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”)

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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.”

 

More reflections on 2017: persistence, terror and Das Schloss

More reflections on 2017: persistence, terror and Das Schloss

Persistence

Twelve months ago I was approaching Christmas and the end of a liberating period of long service leave. It was a period of leave that rejuvenated my writing and my living. It returned a sense of adventure and courage to my cultural life. I found a way through this blog to weave together my personal experiences, my observations of the greater world, the visitations of mine terrible angels, and the life of my mind.

But Christmas came with a terror for what the new year of work would bring. The Castle had, some years before, cast me adrift, stolen my life jacket, and turned its back on me. The lordly castellans had hoped I would drown, and now, as I clambered back to the ship, they spurned and insulted me as a cur, not worthy of any enduring position of honour in the Castle.

Still, I lived and still I wrote. I was assigned to pump water from the listing ship, and at night I wrote here. Here dignity, compassion and the life of the mind endured. Here I could leave behind the humiliations of the day. Here I scratched into the panelling of the cursed ship something of beauty, if not every day, then at least most weeks.

Here, I raised my lyre to sing infinite praise.

Terror

The acts of terror and mass violence across the world, including in my home city, this year have cast a long shadow. In my home city, Melbourne in the south-eastern corner of Australia, so distant from the war zones of the world, we have witnessed a string of incidents: the Bourke Street vehicular attack, an incident on a plane in which a man with mental illness claimed he had a bomb, the luring of police to a hostage trap by an ex-prisoner associated with terror plots.

And, of course, across the world a never-ending chorus of the damned has reported terrors in London, Los Angeles, Manilla, New York, Paris,  Stockholm, and Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Canada, Egypt, Germany, India, Iraq, Israel, Russia, Somalia, Syria, and Turkey. I have read of feral cities and failing states, and been shocked by the espousal of violence by claimants of social justice like Antifa.

This year I had to confront personally the meaning of terror  since it became part of my job. What could my minor provincial government do to prevent and respond to acts of violence, such as the Bourke Street car attack of January 2017? I learned about the motives of mass killers, lone actor terrorists, and group terrorists. I studied grievance-fueled violence and its relationship to extremism and mental health. I met and discussed responses with an Expert Panel on Terrorism and Violent Extremism, composed of a former Police Commissioner and a former Supreme Court judge. I contemplated whether religion provides a salve of peace to counter violent extremism or an ark of the covenant that stores in the culture grievance, hatred and a willingness to die and to kill as a martyr.

I remember the moment of September 11, 2001. I was watching of all things the West Wing, when some news broke that a plane had flown into one of the twin towers. My partner and I watched uneasily the news coverage, and saw live to air the second plane fly into the second tower. There have been many incidents since in the new era of pessimism and fear ushered in by that attack. But it has not truly been until this year that I have truly recognised the gravity and depth of the threat posed by the monster of sacred violence that sleeps in all of our hearts.

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Das Schloss

“K. constantly expected the road to turn in the direction of the castle at last, surely it would, and it was only because he expected it that he kept going” Franz Kafka, The Castle (Das Schloss)

Eighteen months ago I was prepared to give away my long search for the gates of the Castle. I had sought a return to the ivory tower of my youth, where I could study history, and leave behind the court and practical affairs. But the keepers of this tower spurned me too. So on the last day of my work before my long service leave I disconnected my work phone, copied onto a flash drive the few documents that would remind me of my most important personal achievements in the bureaucracy, and packed up the few personal belongings on the desk that I would never return to again. I walked out the door about 3 pm, and, on the eve of an election for a national government, went to watch a live-to-air radio show in my local shopping centre where they talked about political affairs and the looming verdict.

I was not sure I would ever come back, but I had no plans to find another career. A year earlier, I had been in a deep depression, close to suicide. I had fled my work in humiliation and fear. Now I was walking into a deeper and truer life, but a life without security or status or power unless I chose to return. I threw myself into poetry, history, and the meaning of a simpler life. But nothing about my dependence for a living on the organisation that seemed to despise me changed.

In January this year I did choose to return to life as a bureaucrat, and I renewed my search for admission to Das Schloss. Every month I have written to some minor lord of the Castle, and pleaded to be considered worthy and admitted to the orders that busy themselves with the business of the court, there in the mists, beyond my vision, at the end of the twisting road. Twenty times, at least, they have said no, and not once, as I have walked this long twisting road, have I caught a glimpse of the true Castle I have searched so long for.

Now at the end of a year in which I have tried to live in truth, to write my own thoughts as authentically as I can and to act in the world in a way that approaches my values, I still stand as an outcast beyond the reaches of Das Schloss.

Which way do I walk next year? To the Castle and back, or do I turn my back on this great civil dream, and wander alone like a grey wolf into the Great Dark Forest?

go for only thus will you be admitted into the company of cold skulls

to the company of your forefathers: Gilgamesh Hector Roland

the defenders of the kingdom without bounds and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go

Zbigniew Herbert, The Envoy of Mr Cogito

 

Image source Sam News

Forgetting Foucault

Forgetting Foucault

Over recent weeks I have chanced upon a few biographical articles on Michel Foucault. One was an account of Foucault’s use of LSD in Death Valley on a road trip with some fellow academics in the 1970s. Another was speculation that in the late 1970s Foucault was too close to neo-liberal ideas that would attack the French welfare state. They have led me in turn to revisit some of the discussion of the biographies and hagiographies of Saint Foucault, including his fevered embrace of sadomasochistic practices in the 1970s/80s San Francisco.

For a long time Foucault was an icon for me, driven by the mesmeric appeal of some of his thought and a personal identification with something in his personal struggle to think and to write. I read everything he ever wrote, and most of his interviews. Whether I understood them, I am not so sure. I have a copy of The Order of Things, which I bought as part of a prize for first year history at the University of Melbourne and so is signed by historian Geoffrey Blainey  (only four years younger than Foucault himself) and the writer who donated the prize, Judah Waten, (who died the year after Foucault) It sits on my shelf now unread for twenty or more years,  and is treasured more for those signatures than for Foucault’s melodramatic evocation of the effacement of humanity in sands of time. But in my twenties I collected Foucault’s thoughts obsessively, as if through the incorporation of these texts I would transform my status from benighted outsider into a public intellectual of standing. I tracked down his very early work on dreams and the practice of Ludwig Binswanger . It was symptomatic of my strange quest that my abiding memories of these texts are Binswanger’s descriptions of ways of being-in-the-world, more so than Foucault radical co-option of those ideas.

I even translated one text of Foucault’s that I could not find an English version – Foucault’s essay on Blanchot’s thought of the outside. I pursued the authors he wa fascinated by, such as the strange, enigmatic but ultimately tediously procedural spoiled rich kid, Raymond Roussel. The works that most deeply moved me were his tales of madness – in life, in writing, in suffering. It was not political Foucault that I found fascinating, although I tried to systematise all I knew of his erratic and unhinged statements on politics into some form of critique governmentality. I even conceived my PhD thesis as a kind of Foucauldian history of work and unions: I was tracing the ways in which a certain truth, a certain identity, was framed around the more fluid and undifferentiated lives of these workers. But while this idea fascinated me, it did not really help me write the work. It was his method and his style, the ravings of a self-proclaimed outcast, that both mesmerised me and paralysed me.

I wanted to borrow Foucault’s identity, his postures, his self-dramatisations, but found myself in a completely alien situation. And ultimately Foucault’s ideas and choices left me cold. He was a histrionic advocate of violence in a black velour suit. He championed the rights of spoiled, privileged men to practise sadistic cruelty. What violence did he practise and against whom? He imagined himself into a dramatic cultural revolution, and supported people’s justice He petitioned the French Government to abolish the age of consent and liberate paedophiliac men to practise their child sexual abuse on unprotected children. He loved death too much, and knew too little of life. His own judgement that taking LSD in Death Valley was the most important experience of his life, to my current mind, condemns him.

The most important thing I learned from my fascination with Foucault was how to forget Foucault. He was a Nietzsche without the suffering – the conscious self-presentation of priestly radicalism mesmerised me and millions more. Miller’s biography of Foucault presents itself as “one man’s lifelong struggle to honor Nietzsche’s gnomic injunction, ‘to become what one is.'” And perhaps this is what fired my imagination, even if I mistook Foucault’s fame and fashion for authenticity and value. Now I think a truer model of the transvaluation of all values was the lonely wandering of Friedrich himself. As Roger Kimball writes:

“But whatever one thinks of Nietzsche’s philosophy and influence, it is difficult not to admire his courage and single-minded commitment to the philosophical life. Wracked by ill-health—migraines, vertigo, severe digestive complaints—Nietzsche had to quit his teaching position at the University of Basel when he was in his mid-thirties. From then on he led an isolated, impoverished, celibate life, subsisting in various cheap pensioni in Italy and Switzerland. He had but few friends. His work was almost totally ignored: Beyond Good and Evil, one of his most important books, sold a total of 114 copies in a year. Yet he quietly persevered.”

The contrast with Foucault the wayward scion of privilege could not be stronger. Kimball uses Nietzsche’s words against Foucault himself, saying,

He epitomized to perfection a certain type of decadent Romantic, a type that Nietzsche warned against when he spoke of “those who suffer from the impoverishment of life and seek rest, stillness, calm seas, redemption from themselves through art and knowledge, or intoxication, convulsions, anaesthesia, and madness.” Foucault’s insatiable craving for new, ever more thrilling “experiences” was a sign of weakness, not daring.

In the end, I left behind some time in my 30s this icon of cruelty. By choosing life in all its mundane beauty, not melodramas of radical death, I learned to forget Foucault.

Conrad’s darkness

Conrad’s darkness

“I have never been able to find in any man’s book or any man’s talk anything … to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.” Joseph Conrad, 1922, in correspondence with Bertrand Russell.

A new biography of Joseph Conrad has come out. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World is written by Maya Jasanoff, an American historian, who has set out to make sense of this dark pessimist as a response to the troubles of the first globalised century.

Her book has prompted a rash of reviews, not the least of which is by the mordant critic of censorious liberalism and all beliefs in progress, John Gray. It is from John Gray’s review, “Homo Duplex,” that I have taken the epigram of this post. It is an epigram I could subscribe to myself.

I first encountered Conrad in reading a little grey-backed student’s guide to English literature, which had been handed down to me from my grandmother’s student days. It must have been published in the 1920s or 1930s if I remember rightly. In this textbook, Conrad appeared as a certain form of stylist – a plain style in contrast to the complex eloquence of Thomas Browne – and a novelist of the high seas.

I went on from this coy introduction to read much of Conrad – Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Nostromo, and, of course, The Heart of Darkness. He evoked like few other writers the gloom and glower of the world, and the futility of all our grandiose enterprises.

Perhaps the passages that have had the longest, deepest impact on my reading and writing are the portraits of his narrator, Marlow. This wandering storyteller was separated from his society by both experience and vision. His tales are those of a dark prophet spurned in his own country. They are tales of the barbarism in all civilisations.

At the start of The Heart of Darkness, Conrad describes the floating steamer on the Thames, on which Marlow will tell his tale of the horror, the horror of the Belgian Congo. Conrad evokes the great historical voyages of English navigation and English piracy – “the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure” – and exclaims: “What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!… The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.”

Then he turns to the sun setting on the great metropole of London – “the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.” It is then that Marlow speaks: “”And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.'”

No-one really responds to Marlow. His words were accepted in silence, as expressive of the enigma that he was. He did not tell tales like the other sailors. and did not find in life the direct simplicity, the easy satisfactions and the disregard for secret knowledge of other men.

But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale that brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.” Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 8

This story seemed to lay down a way of being I would emulate in my own life, in my own writing. Marlow spoke of the mysterious and the strangeness we only see in darkness. He spoke as one sailor among others who yet pursued another course. He spoke as a man who made his way through the world, and yet was forever marked off by the cultures he connected to. They made him into a stranger in every world he passed through. Of Marlow, Conrad writes: “he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower.”

It would seem the most natural thing in the world then that Conrad would make an appearance in the strangely beautiful tales by W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, which have changed forever my sense of what it means to write. Conrad – “whose protracted bouts of despair were henceforth [after his trip to the Belgian Congo] to alternate with his writing” – would appear in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn as both a witness to the human destructiveness that haunts the narrator and the prelude to the tragic story of Roger Casement’s fatal opposition to the horrors of King Leopold’s monstrosity: it would lead to Casement’s brutal execution and the extirpation of his name.

Sebald, Conrad, Marlow, and if this does not seem an imposture, myself: our thoughts are connected by a deep pessimism, from which writing is the only escape. Action in the world is too marked by fatality; but writing allows us to say the things that our silent readers will ignore and accept as just like Marlow.

It is these thoughts too that John Gray speaks of in his undefinable political philosophy marked by scepticism towards all illusions of progress. If I maintain the tradition of Marlow, speaking my strange stories on a floating steamer as the sun sets on our monstrous world, then John Gray maintains the traditions of Conrad’s darkness. Let the final words of his review of Jasanoff’s biography close my post for today:

If Conrad sounds cynical to readers today, it is because he voices truths that are now deemed unmentionable. He did not believe in what Russell, in a 1937 essay, called the ‘superior virtue of the oppressed’. All human institutions, including newly independent states, were steeped in crime; barbarism and civilisation would always be intertwined, with old evils continually reappearing in new guises. It is a vision as disruptive to the censorious liberalism that holds the reins today as it was to imperial fantasies of progress a hundred years ago.

 

Red Nostalgia

Red Nostalgia

During the week I attended a lecture at my old university on the meaning of the Russian Revolution today, 100 years on from Red October. The lecturer, Mark Edele,  gave an entertaining and insightful talk to perhaps 600 guests, some alumni, some students, some dignitaries associated with the large philanthropic donation that had enabled the creation of the professorship, of which this was the ceremonial inaugural lecture.

The event was not without some pain or embarrassment for me since I had a year or more ago applied  for a job as one of the new lectureships in History at the University of Melbourne, created by this gift from the Hansen Trust, and meant to be dedicated to improving the teaching and public engagement of history. Here was the professor appointed in that batch, alongside a number of lecturers whose experience in the world outside the academy was not exceptional. Here was the living example of the path I did not take, and that still mourn, but which despite my brief hopes in the winter of 2016, I will not ever be able to return to.

While there was mingling offered with drinks and nibblies before the event, I took myself to one side and wrote down some reflections on my day, which had seen rejection for one job, and an interview, despite expecting rejection, for another.  It made me recall the note I had written to the former head of the History Department, as I sought to return there over a year ago: advice for a prodigal son. But wandering I would remain. I scanned the faces of the minglers, and saw no-one I could recall, except one faded peter pan, with unruly hair and modest clothes, who I remembered as a tutor from my university days.

The lecture itself provided a stimulating account of the many processes of revolution, civil war and breakdown of authority that constituted the events of the Russian Revolution. I learned of the new scholarly account of the revolution as an event that spanned the years 1916 to 1923 and all regions of the vast Russian empire, not only the familiar events of Red Petrograd.

Indeed, before this lecture I had not realised the significance of the containment of the imperial breakdown, with revolts across Central Asia, the Caucasus and European Russia, by Lenin thorough a structure of federated soviet republics, based on frustrated national identities. I had read indifferently of the discussion of the nationalities question, but had not realised its significance. Indeed, it was a principal dispute between the old Bolsheviks, Lenin and Stalin (pictured in the featured photograph from 1919, source, wikipedia). Lenin’s view prevailed. He sealed the imperial breakdown in amber, despite Stalin’s objections. In doing so, Edele pointed out, he left what Vladimir Putin described as a “time-bomb” in the constitution of the Soviet Union. The time bomb duly exploded after 1989.

Edele spoke about the conflicting views of historians of Red October as a coup or a popular revolt. It was, I guess I would summarise his view, as a coup with the backing of the power of the radicalised crowds on the streets. Edele seemed less critical of the Bolsheviks as cynical manipulators of this radicalised crowd, compared to the account of paid demonstrators, funded by German money, orchestrated through the German agent, Lenin, that appears in McMeekin’s recent account of the Russian Revolution, which I read a short time ago.

The “radicalised” crowd is a trope of revolutionary history, and part of a kind of Red Nostalgia. I recall reading, in my undergraduate years, George Rudé’s celebration of the revolutionary crowd in the French Revolution, and his portrayal of this crowd as a serious actor in an historical drama. The radicalised crowd is a contrast to the violent mob. A long tradition of thought, which began at least one source of the history of emotions, sought to find an explanation in group psychology and emotional response to the phenomenon of violence in the radicalised crowd. In response to this tradition, Rudé tried to find the reason, indeed the emerging class consciousness, of this radicalised crowd in their material conditions. Bread prices and not fury explained the crowd in this Marixist view. Simon Schama’s Citizens inoculated me forever against this view.

Despite the new fashion of Marxism in some intellectual circles, Edele’s only concession to this view was to speak of the radicalised crowd. This simple word, radicalised, is, despite all attempts at academic civility, a trigger for red nostalgia. It contains within it whirlpools of emotion, strange psychologies, and much responsibility for violence. Today,  we try to explain to ourselves how relatively prosperous settled people can radicalise as terrorists. There is no simple explanation, and no single process that leads from grievance to fighting in foreign wars and seeking martyrdom in Islam. It was likely was no simpler in Petrograd in 1917.

The sentiment of radicalism is immune to scholarly inquiry. It lingers on, and surely some level of red nostalgia played a part in the large audience attracted to this lecture. Edele was polite towards this nostalgia, only gently chiding the sentimental Marxism that has hidden the violence and the chaos of Red October for so many years.

But one unrepentant revolutionary spoke out in question time after the lecture. With only a brief time for questions, one ragged, aged Trotskyist, whose face seemed familiar from decades ago handing out the dreadful rags of propaganda put out by the Socialist Workers Party and similar organs, stood up and made a comment. He was disappointed in the lecture. Edele had not conveyed the grandeur of the Russian Revolution – surely the greatest of them all, better than the French or the Glorious English Revolution. And why should we care of the Constituent Assembly was abolished? It was a corrupted institution. And did not Alexandra Kollontai bring feminism to the world as part of the Revolution? Why did not Edele speak more of the great and true historians of the Russian Revolution – Isaac Deutscher, Stephen Smith and E.H. Carr?

Professor Edele politely demurred. Those books are now very old. It is true that even factions were banned under the Communist Party – how could that represent a true democracy? But there, alas, the time for questions was exhausted, and so the evening ended in a bitter red sunset.

I was left to question: where do our political passions come from, and in what kind of thought process are they grounded? Surely, it is not in the material facts of history.