A Crisis of Legitimacy

Over the last week or two, the peak oil scene has been going through another round of its ongoing flirtation with fantasies of overnight collapse. This time the trigger was a recent paper by David Korowicz of Feasta, which I discussed a few weeks back and which you can download in PDF format here.

As I mentioned in that earlier post, it’s a well-written study, limited only by a few frankly unrealistic assumptions about how governments tend to react when faced with an immediate threat to national survival, and Korowicz detailed his presuppositions clearly enough that a thoughtful reader can easily bracket the improbable parts of the study and extract the very real value to be found elsewhere in it. Korowicz is quite correct in suggesting that the current global financial system is a house of cards that could easily come crashing to the ground, taking a quadrillion dollars or so of imaginary wealth with it and dealing the world’s industrial societies a staggering blow. 

It’s purely his suggestion that this could cause the global economy to freeze up, not for weeks, but for years or even longer, that strays out of the realm of realism into territory mapped out well in advance by Western civilization’s penchant for apocalyptic fantasies.  In the real world, of course, governments facing sudden financial collapse don’t just sit on their hands and make plaintive sounds; they take action, and there are plenty of actions they can take, since a financial collapse doesn’t actually make anything of value go away. Money, let us please remember, is not wealth; it’s a set of arbitrary tokens people in complex human societies use to manage the distribution of real wealth; if a monetary system breaks down, other ways can readily be jerry-rigged to keep real wealth moving.

Glance through the last century of economic history and you’ll find plenty of examples of governments responding to sudden financial crises with equally sudden, drastic measures that worked, at least in the short term—and while it’s always popular to say "It’s different this time," I hope my readers recall how often, and inaccurately, these same words get used in the not unrelated field of speculative bubbles.  The parallel’s not inappropriate, since the believer in the latest speculative delusion uses those words to convince himself that he doesn’t have to put up with the common but unwelcome experience of having to work hard to become wealthy. In the same way, I suspect, much of the popularity of fast-collapse scenarios come from the fact that many people want to convince themselves that they don’t have to put up with the common but unwelcome experience of the decline and fall of a civilization.  The temptation to get it over with, or at least to daydream about getting it over with, is a strong one.

I mention all this again because the theme of this week’s post centers on another kind of sudden disruption that occurs tolerably often in history, one that we’re probably going to see repeated in the not too distant future here in the US and elsewhere. Just as financial systems routinely come unglued, so do political systems; in both cases, though it takes years of mismanagement to build to the point of crisis, the crisis itself can hit suddenly and bring shattering change in a very short time; in both cases, in turn, the aftermath involves substantial losses, a great deal of frantic jerry-rigging and damage control, and then a return to a new normal that often has little in common with what the old normal used to be.

Political power’s a remarkable thing. Though Mao Zedong was quite correct to point out that it grows out of the barrel of a gun, it has to be transplanted into more fertile soil in short order or it will soon wither and die. A successful political system of any kind quickly establishes, in the minds of the people it rules, a set of beliefs and attitudes that define the political system as the normal, appropriate, and acceptable form of government for that people.  That sense of legitimacy is the foundation on which any enduring government must build, for when people see their government as legitimate, no matter how appalling it appears to outsiders, they will far more often than not put up with its excesses and follow its orders.

It probably needs to be said here that legitimacy is not a rational matter and has nothing to do with morality or competence; great nations all through history have calmly accepted the legitimacy of governments run by thieves, tyrants, madmen and fools. Still, a government that has long held popular legitimacy can still lose it, and can do so in a remarkably short time.  Those of my readers who are old enough to have watched the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact satellites will recall the speed with which the rulers of several Communist nations saw the entire apparatus of their government dissolve around them as the people they claimed the right to rule stopped cooperating.

Now of course that sudden collapse of legitimacy was long in preparing. Just as a singer or writer who becomes an overnight success normally gets there after many years of hard work, the implosion of a system of government normally follows many years of bad decisions and unheard warnings, and it’s not too hard in retrospect to trace how simmering unrest eventually rose to a full boil; still, the benefits of hindsight can be misleading, because it’s actually quite rare for anyone to catch on to what’s building in advance.  As the famous Affair of the Diamond Necklace dragged the prestige of the French monarchy in the mud, Talleyrand commented to a friend, "Pay attention to this wretched necklace-affair; I should not be in the least surprised if it overturns the throne"—but then Talleyrand was one of the supreme political observers of the age; to most others in France in 1784, it was just one more tawdry royal scandal in a country that had seen plenty of them already.

We have seen plenty of equally tawdry scandals in the United States of late, and it’s easy to ignore the impact of, let’s say, the Obama administration’s systematic refusal to bring charges against any of the financiers whose spectacularly blatant acts of fraud helped fuel, and then pop, the recent housing bubble. Still, I’ve come to think that a modern Talleyrand might see things differently. Had Obama acted otherwise, the Democratic party would likely have come to dominate the American political scene for the next forty years as thoroughly as it did for the four decades or so after 1932; instead, by giving the country a remarkably good imitation of the third term of George W. Bush, the Obama administration has convinced a sizable fraction of Americans that they have nothing to hope for from either party.  It’s symptomatic that a recent Rasmussen poll found that only 17% of respondents thought that a choice between Obama and Romney for president represented the best that America could do.

It’s all too common for the political class of a troubled nation to lose track of the fact that, after all, its power depends on the willingness of a great many people outside the political class to do what they’re told. In Paris in 1789, in St. Petersburg in 1917, and in a great many other places and times, the people who thought that they held the levers of power and repression discovered to their shock that the only power they actually had was the power to issue orders, and those who were supposed to carry those orders out could, when matters came to a head, decide that their own interests lay elsewhere.  In today’s America, equally, it’s not the crisply dressed executives, politicians, and bureaucrats who currently hold power who would be in a position to enforce that power in a crisis; it’s the hundreds of thousands of soldiers, police officers and Homeland Security personnel, who are by and large poorly paid, poorly treated, and poorly equipped, and who have not necessarily been given convincing reasons to support the interests of a political class that most of them privately despise, against the interests of the classes to which they themselves belong.

Such doubts and dissatisfactions can build for a long time before the crisis hits. If history shows anything, it’s that trying to time that crisis is very nearly a guarantee of failure.  Sooner or later, once the system’s legitimacy becomes sufficiently doubtful, some event dramatic enough to seize the collective imagination will trigger the final collapse of legitimacy and the implosion of the system, but what that event will be and when it will come is impossible to know in advance.  Not even Talleyrand seems to have guessed in advance that the calling of the Estates-General in 1789 would set off the final crisis of the monarchy whose collapse he accurately anticipated—but then who could have predicted the spur-of-the-moment improvisation that led representatives of the Third Estate to proclaim themselves a National Assembly, or the circumstances that sent a Paris mob running through the streets to storm the Bastille?

What follows the moment of crisis is a little less opaque to anticipation.  France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 were both politically centralized nations in which power was primarily exercised from the capital city, and revolutionary politicians and urban mobs in Paris and St. Petersburg respectively thus had an overwhelming impact on the course of events, and radical change there spread rapidly throughout the country, since there were no effective centers of power outside the core. In less centralized countries, control of the capital is less decisive; the seizure of power by Parliament and the London mob in 1641 in England bears close comparison with events in the two later revolutions, but when the rubble of the English Civil War finally stopped bouncing, the system that resulted was much closer to the one that had been in place before 1641 than, say, France after the revolution resembled the Ancien RĂ©gime; the survival of familiar modes of government in peripheral centers made it easier for those same modes to be restored once the revolutionary era was over.

That degree of regional independence did not survive in England, but the European pattern of political geography, whereby the capital city of each nation-state normally becomes its political and cultural hub and its largest population center, did not catch on anything like so well in North America.  In the United States and Canada alike, the national capital and the largest population center are two different cities; in both nations, as well as Mexico, large regional divisions—states or provinces—maintain a prickly independence from the central government, and regional cultures remain a potent political force.  The United States is the most extreme example of the lot; Washington DC is for all practical purposes a modest regional center that just happens to share space with a national government meeting, and there is no place in the country where even the largest urban mob could have a decisive impact on the survival of the federal government.

The complex historical processes that brought thirteen diverse colonies under a single federal system, furtthermore, left a great deal of power in the hands of the states. Very little of that power is used these days; repeated expansions of the originally very limited powers given to the national government have left most substantive issues in the hands of federal bureaucrats, and left the states little more to do than carrying out costly federal mandates at their own expense.  Still, the full framework of independent government—executive, legislative, and judicial—remains in place in each state; state governors retain the power to call up every adult citizen to serve in the state militia; and, finally and critically, the states have kept the constitutional power to bring the whole system to a screeching halt.

You’ll find that power spelled out in Article V of the US Constitution. If two thirds of state legislatures call for a constitutional convention to amend the Constitution, the convention will happen; if three quarters of state legislatures vote to ratify any amendment to the Constitution passed by the convention, that amendment goes into effect. It’s that simple.  Congress has nothing to say about it; the President has nothing to say about it; the Supreme Court has nothing to say about it; the federal government is, at least in theory, stuck on the sidelines.  That power has never been used; the one time it was seriously attempted, in 1913, Congress forestalled the state legislatures by passing a constitutional amendment identical to the one for which the states were agitating, and submitting it to the state legislatures for ratification.  The power nonetheless remains in place, a bomb hardwired into the Constitution.

What makes that bomb so explosive is that there are very nearly no limits to what a constitutional convention can do. The only thing the Constitution specifies is that no amendment can take away a state’s equal representation in the Senate.  Other than that, as long as two thirds of the states call for the convention and three quarters of the states ratify its actions, whatever comes out of it is the supreme law of the land. Everything is up for grabs; it would not be beyond the power of a constitutional convention, for example, to provide a legal means for states to withdraw peacefully from the Union, or even to repeal the Constitution and dissolve the Union altogether.

Had the leaders of the southern states in 1860 been less proud and more pragmatic, it’s entirely possible that they could have won their independence and spared themselves the catastrophe of the Civil War by some such measure as this. It’s eerily plausible to imagine Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi rising in the Senate that year to propose an amendment to provide for the peaceful dissolution of the Union, denouncing the radicals on both sides of the slavery issue who were pushing the nation toward civil war, and offering a peaceful separation of the states as the only workable solution to the problem that had dogged the nation for so long—and it’s by no means hard, at a time when most Americans still wanted to avoid war, to imagine such a proposal getting the votes it would need from Congress and the states to take effect.

Any further development of that speculation can be left to fans of alternate history.  Under most conditions, of course, no such proposal would ever be seriously made, much less accepted, but 1860 offers a trenchant reminder that under the pressure of irreconcilable conflict, the system of government we have in the United States can freeze up completely and make desperate measures the order of the day.  In 1860, the US government lost its legitimacy in a third of the country, and it took the 19th century’s bloodiest conflict to bring back the southern states to a grudging and incomplete obedience.  In the crisis of legitimacy that’s building in today’s America, a rising spiral of conflicts between regions also plays an important role, but this time the federal government can hardly count on the passionate loyalty it got a century and a half ago from the Northeast and the Midwest; in fact, it’s hard to think of any corner of the country where distrust and disaffection for the current government haven’t put down deep roots already.

If and when the crisis comes, it’s anyone’s guess what exactly will happen, but the possibility that the states will call on their power to redefine the Constitution—whether they use it to reshape the national government, or to let the country split apart into smaller nations along regional lines—belongs somewhere on the list of potential outcomes.  For that matter, it’s anyone’s guess what will spark such a crisis, if in fact one does come.  The triggering event might well be political, or economic, or even environmental.  Still, if I had to make a guess, it would be that the most likely triggering event will be military. We’ll open that immense can of worms next week.

End of the World of the Week #34

What could be more convincing, at least for believers in an imminent apocalypse, than eyewitness accounts of one of the most important details in the apocalyptic prophecy happening right now?  That’s the question devout Christians had to answer for themselves in the year 171 CE, when a priest named Montanus announced that the events prophesied in the Book of Revelation were taking place then and there.  "There," specifically, was Phrygia, in what is now part of Turkey; that’s where Montanus lived, and that’s where his followers repeatedly spotted nothing less than the New Jerusalem, hovering in the air above the modest Phrygian market town of Pepuza.

The New Prophecy, as Montanus’ belief system was called at the time, became a nine days’ wonder in the early Christian church, and attracted a great many followers—notably women, who were being forced out of the positions of prominence they had held earlier on. Two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, who left their husbands to follow Montanus became prophets in their own right, and they and Montanus became known as "the Three"—a term with certain resonances in more recent apocalyptic movements.  Despite excommunication by the main body of the church, the Montanist movement remained active for at least four centuries, waiting for the New Jerusalem to finish its descent onto Pepuza—and if there are any Montanists left, of course, they’re still waiting.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not