Monday, December 2, 2013

Irrepressible Conflict, Redux?

Americans have been complaining—impotently—about the “gridlock” and polarization gripping Washington for the past decade or more.  This is reflected in the steep decline in so-called “purple” states where the two major parties are more or less competitive. In the meantime, the number of independent voters has grown to unprecedented proportions.

The Democrats’ decision to implement Obamacare without a single Republican vote is a key driver in the escalation of the partisan war.  This has resulted in arbitrary and unlawful delays in implementation, and on November 21 the Democrats, again without a single Republican vote, changed the Senate rules governing the rights of the minority by terminating the right to filibuster judicial deliberations.

Are these just typical political bumps and bruises, or is there something much more fundamental and ominous brewing?  We can look to our own American history for some clues

Monday, April 30, 1860, dawned breezy and cloudless in Charleston, South Carolina.  Delegates to the Democratic national convention gathered again at the Institute Hall, having experienced a long and boisterous week since the meeting had first been gaveled to order.

Delegates supporting the presidential candidacy of Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois were pushing for adoption of a platform plank that would—once again—paper over the divide between north and south on the slavery issue.  Those opposing Douglas, although in the minority, had already decided to force the matter.  They were supporting a platform plank that positively affirmed that neither Congress nor any territorial legislature had the authority to prohibit slavery in the western territories.

This was not only a slap at Douglas and his popular sovereignty doctrine established in the Kansas-Nebraska Act six years earlier, it was a direct challenge to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party which came into existence in large part because of northern opposition to the extension of slavery.

The southern faction was led by such “fire eaters” as William L. Yancey of Alabama and political connivers like James Slidell of Louisiana.  These men and their caucus had already decided to trigger the nuclear option and cause a split in the Democratic Party that would lead to both election of a Republican president and secession of the slave states from the union.

And so, the showdown finally came on that beautiful spring day in Charleston.  When all the arguing and haranguing was over, the convention voted 165 to 138 to uphold the Douglas language and defeat the Yancey report.  Bruce Catton describes what came next in The Coming Fury:
. . . as the crowd in the galleries sat tensely silent, the cotton-state delegations, one after another, announced their withdrawal.  It was done quietly.  A writer for the Richmond Dispatch recalled that “there was no swagger, no bluster.  There were no threats, no denunciations.  The language employed by the representatives of these seven independent sovereignties was as dignified as it was feeling, and as courteous as it was either.  As one followed another in quick succession, one could see the entire crowd quiver as under a heavy blow.  Every man seemed to look anxiously at his neighbor as if inquiring what is going to happen next."
What happened next, of course, is that the Democrats split into a northern and southern wing, just as the Yancey cabal planned.  This permitted Abraham Lincoln to win a decisive victory in the Electoral College that November while receiving just under 40% of the popular vote.  By the spring of 1861 eleven slave states had seceded to form the Confederate States of America, and four bloody years later they were bludgeoned into returning, their slaves now free, to the federal union.

The Larger War

The American Civil War occurred because the unsustainable tensions between the rapidly industrializing north and the stand-pat, agrarian south finally exploded.  The political economy of the north was based on free labor and extraordinarily open and unregulated markets, buoyed up by a high tariff trade policy.  This encouraged an exponential growth in wealth and technology in the three decades preceding the war, and would set the stage for America’s global domination within a century.

The political economy of the south, on the other hand, was based on cotton and slave labor, which could only be sustained by a rigidly aristocratic hierarchy and an embargo against democratization of capital and education.

These diverging dynamics were there for everyone to see, especially after the Whigs pushed through the Tariff of 1842.  The Mexican War resulted in the annexation of over 900,000 square miles, including the soon-to-be-discovered gold fields of California and silver mines of Nevada.  Southerners fantasized that these new lands could support the expansion of their slave-based economy, while northerners were eager to exploit the minerals and strategic ports of the California coast.

Endless political wrangling in search of an acceptable policy that could accommodate both northern and southern strategic economic goals characterized the 1850s.  From the Compromise of 1850 right up to Kentucky Senator John Crittenden’s 1861 proposal to embed the old Missouri Compromise into the Constitution, every attempt at integration failed.

From our vantage in history we can see why these efforts were so futile.  No one could have stopped the tides of human evolution.  Catton demonstrates how politicians in the crucial decade leading up to the war were increasingly prisoners of immense evolutionary dynamics, with fewer and fewer options to rediscover common ground as the years wore on.

New York Senator William Seward stated the case plainly and to partisan effect in his famous “Irrepressible Conflict” speech of October 25, 1858. 
The Democratic party derived its strength, originally, from its adoption of the principles of equal and exact justice to all men.  So long as it practised this principle faithfully it was invulnerable.  It became vulnerable when it renounced the principle.  . . . At last, the Republican party has appeared.  It avows, now, as the Republican party of 1800 did, in one word, its faith and its works, “Equal and exact justice to all men.”  Even when it first entered the field, only half organized, it struck a blow which only just failed to secure complete and triumphant victory. In this, its second campaign, it has already won advantages which render that triumph now both easy and certain.

. . . I know, and you know, that a revolution has begun.  I know, and all the world knows, that revolutions never go backward. . . . While the government of the United States, under the conduct of the Democratic party, has been all that time surrendering one plain and castle after another to slavery, the people of the United States have been no less steadily and perseveringly gathering together the forces with which to recover back again all the fields and all the castles which have been lost, and to confound and overthrow, by one decisive blow, the betrayers of the constitution and freedom forever.
Senator Yancey spoke in reply for the south two years later at that fateful convention in Charleston:
We simply claim that we, being coequal with you in the Territories, we having property which is as sacred to us as yours is to you, that is recognized as such by the Constitution of our common country—shall enjoy, unmolested, the rights to go into the Territories, and to remain there, and enjoy those rights as citizens of the United States, as long as our common government holds those Territories in trust for the States of which we are citizens. That is all.

We shall go to the wall upon this issue if events shall demand it, and accept defeat upon it.  Let the threatened thunders roll and the lightning flash through the sky, and let the dark cloud now resting on the Southern horizon be pointed out by you. Let the world know that our people are in earnest.  In accepting defeat upon that issue, my countrymen, we are bound to rise, if there is virtue in the Constitution. But if we accept your policy, where shall we be?  We shall then have assented to the great fact involved in adopting your platform, that the government is a failure so far as the protection of the South in the Territories is concerned.  . . .  Is it true, gentlemen of the whole country, that our government is a failure so far as the plain and unequivocal rights of the South are concerned?  If it be a failure, we are not patriots unless we go to work at the very foundation stone of this error and reconstruct this party on a proper basis.
Seward sees revolution approaching, while Yancey will go to the wall to prevent it.  Ultimately the leaders of secession saw themselves as profoundly conservative, preserving the constitutional order as they saw it against the Yankee usurpers.

As much as we their descendants, looking back upon the violent results of this irremediable divergence, might deplore the bloodshed and destruction that had such profound and lasting results, we would be foolish not to realize that we find ourselves in almost the exact same bind today that Seward, Douglas, Yancey, Jefferson Davis, and Lincoln were in 150 years ago.  In fact, we are fighting the same war only under immensely altered circumstances.  And the two sides are as irreconcilable now as we were then.

The Civil War settled the matter of the nation’s political economic trajectory and moral underpinnings.  Lincoln had thoroughly tied the Constitution to the founding principles established in the Declaration of Independence, and the postwar constitutional amendments sought to permanently frame this holism.  America as a whole would adopt the north’s industrialization, although the south was permitted to opt out when the costs of thorough and radical reconstruction became too much for the nation to pay.  Individual liberty and responsibility played out in a wide-open market would be the foundation of America’s prosperity, both economically and morally.

The matter didn’t stay completely settled, however.  Within forty years of Appomattox the Progressive movement began to undermine the national commitment to the primacy of individual liberty.  Although the industrial transformation of America was generating unimaginable affluence in the aggregate, to too many this came at the cost of disruption, chaos, and an unfairly reconfigured distribution of wealth.  Some even came to believe that all this prosperity was enabling the concentration of political power into the hands of a relative few plutocrats and their industrial combines. 

The first Progressive president, Teddy Roosevelt, sought to trim the sails of these powerful men without disrupting the general prosperity.  He was, after all, a Republican, and the Republicans were the party of industry and entrepreneurism.  His successor Woodrow Wilson, however, was an avowed foe of individual sovereignty and an adherent to the “living constitution” theory of federal power.  He supported the so-called “Progressive amendments” aimed at rejiggering the Constitution away from individual sovereignty and re-establishing it on a more communitarian basis.

This Has All Happened Before . . .

And thus the first seeds of today’s coming fury were planted.  Since that time, fueled by both the ghastly global communist experiment and Europe’s more benign social democracies, the American Left has gradually morphed into its current determination to attenuate personal liberty in favor of the group rights.  In the name of freedom from both de jure and de facto forms of social, political, and economic oppression, our modern-day “progressives” have reinvigorated the very tribal social and moral structures that the American Revolution and the Civil War were fought to repel.

They have been aided and abetted by numerous fads and academic intrigues in which the basis of Western culture with its commitment to the promotion of liberty and the defeat of tyranny is under continuous, relentless, and mendacious attack.  The deconstructionism of the postmodernists has greatly assisted the Left in its undermining of classical liberal values and achievements; the assault on Reason is deliberately designed to promote emotion as the standard of dialogue and social validity.  Emotions, of course, are essential to tribal social structures; reason is their mortal enemy.

The second seeds of today’s looming civil war were planted by the very success of industrial capitalism that the Left decries.  The early 20th century breakthroughs in relativity and quantum physics theories made the Information Age possible.  The “creative destruction” dynamics of free and open markets constitute a “virtuous circle” of continuous improvements in productivity via invention, education, and increased social leisure time.

From the broadest view of human history, the first American Civil War was just a battle—albeit a significant one—in the accelerating divergence of the industrial from the agrarian political economies.  The Civil War looming today will be a battle in the more recent divergence of the information from the industrial political economies. 

As 150 years ago the industrial world was a radical departure from the agrarian, and as now the information world is an equally radical departure from the industrial, even so there is no going back to allay the concerns of the earlier mode.  Restoration of the old order is impossible.  Emergence is a feature of human evolution—indeed of cosmic evolution—and we have no evidence whatsoever that time’s arrow has ever reversed itself.  Thus each emergent is here to stay until it itself is superseded by the next one.

On the other hand, earlier structures, even though they are subsumed into the emerging ones, do not go quietly into the good night.  The tribal/agrarian/imperial political economy has been at continuous war with the individualistic/industrial/republican political economy since at least the Protestant Reformation.  Its home base has morphed with time but its aims have remained constant.

In Lincoln’s time the south was clearly an expression of that old—and very longstanding—agrarian order, while the north was equally obviously an exemplar of the new.  But today, for most of us, the lines are not so clearly drawn.  But they are there to be seen, with just a little effort.

Let us begin by remembering that the industrial revolution was occasioned by a deeper and more profound revolution in consciousness.  This showed itself in a significant way in the European Renaissance, but burst out into as a new social and political expression in the Protestant Revolution.

The transition from tribal consciousness to individual consciousness was emblemized by the Florentine writer Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s 1486 essay "Oration on the Dignity of Man" and later by Martin Luther’s insistence that the individual is directly responsible to God for his faith and behavior, rendering mediation by priests and churches unnecessary.

If each human being has his own dignity anointed by God, what power then does his clan, tribe, king, or church have over him?

From these early insights sprang the entire modern world, with its commitment to Reason and its expression in science.  Within a century of Luther’s radical challenge to the medieval church came the establishment of proto-republics in Tudor England and Orange Holland.  Within another century the European and particularly the Scottish Enlightenments had proclaimed the principles for the political economy of societies based on individual sovereignty, and by 1776 the Americans had established the first secular republic based entirely on those principles.

The Americans and their British cousins would boldly push the cause of individual liberty not just politically, but more importantly socially and economically.  The many efforts to organize themselves to conform to their principles led to the development of market economies, protected by the rule of law, with its provisions for protecting patents and contracts.

Even with all the setbacks and disruption, the Anglosphere-led modern revolution made possible a world of unimaginable wealth.  In 1900 there were about billion and a half people on the planet; today we can easily host our 7+ billions.  Global average life expectancy at birth has more than doubled from 31 to 70 years.

This unprecedented explosion of global wealth, while obvious in its general statistics, does not show up evenly across the planet.  Those societies that first organized themselves to create, participate in, and expand free markets were the ones that first benefited from those efforts.  But today every society, with a handful of exceptions, is part of a modern global political economy, even those that resist and denounce it.

But as Joseph Schumpeter soberly remarked of capitalism, this modern individual-sovereignty-based political economy is driven by the law of creative destruction.  Just as each individual seeks to maximize the value and ease of his life, so too do societies.  Such continuous maximization necessarily seeks to apply each innovation and productivity increase to the endless goal of finding the better way of life.

And so industrial capitalism lawfully planted the seeds of its own creative destruction.  It was its adherence to and reliance upon scientific inquiry, as we have noted, that generated the early 20th century discoveries of relativity and quantum physics, which in turn led the way to the technological breakthroughs that brought about the Information Revolution.

The Enervation of Classical Liberalism

As the great historian Walter Russell Meade has demonstrated, the political philosophy illuminating the breakthroughs of the modern era is classical liberalism, based upon the writings of John Locke and the other leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment.  Classical liberalism, Meade writes,
seeks ordered liberty through politics—namely, the reconciliation of humanity’s need for governance with its drive for freedom in such a way as to give us all the order we need (but no more) with as much liberty as possible. In this sense, liberty isn’t divided or divisible into freedoms of speech, religion, economic activity or personal conduct: Genuine liberals care about all of the above and seek a society in which individuals enjoy increasing liberty in each of these dimensions while continuing to cultivate the virtues and the institutions that give us the order without which there can be no freedom.
This liberalism represents a noble and novel advance over the longstanding imperial agrarian order with its rigid social roles bolstered by compelling religious mythologies that sanctify the existing political economic structures.  This way of human organization, which superseded the earlier hunter/gatherer societies, guaranteed the long-term viability of humanity by developing and defending agriculture and animal husbandry as superior technologies for survival.  For the first time, human beings created surplus, the sine qua non of the growth of wealth and standards of living.

Similarly, the modern industrial order ratcheted up the productivity of human reproduction, exponentially expanding global wealth and the potential for the human species to deepen its viability.  It produced social surplus orders of magnitude far greater than people could in the agrarian world, offering a dramatic pool of credit from which to invest in the next magnitude of reproduction.

The apotheosis of this era came after World War II.  To support the efficient production of this surplus, capital was needed in huge quantities to underwrite the global industrial world.  America’s military and industrial response to the fascist threats from Japan and Germany established the institutions to channel this capital into appropriate and efficient application.  The postwar international agreements like the Bretton Woods deal for global financial stability and the treaty establishing the United Nations symbolized the triumph of centralized capitalism.  Classical liberalism had yielded the best possible results of the Industrial Age.

But even then the postmodern Information Age had begun to promise the next exponent in creativity, wealth, and surplus.  The triumph of the Manhattan Project was made possible by mastering Einstein’s insights.  The invention of the transistor by scientists at Bell Labs ushered in the new age.  The breathtaking triumphs of the Apollo mission and other space initiatives were only possible because of the burgeoning applications of computer technologies.

As conservative political writer Michael Barone recently noted,
There is a reason public policy in industrial age America (and other democratic countries) moved toward greater regimentation and standardization. Centralized command and control was a good way to run assembly lines.
There is a reason also that public policy in the information age, elsewhere and here until 2008, moved toward more market mechanisms. Central planners have a hard time anticipating how IT systems and consumers will respond.
Moore’s Law so powerfully symbolizes the Information Age exponent for an even greater surplus that thinkers like Ray Kurzweil can both paint a picture of a world so different from our own today and plausibly suggest that this world will emerge in the lifetime of many of us alive today.

And yet. 

There is something quintessentially if maddeningly human in our resistance to change, and our inability (or unwillingness) to learn from our history to apply its lessons to today. 

Like our great forefathers in the 1850s confronting a world similarly beset by powerful and inexorable centrifugal forces, most of us similarly cannot face and welcome these developments wholeheartedly.  Our liberals have become reactionary defenders of the big institutional status quo, and our conservatives have by and large failed to re-imagine and promote (like Lincoln did) the American principles that made possible the very successes of the last century.

This is doubtlessly a feature of human development.  The Age of Reason was also the Age of the Individual Ego, and the evidence is convincing that collectively we have yet to hit the mark where the vast majority of us develop healthy egos at an earlier enough stage in life to make a difference.  A sober look at our politics will confirm this observation.  Pettiness, “gotcha” tactics, narcissism, corruption, political correctness, and shallow reasoning are among the tawdry dynamics that underdeveloped egos are caught up in—all of it magnified by the instant gratification offered by the Internet and social media.

The Looming Civil War

I suggest that the hardening of attitudes that we have experienced since the end of the Cold War is an inescapable feature of the divergence between the modern and postmodern worlds—exacerbated by the inconvenient truth that the premodern world still has something to say about all of it.

More vexing, history does not always signal clearly what's coming next.  Although the small clique of slaveholders who whipped up the walkout of delegates that April day in 1860 knew what they wanted, the vast majority of Americans presumed that this was just another tempest in the sectarian teapot.  Today we know how deluded this assumption was.  So when Harry Reid and his clique triggered the "nuclear option" in undisguised service of a nakedly partisan goal, like our ancestors a century and a half ago we too hope that this is just more of the same "sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Is this an equally deluded assumption?

“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” Albert Einstein was famously quoted as saying.  As was true for our prewar forefathers in the 1850s, so it is true for us today. 

Back then they were trapped by their own presumptions about the direction their efforts were taking them in, and they discovered no other choice than to dig in and defend their own perspective.

Today we are similarly trapped but in a world exponentially more complicated.  It is still a rare gift for individuals to transcend “the same kind of thinking we used when we created” our problems.  To expect entire societies to do this successfully is, lamentably, asking too much of evolution.  We are as we are, and to date no one, not even Jesus the Christ or the Buddha, has discovered a way to accelerate the evolution of our consciousness.

But that raises the very serious issue: are we equally condemned to find ourselves in an irrepressible conflict, a new civil war, whose outcome, like that of the earlier one, will astonish us all?  Lincoln dryly noted in his Second Inaugural Address, that
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.  Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease.  Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.
Will we someday soon be saying similar things about this unfolding crisis?

From our position in the midst of the maelstrom, it appears that cataclysmic conflict is inevitable.  The left/liberal policy commitment is to extend equality of outcomes to all Americans by vigorous application of outdated centralized government machinery.  The right/libertarian reaction is to denounce such chutzpah as contrary to the requirements of the emerging economy without offering policies to clear the way for everyone to participate successfully.  Both sides are deeply committed to their perspectives and defend them with the zealotry of the faithful.

And here’s the tough thing: like the north and south in the years leading to Fort Sumter, they are both right.  Each perspective is, by its own presumptions, correct and coherent.  The trouble is that history has no regard for human pronouncements; the actual market place of human nature is the endless search for the better life—better not just materially but emotionally, intellectually, culturally, and spiritually.  And as the modern era demonstrated, humanity will continuously move those goal posts, so that the demand for and measurement of the good life will always evolve.

It is my faith that someday our consciousness will grow large enough to embrace this fundamental truth.  Until then, however, we are helplessly marching to another war with ourselves in service of a better way. 

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