One fact familiar to French historians that never seems to be mentioned in reference to the flourishing of authoritarian regimes nowadays is the victory of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in the presidential election in December 1848, setting the stage for his coup d’état in 1851 and the subsequent restoration of the Empire, which lasted until he foolishly provoked the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
The 1848 revolution had been led by the liberal bourgeoisie, the capacités who had been excluded from power under Louis-Philippe, when the vote was restricted to large proprietors. The 1848 presidential election was the first since 1792 to allow universal (male) suffrage, and the liberals were appalled by the result. Allowing the peasants to vote was no doubt a democratic advance, emulating democracy as practiced in the USA, but the magic name of Napoleon, evoking the glorious memories of the Empire that had ended thirty-odd years before, made it obvious in retrospect why the authoritarian nephew of the first Napoleon would defeat the liberals and radicals.
I bring this up because mutatis mutandis it explains so well the success of “conservative” dictatorships in places like Iran and now Turkey. It is also reflected in the growth of such parties as the Front National in France. The “peasantry” of the US that elected Trump, which is rather the disaffected industrial working class, although far more adapted to modern conditions than the villagers (clingers?) of back-country Iran and Turkey, nonetheless plays a similar role. France, which still does have “peasants,” although most of Marine Le Pen’s voters seem to come from the French equivalent of the Rust Belt, is an intermediate case. It has seen the dramatic growth of the Front, which doubled its vote percentage from 2002 to 2017, and might have done considerably better had Le Pen realized that as a real contender she would have to do more in the widely-watched second-round debate than revile her adversary and propose a confused scheme for leaving the Euro.
I have no illusion that this is a brilliant new insight, but I do think that foregrounding it sheds some light on the woes stemming from the difficulty that “ordinary people” find in adapting to the increasingly digitized modern economy.
This should be coupled with another insight, which I found in David Greenfield’s “How to Solve the Palestinian Problem,” a May 19 column in David Horowitz’ FrontPage Magazine: “It’s often pointed out that the Palestinians are a fictional national identity. But the Iraqis, Syrians and many others are equally artificial; historical names attached to fake countries.” Since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, when Sykes-Picot carved “nation-states” out of what had previously been administrative provinces, all the states in the area have been artificial creations. The brutality of Saddam Hussein and the Assads, the subservience of Lebanon to one religious grouping or other over the years, all stem from this same basic fact. The fact of speaking Arabic does not make the Arab states into nations like France or even Germany. The success of the Islamic State in Iran and more recently of Erdogan in Turkey is founded like Louis-Napoleon’s on the support of the still tribal and religiously conservative populations of the hinterland, but the tolerance for centralized tyranny also reflects the multi-ethnic composition of these countries, where “real” Turks and Iranians are very much aware of the multitude of other ethnicities, Kurds and others, whose subordination rather than integration they must assure. And these are the relatively coherent nations. The same phenomenon is true in spades in Iraq and Syria, and explains the chassé-croisé in which a Sunni tyrant ruled over a mostly Shiite Iraq while a quasi-Shiite Alawite tyrant dominates mostly Sunni Syria.
What Greenfield suggests is less a practical solution than a thought-experiment: suppose the West gave up trying to create nation-states in a region where there are really no nations and dealt with the various clans and tribes on their own terms, as at least partly nomadic and decentralized? Yet the world’s political organization depends on a division into states, and the only political form that could encompass such a tribe-based system would be … the Islamic State, unless Erdogan achieves his ambition to reestablish the Ottoman Empire.
What kind of state-level government is feasible in the Middle East?—and one could certainly include large areas of Africa in the question. The fact that we have no clear response suggests that the end of colonialism, however morally legitimate we may find it, did not resolve the difficulty to which colonization, both hypocritically and sincerely, had attempted to respond: how to integrate into the global economy of technologically advanced nation states those societies that remain at what we cannot avoid judging as a lower level of social organization.
There is no “racism” here; on the contrary, by assuming that all human beings have fundamentally the same abilities, and that we owe a certain prima facie respect to any social order that is not, like Nazism, altogether pathological, we cannot help but note that some societies are less able than others to integrate the scientific and technological advances of modernity. Thus health crises in Africa continue to be dealt with in what can only be called a “neocolonial” fashion, however unprofitable it may be for the former colonizers, who send doctors, medicine, medical equipment, and food aid to nations suffering from epidemics of Aids or Ebola, or starving from drought or crop failure—or rebuilding from earthquakes, as in Haiti.
Thus although Greenfield’s suggestion can hardly be taken seriously as a program, it adds to the internal global-“populist” conflict of advanced societies the problem that some time ago (see Chronicle 473) I spoke of as “the final conflict”: that between the industrialized, technologically advanced world and what used to be called the “third world,” and can still be so called if we are willing to call China and Vietnam, along with the disastrous examples of Cuba, North Korea, and now Venezuela, the “second world.”
Thus the contemporary world offers apparent disconfirmation both internal and external of Fukuyama’s thesis of the necessary triumph of liberal democracy. Which thesis curiously can be said to have been the basis, however differently interpreted, of the foreign policies of both W. Bush and Obama (see Chronicle 503)—the first, seeking to shake up the old structures to release their “natural” tendency to conform to the liberal-democratic model, the second, being willing to wait until what was in effect the same “nature” eventually took its course.
This conflict in today’s world is most clearly apparent in the “clash of civilizations” between the Judeo-Christian world and Islam. Clearly neither “normal” Islam nor its radical, jihadist variety is fully compatible with the liberal-democratic model, and it would seem that incompatibility with the very nature of the nation-state is at the root of the failure of liberal democracy, as not just a political but above all an economic reality, to take root in the Middle East. Wealthy oil sheikdoms, including Saudi Arabia, provide for their populations, but are hardly examples of modern economies. And the problems posed to the today’s West by immigration, which stands in such striking contrast to that of the Ellis Island era, reflect resentments and incompatibilities whose dynamic has never received a really convincing explanation.
There are few victimary terms more artificial than Islamophobia, but the term nonetheless reflects a real paradox, which its dictionary meaning does little to explain. It is not enough to speak of the inertia of traditional social systems when it is often the Western-born children of earlier immigrant generations who become jihadists. Radical Islam cannot be explained by clichés about alienation. It is neither useful to speak of a “clash of civilizations” in the Spengler-Toynbee mode of all-but-windowless cultural monads, nor should we accompany Girard all the way to the other extreme and see Islamism as merely a mode of negative “mediation” of Muslims by Western modernity. Indeed, our new Spengler, David P. Goldman, along with Mark Steyn, strike me as much more percipient about the problems of the modern world, in which Muslim radicals are encouraged in their barbarous extremism not just by their resentment of the West but more profoundly, by what seems close to the West’s own death wish. It is precisely this that the West’s own timid “populism” is reacting to, but at the same time, to the threat of the far more virulent “populism” represented by Islam. That the global elite finds it easier to oppose the internal populists than those of the exterior is perhaps the most troubling feature of our times.
For if we have indeed entered the “digital” age, implying an inalterable premium for symbol manipulation and hence IQ-type intelligence, then the liberal-democratic faith in the originary equality of all is no longer compatible with economic reality. Hence the liberal political system, as seems to be increasingly the case today, cannot simply continue to correct the excesses of the market and provide a safety net for the less able. Increasingly the market system seems to have only two political alternatives. It can be openly subordinated to an authoritarian elite, and in the best cases, as in China, achieve generally positive economic results. Or else, as seems to be happening throughout the West, it is fated to erect ever more preposterous victimary myths to maintain the fiction of universal political equality, rendering itself all but impotent against the “post-colonial” forces of radical Islam.
Victimary thinking is an ugly and dangerous business, but the inhabitants of advanced economies in their “crowd-sourced” wisdom appear to have determined so far that it is the lesser evil compared to naked hierarchy. The “transnational elite” imposes its own de facto hierarchy, but masks it by victimary virtue-signaling, more or less keeping the peace, while at the same time in Europe and even here fostering a growing insecurity.
I think we should take seriously Girard’s boutade that the victimary constitutes a posthumous victory for Hitler. The latter gave the world, perhaps for all time, the archetypal example of “absolute evil.” And it may well be that there is no “good” way to deal with absolute evil, that it corrodes everything it touches, including both all efforts to avoid being contaminated by it or reproducing it, and, conversely, all efforts to imitate it, which are by necessity both evil and yet corrupted in a way that true evil is not. One cannot after all fail to recognize the Satanic “heroism” in Himmler’s famous 1943 speech to the SS, one of history’s most terrifying documents (“Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when 500 are there or when there are 1000. And . . . to have seen this through and—with the exception of human weakness—to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.”) For comic relief I could quote from a recent message from an old acquaintance of mine, basically a “good Christian,” who lists “Hitler, Stalin, Cheney and Trump” as examples of what happens when “evil men gain power.”
It is ultimately as a result of the Nazi model that all “disparate impact” can be condemned without appeal, although in practice this has no effect on the privileges of the truly privileged. And because the Jews were Hitler’s principal victims, they can be accused of being “worse than the Nazis” when they assert authority over the Palestinians, as though the various attempts by the Arabs to “drive the Jews into the sea” were justified reactions to the Zionists’ “colonial” intrusion.
But as the economy becomes ever more symbol-driven, these expedients are unlikely to remain sufficient. It would seem that unless science can find an effective way of increasing human intelligence across the board, with all the unpredictable results that would bring about (including no doubt ever higher levels of cybercrime), the liberal-democratic model will perforce follow the bellwether universities into an ever higher level of thought control, and ultimately of tyrannical victimocracy. At which point the “final conflict” will indeed be engaged, perhaps with nuclear weapons, between the self-flagellating victimary West and a backward but determined Third World animated by Islamic resentment…
Or not. Perhaps the exemplary conflict between Western-Judeo-Christian-modern-national-Israeli and Middle-Eastern-Islamic-traditional-tribal-Palestinian can be resolved, and global humanity brought slowly into harmony. Or perhaps the whole West will decline along with its periphery and our great-grandchildren will grow up peacefully speaking Chinese.
Human language was the originary source of human equality, and if our hypothesis is correct, it arose in contrast to the might-makes-right ethos of the animal pecking-order system. The irony would seem to be that the discovery of the vast new resources of human representation made possible in the digital age is in the process of reversing the residue of this originary utopia more definitively than all the tyrannies of the past. Indeed, we may now find in the transparent immorality of these tyrannies a model to envy, because it provided a fairly clear path to the “progress” that would one day overturn them. Whereas for the moment, no such “enlightened” path to the future can be seen.