Saturday, May 29, 2021

Second Hand Mythology, Part II – The End of History

In my last post, I introduced the concept of “second hand mythology” in order to describe how, in virtually all cultures – even the outwardly secular ones – the core myths of the culture’s dominant religion are endlessly recycled as a lens in which to view worldly events.

I briefly described Marxism as such a belief system: look closely, and you can see the invention of private property as a sort of ‘fall’ from which the teachings of Karl Marx will redeem mankind; once enough people accept his teachings, the whole world will be transformed into a workers’ paradise of classless harmony, universal brotherhood, and splendiferous wealth shared by everybody. All of these things – the fall, the redeeming doctrine, and the promised future paradise for true believers – derive from Christian sacred history.

But most of my previous post was dedicated to sketching out, in detail, the Myth of the Chosen People – the idea that a certain nation has somehow been selected to play a unique role in history and to ultimately redeem the world. While the chosen ones may sometimes fall short of their true nature, suffer for their sins, and experience the ebb and flow of worldly fortune, they’ll never stop being the chosen people. In other words, nothing they can possibly do will change their status as destiny’s darlings, or reduce them to playing a role in world history no bigger than that of their neighbors.

I described this myth’s origins in the story of biblical Israel; then, I described its reappearance, with all the essential points intact, in one of the classics of twentieth-century literature, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. (Pieces of the Chosen People narrative can be found in most of our society’s epic storytelling, though it seldom shows up in so complete a form – there are things that an author can do with seven or eight millennia of elf genealogies that he cannot do when all the events of his tale happen in the same century).

Now a myth, once implanted firmly in the subconscious mind, is not going to stay confined to either religious or recreational storytelling. It will inevitably determine how a society sees its own history and politics as well. But before I talk about how the American Right’s perception of American history has been distorted by the Chosen People myth, I will need to take another detour, this time to describe the Myth of the End of History.

Shortly after I posted the Chosen People essay, one of my more thoughtful readers criticized the idea that Marx and Engels’ notions about progress toward a paradisiacal future were repackaged Christian eschatology. He said:

“Here is what is undeniable: over time, and unevenly in both temporal and geographical aspects, the human animal has enormously increased his understanding of how the world really works. And with the triumph of capitalism, that understanding has been turned to systematically increasing ‘the forces of production.’ So there is room for optimism. If we can align our economic, social, and political systems with this marvelous freeing of the human mind... what can't we accomplish?

“So... why hasn't this happened? Why has history not come to an end, in Fukayama's sense, where we all recognize the superiority of liberal democracy and a market economy? And what can we do to help this uneven, and now challenged, process along?”

This commentator made a point that’s worth addressing. Technological progress is a real thing, and over the last three centuries or so, a handful of societies have relied upon the combination of applied science, free market capitalism, and democratic governing institutions to achieve a never-before-seen degree of personal freedom and material prosperity.

The resulting mood of optimism was certainly strong with Francis Fukuyama when, in 1989, he wrote an essay entitled “The End of History.” Fukuyama’s thesis was that the Marxist concept of history, as a series of stages in which each form of political economy is replaced with a better one, until an end-state is reached which can’t be improved upon, was mostly correct… but that it was actually liberal democratic capitalism, rather than communism, that would be left standing after the final bell.

 Like myself, my commentator sees pretty clear evidence, in recent happenings in the United States, that our society is not on track toward a future of perpetual improvement, or even of holding onto the gains of the past. In other words, Fukuyama’s talk about the End of History was premature. But before digging into the question of whether our society can be put back onto the track that Fukuyama, and myriad likeminded thinkers, say it ought to be following, it’s worth asking whether the underpinnings of his theory hold up to basic scrutiny.

For example, if history will ‘end’ once all major countries have become liberal democracies, that necessarily implies that, once a country has become a liberal democracy, it cannot later become something else. A quick glance at history doesn’t support this assertion: there was, for instance, that time in 1933 when the Austrian corporal at the head of the Nazi party got himself made Chancellor of Germany, and there was also the near-simultaneous transformation of Spain from a liberal democracy into a military dictatorship with Francisco Franco as Caudillo.

And if you’re willing to go way back in time, and define “liberal democracy” a bit loosely, then you have to include the time that the Caesars took over the Roman Republic.

Another crucial, and even more overlooked, rotten pillar in Fukuyama’s theory was the assumption that his own nation – the United States – was a healthy liberal democracy in the first place. But the real America of 1989 was a society in which the ruling class used judicial decrees like Roe v. Wade, plus unlimited executive power in warmaking and foreign policy, to exclude voters and elected representatives from the bulk of government policymaking. To insist that this isn’t a problem because the things the technocrats imposed on the country were good is to miss the point; the measure of a democracy is not whether the laws are good, but whether the common man has a say in their making.

But enough talk about Fukuyama. He is only one specimen of a class that includes many, many thinkers: these were the Hegelians. The crux of Hegelian theory, whether presented by George Hegel himself, Marx, Fukuyama, or anyone else, is the claim that the historical dialectic – the process by which a culture repeatedly revises its form of political economy through the intellectual dance of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis – will come to a halt once everybody recognizes the superiority of whatever system the Hegelian thinker in question happens to like best. (For Hegel, who got the whole thing started, the end-state was a Prussian-style “enlightened monarchy.”)

Even outside the Hegelian school, there are plenty of other versions of the myth on offer; Charles Fourier, a contemporary of Hegel and the grandfather of most socialist movements, had one that is far too colorful for any summary to do it justice, though you can read some of the details here. But ultimately, all of these End of History myths – all of these claims that, once everybody believes the things that the myth-maker believes and starts living the way the myth-maker says he ought to live, human conflict and history as we know it will cease – are all variations on the same theme.

Here, by the way, is the original, written in the eighth century BC, in the Kingdom of Judah, by the prophet Isaiah:

“And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths.’

“For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Most people who believe in this prophecy today are Christians who view it as something that will happen after Christ’s second coming, rather than as a part of temporal history. But at the time the prophecy was given, none of that doctrinal framework existed.

To the ordinary, uncritical Jewish listener, this was simply the way that the future was going to be. Eventually, the day would come when Israel’s long persecutions would cease, the surrounding nations would recognize Israel’s God as the true God, their leaders would go to Jerusalem to learn God’s laws, and because of all this, there wouldn’t be any more wars.

The ironic part of this is that the first half of Isaiah’s prophecy actually happened! It took a while, but by the time two millennia had passed since his death, the inhabitants of every country known to Isaiah – plus plenty more he had never heard of like England, Russia, and Malaysia – believed Isaiah’s God to be the only true God, made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and studied various holy books which they believed to contain the words and laws of the God of Israel.

There were only two problems. First, most of the people who were trying to practice Isaiah’s religion were practicing it wrongly – at least, by Isaiah’s standards, and often by each other’s as well. For example, Christians ate pork, Muslims circumcised their sons as teenagers rather than as babies, and so forth.

The second problem was that there were still wars.

One of the benefits of looking at why the partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy didn’t put an end to history is that it shows that there are actually a lot of different things that have to go right in order for the End of History myth to pan out.

First, good ways of organizing a nation’s religious, political, or economic affairs must inevitably attract more converts than bad ones. Second, once a good system is adopted, there must be no backsliding. Third, as a religion or ideology spreads, it must not mutate so seriously that its various offshoots end up locked in irresolvable conflicts with each other. (This last point is the horn on which the ‘swords into plowshares’ part of the vision was so cruelly broken).

If you want to look at the “mutant spawn” problem in terms of political economy, rather than religion per se, just consider that all forms of “capitalism” – a family of economic systems that includes things as different from each other as the slave economy of the antebellum South is from Deng Xiaoping’s “Socialism With Chinese Characteristics” – are descended,  through various lines, from the mercantilist market economies of seventeenth-century England and Holland.

There is no good reason for a prognosticator of future events not to expect equally severe divergences – and resulting conflicts – in whatever ideologies happen to survive into the future.

Now, it’s worth noting that the Isaiah-Hegel-Marx-Fukuyama framework, in which history is the story of everybody adopting worldviews and ways of life that are more and more like that of the author of the story, is far from the only way to interpret world history.

One useful alternative comes to us in the work of Herodotus, the Greek writer whom later generations would know as the “Father of History.”

Herodotus produced his great work, known simply as The Histories, in the late fifth century BC. In one sense, this book is a history of the Persian Wars, since the Greek city states’ epic resistance to the aggressions of Darius and Xerxes provides much of the work’s substance. But in another sense, it’s a history of the world, because in it, Herodotus tries to write down literally everything he knows about the various tribes and kingdoms that exist between India in the east, Sicily in the west, Hyperborea in the north and Ethiopia in the south.

Herodotus tells a tale of the rise and fall of empires. The humiliation of the seemingly omnipotent Persians when they try to take on the Greeks is, of course, the centerpiece, but there are plenty of other empires whose downfalls grace the pages of his work. National greatness, he explains, is fleeting:

“The cities which were formerly great have mostly become insignificant; and such as are at present powerful, were weak in the olden time. I shall therefore discourse equally of both, convinced that human happiness never stays long in the same place.”

There are no Chosen Peoples in the Herodotean worldview, and there is no End of History. Somebody like Croessus or Cyrus may think that his kingdom is fated to impose lasting order on the chaos of human events, but in the end, nations burdened with such an attitude grow soft and decadent, and the Gods punish them for their hubris by allowing smaller, tougher nations to defeat them in battle.

Herodotus was an ethnographer as well as a historian, and he gave detailed accounts of the ways of life of the dozens of cultures that figured into his work. Oftentimes, he praised or criticized a particular custom. To give two examples, he thought the Greek practice of competing in athletic games for no reward other than glory to one’s home city was instrumental in bringing up a race of tough fighting men, and he also believed – in accordance with a widespread legend – that there was something in the diet or habits of the Ethiopians that made them live much longer than other races.

However, Herodotus did not expect that all other nations would respond to the Greek victories over Darius and Cyrus by adopting Greek-style athletics, nor did he anticipate that everybody would soon flock to Ethiopia in a quest to discover and imitate the secret of Ethiopian longevity. In his view, every nation had its own laws and customs, some better, some worse, most just adaptations to the climate and other unique circumstances of its homeland. From time to time a nation adopted an innovation, either spontaneously or by imitating its neighbors, but there was no overall rhyme or reason to this cultural drift.

To many modern thinkers, the Herodotean worldview must seem dreary. A history with no direction, no protagonist, and no goal is alien to the minds of thinkers as diverse as Isaiah, Virgil, Saint Augustine, Oliver Cromwell, George Hegel, and Karl Marx.

But, judging by his style, Herodotus was witty and charming, not dreary at all, and it’s easy to sense the love that he has for his subject matter. As far as Herodotus was concerned, the Gods were at work in human history – it just so happened that their plans didn’t involve a single nation or culture triumphing forevermore.

As Herodotus’ life neared its close, his adoptive home city of Athens, flush with the success of the Persian Wars, was beginning to build an empire of its own. Part of Herodotus’ purpose in writing The Histories was to provide a subtle warning to the Athenians against becoming like the thing they had defeated. And the consequences of their failure to head his warning would provide the subject matter for the next great historian, Thucydides.

Like the contemporaries of Herodotus, you and I don’t live in a nation that’s been marked out for any special role as history’s protagonist, and acting as if we did is bound to end in grief. Empires will keep rising and falling long after the United States is a distant memory.

And while we do live in a world that is being remade by technological change, the same thing could be said in Herodotus’ time. The Greeks were a clever and innovative people, but their innovations did not make their civilization immortal.

So it will be with America and the “liberal global order” in general. This is not something that can be avoided; it is just something that we will all have to come to terms with, if we are going to make a constructive response to the challenges of our day.

5 comments:

  1. Okay ... here's the counter-argument -- or maybe not a counter-argument, but an important supplement to the (correct) idea that there is no supernatural influence controlling the destiny of empires and nations, much less one that is benevolent. This is true even for America.

    (1) People act in what they perceive is their own self-interest, with the understanding that immediate personal self-interest can overlap with the interest of some group of which the individual is a member. The 'evolutionary psychologists', who try to interpret all human behavior as the result of genetically-driven impulses, chosen by natural selection, will identify one's genetic kin as the main group which will be the recipient of personal actions which benefit more than just the individual: the selfish gene at work, promoting 'altruism' at the individual level, but self-interest at the gene-pool level.

    We may believe that modern society has taken this impulse and has tried -- with some success -- to expand it beyond the immediate clan or tribe, to 'the nation' -- with most success when 'the nation' was made up of genetically-related individuals. (German soldiers fought to the end, not for 'National Socialism' but for their nation.)

    The United States has shown that this can be done, to an extent, even when 'the nation' comprises people from many distinct gene pools. So white motorcyclists, who would not be found dead among Politically-Correct snowflakes, can genuinely honor a deceased Black Marine -- he was an American.

    Of course this works better -- some might say 'only' -- when the multi-tribal nation is continually growing in prosperity, and faces no harsh external threats that put powerful stresses on it, which might encourage previously pan-tribal patriots to look for a tribal scapegoat for their problems within the nation: this has always been the problem faced by the Jews.

    (2) Science and technology, as this post acknowledges, have been able to make our material lives immeasurably better. There is, at the moment, a lot of anti-science sentiment on the Right, including some romantic nonsense which envisions a return to total self-sufficiency on the part of individuals. (They can grow their own radishes but they will not fill their own teeth, or manufacture their own solar cells.)

    (3) The system of (relatively) free markets witin the framework of the rule of law (which is not the same thing as 'democracy')can take scientific/technological advance and spread it widely. (This system was evidently lacking, or was too feeble, in the ancient world -- where we found electroplating, navigational 'computers' serious mathematics, ... but apparently only in a restricted compass, as toys for the wealthy or oddities for the curious. I believe Marx never really explained why capitalism did not take off among the ancient empires: he has an awkward 'stages' theory of history -- primitive communism, slavery, feudalism ... each of which supposedly increased the forces of production until they became too great for the relations of production which had suited the earlier, more austere, society -- but that has never seemed like a compelling argument to me.)

    (4) With the growth in material wealth, and the growth in the wealth of knowledge, has grown 'educational wealth'. Historical materialists would say, of course: your circumstances as a rural peasant don't expose you to ideas, or even require you to have any beyond the craft-knowledge that your elders can convey -- but a bank clerk or turret-lathe operator must necessarily have a significantly greater store of knowledge than an illiterate peasant.
    Continued in next post...

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  2. ----
    ... Continued from previous post.
    Now put all these things together -- and you get a steady pressure, driven by informed self-interest, on the part of a large section of the population -- the working class AND the middle class -- to have a governmental system that is responsive to them. The material self-interest of the middle class militates against the collectivism of the working class -- and this conflict has defined and shaped the history of the advanced countries for the past two centuries: the middle (and upper) classes see their own advancement mainly through their own exertions; the laboring classes see it via having state power divert a share of the wealth of the other classes to themselves.

    Put another way: all durable political conflict is either between tribal groups trapped with each other within a common state -- Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, etc -- or between the Successful, and the Unsuccessful.

    It was the expectation of Fukayama -- and many others, including me -- that the above four factors would work so as to expand the frontiers of liberal democracy: the average person in Nigera, China, Peru, would see the advantages to himself of a lightly-regulated market within the rule of law, overlooked by a government subject to period electoral legitimation.

    It's not as if this perspective was insanely optimistic. Latin America, for example, has made significant progress away from (American-supported) death-squad regimes. But we did not correct assess things like the power of tribalism and nationalism, or the strong inertion of the tradition of the poor and humble relying on the strong caudillo to protect them.

    Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya, not to mention most sub-Saharan African countries, show the power of tribalism -- as did Yugoslavia.

    Although there are many Chinese who would, I believe, prefer that their country be a democracy -- as Taiwan became, and as Hong Kongers want -- the fact that the Chinese Communist Party liberated China from humiliating subservience to its barbarian racial inferiors, and is now leading its rapid modernization, has given it deep reserves of social credit.

    Three generations of Russian totalitarianism wiped out many of the seedpods of Russian liberal democracy ... and then the Americans completely destroyed any influence they could have had on the nascent democratic order that had begun to emerge in Russia after Mr Gorbachev pulled out the supporting pin, and allowed a strong nationaist to gain power in that country.

    And now America is rotting rapidly from within. Why ... I'm not sure. There are many proposed explanations, most of them of the 'the descendants of conquerors feed on the conquests and go soft' variety. Perhaps they're true -- the reality is undeniable.

    And the real danger is that this country, with its degenerating cultural elite, still bestrides the world, armed with nuclear weapons. (It's ironic that 'normal' Leftism leans strongly towards naive pacifism. But we may get the worst of both worlds: a decayed Leftist-dominated cultural order ruling a nation which, by accident of history, finds itself at the top of the pile and heavily armed, while an increasingly powerful rival threatens its position.

    (Potassium Iodide is now impossible to buy, but when supply ramps up to meet the recent increase in demand, get some! If there should occur some rapid fission-events, of either the Chernobyl/Fukashima or Hiroshima/Nagasaki variant, your thyroid gland will thank you for allowing it to absorb a non-radioactive isotope of iodine rather than the radioactive variants that will suddenly appear.)
    Continued in next post...

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  3. Doug,

    In effect, I think you have just reiterated Fukuyama & co's arguments that American-style liberal democracy is good, arguments which, by the way, I mostly agree with.

    What I am pushing against in my post is Fukuyama's idea - which he shared with a multitude of other thinkers going back to biblical times - that because a certain system of organizing a nation's religious, political, or economic affairs is good, the natural direction of history is for more and more people to adopt that system, without significant backsliding, until it spreads across the world bringing conflict and history as we know it to an end.

    This has never happened in the past, and (as you have so aptly pointed out) it's not happening in the present, with the American way of life. There are, as usual, more than one reason why cultural drift - instead of homogenization - is the order of the day; you have already named several in terms of (1) religious and ethnic tribalism, (2) Existing elites successfully resisting Americanization, as in China, (3) Americans behaving in ways that cause foreigners to despise their culture rather than admire it, as in Russia, and (4) internal rot of the hegemonial nation.

    The rhetorical sleight-of-hand on which Fukuyama & co. rely is the assumption that by demonstrating the goodness of a political or economic system, or its superiority over its main rivals, they have proven that, as time passes, everybody will adopt said system. History as understood by serious historians like Herodotus is full of evidence that this doesn't happen in the real world. Hence my insistence that it is just a repackaged Judeo-Christian myth.

    Now, two other clarifying notes. First, I never argued in my post that there are no benevolent, supernatural influences in history - only that such influences as exist are not interested in playing the "Chosen People" game or granting permanent success to a specific set of human actors, especially in light of the fact that human actors brought up to think they deserve permanent success will almost always prove themselves unworthy of it.

    Second, while you're right to claim that technological progress has vastly improved most of mankind's standard of living over the last four centuries, I think that improvement is more fragile than most people are aware. Specifically, many of the technologies that modern people take for granted, such as the personal automobile or most electrical grids, rely on the rapid consumption of nonrenewable resources like petroleum and natural gas, which will be gone after a century or two. Even in the absence of these resources, modern scientific knowledge will still be able to sustain a better-than-medieval lifestyle, but I don't think it will be possible for anywhere near a majority of the global population to keep living as high on the hog as the middle classes in America, and other industrial nations, currently are.

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  4. Here's what Fukaymm (and I, weakly) believe: not some chosen people mythology, but increasingly-informed self-interest on the part of ordinary people, militates -- feebly, if that adverb can go with that verb -- towards liberal democracy. But of course it miltiates not in a vacuum, but in environments where many other forces militate against it.

    I suppose an analogy could be this: we're on very broken terrain, lots of peaks and pits, and the occasional earthquake. But Fukayama and I believe that the general slope, taken over a broad enough area, is downwards -- where downwards in this case means in the direction of democratic law-governed societies.

    It's not a provable proposition, and one's personal psychological disposition probably has the final say. Ironically, I'm about sixty years older than you, so our positions should be reversed!

    And -- it terms of what to do next -- it makes almost no difference. Get toegether with like-minded people near you, buy a copy of the Civil Defense Manual(s), mentioned above, organize and train, acquiring as a group the skills which will prove important if America society suffers a catastrophic structural failure, either confined to one area or nationally.

    How to deal with a downed power line, how to treat a sucking chest wound, how to walk your rounds into a target, how to turn off the gas, how to keep in touch with your friends if the internet and telephone system go down .... these are the skills -- embedded in an organized disciplined group with a clear chain of command -- this is what we must be working on now.

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    1. So noted. Well, it can certainly take a long time for the forces of history to "feebly militate" toward anything, so I don't think we're going to get a definite answer in either of our lifetimes! And for that matter, it's quite possible that now that the basic principles of Anglo-American style democracy are widely known, it will always be one of the major factors in future global history. Not dominant at all times, but not wholly absent, either, like it was before the seventeenth century.

      Remember that I don't reject the role of innovation and progress in history; it's only the idea that history is moving towards some sort of static perfection that I dismiss as a myth. And yes, you are right that the practical, on-the-ground response to the breakup of American society is the same regardless of the (as yet unknown) answer to these deeper questions.

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