Monday, November 23, 2015

I, for One, Look Forward to the Sixth Republic

Walking is a stumble interrupted by a destination. Forms of government are much the same: none of them actually work but they fail slowly enough to count as stable if only because some external force usually intervenes before they succumb to their internal contradictions. Absent climate change or invading army, monarchies are subverted by aristocrats who become oligarchs and are overmastered by democrats whose fearless leader becomes a tyrant and tries to establish a dynasty. Paper, rock, scissors, at least until the world runs down.

I apologize for another repetition of this banality. I know this is an old story with me. I revert to it as a consequence of my mostly-in-transition version of a classical education. The ancients were much more sanguine about such things than we are—the tragic outlook is precisely the recognition that the contradictions of human existence, including the political contradictions, are irreconcilable. Lycurgus and Solon and Lincoln and FDR only produce temporary fixes. The hero can suffer for his city, but in the long run political struggle is a Friday without a Sunday. It does have a Monday, however, and that’s probably what we should focus on. Still, the opposite of the tragic view of politics is very much at work in the form of certain mysterious theoretical optimism. For example:

Discussions of the virtues of liberal democracy (whatever that is) versus the Chinese system (whatever that is) often revolve around questions of which system is sustainable. Since I was trained to be a philosopher, I propose that we approach this question by beginning at the beginning and then work backwards. Why the assumption that any political system is stable? If poly sci were like mathematics, you’d demand an existence proof. If it were like astrophysics, we’d be asking if there is an arrangement of competing forces that guarantees no collisions. Of course coming up with a utopian state is not enough: the system doesn’t have to be proof against the arrival of the asteroid, but it does have to be able to steady itself in the face of routine perturbations and perhaps the odd barbarian horde or technological revolution.

You could look to history and ask which kinds of states do last, but that shift is complicated by the ease with which people imagine continuities. When I took Western Civilization, the defrocked Jesuit who taught the course was fond of asserting that the great historical question was not why the Roman Empire fell but why it didn’t, at least for an interminable period of time. But what persisted from 756 BC to 1453 AD was more a name and a dream than a single form of polity. There’s an philosophical paradox called the Argo about the question of how Jason’s ship could be the same if every plank and rope were replaced over the years, but at least the Argo didn’t mutate from rowboat to aircraft carrier before winding up on the Bosporus as the Raft of the Medusa. The successive versions of the empire did just that. To a remarkable extent the operation was a unitary imperium sine fine only because its citizens, who did keep reading their Virgil, continued to insist it was, just as we go on reading the Declaration and the Constitution as if these were the bones of an animal which, though it has admittedly put on a few pounds, remains the same beast because it supposedly still has the same skeleton. Well, you can keep the same Constitution for an indefinite period of time provided you mean the document under the glass. The real constitution of the country has undergone several revolutions without a name change much as the Chinese regime is vastly different now than it was thirty years ago, though it is still officially Marxist albeit under the Milton Friedman interpretation of the sacred dogmas. So is the current system of either country stable? Related question: is it necessarily a terrible thing if neither nation has arrived at a permanent solution to the problem of governing a large country? Does China have a problem because their current arrangement won’t last, at least a problem worse than the one we face because we haven’t changed ours frequently enough?

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