Strange Bright Banners

The transformation of money from a pragmatic measure of wealth to a metastatic abstraction that threatens to devour the economy of real wealth that created it – the theme of the last three posts here – has, as my readers have been quick to point out, political implications. The conventional wisdom these days ignores those implications; the consensus among alternative thinkers, which I suppose could be called the unconventional wisdom, deals with them in a stereotyped manner. I find it increasingly hard to accept either viewpoint.

The conventional wisdom, like most great fallacies, begins with a truth and stretches it until it becomes for all practical purposes a falsehood. The truth, one of the great achievements of the last three hundred years of thought, is the recognition that human life comprises a number of separate spheres that overlap solely in the life of the individual. Most of us have learned, for example, that when a religious leader makes statements concerning matters of scientific fact, those statements deserve no more (albeit no less) respect than those of any other interested layperson, and if the religious leader claims divine sanction for his opinions, he has overstepped the proper bounds of religion. (We are still in the process of learning that the reverse is also true, and a scientist who attempts to claim the prestige of science for an attack on religion is equally out of line.) Literature and the arts define another such sphere; so does politics; so does the realm of production and exchange of wealth summed up imperfectly in the word economics.

The separation of these spheres, important as it is, can never be total, because each human being participates in all of them and must balance their claims against one another. For this reason it’s entirely appropriate, say, for religious leaders to raise questions about the moral dimensions of the economy, or for a painter such as Picasso to deliver a devastating critique of a political act with his brush, and in the process create one of the great works of his career. In the same way, the political and economic spheres interpenetrate in significant ways, not least because money (the currency of economics) and power (the currency of politics) can often be traded in for one another. Thus it’s reasonable to discuss the ways that the distribution of wealth in a society intersects with its distribution of power.

This is what the conventional wisdom refuses to do. It’s acceptable nowadays to argue about whether government ought to regulate business, and in what minor ways; it’s very occasionally acceptable to talk about the corruption of government by business, though usually only when some egregious example of this standard practice is selected for pillorying in front of the public. It’s not acceptable anywhere in the American mainstream to talk about the extent to which the entire political process from top to bottom has been skewed by economic interests to the point of absurdity. The current “health care reform” farce is a case in point; most of the plans being discussed in Congress just now deal with the fact that half the American people can’t afford health insurance by forcing them to buy it anyway under penalty of law, funnelling tens of billions of dollars out of the pockets of struggling families – in the midst of a recession, no less – into the coffers of a health insurance industry that is already one of the most overfunded and corrupt institutions in American public life. (If this seems as wrongheaded to you as it does to me, dear reader, a letter to each of your congresspersons might be in order.)

It is to the credit of what I’ve called the unconventional wisdom, the consensus viewpoint of critics of the current system, that they recognize this overlap. What makes the unconventional wisdom problematic, here as elsewhere, is that so much of it redefines such overlaps in terms so extreme that a valid insight is once again falsified. It’s unquestionably true that business interests exert undue influence on the American political system, but this does not justify the wild claims so often made about the extent, centralization, and evil intentions of those interests and their influence.

Take the insistence, so often heard from radicals of the left and right alike, that America is a fascist state. If America were a fascist state, those on both sides of the political spectrum who currently exercise their freedom of speech to call it that would long since have been dragged from their beds in the middle of the night by uniformed thugs, never to be seen again – at least until their bones are pulled from a mass grave and identified by dental records decades from now. That is how things happen in a fascist state, and for today’s smug and pampered American radicals to wrap themselves in the mantle of victims of fascism, while relying on civil rights no fascist system grants its citizens, displays a profound disrespect for those who have actually suffered under totalitarian regimes.

To some extent this habit of flinging around extreme claims is simply the normal rhetorical extravagance of those who know they will not be held accountable for their words. Still, it is far from helpful to insist that because American democracy is troubled, corrupted by economic interests, and increasingly dysfunctional, it ought to be equated with the worst examples in our culture’s political demonology. It is even less helpful when this sort of thinking leads to the assumption that anything that replaces it must be better than the system we have now. That’s a common assumption in troubled times, but it’s also one to which history delivers a devastating reproof.

Imagine along these lines, dear reader, that sometime in the next year or so you start hearing media reports about a rising new figure in American politics. He’s young and charismatic, a military veteran who won the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery under fire, and heads a vigorous new third party that looks as though it might just be able to break the stranglehold of the established parties on the political system. Some of his ideas come straight from the fringes, and he’s been reported to have said very negative things about Arabs and Islam, but he’s nearly the only person in American public life willing to talk frankly about the difficulties Americans are facing in an era of economic collapse, and his party platform embodies many of the most innovative ideas of the left and right. Like him or not, he offers the one convincing alternative to business as usual in an increasingly troubled and corrupt system.

Would you vote for him? Millions of Germans did; replace the Distinguished Service Cross with the Iron Cross and Arabs with Jews, and the parallel should be self-explanatory. That parallel is anything but unique, for that matter; swap out a few details and you have the early careers of Mussolini, Salazar, Peron, or any number of other dictators of the same era. One of the problems with the continual use of fascism as a bogeyman by political extremists is that it becomes far too easy to forget how promising fascism looked in the 1920s and 1930s to many good people disgusted with the failings of their democratic governments. It’s not the “cornpone Hitler” James Howard Kunstler has predicted that we have to fear, much less the imaginary conspiracies that occupy so much space in today’s alternative discourse, but a suave, articulate, and charismatic figure who harnesses the widespread assumption that anything must be better than what we have today, and replaces a dysfunctional democracy with an all too functional tyranny.

Such a figure, it bears remembering, could as easily emerge from the left as from the right. One popular DVD that circulated widely in the peak oil scene a few years back was called The Power of Community, a documentary about how Cuba survived its own equivalent of peak oil when Soviet fuel subsidies stopped at the end of the Cold War. It’s a worthwhile case study of how a society can weather an extreme energy shortage, but it finessed one of the key points that enabled the Cuban response, namely, that Cuba is a dictatorship. To impose the draconian restrictions on energy use that got his country through its “Special Period,” Castro did not have to mobilize public opinion, placate powerful special interests, and shepherd legislation through a fractious Congress riven by ideological splits and determined to defend its prerogatives; he simply had to impose them, and those who disagreed were welcome to spend the next few years discussing the matter at length behind bars with their fellow political prisoners.

A great deal of the American left seems to have seen nothing wrong in this curious definition of “community.” This in itself is troubling, as is the enthusiastic reception of David Korten’s The Great Turning, among the most antidemocratic books of recent years, by the same circles. Korten argues that certain people – essentially, those who share his background and values – are at a superior “developmental stage” to others and are therefore better suited to rule, and the only way to survive the spiralling crises of the present and near future is to take power away from the “developmentally inferior” people who now hold it and give it to the gifted few. The idea that these few might need to be subject to checks and balances to keep them from abusing their power, it hardly need be said, finds no place in Korten’s book – a point that has done uncomfortably little to decrease its popularity.

It’s from sources like these that a neofascism of the left could quite readily emerge on American soil. Of course a neofascism of the right is equally possible, and the most dangerous possibility of all – because the most likely to slip past social critics unnoticed – might well be a movement that places itself in the abandoned middle ground of American politics. There is a great deal of empty space where common sense and compromise once bridged the gap between the major parties, and those parties themselves have become increasingly detached from the values and needs of the people they claim to represent. That space could offer an unparalleled opportunity to an astute and ambitious demagogue. It’s not exactly comforting that Nick Griffin, the head of Britain’s neofascist British Nationalist Party, is now using images of Churchill and the Battle of Britain in place of the Nazi regalia his followers once sported; Griffin is no fool, and where he goes, others will likely follow.

The crucial point that has to be recognized, and is too little recognized just now, is that it’s quite possible to replace a bad system with one that is much, much worse. Historians generally agree that the Weimar Republic was a failure, but I know of none who would suggest that the regime that followed it was an improvement. In the same way, those philosophes who criticized the Ancien Regime in its last years were quite correct to point out that the French monarchy and government were dysfunctional, corrupt, and wildly inefficient. Still, their guiding assumption – that what replaced it could only be better – was brutally betrayed by the Terror, the imperial tyranny of Napoleon, and a quarter century of bloody warfare, leading to no better end than the devastation of France and the restoration of an even more feckless monarch than the one they hoped to see overthrown.

The collapse of American democracy, or what is left of it, into one or another form of autocracy may be a foregone conclusion at this point. Certainly Oswald Spengler, whose ideas continue to land solid hits on a future his critics just as consistently miss, considered it that. He argued that the great struggle of the century or two ahead of his time would pit failing democracies corrupted by wealth in a long but ultimately losing struggle against the rising force of what he called Caesarism – the rise of charismatic leaders who would finish destroying crumbling democratic institutions and rule by a combination of force of personality and raw physical violence. The first round in that struggle began during Spengler’s own lifetime, though he did not live to see the first generation of Caesars fall; it seems unwise to dismiss the possibility of an imminent second round out of hand.

Still, the last word in all this probably belongs to an unlikely but eloquent spokesman, whose name I do not know. He was an elderly man, a Navy veteran with grandchildren, waiting for his laundry to finish at a laundromat here in Cumberland when I arrived there this morning on the same errand. Passing the time as the dryers tumbled, we talked about the weather and the misbehavior of politicians downriver in Washington DC. Then he shook his head and said, “I feel sorry for my grandkids. Me, I’ve had a good life, and my sons all did pretty well, but my grandkids and other people’s kids, they’ll never have what we had.”

For more than two centuries, the glue that has held American society together has been the hope – often falsified, but more often fulfilled – that each generation, no matter how difficult its own life might be, could hope for better things for its children. That faith is breaking apart where it has not already shattered. In its wake, strange bright banners are all too likely to be unfurled, and I suspect that a great many people who imagine themselves immune from the temptation of simple answers will end up marching beneath those banners toward some terrible destiny.