The Limits of Whig History

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From Anne Applebaum’s article in the Washington Post:

History repeats itself and so do ideas, but never in exactly the same way. Bolshevik thinking in 2017 does not sound exactly the way it sounded in 1917… The current leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, also comes out of the old pro-Soviet far left. He has voiced anti-American, anti-NATO, anti-Israel, and even anti-British (and pro-IRA) sentiments for decades — predictable views that no longer sound shocking to a generation that cannot remember who sponsored them in the past. Within his party there is a core of radicals who speak of overthrowing capitalism and bringing back nationalization….

By contrast, the neo-Bolsheviks of the new right or alt-right do not want to conserve or to preserve what exists. They are not Burkeans but radicals who want to overthrow existing institutions. Instead of the false and misleading vision of the future offered by Lenin and Trotsky, they offer a false and misleading vision of the past. They conjure up worlds made up of ethnically or racially pure nations, old-fashioned factories, traditional male-female hierarchies and impenetrable borders…

It’s worth reading.  Ms. Applebaum correctly identifies many of the troubling trends threatening western democracy.

However, it is also a Whig history narrative too kind to today’s status quo.  It paints with too broad a brush, pathologizing as “Bolshevism” any significant critique of the ascendant neoliberal view.  Yes, many of the views denounced are truly awful, but its overly broad brushes excludes ideas – particularly economic ones – whose inclusion may prove necessary.

She chides both leftist and rightists for hewing to a false version of the past – in the case of the left, to a lack of knowledge on socialism’s failures that would have made figures like Corbyn seem like dinosaurs in the 1990s.  On the right she derides the “a false and misleading vision of the past”, with “traditional male-female hierarchies”, “old-fashioned factories”, and “impenetrable borders” being exemplars of illusion.

If other readings of the past are false, the correct reading is the Whig one, which recognizes the inevitable rise of global markets, open borders, and ever-expanding individualism.  In brief, history culminates in the worldview one might find in The Economist.  It rules out any nationalization of industry or stronger borders of the kind common several decades ago.  It cedes enormous determinative powers to the market to shape policy.  It winks at the disconnectedness of what the left calls “the 1%” and the right refers to as “the cosmopolitan elite” (criticism of which Applebaum insinuatingly links with anti-Semitism) from the citizens with whom they share borders.  It severely limits democratic policy choices under the rationale that history demonstrates we have no alternative but to pursue a set of policies broadly in line with New Labour.

Granted, such an “Economist worldview” has much to recommend it.  At its best, it comes as close to supporting a worldview based on scientific policy as we humans are capable of.  It is also a far better bet than radical alternatives peddled by left or right.

However, the limiting historical narrative profoundly ignores the sources of discontent that have bubbled to the surface in the new millennium.  Why, for example, are so many young people drawn to Corbyn in 2017?  It is indeed probable that many of his supporters do not understand the inefficiencies engendered by old Labour that led to their eclipse by the Blairites.  But the suffering caused by 1970’s inefficiencies should not necessarily take on greater policy importance or relevance than the income stagnation and skyrocketing housing prices of the past several decades.  After all, if history has proven nationalization and economic borders unfeasible, surely the past several decades of western middle and working class economic performance has likewise shown neoliberalism’s fruits to be highly mixed.  It doesn’t take a Bolshevik to note that while economic inefficiency is an evil, so is social inequality – and it may be that sometimes a little inefficiency is worth greater equality, especially where the price is political instability.

Applebaum also chides today’s emerging right for its non-Burkean approach.  In many ways, she is correct.   There is virtually nothing of which a Burkean would approve in Trump’s delivery or lack of respect for institutions.  There was likewise a distasteful messianic element in the man’s campaign – and though in this he paled to Obama, Trump’s incarnation has included an unsavoury strongman element.  Ultimately, Trump presents a threat to democratic institutions that any Burkean must acknowledge.

Yet Applebaum goes too far in her accusations of “Bolshevism”, by which she broadly means wanting to destroy and create anew rather than conserve.  In part this may be due to the breakneck speed of social change, which often demonizes those who wish to maintain institutions common only twenty years ago.  But if the conservative is denied preservation of meaningful borders or traditional familial relationships, what is left?  Such a stripped down conservativism leaves primarily economic rights, with a sprinkling of peripheral issues like Second Amendment claptrap – or in other words, the increasingly discredited worldview of old guard Republicans.

The crux of the problem is that there are few easy answers to today’s policy problems.  Many of the prescriptions of the left and right are indeed the stuff of fantasy.  But nor is the solution to pretend history ended in 1999, borrowing even from the lexicon of that century to mischaracterize and safely dismiss today’s diverse actors.

Ultimately, the neoliberal worldview may indeed prove the correct one:  ever more connected markets, increasingly invisible borders, and traditional family and community structures swept away by liberated individualism.  The economic inequalities of the past decades may yet, as neoliberals hope, level out one day – if not quite into a utopia rivaling the dictatorship of the proletariat, then at least into a world of modest, sustained, year-by-year middle-class wage growth.

Or it may not.  One way forward economically may lie in the pattern common to capitalism in the past:  adopting some of the notions of its critics while preserving the fundamental structure of the system.  Illustrative in this were Bismarck’s adaptation of elements of the socialist platform or FDR’s New Deal break with austerity and limited government.  I personally wonder whether some greater measure of “economic nationalism” (though free of the taint of Steve Bannon) may again be seen as necessary or fashionable – a trajectory made more likely if China, with its simultaneous emphasis on free trade and very strong economic nationalist tendencies, continues its national rejuvenation.   For someone who deeply subscribes to the Whig reading, however, this may seem an unacceptable step backwards.

Even if that does not happen, it is clear that a Whig history narrative excludes important trends and legitimate challenges.  It limits unnecessarily the options of policy makers and explains away too easily the failures of recent decades.  As a result, it has often missed the popular discontent it must now face.

Violating Democrat Norms for the Cause

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As most Canadians are now aware, Canadian Governor General Julie Payette made this controversial statement at a science policy convention on Wednesday:

“Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we’re still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the Earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period,” she said….

And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.

Payette is utilizing her office to arbitrate on metaphysical claims.  In dismissing the notion that “life was a divine intervention”, she is arguing God played no role in the creation of life, and if you don’t believe that too, she is amazed at how stupid you are.

Whether or not you believe God played a role in the existence of life, it is highly inappropriate for the Canadian Governor General to use her office to weigh in on the question, much less deride those who believe differently than her.

This is not merely an abstract metaphysical claim that has no bearing on politics.  If the religious viewpoint can be openly derided by the highest office in Canada, it follows the religious people have diminished place in the public square to voice opinions or help inform policy.  If you are a secularist, this may not seem a bad thing to you – but again, it is not the place of the Governor General to be making these decisions and influencing the direction of policy.

Her comments were also completely unnecessary.  It is entirely possible to mouth platitudes on the importance of science – which the ceremonial Governor General should be doing at such events – without making political statements.

However, those who believe in “the cause” feel differently.  Take federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who has been waging a Twitter offensive with tweets and retweets in support of Ms. Payette.  For such folks, the ends justify the means.  In their universe, promotion of a particular worldview takes precedence over functional Canadian institutions.

After all, it’s hard to imagine that the same folks who are lauding Payette now would feel similarly supportive if she had commented, say, “can you believe that there are people who aren’t aware of how science tells us that a fetus has DNA unique from its mother?”

To be clear, such a hypothetical statement would likewise be very inappropriate from the Governor General.  Yet it is almost certain that were she to say that – which at least is a statement of scientific fact – the reaction on all sides would be wildly different.

Canada has managed to avoid many of the challenges that Trump’s inappropriate rhetoric and tweets have posed to democracy.  Trump’s supporters – even though who know better – frequently turn a blind eye because they too believe the statements further the cause.

Of course, the threats posed by Ms. Payette’s comments are a far, far cry from the danger posed by those of the US President. But they are still significant enough that she needs to be called on it.  The precedent of allowing the Governor General to weigh in on political and metaphysical matters must be nipped firmly and squarely in the bud by any Canadian who believes in the institutions of Canadian democracy – even where such statements may align with “the cause.”

The Second Amendment is an Unhealthy Relic

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Full disclosure:  I am Canadian.  That cultural barrier may mean I will never “get” the fixation of some of my American friends and neighbours on the Second Amendment and its right to bear arms.  To me, the Second Amendment is an outdated feature of the early democratic experiment, a relic that has long outlived its usefulness, and the “right” of gun ownership a positive threat to communal safety.

In the US, however, firearms are part of the conception of fundamental democratic rights as understood by many Americans, evidenced by the Second Amendment.  Just last summer, Trump appeared to encourage political violence if Hilary Clinton were to toughen gun laws.   Evidence also shows that fewer Americans today support strict gun laws than in the 1990s. What is going on?

The first place to look is at the Second Amendment itself.  One very common defense of the Second Amendment focuses on the right to bear arms as necessary to maintain the existence of a democratic state, and without which, the government would devolve into tyranny or perhaps be overwhelmed by foreign invasion.  For the Founding Fathers worried about the longevity of the republican experiment and drawing on the experiences of the Revolutionary War, the concern may have been warranted.

In the event, this does not appear to be supported by the evidence.  One might ask if there has ever been occasion in the past two centuries to think “but for guns…”  In other words, are there concrete examples where, but for the existence of an armed citizenry, the US would have devolved into tyranny?  The existence and proper function of democratic institutions lies not in ownership of firearms, but in the prevalence and acceptance of these norms by its citizens.  This does not require an armed citizenry to flourish.  In America, the crucial foundations for this tradition were borne from the centuries of English democratic evolution and confirmed by President Washington’s personal humility and commitment to democracy.

Across the pond, continental Europe and the UK enjoy their own democratic traditions and robust freedoms without such laws.   Even Switzerland, famous among European nations for widespread possession of firearms among its citizen army, does not allow most of those militia members to carry bullets at home.

Given the overwhelming might a modern government could deploy against its own citizens with drones, fighter jets, tanks and weapons of mass destruction, the calculus of our current age is also radically different from that of the Founding Fathers.  In the early republic, Washington’s generation would have envisioned Napoleonic set-battles or Revolutionary guerilla warfare which featured far greater parity between sides.  The asymmetry between a repressive government and citizenry is now orders of magnitudes higher.  Fantasies of resistance to that dystopian government may presuppose the empirically dubious causal link between arms and democracy, but even if they did not, the small advantage to be gained in that unlikely hypothetical are outweighed obscenely against the costs paid every day in reality.

Yet these arguments hold little water with supporters of gun rights.  Take again these statistics provided by CNN illustrating that far fewer Americans today support strict gun laws than was the case in 1990.  Between 1999 and 2013, the biggest justification for gun ownership, “protection”, increased from 26% of gun owners to 48%.  Yet the evidence shows there is actually less gun violence today than in the 1990s.  

So why does the US seem like a less safe place for gun owners? Perhaps it owes something to the familial and societal breakdown suffered by many lower-income Americans.  For an American victim of decades of wage stagnation, and who is also no longer able to depend on the same degree of familial or church support as in previous generations, the world may indeed appear much less safe.  The post 9/11 and post-Columbine world, with its spectacular acts of random mass violence, may also play a role.

Another key place to look is in the statements of the NRA itself.  This recent NRA advertisement presents a world where firearms are the bulwark against the onslaught of the liberal hordes.  This advertisement suggests the need to bear arms is indeed borne from political fear.

Such conceptions appear little more than paranoid delusions and disgusting right-wing fantasies, the indulgers of which warrant Hillary Clinton’s infamous epithet “deplorables”.  They are also highly alarming indicators of societal breakdown, fueled in no small measure by lurid imaginations and NRA propaganda.  They are part and parcel with Trump’s veiled threat against Clinton.

Yet, like all effective propaganda, they contain a kernel of truth.  In this instance, albeit in hideously disfigured form,  there is legitimate concern over progressive ideological domination in certain cultural arenas.  This is hardly only the concern of the violent extremists that this ad is designed to appeal to.  But for the NRA and its supporters, this concern manifests in fetid, overblown fantasies of a hostile regime where armed protection is the answer.

Another reason why there may be less support for stricter gun laws is the notion that, even were the most draconian prohibitions on gun ownership in place, criminals would still obtain firearms, putting law-abiding citizens at a disadvantage.  There are good reasons for questioning whether this would actually be true – but conjecture aside, this view is undeniably pessimistic.  It presupposes the inefficacy of laws and police on a significant enough scale that citizens must arm themselves to be safe.

Regardless, Americans are for better or worse stuck with the Second Amendment, though long gone are the days of Washington and front-loading muskets.  Though there remains much to admire about the United States, I cannot help but be relieved a constitutional right to bear arms does not exist in my country.  And while US gun violence is down, the perceived need to bear arms is increasing, an increase which may be explained by fears of a hostile, collapsing world where laws can no longer protect citizens.  The existence of the Second Amendment makes possible this unhealthy reaction.  Far from promoting the stability of the democratic experiment as Washington’s generation intended, the outdated Second Amendment may be driving it in the opposite direction.

Constitutional Monarchy: Symbol of Ideological Tolerance

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How does a constitutional monarchy justify itself within the framework of a twenty-first century democratic state?   With the British Queen now 91 years old, expect this question to be re-emerge in the not-too-distant future.  For many observers, there can no longer be a justification.  The contradictions are too great between our system, with its claims of equality for all, versus a ruling family in power by accident of birth.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense brilliantly laid bare the absurdities of monarchical claims and privilege, and the broad trajectory of western civilization has been anti-monarchical ever sense.

In recent years, certain corners of the internet have witnessed the peculiar and imaginative musing of neo-reactionary Jacobites.  Fantasies of absolute monarchy or of dynasty last in power 330 years ago may make for escapist musings for eccentrics.  But what about for the vast majority of us who, for all democracy’s faults, believe in Churchill’s dictum that it is the worst system except for all the others?  Is it possible for democrats today to logically believe in a constitutional monarchy?  For Americans, the re-imposition of a monarchy, constitutional or otherwise, would be absurd and unwanted.  But for citizens of the Commonwealth like myself, not only is it possible for democrats to support constitutional monarchy, but it also carries with it a particular virtue our society desperately needs:  ideological tolerance.

In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom wrote:

“There is [in our democratic society] a general agreement about the most fundamental political principles, and therefore doubts about them have no status. In aristocracies there was also the party of the people, but in democracy there is no aristocratic party. This means that there is no protection for the opponents of the governing principles as well as no respectability for them.”

Bloom correctly observed that democratic ideals tend to lead us toward a certain degree of intellectual conformity.  There cannot be any respectable person that does not hold with them.  I myself am a firm believer in democracy and in its demonstrable merits relative to other systems, but I also recognize much truth in Bloom’s claim.  In the modern world, all regimes carry with them particular ideologies, enforced with varying degrees of rigidity in schools, media and popular culture.  Democracies are no different in this respect, though both the type and severity of their enforcement are far more benign and relaxed than in other regime types.

Nevertheless, democracy’s fundamental premise of “equality” has seen a slow but relentless expansion, particularly in recent decades, in pursuit of a certain type of “equality”, frequently informed by neo-Marxists, which is held to be a good preferable to all others.   In education, for example, equality has come in practice to mean the elimination of most of the canon – once taught to top students – in favour of works conformist mandarins deem as “accessible” or “relevant” to all.  Even our history appears at times to contain little of value, except where it may be mined for fodder in the fight for “equality.”

To be clear, our society should unquestionably implement measures to level the playing field, with the most obvious being free and universal public education.  There can also be no tolerance for the cancer of racism, an irrational prejudice that would deny equality and dignity for arbitrary reasons.  But it is reasonable to observe that many projects aimed at “equality” may be sacrificing treasures for magic beans, or to put it more neutrally, may not be achieving what they set out to do.  It is also reasonable to wonder whether democratic regimes may be pushing us further and further down a particular ideological path.  This is still not quite Soviet Lysenkoism, but still worth considering.

This is where constitutional monarchy affords some ideological breathing space.  Instead of insisting that the entire state conform to utopian visions of equality, the constitutional monarchist broadly acknowledges the superiority of democracy as a mechanism to govern the polis and loves the freedom that it brings, but still allows for some areas of non-conformity within even the symbols and institutions of the state.  It is a counterweight, however small, to plutocracy, technocracy, and utopian radicalism.  It is certainly more human than any of these things.

Constitutional monarchy is a frank acknowledgement of human nature, which is not wholly rational.  It is admittedly inherently Burkean, knowing that it is the product of centuries of democratic evolution and that there is no guarantee that whatever replaced it would be better.  It acknowledges some space for tradition in a world that is being rapidly changed (in many respects for the better) by technology and global integration.  It admires the stability constitutional monarchy has afforded the UK vis-à-vis almost every other land on earth.   It loves democracy and its institutions, but is suspicious of demands for ideological purity.  And so, I personally have little faith that, if the monarchy were tomorrow abolished in my country of Canada, its replacement would change our society for the better.

Does constitutional monarchy still bring with it questions of unearned privilege, of snotty-nosed Etonians looking down on the plebs from a world of unearned privilege?  Yes, even in 2017 it does, and this is perhaps the least palatable side of the institution.  But at least this unpleasant characteristic is frank and widely understood, comes with obligations, and is not hidden beneath a hypocritical veneer of classlessness as may increasingly be the case in the USA.

Naturally it would be absurd to desire the imposition of constitutional monarchies in states which are now republics.  This would be reaction, an absurd imposition opposed to the national character of most republics, and would only mean the weakening of democracy.  Nor would an expansion of royal power in constitutional monarchies be remotely desirable.  However, for citizens of the Commonwealth states, supporting the existing democratic monarchies as a bulwark against the excesses of our regimes is the moderate position.   When the inevitable question of republicanism arises after the current British queen passes, Commonwealth citizens should be aware of the tolerant, patchwork character of what they now have, and look upon demands for monarchy’s abolition with a healthy skepticism of why and what that might mean.