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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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.”

 

Reflections on 2017

Reflections on 2017

The year is drawing to a close, and while it is yet weeks from New Year, the office christmas party season is in full swing, and my mind is turning to an upcoming holiday. I am approaching the end of my current assignment and am going into my annual leave without knowing what I will do or who I will be working with next year. It seems I am very much in internal exile in the minor provincial bureaucracy on which I depend for my livelihood.

I have a crushing sense of defeat in what I suppose I may still call a career. All the qualities that I have seem unwanted, and I can only suppose that the consultocrats and courtiers who run my Castle have decided rightly that I will never be a loyal follower to them. I need to begin to look elsewhere, and to find hope and purpose in more nourishing lands.

So, it occurs to me this morning that one way I can reconnect with a sense of strength is to reflect on this year through the lens of my blog. In many eyes it has been a dark year, but events of the world and events in the life of the mind have different rhythm.

So today let me recap the topics of my posts this year, and next week allow me to reflect on the themes and stories of the year.

In January, I had returned from a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia during which I reread the redoubtable After Tamerlane by John Darwin.

  • It led to a post on the unravelling of empires “adrift in the great historical tides of convergence and divergence” that defeat beliefs in any unitary imperial order, as we see today, when America declines into narcissistic tantrums and China redreams the One Road of Tamerlane.
  • A post on massacres in history discovered a precedent for Islamic foreign fighters in Syria in the exodus of youthful enthusiasts for Hellenic and Christian culture to the Greek war of independence. Among these fighters was the original literary psychopath – mad, bad and dangerous to know – Lord Byron.
  • Then my failure to read Don Quixote, led me to reflect on reading ambitions, and the sheer impossibility of realising them all in our media-saturated world. But the attempt led me to pose the paradox: “In our madness is our truest dignity?”
  • By the end of the month, by now returned to work, I began my series Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat, inspired by Wallace Stevens poem with the same perspectives on a blackbird. I described this series as “an elegy for a kind of life of the mind that has died around me. I sing my sad songs and hope the gods will resurrect this tradition. But the odds on that seem to grow slimmer by the day.”

In February, I wrote posts in response to stanzas I through to V of Stevens’ poem, each with a new subtitle: I vigilance amidst stillness; II the three-eyed raven; III the craft of the cameo actor; IV in unity is death; and V the beauty of the bureaucrat.

In March, I completed the series, Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat, with VI through barbaric glass darkly; VII at the feet of thin men; VIII involved in what I know; IX servants of Utopias; X flight in green light; XI people who live in glass coaches; XII the thaw, the flight; XIII the long waits of winter. I felt the last few posts were rushed, more lapidary, more gnomic. I have since collected all 14 posts together, and may yet expand into a short book. But I am so wary of the publication industry; I may simply self-publish.

In April, I turned to more literary and cultural themes. In that month I was intensely preparing a secret government report on violence and mental illness, and what, if anything could be done, to prevent acts like the Bourke Street vehicular homicide.

In May, I experimented with writing posts late at night in bed in response to the daily prompt on wordpress and fragments composed on my daily commute. It was, I confess, a search for readers.

  • I reposted a series of older posts from my blog, like six asides about culture (and Havel), and going sane writing, which was prompted by a role model of sorts the British psychoanalyst and essayist, Adam Phillips.
  • I curated more of my content, linking to an essay and conference paper I wrote on “Why is alcohol policy difficult?” This paper I presented to a conference of public health scholarly zealots. At least one person came up to me after my talk and expressed appreciation for what I said.
  • I reflected on Hannah Arendt and her philosophy of natality, which “spoke to me as an outcast. Where our podcast literary critic embraced Arendt’s status as a refugee to castigate the world; I saw in her a determination to love the world as an outcast, to see it clearly, and yet to make new beginnings and to disclose your self to the world. That is what human freedom is for Arendt. Not to remake the world; but to give birth to new things in a world that is precious, bounded, beyond our control and yet the only one we can ever know.”
  • I appreciated Kenneth Slessor’s poem, Five Bells, linking to a beautiful radiophonic performance, and continuing the thoughts on natality:”To endure you must begin. To survive you must write without success… Only for those five bells”

In June, I returned to something of a more stable pattern. I reflected on Robert Frost’s practice of poetry and the form of the blog in Waste books and epigrams.

  • I wrote an essay “On Humility” prompted by one of my favourite quotes by Jung and likely prompted by still more humiliations and rebuffs at work.
  • I posted the complete paper that I had presented to a conference on children’s voices and the history of emotions. The paper was about how the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse created a new way of feeling about trauma. I will return to this paper, and my reflections on this inquiry in the tradition of truth and reconciliation commissions, over coming months, since I am committed to writing a long essay on the significance of this public event.
  • I castigated the Nobel Prize for literature for awarding Bob Dylan the prize.
  • I explored the powerful metaphor of the infinite conversation, which emerged for me as an important theme for my writing, my recovery and my psychotherapy.

In July, I published two poems of mine – The state of politics, and Nouriel’s shoes.

In August, I turned back to themes of politics. I was struggling to find a new place role for myself, and began to reach out to the powerful men who I knew as mentors if not as patrons.

  • I wrote some starting hypotheses for a planned essay, Republics in Distress. “So, in our distressed republics, a committed life will only destroy itself if it tries to break the wheel of our decadent politics. Rather, in each of our lives, we should turn to the simple actions that preserve, protect and nourish for renewal in a better time a more virtuous politics.”
  • I wrote on my long held view about the restrictions of freedom of speech and freedom of thought for public servants.
  • Then I wrote a darker piece, The death of the soul, prompted by debates in the press about the decay of culture and decline of religion, in which I asked: “How then do we live in these dark, destructive times, haunted by terror and our own comforts?”

In September, amidst work I was undertaking on lone actor terrorist attacks, I reflected on the return of sacred violence, and this was a kind of dissent against comforting progressive notions of the causes and responses to terrorism.

  • I commented indirectly on the debate on destruction of monuments to historical figures who are no longer as widely esteemed. Here I said: “There is enough war in history; we do not need history wars and culture wars that both consecrate and desecrate public memory. We need rather to practise humility in asserting and nurturing our mercurial identities, while kindly forgiving, if not forgetting, the sins that lie in all of our pasts.”
  • And I posted more poems, with the best being Dr Cogito brings his mind to heel.

In October, I wrote about sorrow in response to my aged mother’s declining health and cognition; the Red Nostalgia I observed at a lecture on the centenary of Red October, the Russian Revolution; and the meaning for me of Keats’ poem, When I have fears:

  • “In the face of death, in the face of oblivion, in the face of insignificance before the grandeur of the wide world, in the face of losing love, the poem realises all those things are true. They may be feared, but they cannot be averted. So, when I have fears, I endure them. I stand on the shore of the wide world, and I sing my song.”

In November, I returned to reflections on major cultural figures with Conrad’s DarknessForgetting Foucault; and Self-portrait in a time of hunger, which was a kind of premonition of this review of my own work. This last post contained some reflections on my enduring purpose and abiding concerns:

  • “I have contemplated suicide, madness, the tragedies of history, play, sacred violence, bureaucracy, governing, trauma, terror, child sexual abuse, sanity, memory, music, literature and more. Certain images – the archive in flames – have recurred as uncanny repetitions. But others have sprung from nowhere and surprised me. There were times when a mere phrase – the disappearance of stories from the world – took hold of me, and found its way to some new thought. Other times I have dared to voice my dissent with the world that I have found in my day job, even if I cannot believe these obscure samizdat will make much, if any, difference. Still, I can practise living in truth and the ordinary virtues – dignity, compassion, the life of the mind. And what is culture if not an unenclosed field in which we are all free to sow our gifts?”

Lastly, in December, I have written just last week’s post On revenge, stirred by images of Captain Ahab, and this long recapitulation of the year.

Such has been my year. Reviewing my words, my reading, my images from the year has given me new strength. The verdicts of courtiers and consultocrats should not bother me. They bring nothing to the infinite conversation. I will survive beyond their defeat of me. I will walk unburnt from the flaming archive.

 

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.

The return of sacred violence

The return of sacred violence

“Central to both torture and terror is the political psychology of degradation”  Paul Kahn, Sacred violence: torture, terror and sovereignty

Violent imitation, which makes adversaries more and more alike, is at the root of all myths and cultures. Rene Girard, Battling to the end.

It is a characteristic of our time that as political authority disintegrates, political violence for a cause is resurgent.

This is a troubling phenomenon, but its difficulty should not lead us to avert our eyes.

Its most obvious form is in the appeal of Islamist terror to a small group of Western muslims.

But we have also seen acts of extremist violence from across the political spectrum. On one side, so to speak, Antifa and its violent protests, a Bernie Sanders supporter shooting Republicans at a charity baseball match, and a comedian pictured with a severed head of a democratically elected President. On the other, the spectre of white supremacists, nostalgic for the confederacy, shouting “jews won’t replace us,” and then driving a vehicle, the mobile weapon of choice in these times, into a crowd of leftist demonstrators.

Identity politics, in all its forms, from the rainbow coalition to the white supremacists shouting “you won’t replace us” , lives on the edge of violence. In asserting identity, it soon insists on the degradation of those who differ in their identity. Tolerance and respect are not values of importance for identity politics. They tend to be sneered at as the condescending gestures of a hegemony to be replaced.

And authority – the one essential attribute for the effective exercise of governing power – is despised. Yet authority alone can constrain violence.

Is the return of sacred violence across our world closely related to the cultural decay described in this blog? Here, in closing this brief fragment, are the thoughts of Rene Girard:

“I began to see the end of war as a subject in itself. The last days of an institution whose purpose was to control and restrain violence corroborates my central hypothesis, namely that for three centuries all rituals and institutions have been crumbling. War, through its rules and orders, also helped to create meaning by establishing new equilibria over an ever growing geographical area. It has generally ceased to play this role since the end of  World War II. How did the system suddenly disintegrate? How has political rationality finally become powerless?” Rene Girard, Battling to the end

 

Image source: Science News

The death of the soul

The death of the soul

In The Australian this weekend Greg Sheridan, the conservative and perceptive foreign affairs journalist, comments on the decline of religion and its impact on Western liberal mores. He restores Nietzsche’s parable of the madman, who proclaims to an indifferent crowd that God is dead, and then revokes his claim,  but still sees a dark prophecy:

“Finally he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I come too early’, he then said; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard. This deed is still more remote to them than the remotest stars – and yet they have done it themselves!’” (The Gay Science s. 125)

Sheridan’s article, entitled “Is God Dead?”, poses the question of whether that time has indeed now come. He sees the failing vital signs of the Christian God all around him. The last Census in Australia found that only a small majority identified as a Christian, and a third of us professed no religion. Sheridan sees an assault on the Church, brought on by its own weaknesses, including above all its tragic failure to respond to child sexual abuse. But this attack grows ever more shrill, until it chases the Church from the public square, ignorant of the thousand acts of kindness, humility and compassion in hospices, in churches, on the streets that make us a society, not a market. The assault of the progressive world on the institutions of traditional morality has grown more venomous, Sheridan implies, when liberalism or progressive modernity forgets the deep reservoir of holy water from which we all drink. Religion, which once was a spiritual foundation for liberal and progressive beliefs, has become a discriminatory and embarrassing constraint on the dreams of efflorescent identity, beloved by our society of consumption.

Against this forgetting, Sheridan poses the Churches’ long history of charity, of education, of nurturing the very foundations of the culture, which this blog watches mournfully dying in flames. Sheridan refers to the work of Larry Siedentrop, Inventing the individual: the origins of Western liberalism. Siedentrop traces to the monasteries of the Middle Ages a birth of an alternative way of living, or in Sheridan’s words “an early expression of human freedom.” “People chose to be monks,” Sheridan writes “and therefore to have a life beyond that dictated by circumstances of birth and family.” By conserving their symbols, music, texts and religious objects and sacralising their lives in a cherished institution bonded by rules of tradition, they were midwives to a great and vital culture.

Without knowing Siedentrop’s book, the thought resembles my reflection on our impending dark ages, and the reasons for hope in these times:

In the ruins of the crises of the tenth century, Western European culture was born and indeed so was the glory of Kievan Rus. Monasticism, a resurgent faith and a reform of the church, a flowering Renaissance, the emergence of order in modern government, law, conscience, mysticism and on it goes. Who will speak like Abelard and Heloise across the centuries in this new dark age?

Nietzsche’s madman had asked his liberal crowd, thoughtlessly wiping the blood from the dagger plunged in the heart of God:

“What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it?” (The Gay Science s. 125)

Festivals of atonement indeed. Is this a way of describing the modern parades of virtue signalling and spasms of shaming of the people who are uncomfortable with ready-to-wear sexual and political identities? And these festivals of atonement have created a new authoritarianism, as we know from the rainbow guards who police sentiment itself in the new politics of identities.

Identity politics troubles Sheridan, as it troubles me, despite being my thoughts made from a different, more secular cloth. Identify politics reflects “a certain moral panic at the existential emptiness of atheism,” and this panic drives the new liberal authoritarianism. “Everyone must genuflect to the same secular pieties.”

“Nothing is more powerful in Western politics now, and in the long run more destructive, than identity politics. This sells itself as a means to empower and to help disadvantaged minorities. But everyone wants a slice of identity politics.” (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

Donald Trump is as much a manifestation of identity politics as the campaign for gay marriage – it is the demand of resentful American whites demanding their identity politics too. The public square has descended into the melee at Charlottesville; one side shouting black lives matter, the other shouting back white lives matter. Neither side speak to each other’s reasons.

The significance of this polarisation of politics to Sheridan’s broader argument is:

The abandonment of the universalism of citizenship, which was the civic expression of the universalism of humanity as understood in Christianity, is a dreadful wrong turn for Western civilisation.”(Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

At its heart is the dissolution of the soul in modern culture.

Of course people can be good and charitable without religious motivation. But even Dawkins admits that without God there is no ultimate way to define good and evil. This leads… ultimately to the perverse worship of power for its own sake. This disability is evident in the unravelling of contemporary liberalism. It is driven insane by contradictory impulses it can no longer control or balance. One is antisocial self-absorption…. (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

This leads, I think, to Sheridan’s deepest observation.

But the soul – the embodiment of our deepest sense of integrity and destiny – gave way to the self as the therapeutic age replaced the age of belief. Now, in our postmodern times, even self has been supplanted by brand. Soul to self to brand is a steep decline in what it means to be a human being. (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017, my emphasis)

Sheridan, of course, is not the first to see this withering of the soul, this paradoxical abandonment of the depths for the shallow celebration of trinkets and baubles.

“But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?” Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazov

We have lived 137 years under the shadow of that question. Perhaps those years are no worse than the millennia before them. Religion has, after all, been an ark of grievance as much as a cowl of faith. Sacred violence lies at the heart of what it means to be human.

But for at least some of those 137 years, the archive of our culture was not burning.

How then do we live in these dark, destructive times, haunted by terror and our own comforts. How do we live well in the face of such losses, we who have never had a religious belief, but have consoled ourselves in the word-hoards of our culture? How do we write the Benedictine rule for our times?

Image credit: A scene from GÖTTER­DÄMMERUNG, Wiener Staatsoper