The reenchantment of the world

The reenchantment of the world

This morning I feel stuck for words. A heat wave has exhausted me, and the end of my holidays looms. To regather my strength I have been reading over old posts, old poems, and contemplating what keeps me going on.

From the movie The Darkest Hour a quote from Churchill (although its provenance is challenged) that inspires me.

“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. The courage to continue is what counts.”

In that spirit I am reposting below my post on the Disenchantment of the World, from October 2015. This post was my first after my initial post. Let it be the herald of a year of dwelling in the house of being.

The disenchantment of the world

I have long known this phrase – in German die Entziehung der Welt – from Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and known it as the long historical process in which rational, scientific and commercial action stripped the objects of the world of their magic, spirit and divine presence. The life world became a set of manipulable objects, and the mind a calculating machine in which symbol and unreason were shamed, caged and denigrated. Weber’s great essay came from the deep spring of this conflict in his own mind, following his mental collapse, his crisis of depression, his reintegration of the mystic spirit he imbibed from his mother and that made him resent the hard casing of rational vocation and mourn the disenchantment of the world.

In truth, hard practical rationality, perhaps some might call it modernity, although that word was born only in the late nineteenth century and has a troubled heritage, this useful reason that dominates our lives never completed vanquished the spirits enchanting the world, and never completely terminated the mourning for a world in which at least the artist could commune with the spirit world, newly abstracted as the imagination. So Wallace Stevens, late in his Hartford study, would speak to his interior paramour, and “for small reason, think/ the world imagined is the ultimate good.” And well before the graceful emperor of ice cream, it was Schiller who coined the concept, the disenchantment of the world. In his 1788 poem, the “Gods of Greece” – the year this great island where I write was settled by modern European peoples and modernity would encounter tragically peoples bound differently in spirit with this new claimed land – Schiller mourned the vital aesthetic world of the Greeks and spoke of die engotterte Natur – nature from which gods have been eliminated. Later, Hegel wrote in Phenomenology of Spirit:

Trust in the eternal laws of the gods has vanished and the Oracles, which pronounced on particular questions are dumb. The statues are now only stones from which the living soul has flown, just as the hymns are words from which belief has gone… The works of the Muse now lack the power of the Spirit, for the Spirit has gained its certainty of itself from the crushing of gods and men.

It is in the mourning of this disenchantment of the world that Gabriel Josipovici places the spirit and the history of modernism in Whatever happened to Modernism?  Its spirit he evokes by expressions of the remorseless need to go on producing art despite an irrecoverable loss that severs the artist, the writer, the thinker, the musician from communion with spirit, continuity of tradition, certainty of authority, divinity of passion. So Kafka:

Nothing is granted me, everything has to be earned, not only the present and future but the past too – something after all which perhaps every human being has inherited, this too must be earned, it is perhaps the hardest task. (Letters to Milena)

So Wittgenstein:

Certain events would put me into a position in which I could not go on with the old language games any further. In which I was torn away from the sureness of the game . (On certainty)

So Kierkegaard: “What is really missing is the strength to obey, to yield to the necessary in one’s self, what might be called one’s limits.”

It is so, Josipovici argues, that Modernism ought not be understood as a passing art period, but rather as “the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities, and therefore as something that will, from now on, always be with us.” It is as such a response to the disenchantment of the world, and so remains as a continuing vital tradition, a never ending work of mourning response to the loss of the cultural, historical and psychological attachments that offer redemption for frailty and failure. It is in this spirit that I am still a modernist, and that modernism, understood not as ideas but as a work of speaking truth in the face of trauma, offers a way to restore a public culture of love and compassion, tragedy and comedy, a public culture that reaches beyond the callow illusions of marketing to the deeper longings we all hold within.

 

 

Advertisements

Return of a King

Return of a King

Image credit: Elizabeth Butler, Remnants of an Army  (1879) Tate Gallery

I have finished reading William Dalrymple‘s mesmerising and tragical history of the first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), Return of a King: the battle for Afghanistan. It tells the story of the British invasion of Afghanistan, or, as it was known by its local rulers then, Khurusan.

The king who returns in this story is Shah Shuja of the Sadozai dynasty, who is depicted below holding court in the Bala Hissar fort and royal palace of Kabul.

Shuja_Shah_Durrani_of_Afghanistan_in_1839

Image SourceInterior of the palace of Shauh Shujah Ool Moolk, Late King of Cabul, 1839, Lithograph by Lieutenant James Rattray, British Library OnlineWikimedia Commons .

In 1800 the Sadozai dynasty had been ousted by its main rival, the Barakzais. The Barakzais clan would be led ultimately by the formidable Dost Mohammed Khan (1779-1863). Shah Shuja lived in exile in Ludhiana in the Punjab, and suffered many humiliations and defeats in his efforts to reclaim the throne, not least yielding the Koh-i-Noor diamond to Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Punjab, one of the most effective military rulers who resisted the British. The British made a strategic decision to ally with Shah Shuja. They supported him with a pension, and kept his tattered court intact for thirty years before deciding in the 1830s to reinstall the Shah as ruler of Khurusan.

The British motive to return this King was geo-strategic rivalry with Russia, and the secure control of Britain’s Indian Empire.  Fears were spread in doctored intelligence reports that the Russians planned to take control of Afghanistan, ally with Persia, and squeeze Britain’s imperial heart from the north. These fears were unfounded, but give Dalrymple’s book some of its most intriguing and tragic characters – the three key local intelligence officers of Britain and Russia, Alexander Burnes (a relative of poet, Robert Burns) and his Afghan colleague Mohan Lal Kashmiri, and Ivan Vitkevitch or Jan Prosper Wietkiwicz. These three were the central players in the opening gambit of the Great Game of espionage and geo-strategic rivalry in Central Asia between Russia and Britain. All their lives ended tragically, perhaps none more so than Wietkiwicz. He had been exiled and sentenced to death at the age of 14 for opposing Russian rule of his native Poland. His death sentence was commuted and he made a life as an extraordinary military officer, linguist and early intelligence officer in the Russian army, which he had resented as an adolescent. He outwits the British, and achieves Russia’s initial objectives of securing an alliance with the Barakzai clain, but then is withdrawn as Russia makes a diplomatic pivot. He dies suspiciously in St Petersburg in an apparent suicide on the eve of being honoured by his Tsar, but some historians, including Dalrymple, credit a plausible hypothesis that he was assassinated by British agents.

These men’s lives were consumed and destroyed by rulers and decision-makers full of delusions and misjudgements. The mystery at the heart of the book is the incompetence of power. Why did the least able generals, diplomats and rulers control the command boxes, while the able ones were shunned, ignored, overlooked and slighted?  The greatest tragedy that flows from that incompetence is the invasion of Afghanistan, ordered by the remote and inattentive governor, Lord Auckland, executed with ferocious stupidity by Major-General William Elphinstone, and overseen politically by the pompously self-certain, deluded Sir William Hay McNaghten.

The invasion began with a disastrous unprotected march through the Bolan Pass, where the British army, principally made up of Indian sepoys and camp followers, was attacked by snipers from the high cliffs, and lost most of its supplies. Still, they made it through and were surprised by the withdrawal from Kabul of the Afghan rulers. The British took it over and engaged in outrageous looting and destruction of some of the commercial centres of Kabul. They reinstalled Shah Shuja as a puppet ruler, and settled in for a year or more of British proxy rule. That rule was characterised by arrogant misjudgements and contempt for the local population, and even Shah Shuja himself. McNaghten was the real ruler of Afghanistan, and he inspired an Islamic uprising against mistreatment and foreign infidel rule.

Dost Mohammed had withdrawn strategically to gather his strength. By 1841 he marched his armies and coordinated a network of urban insurrection. The British were trapped in Kabul, and overrun by this urban insurrection. Alexander Burnes – a figure of hate in Afghanistan for his espionage and his private harem of Afghan women – was murdered. Dost Mohammed outsmarted by the vain British rulers. He offered them safe passage out of Kabul. In reality he continued to harry and attack the retreating army, shepherding it into ambush after ambush, while claiming these attacks were made by uncontrollable rival tribes. Almost the whole retreating army and its camp followers died or were captured and sold into slavery in the most terrible scenes. Starving, frostbitten husks lined the mountain passes to Peshawar. Ultimately, a single man – the British surgeon who survived misadventures through luck more than heroism – rode alone and exhausted into the last British stronghold of Jalalabad. This is the scene depicted in Elizabeth Butler’s Remnants of an Army  (1879).

Shah Shuja had earlier been attacked on his march out of Kabul by a band of vengeful Afghani warlords who he had alienated and offended. His palanquin was found and attacked. The last Shah of the Durrani empire, the last Timurid ruler of Khurasan, was shot and left to rot in the barren sands outside Kabul. The British had done much to ruin Afghanistan. It would no longer be a commercial cross-roads of Central Asia. Still, Dost Mohammed ruled successfully for another twenty years, increasing the revenues and security of his country. He would become a national hero, but still an imperial “war for no wise purpose” had wrecked so many lives.

In another of Dalrymple’s histories of Mughal India, The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 (2006), he writes:

Public, political and national tragedies, after all, consist of a multitude of private, domestic and individual tragedies. It is through the human stories of the successes, struggles, grief, anguish and despair of these individuals that we can best bridge the great chasm of time and understanding separating us from the remarkably different world of mid-nineteenth century India (p. 13)

The Return of a King is a masterpiece in bridging that chasm through the interweaving of exceptional individual stories with profound public tragedies, and the presentation together of uncanny contemporary parallels with all the strangeness of a lost but recoverable world.

Sailing to Byzantium

Sailing to Byzantium

Since I am on holidays from work, and not consumed with duties and obligations, I have returned to an old habit of virtue, and spent time memorising poetry. The poem I am committing to memory today is Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium.

The choice of this poem itself was prompted by reading Richard Fidler’s Ghost Empire, which is an uncluttered, vivid telling of the main storylines of the Byzantine Empire. He connects threads of Byzantium in surprising ways to our own culture – the story of little Red Riding Hood, the use of the fork in Europe, the adaptation of chess, the theft of sericulture from China. This mysterious still neglected story haunts our imagination, without us really knowing how or why. As Fidler writes:

“Once you know the story of this lost empire, you feel the ghost of Byzantium  pressing against you at the crumbling land walls. You become suffused with it when you stand under the golden dome of the Hagia Sophia, and you glimpse it within the shadows of the underground cistern of Justinian. The story of how Constantinople flourished into greatness and expired in terrible violence is one of the strangest and most moving stories I know.” (Fidler, Ghost Empire, p. 9)

And it is a story that very much belongs in the Burning Archive, devoted to remembering the ruined cultures and disappearing stories of the world, and the yearning of this tattered cloak upon a stick to enter into the infinite conversation. Fidler titles his final chapter, “The Artifice of Eternity,” in a tribute to Yeats’ poem. And towards the end of this chapter, Sailing to Byzantium itself appears, crowning a discussion of Constantinople’s place as the “immortal city of imagination.” Fidler quotes Yeats from a BBC lecture discussing his poem in which Yeats said

“When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells, and making the jewelled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy.”

Fidler leaves out of the quotation the last clause of Yeats sentence: “so I symbolise the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city.”

I wish I had a symbol of a holy city to which I could sail, fleeing from the fires in the archive and the depredations of merchants and treasonous clerks. Through loving attention, perhaps I can create one.

In the meantime, here is a musical realisation of Yeats’ great poem – set to music by Andrew Howes in a world premiere performance by Sydney Camerata at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on 18 May 2012. I don’t know if the music exceeds the beauty of Yeats’ language.

And here are the final stanzas of Yeats other poem, Byzantium:

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Image source: Four Icons from a Pair of Doors (Panels), possibly part of a Polyptych: John the Theologian and Prochoros, the Baptism (Epiphany), Harrowing of Hell (Anastasis), and Saint Nicholas, 15th century, New York Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

More reflections on 2017: The end of history revisited

More reflections on 2017: The end of history revisited

In 2017 Francis Fukuyama published two podcasts providing a retrospective account of his essay, “The End of History” (1989) which was later published in more extended form as the book The End of History and The Last Man, in 1992, 25 years ago.

I had bought Fukuyama’s book, back in the early 1990s, when I was a lowly junior bureaucrat, still finding my way in the world, but with vaulting intellectual ambitions, fostered by my years as a graduate student. I was drawn to Fukuyama, as the orthodoxies of radical academic thought were crumbling, and although I do not recall his book in much specific detail, I do associate it with other cultural encounters of that time that liberated me from radical, Foucauldian thinking traps and led me to a more open encounter, a long odyssey through the world of governing. Around the same time I read Simon Schama’s Citizens, with its devastating account of the myth of the French Revolution, and watched  Andrzey Wajda’s films The Possessed and Danton. And, of course, around me happened the world historical events of the collapse of communism in Europe and Russia, and the crushing of dissent in China, symbolised by Tiananmen Square. Closer to home, and every day in the office, I observed the disappointments of social democracy, and the radical reworking of the government I laboured for through a strange mix of a charismatic strong leader and public choice theory inspired liberal contractarianism.

The years passed. Children came, my perspective on the world changed. The confidence of my university years was delivered  increasing blows. My career stalled since I chose to look after my children and my writing, and stubbornly refused to affix myself to any single powerful network. Opportunities passed me by; and I became more of an outsider in the institutions in which I worked.  But I was an attentive, well-read observer, who, unlike so many of the successful careerists who passed me by, interpreted the events around me with the insights of Clio. And what I observed was a slow decay in political institutions.

I became convinced that:

“the quality of government and democracy has deteriorated, reflecting the wearing out of a model for governing born in the 1980s. This deterioration underlies poor performance of governments of both sides of politics in recent years.”

I wrote this in a secret plea for something better; forging my ideas from a book by the Norwegian sociologist and author on democracy, Stein Ringen. It made me feel like Machiavelli (who Ringen himself invoked in writing A Nation of Devils) submitting his manuscripts to the powerful patrons who would go on to ignore his pleas for Virtù. But like Machiavelli I believed that:

“For, to judge aright, one should esteem men because they are generous, not because they have the power to be generous; and, in like manner, should admire those who know how to govern a kingdom, not those who, without knowing how, actually govern one.” Machiavelli, from “Dedication” to The Discourses.

So my mind was prepared to listen again to Francis Fukuyama when he published the second volume of his global history of political institutions, Political Order and Political Decay: from the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy.

With this book, Fukuyama reworked the account he gave of the end of history back in 1989/1992. Crucially, he focussed on the formation of an effective state, a system of political order, and strong political institutions. The economic system pursued by a country did not determine its fate. Mere beliefs in freedom and democracy were not enough. A form of order had to be established. Rule had to be conducted with authority.  And this authority had to impose a form of political order against powerful human social tendencies – reciprocal altruism and kinship affiliation or more generally homophily. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Birds of a feather flock together.

The state was not a cancerous growth on society, but a difficult and profound achievement of culture, curbing inherited tendencies of the human animal. This focus on the importance of the state and its way of governing, was in contrast to fashionable anti-statist ideas that suffuse much thinking on both the left and the right. Fukuyama insisted that the state was not a beast to be contained, but a garden to be nurtured. Most of all, it was crucial for political order, and for democratic political order, that the state should be effective. He proposed a triad of political order – accountability, the rule of law, and executive capability.

It was the decline of executive capability that I observed around me, and that conditioned my mind to support Fukuyama’s hypothesis. I have continued to see it throughout this year, both in the outer world of reported politics across the world, and in my observed world of insider politics in the minor provincial bureaucracy in which I serve. Good governments continue to lose their way, as Julia Gillard observed of her own. Too often this weakness is seen as a problem of trust, with executive governments betrayed by a fickle public, incited to rapid mood changes by a feckless media. I see it as a problem of authority, of political order, and the failure of political leaders and bureaucratic elites to practise virtù, which I rename the ordinary virtues of governing well.

Fukuyama continues as a mordant critic of Donald Trump who represents a populist resurgence of a form of accountability, but without the liberal spirit of the rule of law, and completely lacking in effective executive capability. In an interview he says of Trump:

You know, he gets the democracy point. He loves going to these rallies where people adulate him. He doesn’t get the liberal part so well, which is that you’ve got this set of rules that constrain power and force you to play by the rules.

INSKEEP: What are the causes of an election of someone who concerns you so much like that?

FUKUYAMA: Well, I think there’s two basic background conditions. So the first is this globalization reaction that I’d mentioned earlier that, you know, you have a middle class in the United States or working class that has really not done well in the last 30, 40 years. And I actually think it’s quite legitimate for them to blame the elites who promised that, you know, as a result of globalization, everybody would be better off. But in fact, they were the losers.

The other thing, I think, has to do with our political system. Quite honestly, you know, well before Donald Trump began saying this, it wasn’t working well. You know, Congress couldn’t pass budgets, it couldn’t – you know, it was very deadlocked. Plus – which I think there’s a general feeling that interest groups, people with a lot of wealth and power, have a disproportionate say in the way that our democracy works. And so all of these put together, the institutional shortcomings and the socio-economic impacts of globalization, I think, prepared the ground for a rise of a populist.

And I’m actually surprised it took this long to get to this point because ever since the financial crisis in 2008, I think we’ve been ripe for something like this.

Trump is also typical of one of the diseases of modern political institutions that Fukuyama diagnoses in Political Order and Political Decay – repatrimonialisation. This describes the recruitment of friends and family to offices of the state, and the reorientation of the state to the personal service to the governing leader or, in less corrupt forms, the governing party.

I have seen repatrimonialisation up close in my own bureaucracy. Patronage, not merit, now rules the court. It has a devastating effect on the conduct of elites and the executive capability that is essential to both political order and effective democracy. I wonder, as the year closes, if it is possible to launch an effective resistance to this trend. It has happened in the past, and Fukuyama’s account of the emergence of law-based and merit-based bureaucracies in Germany, United Kingdom and the United States (all quite different histories) should be essential reading for any public official. The world I see around me day to day is that of the patrimonial system: “elites build power through the management of patronage chains by which clients follow patrons in pursuit of individual rewards. All of this is reinforced by ritual, religion and ideas legitimising a particular form of elite rule” (Political Order and Political Decay).

We have turned our back on the culture and institutions that reformed the “patronage-ridden bureaucracies” of the nineteenth-century. The Chief Castellan of my bureaucracy, who espouses a view of public trust that confuses public order with a circle of trust  between patrons and clients, would do well to read Fukuyama and his account of the pathway different states took from patrimonialism towards modern government.

Can we turn again, and begin to rebuild new foundations for a better form of political order? Fukuyama’s analysis in Political Order and Political Decay identifies two principal spurs to the removal of patronage-politics from the institutions of the state.

The first spur was military competition, which prompted the forging of the Prussian bureaucratic state, China’s civil examination system, and not least the often misunderstood Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of mid-nineteenth century Britain. The last was, in part, a response to catastrophic elite failure in the Crimean War. Perhaps failure in war may ultimately be a spur to reform of American political institutions, but I can only hope that will not be so in my own minor province, far from the battlefronts of the world.

The second spur may offer more promise to my society. It was “a process of peaceful political reform, based on the formation of a coalition of social groups interested in having an efficient, uncorrupt government” (Political Order and Political Decay). This process was supported by economic development, growth of education, and specialisation of social roles, leading to the formation of many new social actors who “have no strong stake in the existing patrimonial system.” This was the critical process in the United States and Britain, where “economic modernization drove social mobilization, which in turn created the conditions for the elimination of patronage and clientilism” (Political Order and Political Decay).

But it was never a perfect victory, and never a uniform pathway. Different institutional arrangements, social patterns, and congeries of interests, with more or less interest in retaining forms of patronage and clientilism, put down deep roots in the new political order. Some aspects of high-minded culture strengthened the new meritocracy; but now culture remains vital for ever. Over the last thirty years we have witnessed more economic and social changes that have watered these old deep roots of patronage and clientilism, and the weakening of a culture of living in truth. And they have fought the human social tendencies Fukuyama identified at the outset of Political Order and Political Decay.

“The modern impersonal state forces us to act in ways that are deeply in conflict with our own natures and is therefore constantly at risk of erosion and backsliding. Elites in any society will seek to use their superior access to the political system to further entrench themselves, their families, and their friends unless explicitly prevented from doing so by other organized forces in the political system.” Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay

Against these forces appeals to merit and an increasingly jejune ideal of democracy are weak reeds. I wish I could find a way to form a social coalition for a better way to govern. But that is not my skill. The best I can do is give voice to my thoughts, and hope that some others may heed the call and have the know-how to put it into action.

It reminds me of the pessimistic, but not defeated, conclusion of another of the books I studied closely this year, John Dunn’s Breaking Democracy’s Spell. He hoped the great universities might rise to the challenges to apprehend the scale and connectedness of the vast challenges we face.” I have lost much faith in those institutions, as I have in the bureaucracies of the world; but perhaps some reinvented university might take on the responsibility Dunn assigns to them, since if no-one does we face a terrible future.

“Could human beings do any better in the face of the chaos they have made together? The answer to that can only be yes. Will they do any better, and, above all, will they do better enough? Quite probably not. But that is not a conclusion that it makes any practical sense to anticipate. A species facing self-extermination, even at a relatively sedate pace, has reasons for altering its behaviour, But it will still be the species that chose to acts in the ways that created that risk. How far can human beings learn? In the end they will find out.” John Dunn’s Breaking Democracy’s Spell.

It is as if, 25 years on, we are remembering Nietzsche’s Last Man, from the title of Fukuyama’s book on the end of history. Still, I hear in Dunn’s closing notes, the ominous opening of Das Rheingold, and:

Dr Cogito hears Das Rheingolds opening note,

And so the story goes:

We still dig from deep water’s mud:

The ring, the ring, the ring.

(from my poem The State of Politics)

And Fukuyama, a more dispassionate thinker than I, a less portentous philosopher than Dunn, still hears a bell tolling for all our democracies in the state of politics in 2017:

Well, as a, you know, as a citizen, I feel that it’s a little bit too exciting. Every day, you wake up and you really read something you thought was not possible in terms of American politics. As a dispassionate social scientist, I actually think that it’s quite interesting, you know, because we have these theories about institutions and how they’re supposed to work. And it’s going to be a test. I think we’re all in for an interesting test of the stability of our democratic institutions, how legitimate they are, whether they can actually self-correct.

We political scientists tend to believe this. But, you know, you have to meet reality.

(Interview with Francis Fukuyama, “On why liberal democracy is in trouble”)

More reflections on 2017: a multi-polar world

More reflections on 2017: a multi-polar world

I was asked the other day in conversation with a friend, what was the best thing about this year? She had earlier said the best thing was the collapse of Donald Trump’s opinion poll ratings. After a little thought, I said, perhaps perversely, the best thing about the year was Donald Trump’s presidency because it has led to a steep decline in American prestige – or as people like to say today, soft power – and has marked the reemergence of a multi-polar world.

In July 2016 I predicted Donald Trump’s election victory and his diplomatic defeat. In Donald Trump and America’s Wounded Pride, I wrote:

“The country is in decay, and it is lashing out like a wounded giant. But the giant is in an iron cage of its own making – all the declamations of pride, all the wild gestures, the threats, the desperation make no difference, and only damage the giant more. This wild, violent, bleeding, insulting and falling giant is what scares the world. But I suspect the world will do well as American falls, even if its desperate pride provokes more conflicts in the world. Trump will truly bring America into its darkest hour.”

Perhaps this was too pessimistic vision. The American economy appears to be rebounding, and that may renew American confidence and American leadership. But, the institutional weaknesses of America are too great, and this late blooming may repeat Eliot’s line that “April is the cruellest month.” Indeed, the wild erratic conduct of Trump as President are the epitome of those weak institutions. America is without doubt, in my view, an unravelling empire.

So, what have we seen in 2017 that suggests the emergence of a multi-polar world? Obviously, China has grown in wealth, power and assertiveness. Xi Jinping has launched diplomatic and economic initiatives that look a lot like a new form of empire: the One Road initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the beachhead islands of the South China Sea. It has strengthened ties with countries of South East Asia, like Cambodia and The Philippines, that have reasons to resent the American Empire. It has even emerged as a spokesperson for an alternative form of international order with a changed system of global economic governance:

“we should develop a model of fair and equitable governance in keeping with the trend of the times. As the Chinese saying goes, people with petty shrewdness attend to trivial matters, while people with vision attend to governance of institutions. There is a growing call from the international community for reforming the global economic governance system, which is a pressing task for us. Only when it adapts to new dynamics in the international economic architecture can the global governance system sustain global growth.” Xi Jinping, Speech at Davos January 2017

China opens its arms and welcomes others aboard the “express train” of China’s development; America turns inward and surly, muttering how the rules are not fair, and it must make itself great again.

In Syria and Iraq Islamic State has been defeated territorially; and surely the decisive player in this defeat has been Russia in its backing of Assad and its preparedness to act where America cowered. It was in Munich in 2007 – ten years ago – that Vladimir Putin spoke out against the unipolar globalised world, dominated by American law, firms and culture, and became a single voice galvanising the rebirth of other centres of power.

We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?

In 2015 Putin went on to challenge the conceit of American foreign policy – that it is the World’s Policeman, the Indispensable Nation, the fomentor of its model whatever the consequences – in a speech to the United Nations that asked:

“I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, do you realize now what you’ve done? But I am afraid no one is going to answer that. Indeed, policies based on self-conceit and belief in one’s exceptionality and impunity have never been abandoned.”

Is it any wonder that the American foreign policy and security establishment are in hysterical overdrive about the threat that Russia poses to America. The Secretary of Defence and other top officials claim Russia is the greatest threat to US security. In truth, America is engaged in a heated ideological war against the power that declares an end to its unipolar vision of security.

Putin and Jinping do not espouse the same model of development, but they represent the death throes of Western dominance. However, we have also seen more diplomatically assertive European countries. As Britain collapses into nostalgia for the empire on which the sun would never set, Germany and France have shown more diplomatic initiative. Chancellor Merkel took responsibility for the Syrian refugee crisis in a way that shamed America’s conceited, insular inaction. President Macron has maneuvered France into the position of peace broker in the Middle East, following Trump’s recent petulant, bear-baiting assertion of unilateral diplomacy: the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem.

There are no doubt many more examples. But I am no expert in international affairs. I only believe that a multi-polar world is a better, safer place to live in, yet still carries many risks. It is, however, surely the most profound shift in politics and culture that I have observed this year.

And it recalls the book I read at the outset of the year, John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Darwin doubts the belief in a great transformation that provides an integrated culture. The history of Eurasia, which he so masterfully recounts, shows that the diffusion of so many social and cultural practices across its many states  “failed to induce a common view of modernity or of what it was to be ‘modern.'” (p. 505)

The past patterns of trade and conquest, diaspora and migration that have pushed and pulled distant regions together and shaped their cultures and politics have been exceptionally complex. Their effect has been not to homogenize the world, but to keep it diverse. By contrast, the magnetic force of the global economy has been too erratic thus far, and too unevenly felt, to impose the cooperative behaviour and cultural fusion to which theorists of free trade have often looked forward.” (p. 505)

America, and its dreams of itself as the indispensable nation, have fallen, like so many empires of the past, into the shadow of Tamerlane’s failure.

Image source: Russia Insider

 

 

 

Reflections on 2017: cultural decay and political institutions

Reflections on 2017: cultural decay and political institutions

In reviewing my notes for the year – diligently if effortlessly recorded in Evernote – I came across  my discovery of an essay from the late 1970s by Leszek Kolakowski, “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist.” I do not recall how I discovered this gem, as apposite to our times as Kolakowski’s exile from Poland in the 1970s. Perhaps it was a book review by another politically ambidextrous thinker, John Gray? In any case the recommendation fell on prepared ground; and spoke to some universal themes in this year’s political chronicle.

Kolakowski was a philosopher and former Communist from Poland, who,  after the Prague Spring, broke the spells of orthodoxy and the privileged life of an insider, and then led an itinerant and dissident life in the main universities of “the West”. I used to possess his three-volume Main Currents of Marxism (I sold it in a fit of poverty in Canberra the year the Berlin Wall fell), and absorbed its deep aversion to the totalitarian spirit at the heart of that hydra-headed monster. I am forever grateful for the lifelong immunisation against that spirit, and look warily on spruikers of the revival of Marxist ideas in our troubled times.

Those ideas are resurgent in response to growing concerns with inequality, the disappointments of growth, and the predations of a merchant elite. Kolakowski’s essay recognises the truth in socialism, without succumbing to that instinct for one-party rule, for intellectual domination of society by the vanguard of the proletariat. He writes that a socialist believes:

“That it is absurd and hypocritical to conclude that, simply because a perfect, conflictless society is impossible, every existing form of inequality is inevitable and all ways of profit-making justified. ” Kolakowski

But his essay also sees the truth in liberalism. The ambidextrous liberal believes that the State must play a role in security, and that security should be extended to health care, education, employment, and a basic income. But they also believe that “human communities are threatened not only by stagnation but also by degradation when they are so organized that there is no longer room for individual initiative and inventiveness.” Today, Kolakowski might also see a threat of the strangulation of communities through the strictures placed on thought and speech by a radicalism that seeks to cleanse humanity of its traditions, affiliations and improvisations because they inevitably contain errors, guilty associations and unexamined habits.

That cultural repository is the domain of the conservative: the garden which serves as a refuge from a troubled world. Kolakowski gives the conservative three truthful propositions. Firstly:

“That in human life there never have been and never will be improvements that are not paid for with deteriorations and evils; thus, in considering each project of reform and amelioration, its price has to be assessed. Put another way, innumerable evils are compatible (i.e. we can suffer them comprehensively and simultaneously); but many goods limit or cancel each other, and therefore we will never enjoy them fully at the same time. ” Kolakowski

Secondly,

“That we do not know the extent to which various traditional forms of social life–families, rituals, nations, religious communities–are indispensable if life in a society is to be tolerable or even possible. There are no grounds for believing that when we destroy these forms, or brand them as irrational, we increase the chance of happiness, peace, security, or freedom.” Kolakowski

Thirdly,

“That the idee fixe of the Enlightenment — that envy, vanity, greed, and  aggression are all caused by the deficiencies of social institutions and that they will be swept away once these institutions are reformed — is not only utterly incredible and contrary to all experience, but is highly dangerous.” Kolakowski

These nostrums speak to our times. In this year we have seen increasingly shrill debates between progressives, conservatives and radicals in a house they no longer wish to share. We have seen a backlash of populist nostalgia for ordinary ways of life . This is a revolt against the Enlightenment purity of economic reformers and their dangerous vision of a society ruled by contracts between individuals. This idea has dominated elites for thirty years. I have seen it up close. It has ravaged the institutions of government, and filled the halls of power with amoral condottiere, who ceaselessly mouth inanities about change and reform but do not comprehend what they have undone. We have seen a radicalised sexual politics, with its utopianism of the bedroom foisted onto classrooms, that is every bit as scary as Marcuse’s polymorphous perversity. We have seen a return of sacred violence, which can only be understood by acknowledging the power of traditional forms of social life, and especially religion. We have seen domineering autocrats, with no respect for the subtleties of our cultural inheritance, rise to power on the back of resentment. This resentment has been fueled by the attacks of reformers, corporations and identity politics on the lebenswelt of their fellow citizens.

Kolakowski’s invention of the ideal pluralist political thinker – the Conservative-Liberal-Socialist – is a gift of wisdom to our troubled times. It provides a way through the confusion of this moment of cultural disintegration that is infecting our political institutions. In this weekend’s Australian, the doyen of Australian political columnists, Paul Kelly, has published a piece entitled – “2017: West challenged in a spinning world.” It begins:

“Our age of disruption, decay and transformation reached a peak in 2017 and unleashed a shower of contradictions: democracy looks ineffective, politics has surrendered to an era of strong men, and the quest for enhanced individual autonomy now drives the culture.”

Like all political columns, it is an improvised interpretation of events passing before us. Just as, I suppose, any blog is too. While I do not share all of Kelly’s unease about the defeat of the Christian tradition, I agree with his three principal ideas: our political system is collapsing into dysfunction; our culture is experiencing deep losses and decay, and these two trends are deeply intertwined.

“The problem of our dysfunctional political system does not relate just to politics, finance, parties or the parliament. It is also about the public culture and where that culture is ultimately heading.” from Kelly”2017: West challenged in a spinning world.”

Nietzsche: “We are definitely ephemeral.”

 

A task: from Milosz to me

A task: from Milosz to me

A short post.

The miracle of literature: how words crafted for another voice, at another time, pierce the carapace of habit, strike at deep wounds, and reveal a way of being.

From my reading last night:

The Task (Czeslaw Milosz)

In fear and trembling, I think I would fulfill my life

Only if I brought myself to make a public confession

Revealing a sham, my own and of my epoch:

We were permitted to shriek in the tongues of dwarfs and demons

But pure and generous words were forbidden

Under so stiff a penalty that whoever dared to pronounce one

Considered himself as a lost man.

Berkeley 1970

More Reflections on 2017 on the weekend…