Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Road of Excess Leads to the Palace of Wisdom but What Makes You Think There’s an Off-Ramp?

Something rather like representative democracy may be the most rational goal of political action, but that doesn’t mean that democracy is the telos of history. Good things, after all, are anti-entropic almost by definition while a pile of ruins is a much more natural outcome. The sage does nothing, and everything is demolished. Anyhow, to desist from the metaphysical pronouncements and get empirical for once, a quick look around the world doesn’t necessarily support the notion that things tend towards democracy under current conditions. A series of ancien regimes has indeed been overthrown by the concerted action of populations, but the aftermath of the various velvet revolutions has been more equivocal because liberation is hard to sustain in face of the structural advantages that the oligarchs have over the democrats, especially when economic conditions change. Fukuyama, the author of a famous book on the end of history, himself believed that the triumph of liberalism resulted from the prosperity promised and then delivered by free institutions and market capitalism. If that prosperity falters, as we have good reason to believe it will, promoting the general good will be a less rational program for individuals than securing a greater share of a stagnant or declining economy for you and yours—recall the political monstrosities spawned by the last great global depression.

The commonplace assumption that the triumph of the liberal society is foreordained is very much like the faith of Old Reds in the inevitable triumph of Communism. It is an article of faith that is argued from more often than it is argued to. I myself incline to the ancient opinion that there is no stable form of government and that under the stress of events each type of polity is likely to succumb in turn to its own intrinsic contradictions—aristocracy, democracy, tyranny, paper, rock, scissors. And that’s assuming that some sort of overwhelming external force does not intervene in the frustrated dialectic like a Cretaceous meteorite. At best, political arrangements are temporary solutions to changing circumstances that depend crucially on the continuous efforts of men and women determined to make them work.

The most recent democratic era in American history was made possible by the nation’s extraordinarily favorable international political and economic position after World War II; by cheap oil; by a series of technological breakthroughs; and, not least, by a genuine consensus in favor of open, inclusive, and responsible government. Most of these contextual factors have changed over the last thirty years; and, in response, functional, as opposed to notional, loyalty to the public good is becoming merely quaint—in this society, individuals of real integrity have something Amish about ‘em. The U.S. appears to be moving in the direction of a one-party state that uses interlocking government and corporate power to protect and extend the prerogatives of a small group of hyperwealthy families against the interests of an inert and infantilized population. One can surely imagine the fall of the current kings of the shining city on the dunghill—indeed, one can predict their fall with some confidence—but the removal of one mad prince isn’t going to restore the Republic because democracy doesn’t go very well with a declining empire. Even if democracy is the end of human history in some sense, I doubt if there will be very much of it at the end of our history.