I have always defended Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that liberal democracy is the most stable and efficient form of social organization, and that in consequence it will eventually absorb all others. This emphatically does not mean “the end of history,” but simply that this doubling of the economic market for goods, necessarily “unequal,” by a political market where all votes have the same weight, is maximally productive, although the forms by which it is expressed are bound to evolve. The postwar global international configuration continues to pay homage to this vision, with its “democratic” United Nations and similar agencies (European Parliament, ICC, World Bank…) extending the model of Western national institutions into the sphere of international relations.
But recent history increasingly makes me less sure of the long-term superiority of the liberal-democratic system. Although nominally democratic forms (“elected” legislative assemblies and presidents) are found even in places such as North Korea, national democracy in its American heartland is not working very well. Meanwhile, autocracy has intensified in Russia and China (where the growth of the market was expected to lead to a liberalized political structure), while Europe continues its demographic decline and shows signs of both centralized authoritarianism and slow disintegration.
In the US, Obama certainly bears a good share of the blame for the slide toward executive autocracy. All the 2016 Republican hopefuls are promising an executive more responsive at home and more forceful abroad, and it would be difficult to imagine that even Hillary Clinton would be as prone as Obama to presidential overreach. But the more significant question is whether the growth of executive power in the post-millennial era is not a necessary consequence of the victimary radicalization of the civil culture, dominated by the Twittermob and its facilitators in the media, that has dissolved the mutual respect between opposing parties in liberal democracy into an asymmetrical exchange of contempt and paralyzed incredulity—a phenomenon whose roots lie in the Holocaust, but whose deeper causality in anthropological terms may well be the increasing dependence of economic production on symbolic intelligence that undermines the originary reciprocity of the exchange of signs.
The victimary passion has reached the level where ordinary citizens accuse the conservative opposition and Christianity itself of racial hatred in scapegoating gestures worthy of medieval mobs accusing the Jews of spreading the plague. For example, this recent Internet meme, accompanying loving family portraits of the Obamas:
America’s First Family
First to be scandal free in 30 years
No drunken children
Totally wholesome family
HATED by most white Christians
because of the color of their skin
not because of the content of their character
The challenge posed to Jesus by Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor seems to me child’s play in comparison to this display of victimary pathology.
No doubt the predominantly racial post-Holocaust victimology of the Obama administration has little in common with Putin’s reliance on Russia’s post-Soviet oligarchs or China’s increased grant of authority to the Communist Party and the military bureaucracy. Yet with a few encouraging exceptions, notably India, the totalitarian mentality seems to be progressing on a broad front at the expense of open political dialectic.
Since the beginnings of modern society there has been a “Left” and a “Right,” at first defined ethno-religiously in the empirical British fashion as Whigs and Tories, then during the French Revolution on the one-dimensional spectrum that has held up pretty much unchanged until today. The dichotomy is immediately understandable in originary terms: the Left is the party of moral equality, modeled on the originary exchange of signs and the resentment generated by approaching the sacred center; the Right is the party of ethical firstness, of worldly order with its hierarchically differentiated roles. But with the justification provided to victimary rhetoric by the Holocaust model of “inorganic” oppression, the generally unspoken traditions that maintained the social order and the very notion of firstness are increasingly called into question. Social hierarchy as such is not denied, but making ascriptive difference a proxy for hierarchical difference permits the assimilation of organic economic relationships to the ascriptive oppression of a caste system.
Morality and firstness are asymmetrical, and the Left has always (correctly) insisted that morality is the more fundamental of the two. But until WWII, the values that guaranteed the necessary inequalities of the social order had always been taken for granted. In the West, Christianity provided a guarantee of the necessity of the worldly order. From a game-theory perspective, this worldly faith is a way of resolving the prisoner’s dilemma that faces the citizens of a free society; if all cooperate in submitting to the rules, the system will work better than if some defect. Such faith can only be dismissed as “pie in the sky” from a perspective that is indifferent to the social order’s worldly functioning—the perspective of those who see themselves as outside the decision-making process and free to resent its results.
No doubt the very existence of a Left and a Right reflects the refusal of both sides to fullyaccept this premise. But if we compare the oppositional attitude that reigned throughout the era of “bourgeois democracy” to the moral arrogance that the post-Cold War Left derives from its victimary perspective, the obvious difference is that in the past, “capital” and “labor,” whatever their mutual hostility, always understood themselves as organically linked in a common enterprise. Negotiations might be difficult because in the small, the two sides are in a zero-sum game: what the bosses keep, the workers don’t get. Marx’s “labor theory of value,” a political rather than an economic principle, gives the workers the right to call giving up anything“exploitation,” the extraction of surplus value. But being “exploited” is not an immoral contingency; it is the way “capitalism” works, and until a revolutionary situation emerges, the workers must be content to seek incremental improvements in their lot. And it goes without saying that the vast majority of American workers who have fought for better wages and working conditions never thought of themselves as socialists.
As a rule, those of my generation, even old radicals such as Bernie Sanders (a month younger than I), continue to think of the social order in organic rather than ascriptive terms. But in the postwar era, particularly since the end of the Cold War, the Nazi-Jew model of ascriptive oppression has gradually come to be applied to formerly negotiable differences, and has by now begun to eat away at the foundations of the democratic process.
The postwar reaction to the Holocaust put an end to unequal de jure relationships between ascriptive groups. Its subsequent evolution into victimocracy is paradoxical. Postwar civil rights legislation abolished the inequality of status between blacks and whites. This logically led to the absorption of racial difference, where it still persisted, into the mix of political differences to be negotiated through elections and subsequent deal-making. But the results of this negotiation—affirmative action and the doctrine of “disparate impact”—have paradoxically regenerated de jure differentiation in the inverse image of the racial discrimination of the past. Victimary categories are often guarantees of more favorable treatment than the “white” majority, and above all sources of the moral power to condemn the latter for its “privilege” that presumably maintains the “minority” in permanently inferior status.
Liberal democracy depends on the existence of a political market parallel to the economic market and concerned with establishing laws to keep resentments under control. Yet as the Left increasingly defines the American political process as a struggle between the “privileged” and those marked as victims, the possibilities of fruitful negotiation have dwindled. The Left increasingly sees its clientele as deserving of a moral consideration that cannot be measured in terms of profit and loss: the victim does not bargain for wages with the oppressor, he demands reparations. But once the opposition between the factions becomes defined in moral rather than politico-economic terms, democratic politics becomes unworkable. If the Republicans often appear baffled it is because they remain committed to political negotiation even as their opponents see political compromise with them as immoral. “Tea Party” extremism has been a (largely ineffective) attempt at a compensatory radicalism. It is notable that despite Obama’s low approval ratings (and 2014’s crushing defeat), the candidates for the 2016 Democratic nomination, notably the wife of the most successful Democratic president since the New Deal, the triangulating New Democrat Bill Clinton, have moved to Obama’s left rather than his right. The last time anyone heard a Democratic candidate talk seriously about bipartisanship was before the 2008 election.
All other things being equal, democracy is certainly a greater source of creativity than dictatorship. It is hard to believe that China or Russia will be able to hold their own with the West in the domain of scientific and technological innovation in the foreseeable future. But once the balance between firstness and moral reciprocity on which the political and ideological freedoms of the West depend has been perturbed by an increasing emphasis on symbolic manipulation, it is easier to focus on political reparations for ascriptive differences than on making these differences disappear, even assuming such a thing is possible. In conjunction with this development is the broad application of victimary thinking to the natural environment in the name of combating “climate change,” the most disquieting aspect of which is no doubt that victimary obsession with its implications has made any kind of scientific consensus impossible. The use of the term “denial” that couples climate-change skeptics with deniers of the Holocaust is no accident. The Holocaust is the foundation of the victimary; “climate change” is its consecration as henceforth the essence of our relationship to the natural world.
Will these expansions of the Holocaust model of ascriptive difference render the democratic process progressively more unworkable, leading to ever more government regulation and “green” cronyism, presidential autocracy and Twittermob thought-control? Only the experience of a new administration can tell us. It will be instructive to discover not simply to what extent a Republican—or a “Clintonian” Democratic—president can ease the regulatory overload, energize the sluggish economy, beef up the military… but above all to learn whether a new administration can reestablish a democratic process of debate and negotiation, allowing for real interaction and compromise between the parties. Can the Left, in a word, come to accept being just “the Left” and not the moral center of the society, relegating conservatism and Christianity itself to modes of reactionary hatred and ignorance? Can the Twittermob and the victimary activists be marginalized? We shall have to wait and see.
Afterword: on political paradox
Just as the function of all social structures can be summed up as “deferring resentment,” so the distribution of political resentments into Right and Left creates a system of political debate that converts the paradoxical structure of resentment (the resenter depends on the persistence of what he would destroy in imagination; Hamlet is the great revelation of modern resentment, although Racine’s sparer Phèdre is equally powerful) into an exchange of ideas.
In the pre-democratic era, deferring resentment was, religion aside, indistinguishable from maintaining order; the peasant may have resented the king and the whole feudal structure, but couldn’t do anything about it. This is the vision of resentment one finds in Nietzsche and his disciple Max Scheler, the author of Umsturz der Werte, translated as The Man of Resentment. But resentment is not mere sterile frustration, it is the originary source of creativity and culture (cf. my comments on the Iliad in Chronicle 346 and elsewhere). The genius of the democratic system—which I’m pretty sure is the best we can do, but less sure that the “best” will win out when those “full of passionate intensity” have acquired the nuclear weapons that the “best” invented—is that articulating competing resentments allows for genuine compromise that generates new understanding, analogously to the determination of prices by the market rather than by fiat. But the democratic process remains a mechanism for deferring resentment, which means deferring paradox; and what is deferred is still there.
As described above, the equilibrium between Left and Right, which is most clearly reflected in the American two-party system but exhibited by all parliaments, is necessarily asymmetric. One side is Robespierre and the other Edmond Burke. When the system works, which means that the residual resentments are deferred in deference to pressing practical questions, compromises can be reached that contribute to socio-economic dynamism. But when these compromises are not forthcoming, one is forced to recognize that the paradox has reemerged.
Impatience with parliamentary debate is not a new idea for those who remember the 20thcentury. It is a common feature both of the Left and of the “Radical Right,” which is an oxymoron only for those who understand politics in static, that is, unparadoxical terms. The Nazis were “socialists” unrivalled in their contempt for parliaments. They were not, like the traditional Right, followers of a Burkean ethic, but of a new Nietzschean morality that inverted the traditional Judeo-Christian relationship between morality and ethics—essentially by flatly denying the validity of the originary moral intuition that Judeo-Christianity emphasized, but emphatically did not invent. GA discovers the Sklavenmoral in the originary scene, but the Nazis cared not for such anthropological niceties. Instead, they inverted the Hebrew notion of election—firstness as a “light unto the nations”—into the “morality” that the destiny of humanity was to serve the master race, we know with what result.
Working like Marx’s old mole beneath the surface of the democratic political order, the scandal of the Holocaust, seventy years after the end of WWII, has broken liberal democracy’s truce between the moral and the ethical, equality and firstness, allowing the originary paradox of their union to reemerge. Girard’s term for such a reemergence of paradox is mimetic crisis. Whether a forthcoming administration can quell the crisis and reestablish democratic legitimacy in the age of robotics and the Islamic State remains an open question.