Archive for November 28th, 2008

Creative Destruction

I have to admit to a kind of perverse satisfaction about the financial collapse taking place all around us.   Not that I like what is happening — it negatively effects me, my family and my children’s future.   Yet there seems to be some justice in having a distorted system finally start to rebalance.   Part of it is that I’ve been one of the Cassandras for so long now, I feel vindicated that gee, I called this right (along with quite a few others, to be sure).   But more importantly, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the system we had became a cancer to the body politic and even the spirit of the United States, and that as painful as it is, we’ll be better off if we can shed it and move a new direction.  The key will be, of course, where we go.

Other countries have been in positions like this and have not chosen wisely.  Germany in the late 20s found a broken and untenable Weimar Republic collapsing into depression and chose a way out which seemed to make sense at the time.  Adolf Hitler promised to unify the country, put people back to work, undo the disastrous Versailles Treaty that mistreated Germany and gave it second class status, and to make people proud to be German again.  For six years, he seemed like the real thing.  Germans were working, their economy was taking off (unlike the economies in the rest of Europe), and he ditched the Versailles Treaty with bold foreign policy strokes, all of them peaceful and successful.

By late 1938 Germans were convinced that fascism was the right approach.  They were proud again, their country stood tall, their factories were working, people had a strong sense of patriotism, and they were at peace.  Germans didn’t want war.  Sure, the intellectuals complained by authoritarianism, and the government came down on those who “weakened the country from within,” — the pacifists, socialists, liberals, internationalists and jews.  Yet the fear of Bolshevism was strong enough, and European anti-semitism intense enough that these were easy to ignore.  Ridicule the intellectuals, parade the plain spoken every day hero, and embrace German cultural values.  Gone were the “sex, drugs and cabaret” of the twenties, in were patriotic marches, youth camping and hunting adventures, and virtuous German activities.

Earlier Russia also saw its entire system break apart.  The Czar pushed the country into collapse in World War I.  The Empire was already weak and anachronistic.   When the war started Russian soldiers were only armed in the front lines, those behind would carry sticks and then pick up the dropped weapons of the soldiers who would fall in front of them.   The war broke the Russian economy.  People lacked food, villages lost a generation of young men, and the Russians won nary a battle against the Germans.  The people had enough.  They ultimately rallied around a leader who promised a new world, a utopia where all would share the fruits of their collective labor, and the state would wither away.  It rested on an rational, objectivist philsophy which posited itself as the true understanding of how society and history operates.  Within a decade this belief in having the “true, proper” understanding of politics and governance would lead to totalitarianism, tyranny, and poverty.  For awhile it appeared strong, a superpower challenging the United States.  But that was an illusion, the system rotted from within, destroying the economy and peoples’ spirits.

Humans create when things have been destroyed.   That creates opportunities and dangers.  We can avoid the lessons of the 20th century.

1) Avoid an emotional desire to create an artificial sense of nationalist unity, demonizing those voices who question the cause or the people, in a desire to create an order reflecting some kind of mythological sense of what society should be.  Fascism was like fantasy, a grotesque piece of social artwork, whereby the leaders built an narrative where their people were superior and strong, others were inferior and dangerous, and society was unified by a common ideal, culture, and support for the leader.  Fascism was about emotion, using rhetoric and propaganda to create a sense of unity and solidarity.  It appealed to the masses, it was anti-intellectual, sort of like talk radio on stereoids.  In essence, the fascist mantra is “we are great, all our problems are blamed on others.”  Fascism is a social manifestation of the same thinking that takes over an insecure individual who can’t accept that he or she screwed up and created problems and instead needs to feel the victim and lash out at others.  We are great, we just have problems because there are enemies who hate us!

2)  From Communism we need to distrust any ideology that promises a utopia, or claims to be the one, true, proper way to think about politics and the world.  In some ways, Communism and fascism represent truly opposite ends of the spectrum.  For fascism there was no truth but power; power forms truth, with power you can determine truth.  For Communism there was one true set of historical and social laws, and if you used reason and had the proper premises you would inevitably be drawn to the conclusion the Communism was the only system that promised true human liberty and an end to exploitation.   In the name of utopia and the “right” system government took all power.  After all, if you have the “right” ideology, shouldn’t you do what you can to make sure you have the power to implement it fully?   And, once that power was centralized it could be abused and freedom could be taken away in the name of a system.  Instead of utopia, it was tyranny.  It is the social manifestation of the perfectionist personality which wants to create the right system, and control it absolutely.

Ideologies are inherently vast simplifications of reality based on assumptions that can be questioned, and contestable definitions of terms.  If anyone claims they have the right ideological view, run away as fast as you can.  That kind of thinking becomes cultish, and rationalizes actions otherwise clearly irrational.   Appeals to emotion alone, however, can be manipulative.  In Consumerism and fascism I noted how similar the appeal of Madison Avenue is to that of fascist propaganda.  Finally, those who posit a utopia or a perfect world should not be trusted either.  If we build a society that looks utopian by today’s standards it will be through a long process of cultural transformation, it can’t be done on somebody’s masterplan, an ideology dreamed up by a human mind, abstract and absolute.

That said, America has built in advantages that Germany and Russia did not.  We have a strong tradition of individualism, democracy, and distrust of power.  While we have sections of society prone to militarism and nationalism (witness the hyper-emotional appeal of talk radio, which is reminiscient of fascist propaganda), and others that believe government can create the best and proper system (witness the strident appeal of far left blogs which belittle conservatives and claim to offer the only reasonable understanding of reality), most Americans are at heart pragmatic.   Americans have never given in to the ideological fervor that has too often driven European politics.  We prefer to problem solve, and hold close the notion that those who hold different opinions can talk and compromise.

But let’s not understate the danger either.  If we are facing a coming dollar collapse on top of the current set of economic woes, the infrastructure of our socio-political-economic system will be under seige.   The US was one of only a couple states that held on to a stable democracy during the Great Depression, our cultural values immunize us a bit from the appeal of utopian tyrants or blame hurling fascists, but the going could get tough.  We’ll have to hold on to the values in our constitution, the communities we have around us, and a belief that we look to each other to solve problems, not abstract philosophies or emotionally appealing rhetoric.

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