organ called a “brain,” which has spent several million years learning to use tools. Therefore, if you are building a control interface, ie a tool, the prudent way to proceed is to (a) assume your users will need to learn to use your tool, (b) make it as easy as possible to learn the tool, and (c) make the tool as effective as possible once it is learned.
The big win of Graffiti was that the Graffiti recognizer was simple – perhaps an order of magnitude simpler than Newton’s, maybe more like two. If you invested the small amount of mental effort to learn Graffiti, which was not at all out of proportion to the cost or utility of the Palm, you had a predictable and reliable control mapping with a low error rate, because your brain’s internal model of Graffiti was reasonably close to the actual algorithm. Moreover, the process of learning it was actually kind of fun.
Applying this realization to put a good UI on Wolfram Alpha would not be difficult at all. It would not even require removing the giant electronic brain, which could remain as a toy or exploratory feature. Again, it is a perfectly decent toy, and it may even be a reasonable way to explore the space of visualization tools and datasets that WA provides.
But if you are an actual flow user who actually needs to get something done, WA could give you an alternative, manual interface for selecting your tool. You might perform the discovery task by browsing, say, a good old-fashioned menu. For example, the Nutrition Facts tool might come with its own URL, which you could bookmark and navigate to directly. There might even be a special form for entering your recipe. Yes, I know none of this is very high-tech. (Obviously the coolest thing would be a true command line – but the command line is truly not for all.)
A more intriguing question is whether the Graffiti approach can be applied to full-text search. Many modern search engines, notably the hideous, awfully-named Bing, are actually multiple applications under the hood – just like WA. If Bing figures out that you are searching for a product, it will show you one UI. If it figures out that you are searching for a celebrity, it will show you another UI. It may also switch algorithms, data sets, etc, etc. I’m sure Google has all kinds of analogous, if more subtle, meta-algorithms.
While generic full-text search, unlike generic data visualization, remains a viable application and a very useful one, specialized search might (or might not – this is not my area of expertise) be an even more useful one. If the user has an affordance by which to tell the algorithm the purpose or category of her search, the whole problem of guessing which application to direct the query to disappears and is solved perfectly. A whole class of category errors ceases to exist.
My guess is that if there is any “next thing” in search interfaces, it will come not from smarter UIs, but from dumber ones in which the user does more work – the Graffiti effect. If a small quantity of user effort can produce a substantial improvement in user experience (which is a big if), the user will accept the bargain. Hey, it made Jeff Hawkins rich.
While still delirious in my slow recovery from (I kid you not) the Pig Flu, I seem to have decided to do a UR post for Patri Friedman’s Secession Week superevent. This would explain the UR philosophy of secession – reaction in one state, as it were – and be written for a totally naive and unsuspecting audience, simply falling on them like a falcon on a duck.
Later on, well again, I repented. But it was too late. In my computer files, I found the opaque, fragmentary and erroneous MSS. below. Make of it what you will.
Secession! The word has a definite bite to it. We can’t even start to talk about secession without acknowledging the harsh toxic charge bestowed upon the word by the Confederacy, of whose sins we are all guilty. This could be punk, or just nasty – depending on your point of view.
If you are interested in a fresh look at the Confederate episode, the archive contains many excellent older sources. If not, your opinion (whatever it may be) has no particular bearing on the question of 21st-century secession – this is a standard legal term for the separation of sovereign entities, as in, say, the Velvet Divorce of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I believe the velvet in question was not cut in pillowcases and sheets.
Furthermore, even if we disregard the details of the cause, there is a crucial qualitative distinction between the 21st-century secessionist and his weird uncle from the 1860s. Whereas your Confederate was nothing if not a Southern patriot, your modern secessionist is not motivated by nationalism or tribalism. For example, while I as a Californian would love to see California strike out on its own, or better yet on several owns, in this I am not motivated by any “Californism” or “Franciscism.” These ideologies do not exist, and nor should they.
Fortunately, they cannot exist, because the polities themselves do not exist. The 20th century left America with little true political geography. A 21st-century “state” is an arbitrary administrative subdivision, not a community or polity in any sense. Multiple tribal communities, between which social connectivity is the exception, certainly exist in America today. But they are not organized along state lines, or any convenient border. They are castes, not polities.
For example, even that most distinctive of states – Texas – contains all American types. As a matter of culture, red-state Texans are not particularly different from red-state Ohioans or Oregonians. Nor are Austin hipsters particularly different from San Francisco hipsters. Conclusion: secession of any or all American states is not a way to redraw political borders to match tribal, cultural, or linguistic boundaries.
So the weird uncles might ask: well, then, why bother?
Tribalism excluded, I see only one remaining reason to either talk about secession, or actually carry it out: the tantalizing project of creating a new sovereign structure from a clean-room design in the 21st century. When implemented on existing populated territory (rather than via dynamic geography), this can be described as a reboot.
If one favors the secession of California, it is not because one feels the Schwarzenegger administration has done such a great job that it should be promoted to full sovereign stature, like the PLO. It is because one feels that the way California is being governed is entirely wrong. It is completely and utterly misguided. The political institutions of California are not in any way susceptible to repair. Rather, they require complete replacement.
And for any such thing, they cannot remain joined at the hip to Washington, DC. If one favors a reboot of California, secession is obviously a prerequisite, simply because Federal law is such an important part of the process of state government. All of USG at once could reboot, of course, or all the states could reboot separately, or California could just decide on its own that it’s too cool for school. For the purpose of this essay, we’ll consider only California.
But: besides a reboot, is there any other reason to secede? I can’t think of much.
The problem with a reboot is that there is always some old regime in your way. Said old regime typically does not want to depart this earthly bourne. And yet: anything that can’t go on forever, won’t. And when it stops going on, what will the event look like? My guess: a reboot.
Just so it’s clear what we propose to terminate, let’s briefly look at the old regime as it exists in California (and every other state). Why is Sacramento (or any state government) what it is? Why does it do what it does?
In the system of government that has brought California, once an international synonym for prosperity, promise and paradise, to its knees, there are three general decision sources: popular tradition, corrupt interests, and official expertise. The first is politically Republican; the third is politically Democratic; the second is bipartisan. Briefly, they all suck.
First source: popular tradition. Among uneducated white people, ie Republicans, there remains some hazy folk memory, vague, idealized and distorted, of the way California (and America in general) was governed when it was a synonym for prosperity etc. This tradition was once a governing tradition, equipped at the top end with an elite that had the talent and experience to rule. You can see it in, say, the McKinley administration, or as late as the Harding-Coolidge reaction. San Francisco is covered with wonderful, wildly incongruous, Late High American Fascist statuary from this era.
Regardless of their merits as a governing caste, the people who erected these statues are dead. Their modern equivalents, such as any are, are no one’s definition of a new ruling elite. Michael Savage is no Chauncey Depew. Any system of thought that must tailor its clothes, even reluctantly, to this audience is unlikely to turn out a suit that fits well on the truth.
Like the political thought of the late Unionist era, modern mainstream or “neo-” conservatism is an endless goldmine of truths, half-truths, insights, myths, and evasions. Conservatism can be very informative. It should not be swallowed as a pill. It requires processing and filtration. Like anything, however, it is easily believed in its entirety by fools. And a lot of fools vote.
The increasingly proletarian nature of the modern conservative movement produces a corresponding puerility, fatal to any attempt at sovereign gravitas. This pattern of prolation is seen everywhere in the late Right: the decline from Robert Taft to Sarah Palin, Enoch Powell to Nick Griffin, Metternich to Hitler, Sir Edward Carson to Johnny “Mad Dog” Adair. Is this the meme train you want to be on? Is this the mandate of heaven, or the manhole to hell?
Second source: corrupt interests. Venality is by no means inconsistent with good government – indeed, the quality of government in the UK seems to have declined almost in lockstep with personal conflicts of interest. Britannia became mistress of the world in an era in which both offices and elections were regularly bought and sold. Personal venality, for all its faults, tended to unify the interests of office and officeholder, and often increased responsibility.
But corruption today tends to consist of institutional conflicts of interest, which exhibit none of this benign quality. Besides, not even UR is perverse enough to idealize corruption. We will leave this decision source condemned by definition.
Third source: official expertise. By far the most significant source of decisions in the modern American system of government is something called public policy. In the 20th century, it was discovered that the task of governing, thought in all previous centuries to be an art requiring wisdom, talent and experience, is in fact a science, like chemistry or card-counting. This set of sciences is often described as the social sciences, a slippery name if I ever heard one.
For every class of decision a modern government makes, from diplomacy to economics to issuing fishing licences, there exists a caste of scholars in the social sciences, carefully selected for their race, gender, intelligence and/or political reliability, who use the methods of science – which, as you may know, split the atom and put a man on the moon, and is absolutely infallible – to divine the correct public policy. None of these professors is in any way, shape or form responsible for the success or failure of these policies – generally the latter. I swear I am not making this up.
Moreover, our scholars have mastered the instruments of public communication. They are treated as generally infallible sources by individuals known as journalists, who tell the public (or those of the public who still listen to them, rather than Michael Savage) what to think, hence how to vote.
This third decision source is in general the primary positive force in government today. Public-policy scholars generate a set of policy options, which can be promoted or resisted by the first two means. Even corruption, being sly by definition, inside the Beltway generally goes cloaked in the form of scientific public policy. Policy also flows into the legal system, of course, through the invisible cloaca of case law. Because its power is not seen as power per se, it can seep in through every crack.
It is here that we must part company with many of our naive, but reasonable, readers. If you are an educated progressive of normal, moderate opinions, you are probably operating under the belief that the basic problem with the system of government you observe, whose bad results are by now apparent to all, is that the third source (which is proper and legitimate) is constantly being thwarted and frustrated by the first and second (which are improper and illegitimate).
Au contraire, mon frere! America has been in the grips of the third source – the logothetes, the scientocrats, the professional planners of men – for three quarters of a century. The true rulers of our country are the professors, the journalists, the mandarins. Any feeble twitch of resistance from the continent squirming in their talons is promptly magnified, through these exquisitely sensitive and powerful information organs, into the most hideous and awful oppression. Leading you to the belief system above – so convenient to this mode of mastery.
And in this age – the age of the New Deal and the Brain Trust, neither yet ended – what has become of America? Well, for example, before the Brain Trust, Detroit was America’s fourth largest city. After 75 years of progressive public policy, it is a charred, savage ruin. Who, exactly, is responsible for this? Herbert Hoover? The Liberty League?
Inasmuch as the first and second sources – politics and corruption – have played a significant role in the period, that role has often been to moderate, test and restrain the river of lunacy flowing out of the ivory tower. But the net effect of these sources remains negative, because their continued existence – however minor – allows a regime which is predominantly that of public policy and social science to evade responsibility for its own epic incompetence, as demonstrated obviously and beyond any doubt by actual results.
But I digress. Suffice it to say that while none of these decision sources is entirely without redeeming value, each of them, considered on its own and a whole, is a foul mound of goo. And we know that all three swirled are no tasty dish, for this is Sacramento as she is today. It makes no sense at all to speak of reforming this sundae. It is clearly due for replacement. Hence secession and reboot.
I feel it is wise to forget, for a while, the problem of how exactly to terminate the old regime. How does California secede? It doesn’t. Any actual effort toward this goal is clearly not practical at the moment, and it is as unnecessary as it is premature. The first question to be answered is: what should replace the old regime?
What do you reboot to? You uninstall Windows, and install what? It is difficult to see why anyone would even begin to favor a reboot without a very clear answer to this question. If you would like to see a reboot and you don’t have some other OS you prefer (yes, I’m aware that I am mixing my system-software metaphors), perhaps you should reconsider your advocacy.
Clearly, the sovereign structures we inherited from the 20th century are not in perfect working order. We know what they are. It sucks. What should they be? What is the New California? If the three decision sources of the old regime are incompetent beyond restoration, how does the new regime decide what to do?
If we design a new government from scratch, we at least have a stab at this very tough question. If the design is actually implemented, our guess is tested. Its results should astonish and strike mute the naysayers. Of course, they could also be horrendous and/or comedic, which means we stabbed wrong.
But wait: the idea of designing government from scratch is ridiculous. When establishing a true sovereign structure, responsible to no one but God or the Devil, we can’t go around stabbing wildly in the dark. No matter what geeks we are, we must think within some box, some set of standards, some political tradition. Humans have been forming territorial political structures since well before we were chimpanzees. No fundamental innovations in this field are possible.
Worse, if we assume we are thinking from scratch, we are probably just preserving unconscious assumptions which may in reality be entirely untested. For example, you may think you are thinking from scratch, but you probably think that democracy is good, and dictatorship is evil. Has anyone ever seriously tried to convince you of the converse? If not, have you examined both sides of the question to the best of your ability? That’s what I mean by “assumption.”
So we need a collective anchor to imagine from. But we also need to think without assumptions. We need to break from tradition; we need to preserve it. The conflict is a classic design tradeoff. There is no perfect resolution.
One compromise, however, is to design the political institutions of the New California not according to the standards and traditions of government known to present public opinion – which are largely in keeping with the government California has now, which has failed – but according to some past, foreign, or otherwise alien tradition of government. (We then may face a more difficult problem of accomplishing this change. But we have agreed that the subject is out of scope.)
Since the alien tradition is an authentic sovereign tradition and a product of genuine human experience, it is no mere contrivance of geeks. But since the alien tradition is alien and hence utterly different, installing it represents a complete break with the entire way of thinking that brought Sacramento to its present abyss.
Since it is alien and hence extremely weird, no one can be tempted to leave its assumptions intact by default. Since it did exist, it is human and it will contain errors, omissions and anachronisms. Since it does not exist, no one need feel any pressure to mindlessly adopt or preserve these errors, omissions and anachronisms. Etc.
Perhaps when some think of an alien tradition, they think of modern Europe, ie, Brussels. For example, California might bloom again if it used more of that “European airport” font, and had soothing blue road signs marked in kilometers.
Alas, this fails the alien test (as well as a few others). It is customary and understandable, though incorrect, among Americans of both political hues to consider the present European political tradition as somehow European. But “European socialism” is simply the export version of American progressivism, as installed in 1945 by the victorious bureaucrats of OWI and State. It is the thinking of Harvard in 1945 – of John Kenneth Galbraith, say. In short: our old friend, public policy.
The American public-policy tradition is often purer and more recognizable in its new European home because all its native enemies were exterminated – not by intellectual means. But it is not even slightly alien, and nor can it be honestly described as European or (worse) “international.” At best you could call it Anglo-American, thanks to the Fabian influence.
There is nothing European about the EU, except that its offices are in Europe and most of its employees were born on that continent. As a matter of political tradition, not place of birth, you know who’s European? Metternich is European. You know who’s not European? George Ball is not European. Reimporting this invasive weed, and calling it a reboot, is like injecting yourself with your own leukemia and calling it a bone-marrow transplant.
Oh, no. There are no extant alien political traditions. In 2009, all is American, with occasional mutations and introgressions. For instance, the ideology of al-Qaeda is the ideology of Third World revolutionary nationalism, with a light Koranic glaze. The ideology of Third World revolutionary nationalism is the ideology of James P. Warburg, with a bandanna. And the image of John Brown is also easily recognized in the men with the box cutters. One could perhaps quarrel over the mullahs of Qom – but do we need to?
No: for a truly alien tradition, we can look only to the past. Fortunately, there exist these things called “books,” which people used to read before there was TV. Many of these books were written in the past. And the excellent people at Google have chosen in the wisdom and goodness of their hearts and wallets to put almost all the pre-1922 archive on line.
For good open-source reasons alone, we must choose some tradition whose major works are largely pre-1922, and available in English. So another obvious option jumps to mind: the tradition of the American Founders, which meets both these constraints. Indeed the writings of these gentlemen are readily available – and even somewhat well-known.
This is an absolutely terrible idea – for three simple reasons:
First: we are misinterpreting the alien test. While it’s true that the American political tradition of 1789 was unrecognizably different from ours (as measured by the governments they produced), the two cannot possibly be alien, because ours is descended from it.
Second: we know there was something wrong with the American political tradition of 1789 – because it evolved into the one we have now. If we somehow manage to evolve the clock back, why won’t it just spin forward again?
Third: such a transition cannot possibly be an effective reboot, because every major American political ideology today believes (in one way or another) itself to be the true and proper heir of the American political tradition of 1789. Despite the ridiculous historical and political gap between the Founders and all extant American ideologies. (Consider, for instance, Thomas Jefferson’s position on race relations.)
It’s easy for your arbitrary belief system to connect itself to the Founders. If the Founders agree with you, you are following in the footsteps of the Founders. If the Founders disagree – they would have changed their minds. Americans have spent two centuries learning to play this blithe little game, great sport of a wonderfully Jesuitical nature, and has allowed each of the various modern American ideologies to craft its own Founders and its own Old Republic.
The events of the late 18th century in North America are fascinating. Recovering the actual story behind the various layers of myth is a difficult exercise of dubious present relevance. In such a minefield of snares and delusions, nothing can be done. It is quite possible that the institutions would work perfectly if cleansed from two centuries of accumulated propaganda. Or not. In any case, the task is pointless and impossible.
Any restoration of the Old Republic, no matter how well-intentioned, will end up as yet another autologous cancer transplant. The same old nasties will sneak back in, powdering their hair and wearing their three-cornered hats, claiming to be just as patriotic and American-spirited as anyone else. It’s certainly not that they don’t know how.
To prevent this exploit, we see, our alien political tradition must be truly alien. Whatever the New California is, it is not New unless it is genuinely un-American. It is the foreignness of the alien tradition that allows all sensible people to regard it sensibly, clearly and afresh.
Perhaps the most sophisticated approach now popular was that devised by Murray Rothbard, the inventor of modern libertarianism. Many, if not most, modern secessionists are libertarians. While this philosophy has many fine qualities, and I myself followed it for many years, I do not believe it is a viable intellectual foundation for a reboot. Let me explain why.
Libertarianism is at least no more than a cousin of the American tradition. Rothbard chose to revive the British tradition that in the 19th century was commonly known as Manchester liberalism, rename it classical liberalism – presumably to prevent Morrissey from flooding unexpectedly into our heads – and reintroduce it into the 1970s. Rothbard was a titan and this was one of his many titanic works, but it did not really have the results intended.
First, libertarianism is not alien enough. Although the Manchester liberals (intellectuals like Mill and Spencer, politicians like Cobden and Bright) were a primarily British movement, they were also the present incarnation of the English Radical party, who were America’s sponsors in Whitehall to begin with.
Thus we see genuine links to libertarianism in the Founding – and thus we repeat the entire tawdry process of reinventing our own Founders. Libertarianism is inescapably invested in the fatal, fruitless battle of political mythology. It cannot avoid pretending to be the True American Way, because it has a real case for this title. It thus descends, willing or not, into the swamp of symbolic flag-waving. (To be fair, Rothbard’s four-volume history of the early colonies is a fascinating read, but its judgments should be swallowed with salt.)
But this is a comparatively trivial point. Regardless of whether you accept the alien strategy, the real faults of libertarianism, as a vehicle for a reboot, are easy to demonstrate logically. First, though, let’s talk about its virtues.
First: Libertarianism correctly identifies one pathological symptom of the 20th-century state: sovereign bloat. The government is way, way too big. It employs too many people, it intrudes into far too many things, it makes far too many rules. This cannot be healthy. It isn’t.
Second: Libertarianism is no mere geekfest, because it can claim genuine experience in power – broadly speaking, the middle to late 19th century in both Britain and the United States. Cobden and Bright were not victorious in all their causes, but certainly in many. Mill and Spencer were not Mao and Marx, but they were remarkably influential. For example, I know for a fact that San Francisco once had eleven independent, private cable car companies, so I know that private transportation systems can work in the real world.
Third: Libertarianism appeals to the most basic human political belief, the desire for personal independence. It is impossible to give words like freedom or liberty negative connotations. Thus, libertarianism should be popular as well as desirable.
Having acknowledged these virtues, let us see the vices.
First, libertarians often argue that libertarianism is a moral necessity. Through various Jesuitical tricks of the tongue, your Rothbardian is always deriving ought from is. The merits of Hume aside, I have seldom found this approach an effective means of proselytizing. You’ll note that socialists, too, believe that socialism is a moral necessity. There are a lot more socialists than libertarians.
Second, if we disregard the possibility that it is divinely ordained, libertarianism fails as a reboot vehicle because it is an outcome rather than a design. The assertion that the New California will be libertarian is like the statement that the bridge you are building will stay up. Will it? How do you plan to make it do so? The United States was supposed to be libertarian, too, and we see what happened to that.
Other than an unhealthy fascination with overlapping jurisdictions, an even more unhealthy fascination with actual anarchy, and a healthy distrust of democracy, libertarianism contains no ideas at all on the subject of constitutional design. It cannot be interpreted as an instruction sequence for a reboot.
Third, even as an outcome, libertarianism reduces to tautology. Suppose you are a libertarian. You must, therefore, believe that libertarianism is (generally) prudent government. That is, a prudent government is likely to be minimal and confine itself mostly to achieving security. I am happy to agree with this as well.
But in this case, why not just insist on the whole shebang – prudent government? If we can write some magic incantation that restrains the New California from any un-libertarian act, why not write the incantation slightly more broadly, and restrain it from any imprudent act? Is there some reason that one incantation would work, and another fail?
Fourth, you’ll note that libertarianism is a sort of formula for government. To the orthodox believer, whatever the question, free trade is always the answer. I will buy “generally,” but I will not buy “always.” Prudence does conflict with libertarianism, and prudence must win.
No job worthy of a human can be removed from human hands. And the task of governing is perhaps the most human of all, which is why Shakespeare wrote all those plays about kings. Show me someone with a formula which can replace a human, and I will show you a quack. To get any job done right, find people who are good at it, and give them both authority and responsibility. Government is not exempt from this basic observation.
But divided-authority regimes often find themselves adopting these quack formulas, because such organization is constantly in search of agreement between contending factions. It is always easier for A and B to agree on a decision formula, than to award the decision to A or B. Indeed, any division of authority involves some such formula – for instance, to implement Montesquieu’s good old separation of powers, we must define “legislative,” “judicial” and “executive.”
Fifth – and worst of all, though most subtly – libertarianism will always fail as a revolt against progressivism, because libertarianism contains, at its core, a shard of pure Left. This gives it power, or the semblance thereof. But it is a mistake, like using the Ring against Sauron, and just as fatal.
Cobden and Bright were Radicals, ie, leftists. The party of the left, on the bottom, or on the top is always the party of chaos. Out of power, it vandalizes; in power, it tyrannizes. All leftist ideologies generate power – the believer implicitly joins a coalition, whose goal is to wield collective force. This is basic chimpanzee politics.
Since the simplest form of power is the power to destroy, leftist forces tend to come to power in a a flurry of institutional destruction. But since some things do need destroying, it is easy to identify positive side effects of the process. This must not be mistaken for evidence that leftism is a good idea.
Manchester liberalism, as a branch of the English Radical tradition, was an ideology of the left. It generated its power through an economic attack on the old landed aristocracy of England, including any and all medieval economic and political survivals. Once that aristocracy, which had guided the sceptered isle to its position as the queen of nations, was fully vandalized and liberal intellectuals were firmly in the saddle, libertarianism no longer helped the Radicals achieve power, but prevented them from gaining more. It was thus a liability, not an asset, and thus it disappeared. So did Britain’s greatness, of course.
Thus, we blow up libertarianism. What is left? Nothing. Where are we going with all this?
What we’ve shown so far is that all the obvious plans for constituting the New California are, in a word, half-baked. We don’t see a realistic and coherent alternative to keeping things as they are. We have no viable ideas at all for the New California, and what we have learned is no more – and no less – than this: the perfect nature of our ignorance.
This is not surprising, because we are still resisting genuine change. All the traditions we’ve examined so far can be, and typically are, marketed as restorations, not replacements, of the American political tradition. From a sales perspective, this is perhaps ideal – but why are we selling, when we don’t have a product?
From an engineering perspective, this constraint is constantly shooting us in the foot. California is seceding not because the American system of government is a success, but because it is a failure. Why are we restoring, when we set out to reboot? Why, for our alien tradition, are we looking only at branches of the broad Anglo-American liberal democratic tradition, when this is the design that failed us in the first place?
We need to broaden our minds and start looking at the illiberal, anti-democratic, un-American opponents of the traditions we have been considering. After all, the liberals of the 19th century shared one broad belief: that American democracy was the wave of the future, that its vices were ephemeral and its virtues eternal, that the whole world should learn from it and blossom. They, no less than their opponents, agreed that America was an experiment in government. They were confident that this experiment would succeed. They would have been comfortable in allowing their beliefs to be judged by this success. Should we condescend to them, by overlooking this?
When California secedes, it renders its verdict: the experiment has not succeded. The American political tradition is not a winner. America remains an excellent place full of excellent people. It has many assets. Washington is not one of them. Nor is Sacramento. Moreover, when the American system of government is exported, the results seem either mediocre (Europe) or disastrous (Latin America, Africa, etc).
Therefore, we conclude that if America seemed successful in the past, it succeeded not because of American democracy, but despite it. The past apparent success of the American experiment was in fact due to the unique situation of America: a vast, empty continent with a self-selected, energetic and intelligent population of voluntary immigrants. So we ask: who predicted this? Not the liberals, classical or otherwise.
In our search for reboot traditions, we have missed an important criterion. We have forgotten to ask, using the benefit of hindsight, who was right. Exhibit A: UR’s favorite 19th-century sage, Carlyle. From the dark heart of Carlyle, the Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850):
But there is one modern instance of Democracy nearly perfect, the Republic of the United States, which has actually subsisted for threescore years or more, with immense success as is affirmed; to which many still appeal, as to a sign of hope for all nations, and a ‘Model Republic.’ Is not America an instance in point? Why should not all Nations subsist and flourish on Democracy as America does?
Deduct what they carried with them from England ready-made, — their common English Language and that same Constitution, or rather elixir of constitutions, their inveterate and now, as it were inborn, reverence for the Constable’s Staff; two quite immense attainments which England had to spend much blood, and valiant sweat of brow and brain, for centuries long in achieving; — and what new elements of polity or nationhood, what noble new phasis of human arrangement, or social device worthy of Prometheus or of Epimetheus, yet comes to light in America? Cotton crops and Indian corn and dollars come to light; and half a world of untilled land, where populations that respect the constable can live, for the present, without Government: this comes to light; and the profound sorrow of all nobler hearts, here uttering itself as silent patient unspeakable ennui, there coming out as vague elegiac wailings, that there is still next to nothing more. ‘Anarchy plus a street constable:’ that also is anarchic to me and other than quite lovely!
I foresee too that, long before the waste lands are full, the very street-constable, on these poor terms, will have become impossible: without the waste lands, as here in our Europe, I do not see how he conld continue possible many weeks. Cease to brag to me of America, and its model institutions and constitutions. To men in their sleep there is nothing granted in this world: nothing, or as good as nothing, to men that sit idly caucusing and ballot boxing on the graves of their heroic ancestors, saying “It is well, it is well!” Corn and bacon are granted: not a very sublime boon, on such conditions; a boon moreover which, on such conditions, cannot last! No: America too will have to strain its energies, in quite other fashion than this; to crack its sinews, and all but break its heart, as the rest of us have had to do, in thousandfold wrestle with the Pythons and mud demons, before it can become a habitation for the gods. America’s battle is yet to fight; and we, sorrowful though nothing doubting, will wish her strength for it. New Spiritual Pythons, plenty of them; enormous Megatherions, as ugly as were ever born of mud, loom huge and hideous out of the twilight Future on America; and she will have her own agony, and her own victory, but on other terms than she is yet quite aware of.
Now: one can be forgiven for not quite following this. Easily forgiven! But whatever Carlyle meant by enormous Megatherions, as ugly as were ever born of mud – a shiver runs down our spines, the unmistakable sense of prophecy confirmed.
And the water clears slightly when we watch Carlyle address our exact problem:
The practical question puts itself with ever-increasing stringency to all English minds: Can we, by no industry, energy, utmost expenditure of human ingenuity, and passionate invocation of the Heavens and Earth, get to attain some twelve or ten or six men to manage the affairs of this nation in Downing Street and the chief posts elsewhere, who are abler for the work than those we have been used to, this long while? For it is really a heroic work, and cannot be done by histrios, and dexterous talkers having the honor to be: it is a heavy and appalling work; and, at the starting of it especially, will require Herculean men; such mountains of pedant exuviae and obscene owl-droppings have accumulated in those regions, long the habitation of doleful creatures; the old pavements, the natural facts and real essential functions of those establishments, have not been seen by eyes for these two hundred years last past! Herculean men acquainted with the virtues of running water, and with the divine necessity of getting down to the clear pavements and old veracities; who tremble before no amount of pedant exuviae, no loudest shrieking of doleful creatures; who tremble only to live, themselves, like inane phantasms, and to leave their life as a paltry contribution to the guano mountains, and not as a divine eternal protest against them!
What these strange Entities in Downing Street intrinsically are; who made them, why they were made; how they do their function; and what their function, so huge in appearance, may in net-result amount to, –is probably known to no mortal. The unofficial mind passes by in dark wonder; not pretending to know. The official mind must not blab; –the official mind, restricted to its own square foot of territory in the vast labyrinth, is probably itself dark, and unable to blab. We see the outcome; the mechanism we do not see. How the tailors clip and sew, in that sublime sweating establishment of theirs, we know not: that the coat they bring us out is the sorrowfulest fantastic mockery of a coat, a mere intricate artistic network of traditions and formalities, an embroiled reticulation made of web-listings and superannuated thrums and tatters, endurable to no grown Nation as a coat, is mournfully clear!
In other words: a clean slate and adult supervision. What more could we ask for?
The irony of Carlyle’s owl-droppings and guano-mounds, of course, is that the British state of the mid-19th century was by any standard one of the most efficient and effective in history. And yet: no running water was forthcoming. And no prophet is now necessary to detect the presence of substantial bird manure.
This is just a taste. We could entertain ourselves all afternoon with Carlyle. All year. And nor is he the only illiberal, anti-democratic, un-American thinker of the 19th century. Not by a long shot! Carlyle happens to be such a titanic figure that his name could not quite be airbrushed out of intellectual history, but needless to say he has no living heirs.
Our alien tradition, broadly described, is the classical European tradition of political thought. This is a deeper, faster and colder river than the American democratic tradition, which largely rejects all pre-American political thought – even the Greeks and Romans, whose opinion of democracy was much the same as Carlyle’s. “Plato? Aristotle? Socrates? Morons.” That would be you, O worshiper at the altar of the People.
The most accessible examples of the classical tradition are not Continental but British, and date to the Victorian and Edwardian eras. They are aristocratic, monarchist, imperialist, colonialist. They are, as promised, deeply strange and troubling, and imperfect in many regards. But they are alien, no doubt of it, and real.
The classical tradition of political thought is a great one, and we could discuss its pros and cons forever. Let’s just take an example, however. As libertarians – that is, people who believe that minimal government is good government – we seek metrics for the weight of the State. One obvious such metric is the ratio of governors to governed, ie, civil servants to serfs.
And who is the grand champion in this category? I have not run the numbers – but one strong candidate must be the British Raj, in which a century ago 250 million Indians were governed by 1000 Englishmen. Without computers, etc. If we could apply the same ratio to the New California, which admittedly is a big if, it would be the size of a large startup. Minimal enough for ya?
So, without exploring the classical tradition further, let me simply state and explain its result, as I see it. Which is this: there is only one structure of government that can save California, and only one worth seceding for. That structure is dictatorship.
California needs a dictator – a single man or woman, who wields absolute and undivided authority. And is not afraid to use it. Of course, our dictator must be prudent. Here is our shortening of the way to prudent government: a prudent dictator. Some things are just simple.
After antiquity, the towering figure in classical political thought is Machiavelli. So don’t take it from me. Take it from the Discourses on Livy:
But we must take it as a rule to which there are very few if any exceptions, that no commonwealth or kingdom ever has salutary institutions given it from the first or has its institutions recast in an entirely new mould, unless by a single person. On the contrary, it must be from one man that it receives its institutions at first, and upon one man that all similar reconstruction must depend. For this reason the wise founder of a commonwealth who seeks to benefit not himself only, or the line of his descendants, but his State and country, must endeavour to acquire an absolute and undivided authority.
Ie, if you want to reboot, you need a dictator. Do Californians want a New California? Then they need to get it together, strap on a pair of balls and hire themselves a dictator.
Or if you cling to our modern professors, ponder the oxymoron of phronetic social science. As I suspect Professor Flyvbjerg is aware, there is one fast path to phronesis (ie, prudence): a phronetic dictator. Certainly few phronetic committees, processes, “sciences,” etc, are known to history. Thus we might describe dictatorship as the auteur theory of government.
Our toxic charge is back with a vengeance. If you are an average American, there is no form of government you more despise than dictatorship. And for the average libertarian, this goes double. As we’ve seen, libertarianism has a left-wing core. And nothing is more right-wing than a freakin’ dictator.
(On the bright side, if secession is starting to sell because of, not despite, its hard historical bite, what could be even more punk? But remember also that dictatorship was a perfectly normal institution of the Roman Republic. If you need to be a total fag about it, try a faux Roman pronunciation, eg, rhymed with “lick that whore.”)
Note that we could use a euphemism. We could say that California needs a “CEO,” or that it should be “run like a startup,” or that it should report to a “single plenary administrator.” All of these would mean exactly the same thing. But this is where you get into creepy, because you’re sugaring the pill. A dictator is a dictator. You have to just suck it up and take the punch. California needs a dictator – a prudent, responsible dictator, of course.
Where do you find a prudent, responsible dictator? An excellent question. Let us answer.
To the extent that there is anything like reason behind your fear and loathing of dictators, you might answer that a dictator ordered the Holocaust. Very true. You might also mention that not only did this dictator conceive himself as restoring the European tradition from the slings and arrows of Anglo-American democracy, but he was also a considerable fan of none other than – Carlyle. Indeed the line from Carlyle to fascism is not at all hard to trace.
And what of it? The line from Carlyle to socialism is not at all hard to trace, either – as La Wik puts it:
These ideas were influential on the development of Socialism, but – like the opinions of many deep thinkers of the time – are also considered to have influenced the rise of Fascism.
Thus we may charge Carlyle not only with Hitler, but also with Stalin. Both dictators! You see what these dictators do.
Of course, we are on equally safe ground in noting that both Hitler’s party and Stalin’s originated as political parties, and reading both genocidal maniacs as accidents of democracy. We may also note that the first two attempts at post-Greek democracy produced the Articles of Confederation and the Reign of Terror, ie, a failure and a disaster. Surely confirming the conventional view. So why did anyone keep trying?
In reality, the 20th century is an especially bad century to draw examples from. History records personal government as more the rule than the exception, and it records only one Hitler. It also records only one Elizabeth I, only one Frederick II, and only one Pitt the Elder. If we must restrict ourselves to the last century, we see one Lee Kuan Yew, one FDR (who did not quite hold personal undivided authority, but close), and one Deng Xiaoping. What generalizations can possibly be drawn from this set? None at all. Social science is not much for individuals.
What we do know, from the Hitler example, is that an imprudent, incompetent or irresponsible dictator is dangerous. But data is not needed to tell us this. Logic tells us just the same. Indeed, if history tells us anything, it tells us that bad government is extremely unsafe. In accepting the risks of a reboot, we accept this fact.
The difference between an airplane that flies, and one that crashes and burns, may be as small as a single untightened nut. The difference between a toxic drug and a safe one may be one atom. Have past airplanes crashed? They have. Do we fly? We do. If a pharmacologist tests a drug and finds that it works but is toxic, does he discard the whole mechanism? Or does he search for a similar drug, which works but isn’t toxic?
But enough of this hairsplitting. Let’s look at how New California works as a dictatorship. We will assume that you, the reader, are supervising this process in some slightly divine capacity.
First, you must find your dictator. Or Dictator – dignity demands the majuscule. And while the position is gender-neutral beyond a doubt, some pronoun is demanded, and our discussion will be softer and more pleasant if we select the distaff.
To find your Dictator, use some objective if crude responsibility test to select the right 50% or so of California’s most responsible, adult citizens. A good test will find responsible citizens from all backgrounds and generations. Let’s say X is an objectively responsible citizen of California if X owns a house, is a college graduate, is a veteran, or is married with children. Obviously, not everyone responsible is caught in this filter and not everyone irresponsible is excluded. It is a broad and arbitrary test. Life in the New California will be glorious, but it will not be fair.
Persons found on this test are dubbed proprietors. Collectively, the proprietors are the Foundation. The proprietor’s membership right in the Foundation is an F-share. An F-share is not a human right – after the initial distribution, no more are created. The Dictator is responsible to the Foundation, which selects through some elective process a Board, which hires some expensive executive-search consultant to help it find a Dictator. Candidates should have extensive management experience in other dynamic, diverse world-class enterprises.
Initially, the F-shares are nontransferable and pay no dividend. The Dictator is politically responsible (through the Board) to the Foundation. In much the same sense that Hitler was politically responsible to the Nazi Party. Without actual superpowers, a dictator can be absolute, but not irresponsible.
Note the difference here: the Foundation isn’t the Nazi Party. It is perhaps best to think of it as an extremely large jury. The responsibility test not only renders this jury much more reliable, but disrupts all political structures that existed under universal suffrage. It is especially important that no new F-shares be issued, because this will quickly land you right back at universal suffrage. Proprietorship is a coincidence, not a human right.
Over time, this political responsibility is designed to convert itself into financial responsibility. Under the Dictatorship, New California will blossom, because the financial interests of its proprietors will correspond to the personal interests of its residents – just as in any business. If financial efficiency is assumed, it can be presumed that the Dictator will act to maximize property values in the New California, ie, more or less turn the state into Monaco with national parks. The old California will be a distant memory, and not a very pretty one.
Thus, perhaps after five years (once the finances are cleaned up), the F-shares start paying dividends, and perhaps after another five they become transferable and exchange-traded, and perhaps after another ten they can be held outside California. When you sell an F-share, of course, the vote (and the honorary title of proprietor, which confers no other rights) go with it.
This design starts as the time-honored constitutional design of timocracy, which in Rome, Athens, and Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries proved stable and brilliantly successful. It segues (if the timocracy so approves, of course) into a more daring modern design of my own, neocameralism, which tries to emulate the great success and scalability of the joint-stock corporation at the sovereign level.
If the Foundation does not, upon reflection, approve of this latter scheme, it can stay a timocracy. As John Jay (if you must have a mugwump) put it: “A country should be governed by those who own it.” And whatever he meant by this, he meant what I mean, or if he didn’t he would have changed his mind.
Thus you have your Dictator. Now: point her at the owl-droppings.
Unlike the pathetic, shrunken Austrian who holds the position today, the Dictator starts on day one with full plenary power over every arm, branch or tentacles of the old state of California. If her first act is to order the LAPD to arrest the ex-Governator and throw him in Alcatraz, they will no doubt take great pleasure in exactly this act. If the mayor of LA wants to tag along in the same jailbus, there is plenty of room on the Rock. When she fills up the Rock, there’s always Modoc County. The Dictator is a dictator, not a clerk. She is responsible to the Foundation, to her own conscience, and to no one else’s rules or regulations. This is the whole point of sovereignty.
That said, the Dictator takes the grasp-the-nettle view on security. She believes that firmness prevents anger. Dictatorship is like parenting: any failure to enforce authority damages it. Conflict is the result of weakness, not strength. The Dictator never makes this mistake. Because she has the power to govern New California as a police state, she has the freedom to operate it as a libertarian utopia.
Outside security, the Dictator’s task is essentially that of a corporate turnaround specialist, perhaps with some additional postgraduate training in exorcism, asbestos removal and crime-scene sanitation. Her goal is to understand the reality of the enterprise that is California; remove all nonproductive organs; identify all state debts, and convert debts paid in services to debts paid in cash; and yes, even expand the enterprise, where that is appropriate. (If nothing else, there will be a lot of unemployed civil servants who can be moved to barracks and used for glorified yard work, WPA style.)
It is probably best to assume that none of the agencies in Sacramento will be preserved in its present form. An easy way to start with that assumption is to put the headquarters of the New California somewhere else, such as San Francisco. A new civil service, of top startup quality, must certainly be hired. Perhaps some Googlers could be drafted.
But I want to focus on security, because this is most people’s concern when it comes to living under a Dictatorship. Should the residents of the New California feel secure?
For example, suppose your resident is a Jew. The Dictator could turn into Mrs. Hitler, and order him (and all other Jews) killed. Of course, the Board would probably stop her some time before this… but. I can certainly imagine scenarios under which this design goes south, especially if it stays in the timocratic mode. On the other hand, all these scenarios seem to pass through democracy as the first breakdown stage.
Indeed the main danger in this design is that it will degrade into democracy – for instance, the Foundation will develop factional patterns which will propagate into the Board. The Dictator will then lose genuine independence and become a factional tool. This is ruinous, of course, and will probably lead in the long run to universal suffrage, as factions compete for new voters. The transition to a financial, rather than political, model of control is the main mechanism that prevents this failure mode, which can indeed lead (in the long, long, long run) to Hitler.
Thus your residents should feel quite secure against the deadly catastrophe of insane government, because in the New California they are living under a regime with strong engineering guarantees that the government will be basically sane. They will note that this was not the case in the past. The comparison will definitely not escape anyone.
We now must ask: are the residents of California secure against sane government? This is a far more interesting question. The answer is, of course, that it depends on your resident. It also depends on your definition of security.
The theory of sovereign security under which the Dictator (who is nothing if not sane) operates is a needs pyramid, much like Maslow’s hierarchy. When you can’t breathe, drinking is irrelevant. When you are dying of thirst, you have no interest in eating. When you are dying of hunger, you have no interest in sex. And so on.
In the Dictator’s book (small, and red), there are four levels of sovereign security. These are peace, order, law, and freedom. Once you have each one, you can work on the next. But it makes no sense to speak of order without peace, law without order, or freedom without law.
Peace is simply the absence of war. The Dictator’s first goal is to achieve peace, preferably honorably and with victory. There is no telling what wars New California will be embroiled in at the time of its birth, so I will decline to discuss the matter further. But in war, of course, there is no order; war is pure chaos. Thus we see our first rule of hierarchy.
Once peace is achieved, the Dictator’s goal is order. Order is a subtle concept, but it can best be understood by postulating the Dictator as a god: omnipotent and omniscient. Direct rule of will by an actual, omnipotent, omniscient, real live god constitutes ideal order.
The Dictator is not a god. So her definition of order is slightly reduced. The Dictator need not know or control everything; she does not see every sparrow fall, she cannot pluck any one blade of grass. Nor does she need to. However, her order is defective if her authority or awareness is resisted, or in any significant way incomplete.
(Note that the Dictator’s power is no greater and no less than that held by the present authorities. They, too, cannot be resisted. All limitation of government, if it is not weakness and disorder, is consigned to the prudence of human officials. The Dictator is prudent, too, and there is a lot less red tape in her office.)
Here are some random facts about the present California which, I feel, are violations of order. The major cities are full of racist paramilitary gangs. Large sections of them are unsafe at night. Other sections are unsafe by day. Millions of people are in California illegally. California has no secure list of the people who are authorized to reside there, nor does it know the addresses and occupations of its residents, nor does it have their biometric identities. If an unlocked bicycle is left on the street, it will be stolen. Many Californians are idle and not independently wealthy. Many schools approach the zoological. Graffiti is everywhere, as is garbage. Etc, etc. (You’ll note that by the global standards of 2009, California is actually quite orderly.)
To the residents of the New California, after a few years of the Dictatorship, any of these phenomena would be as shocking as the sight of a live rhinoceros walking down the street. More to the point, they would be about as shocking as the exact same phenomena would to the residents of California in 1909. The Dictator’s theory is that all recent earthquakes in California are caused by these individuals spinning in their graves. Her regime should thus end this menace as well.
(Libertarians: note that at present, your risk of having your human rights violated by a private actor is much greater than your risk of having your human rights violated by a state actor. Which hurts more? A cop hitting you over the head with a club, or a mugger hitting you over the head with a club? In my mind, they hurt about the same. Thus, as a libertarian, my most serious complaint against the State is not any alleged abuses of the security forces, but its tolerance of widespread anarchy and disorder – by several orders of magnitude.)
Once order is achieved, the next step is law. Obviously, the old laws of California were entirely abrogated by the establishment of the Dictatorship, with which they are quite inconsistent. In establishing order, the Dictator does not need law. She has direct command of the security forces. Again, there is no law without order – our second rule of hierarchy.
With order, law can be restored. But few lawyers, and no non-lawyers, can be found who believe that the present legal system of California is fair, efficient, and just. Therefore, one of the Dictator’s first priorities is to recodify the law – taking another tip from Frederick the Great. In fact, Frederick’s code (or a later successor) might be an excellent starting point. You are rebooting, after all.
A sovereign operating under the rule of law is not, contrary to several centuries of Whig horsepucky, a sovereign bound by the rule of law. It is a sovereign which chooses to abide by the rule of law. It declares a consistent and stable set of rules by which everyone in New California, Dictator included, can live and work and play nice with each other.
Ideally, because New California is in a state of order, the Dictator does not need to deploy her prerogative, which is her sovereign right to violate her own law. By maintaining this blissful state, the Dictator does not abandon the prerogative and allow it to decay (as Charles I did), but reaffirms and justifies it. If order threatens to lapse, the LAPD is still on line 1.
Finally, from law we reach the ultimate state: freedom. As libertarians know, freedom is the state of minimal government. Once the Dictator has turned California into Prussia, she feels free to relax and let everyone chill out a little. New California is a money-making proposition, but it is also California. It doesn’t pay to be too uptight.
Obviously, without law there can be no freedom – our third rule of hierarchy. One can live a perfectly normal life in a pure police state under martial law, but it is always ever so slightly stressful.
A Dictator attentive to the goal of freedom will be constantly pruning the edges of the law, trimming it back, reducing it, creating more space for personal self-actualization, giving residents more and more privacy guarantees. Without, of course, jeopardizing her achievement in creating law and order in the first place.
Freedom, like anything else in government, is an art. Californians today simply have no idea of all the ways in which their life is made duller, more rigid, and more monotonous by unnecessary rules. For example, the rules by which businesses are forced to play, of which their customers know nothing, limit the types of business that exist. Overconstrained building codes ensure dull, monotonous and expensive buildings. Etc, etc, etc.
But freedom is not a function of “rights.” (It is certainly not a function of your political power.) It is a function of your actual personal independence. Similarly, privacy (which is a form of freedom) is a function of your actual personal security. If the Dictator will not tell you what to do, if she will not snoop into your desk drawer or your car or your computer, in what sense is it an injury to you that she could tell you what to do, she could snoop? Isn’t your skin a little thin?
Thus we see the paradox of the Dictatorship: freedom achieved through authority. This is a paradox quite alien to Anglo-American political thought, but well-known in the East. “Confucius compares a virtuous prince to the North Pole in which he finds himself: he does not move, and everything turns around him.” Our Dictator is of course that virtuous prince – or princess.
This simple principle of wu wei is the instinctive spirit behind libertarianism. Once we understand it as the pinnacle of the sovereign’s pyramid of needs, we can see the easy but fatal mistake the libertarian makes.
Quite simply, (policy) libertarians mistake disorder for freedom. They believe it is possible to make government smaller, and achieve wu wei, by weakening and dividing sovereign authority.
While this is in some senses true – disorder can certainly be quite a liberating experience – it never lasts. In the short term there can be such a thing as benign anarchy, but in the long term never. And since power is easy to divide, but hard to unify, the long-term result is always more duplication, less unity of authority and responsibility, and a bigger, nastier government. Thus the attempt to quash the monstrous Megatherions is the exact food on which they thrive.