Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Bernification of America?

One of the recurring themes fascinating the Recovering Bureaucrat is the stubborn persistence of socialist longings among far too many of his fellow Americans.  In spite of the overwhelming evidence produced by the twentieth century that every form of socialism is far inferior to free market-based political economies, upwards of half of us are still willing to overthrow our founding principles in favor of a government-run society.  The blood of countless millions of our fellow human beings and the devastation of economies and environments are ignored in the evergreen determination to make the world work according to our yearnings.

Utopia dies hard, if ever.

The RB examined this mystifying syndrome in several posts under the title “The Earnestness of the Left,” noting
the average leftist is concerned with the welfare of the entire community.  He sees elements of what constitute and promote this welfare in ways that too many of his fellow citizens do not.  He is able to see these because he is bright and moral enough to account for the impacts of human activity that cause harm to health and liberty.  He believes that a nation that promotes the blessings of liberty but does not deliver them is hypocritical and immoral.  He accepts that government generally and the federal government particularly constitute the only effective instrument of redress.  He will not rest until all groups enjoy equally in the prosperity of the nation.  He believes that the chief resistance to his policy goals comes from selfish individuals who either don’t see or don’t care about the impacts of their behaviors upon others and the community as a whole.  He has no particular allegiance to the nation’s founding principles or the U. S. Constitution when these tend to stand in the way of universal prosperity.
. . . It is also safe to say that he “feels” these things rather than thinks about them; as a thoroughly postmodernized citizen he shares the pomo conviction that Reason is a dead white man’s tool of oppression.  Feeling therefore trumps logic and rationality.  The embrace of this pattern of emotional impressions makes him a good and reliable congregant in the Church of the All Powerful State, whose clerisy promises him delivery of his most fervent desires on behalf of “the community.”
It also enables a species of groupthink that is characteristic of tribal forms of consciousness: disagreement with the prevailing mythos is grounds for expulsion because it threatens the viability of the tribe.  Orwell was particularly devastating in his critique of this unfortunate tendency.
The RB theorized that much of this longing comes from still-powerful currents of humanity’s tribal experience, millennia in duration, during which we were imprinted by the unexamined conviction that our daily responsibility is to the welfare of the tribe or clan, and that the sacrifice of individual tribe members to this cause is necessary and unremarkable.  In return for playing assigned roles, members are offered security and validation.

We can see this persisting in two of the world’s major religions, Judaism and Islam, which are explicitly based upon tribal connection to and approval by the Divine.  Those who follow Yahweh’s or Allah’s rules are members of the anointed tribe and  will be taken care of; others take their chances.  80% of the world’s population live in cultures dominated by tribal consciousness, and even in the Advanced Sector tribal impulses clash with the drive to individual autonomy and grace.

These impulses live in our psyches and are nourished by the dramatic incompletion of what the RB calls the Individuation Project, a phase of not only human but actually of Kosmic evolution.  This project began in earnest in the Italian Renaissance and gain political traction in the Protestant Reformation.  In order for it to achieve its potential of a society of self-actualized individuals, the newly autonomous person must receive the same love and acceptance he found in his earlier tribal environment.  Since he is now free of the tribe, he must find it from different sources.  This source has been, up until this point in history, the family.

In modern, industrial culture the family has served as a bridge between the tribe and the self-sustaining individual.  It provides, at least in theory, both the love and acceptance each person needs as well as the training and encouragement to become a healthy individual.  Instead of participating in ancient and well-honed rituals to mark our various stages of passing, we take part in a wide variety of ad hoc customs that fluctuate in potency not only among all families but even within individual families. As cultures, the farther we have traveled from our tribal roots the greater the assortment and strength of the practices we have generated to support our offspring in becoming “their own person.”

Obviously we are far from devising appropriate, universal, and effective means of accomplishing this for families to internalize and apply in the raising of our children.  As the Swiss psychologist Alice Miller made so clear in books such as The Drama of the Gifted Child, too many of us actually and unconsciously repeat the mistakes of the generations before us in our collective experimentation to invent the modern family capable of fulfilling its dual mission.

Thus the drive to modernize our tribal history has a long way to go before it finds a solid and effective footing.  This, the RB believes, is a major source of the hidden longing for a return to tribal certainty that gives the desire for socialism its fierce and careless urgency.

Undermining the American Revolution

American political history, alas, demonstrates that even the only nation in the world to establish itself upon the modern bourgeois principles of the Scottish Enlightenment could not inoculate itself from the drag of tribal tendencies.  The Declaration of Independence spends the bulk of its text denouncing the tyranny of the British monarch.  George III represented the tyrannical principle central to tribal political structures, which elevated a single person as chief or king vested with singular powers to preserve and defend the tribe’s life and territory.  This principle has held sway across the globe unquestioned for at least six thousand years.  It only came into question after the Renaissance signaled the awakening of the individual distinct from the tribe, and the Reformation which signaled the beginnings of a unique political economy to accommodate these awakenings.

The Founders were well aware of human psychology with its drive for security and surcease of fear.  They understood well that the survival of their new republic would, in the long run, depend on the development of social institutions that supported and benefited from the maturing of individual sovereignty.  They boldly declared the possibility of a new society but designed a government that, to the best of their aspirations, would be difficult to be made an instrument of tyranny.

This government of specifically limited, enumerated powers bound by an ingenious set of checks and balances lasted a century, but the dynamics of modern industrial political economies—about which they could perforce have no clue—stimulated the call for security over liberty.  The Progressives, greatly influenced by how Europe dealt with the chaotic forces of industrialization and woefully ignorant of the actual gifts of modernization, quickly came to believe that our founding constitutional principles had been overtaken by events.  Woodrow Wilson, one of the most influential leaders of the movement, argued vociferously that individual sovereignty was an impediment of American greatness.

“While we are followers of Jefferson,” he once said, “there is one principle of Jefferson’s which no longer can obtain in the practical politics of America.  You know that it was Jefferson who said that the best government is that which does as little governing as possible . . . But that time has passed.  America is not now and cannot be in the future a place for unrestricted individual enterprise.”

Wilson was reflecting the beliefs of a growing group of intellectuals that included such luminaries as H. G. Wells, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Soule, H. L. Mencken, Randolph Bourne, Lincoln Steffens, and Jane Addams.  One of their greatest thinkers was Herbert Croly, who founded the New Republic to be a journal for the Progressive campaign to remake America.

In his bitter The Revolt Against the Masses, historian Fred Siegel writes that
Croly had little use for Hamilton’s ideal of a commercial republic and even less for Jefferson’s yeoman individualists: they were the bĂȘte noires of his philosophy.  “To achieve a better future,” he argued, Americans had to be “emancipate[d] from their past.”  He rejected American tradition, with its faith in the Constitution and its politics of parties and courts, and argued for rebuilding America’s foundation on higher spiritual and political principles which would transcend ideas of democracy and self-government.  Like Wells, Croly called for centralized power that might be, he acknowledged, “injurious to certain aspects of traditional American democracy.”  But this was no great loss, because “the average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to serious and consistent conceptions of his responsibilities as a democrat.”  The “erroneous and misleading” democratic tradition, he concluded, “must yield before the march of a constructive national democracy” remodeled along French lines.
It is not difficult to see in our current politics, emphatically on the Left and in the Democratic Party, but even to a dismaying extent in the Republicans, the triumph of Wilson, Croly, and the Progressives.  Our national government, once limited to only those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution, now has its reach into every corner of civil society.  Major agencies of government such as the IRS have tyrannical powers to seize money and property, surveil citizens accused of no crimes, and to cavalierly rearrange private contractual agreements among individuals and groups without adjudication.

The Obama Administration has pushed the limits of what the RB calls the Church of the All Powerful State with Obamacare and its use of executive powers to overturn the rule of law on immigration.  While this is bad enough, what’s worse is the meek and supine response of the GOP leadership and most of our fellow citizens.  We are mighty close, it appears, to the moment when most Americans will find ourselves in Winston Smith’s shoes, loving Big Brother through gin-soaked (or, to update the image, marijuana-marinated) tears.

Thus the idolatry among many on the Left of a socialist poseur like Bernie Sanders is not surprising.  Sanders doesn’t even have the courage of his convictions; once a registered and self-described socialist, he ran for and was elected to the U. S. Senate as an “independent,” but of course caucused with the Democrats and is now seeking their presidential nomination.  He embodies the shallow and intellectually arid currents of what passes for left policy making in the U. S., hurtling aspersions against the 1% and other greedy evil-doers corrupting the purity of working class America.

One has only to peruse his “20 Big Ideas” platform to discern how little actual thought and analysis—in spite of a political career spanning 34 years—has gone into creating it.  It’s long on standard leftist critiques of America and yearning for utopia, and short on any acquaintance with economic principles.  Naturally it reflects the recurring and discredited Malthusian misunderstanding of the actual source of wealth—human creativity and sociability. 

But as an emblem of what ails us, it’s picture perfect.  A recent article in the Huffington Post entitled “Bernie Sanders’ Socialism Is as American as Apple Pie” by Peter Dreier, a leftwing professor at Occidental University, unintentionally attests to the careless and ahistorical view of socialism that too many of us hold.
“Many young people associate capitalism with inequality, big corporations, and poverty,” Joseph Schwartz, a Temple University political scientist, told me in an interview.
“During the Cold War, socialism was identified with Communism, which meant totalitarianism and dictatorship. It wasn't a very positive image,” said Schwartz. “But things have changed since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.  If people now in their 20s and 30s have any image of socialism at all, it is probably northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia. They know that northern Europe has less poverty, more equality, and more social mobility. And they know that Canada, which has a strong socialist party [called the New Democratic Party], is a more equal and humane society than the United States.”
Yes, as Professor Schwartz helpfully explains, communism had an image problem, and “people know” that life is so much superior in Scandinavia and Canada with their soft socialist ways.  But years of undermining America’s constitutional commitment to a limited government supported by the consent of sovereign individual citizens has allowed us to overlook the causes of that image problem and now identify government with niceness, taking care of people, and attacking that greed that seeking profits and owning property represent—just like in those fine, trouble-free countries to the north.

But this squishiness and ignorance about America’s founding principles—not to mention about the record of mass murder under communism—is aided and abetted by too many Republicans, as Professor Dreier reminds us.
A few years ago, when a small group of New York radicals took over Zuccotti Park and the Occupy Wall Street movement quickly spread to cities and small towns around the country, Frank Luntz, an influential GOP pollster, spoke at a Republican Governors Association meeting. He warned: “I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I'm frightened to death. They're having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”
Luntz offered tips for fighting back and framing the issues that the Occupiers have raised. For example, he urged Republican politicians to avoid using the word “capitalism.”
“I'm trying to get that word removed and we're replacing it with either ‘economic freedom’ or ‘free market,’” Luntz said. “The public still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we're seen as defenders of Wall Street, we've got a problem.”
We mustn’t use the “C word,” lest we frighten the horses and offend the public.  That capitalism thing has an image problem just like the commies used to.  Perhaps it needs a new Twitter handle.

But Luntz inadvertently highlights the actual problem.  A Republican Party that conflates Wall Street with a market economy is useless; no wonder it’s so easily co-opted by the Left.
It’s difficult sometimes to avoid the conviction that America has permanently lost what made it unique in history.  Far too many of us prefer to become Norway or Sweden and cede the wealth creation prowess to Asia.  Returning to the cocoon of a paternal government taking care of us may be just too powerful a temptation for Americans to resist. 

George III and Lord North must be belly laughing in their graves.

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