How it Ends
by Fergus Downie (April 2013)
Slouching To Despotism
Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things: it has predisposed men to endure them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits. - Alexis de Tocqueville
Once upon a time convergence theory was all the rage in academia, with modish thinkers like John Kenneth Galbraith insisting that the bureaucratic regulation of capital and the rise of the managerial expert would render the ideological conflicts of the Cold War redundant. Like most clever people, he placed great faith in technocrats and the Keynesian idyll of the post war period was to prove a heyday for Comte’s engineers. By the seventies however markets and conviction politics were back, and in 1989 the fall of the Berlin Wall settled the ideological contest once and for all. Soviet style planners might (just) have been able to produce guns and butter, but fibre optics and semiconductors needed help from an invisible hand. The class war was over and the bourgeoisie had won.
European intellectuals, retreating ever further into their postmodern bunkers, responded with surly misanthropy and with nothing serious being added to the Marxist canon the scene was set for Francis Fukayama’s infamous article 'The End of History'. Though Fukayama is sensitive to being labeled a neo-conservative he does share the underlying Marxisant prejudices of these renegade Trotskyites and nowhere is this more apparent than in his theory of history which at times looks like historical materialism in free market drag. In this counter-intuitive slant to Marx, socialist relations of production constituted a fetter on productive forces which were forcing a new world into being; the USA presenting the world with an image of its future.
In an age of small and petty visions much ink has been spilt attacking Fukayama’s predictions, but his notion that liberal democratic institutions were the essential adornments of modernity has stood the test of time better than the Left’s faith in the crisis of capitalism, as anyone surveying the Left’s response to the global depression would have to admit. In the 30s both the Left and the Right embraced the Plan, in 2013 most centre Left parties are resigned to the effective dismantling of the welfare state and pious declarations of faith in ‘community’ (in the UK this has spawned Blue Labour a vacuous parody of small town niceness elevated into a political creed). Whatever its origins the financial crisis has become a crisis of social democracy. The market reigns supreme, and democracy has no serious political adversary, but this is as much a weakness as a strength.
Fukayama was always acutely aware of this. When he padded out his essay into a book the title expanded to the End of History and The Last Man, an extension which neatly hinted at the source of his misgivings. The phrase is particularly associated with Nietzsche but it is in Tocqueville’s masterpiece Democracy in America that this base material makes its most dramatic entrance. These are ‘the innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives’. The Last Men give us democracy as the lowest common denominator, a default system born of a desire for repose rather than the struggle for recognition that provided democratic aspirations with their transient lustre.
For Marx as much as for aristocratic thinkers like Tocqueville and Nietzsche, man’s historical greatness stemmed from the obstacles he struggled to surmount, but what happens when one runs out of challenges and the springs of action are progressively unbent? The key problem for Tocqueville was the psychological effects of equality. In uberdemocracies men were reluctant to have masters, but their refusal to submit to the authority of notables or be guided by the petrified wisdom of tradition delivered them to a more formidable tyrant. With each individual forced back on his own inadequate stock of knowledge the result was an increasingly slavish adherence to the anonymous despotism of public opinion. The result was a crushing monotony of thought where base sentiments of envy and resentment are sanctified by a mushy egalitarianism; the healthy ‘I’m as good as you’ degenerating all too easily into the surly ‘you’re no better than me’. These men without chests are as old as democracy, and history records the blood sports they invented to sate their spite. In Athens the institution of Ostracism offered them the chance to avenge themselves on men like Aristides whose stature was an affront to their armour propre, and the therapeutic worldview of contemporary Anglo-American society offers a thousand one ways to dignify the rancour of the meek.
Auden saw it clearly in 'For the Time Being', a poem which might have been written with the grotesque Diana cult in mind.
Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces. Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are 20 years old... Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish... The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.
In the People’s Princess, Auden’s consumptive whore made flesh, this mob had a torchbearer and her emoting sense of victimhood is a conspicuous feature of what passes today for a literary culture. Today the political is the personal and modern biographies linger obsessively on the private faults which usually lie behind great deeds, coupled with the none too subtle hint that such trade-offs are not worth the psychic scars. Supposedly cutting edge, this is actually the languid spirit of Bloomsbury; Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians provided the template for this retreat into private absorption, just as surely as our decadence provides the raw material, and we will not pay a cheaper price.
The author is a low ranking and over-credentialled functionary of the British welfare state.
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