No sooner than we have declared the dearth of new elite formation, we are presented with evidence to the contrary. Time will tell whether the just-leave-me-be streak of libertarianism is anything but a pastime for eccentric billionaires or whether we are for an age of rule by the no-longer-Aspergers over the long haul.
After closing the last post it occurs to us that a new elite did arise in the West after World Wars – namely the labor elite, whose rise was largely unopposed in the States because the economic pie there was expanding so rapidly due to the Marshall Plan and the prostration of the rest of the nation’s trading partners, and unopposed in Europe because of the prostration of the old elites as a result of the exigencies of war. Since the 1970s, what with the economic landscape returning to the long-run normal of stagnation, labor has increasingly come in conflict with the other major economic elite – the business, with the result that labor has been slowly giving ground in sectors least hampered by top-down regulation.
Towards a theory of societal change and conflict: it can be argued that internal revolutions happen when new elites arise and gain power enough to challenge old ones. A corollary to this would be that revolutions such as these succeed when the old elites are weakened by war, insolvency or famine.
Despite the vaguely Marxist class-struggle overtones, such theory may yet hold merit, as evidenced by a good number of examples – to wit: the rise of generals and plebeian tribunes in the Roman Republic that led to civil war and ultimately to Octavian; the rise of mercantile elites in late-medieval Europe that led to toppling of lately-bankrupt French and English monarchies; the rise of the intellectual elites in the 19th century that led ultimately to Marxist revolutions in war-ravaged Russia and her neighbors.
Today, at least in the United States, no new elites appear to be rising, and even though ranks of old elites continue burgeoning, this theory would not advance an argument for pending revolution – unless, that is, the recent rise of technological entrepreneurs represents in fact emergence of a new and qualitatively different libertarian elite.
Even the most casual of glances at the map of Eurasia reveals the smallness of that area that we call Europe, and in particular the Western Europe that has had such an outsize influence on recent history.
Indeed the Western Europe its grudgingly acknowledged cousin in the area of world affairs, which is Central Europe, are little more than a smallish protuberance; a mere peninsula on the landmass that is really more Asia if it can be called anything. It is a wonder of world-historical development that this West became so influential, but it does raise the question of what precisely do we mean by Western heritage.
In our Anglophone it is easy to ascribe all Western influence to Great Britain and her offshoot that we are pleased to style as the United States, but that would give too short a shrift to nations on whose innovations was Britain’s greatness based: the Netherlands, for instance, with her commercial and naval breakthroughs; France with her centralizing drive; the German states who later taught us all the truly massive scales that industry can reach.
It is a truism that, once free of Anglocentrism, we fall back on definition of the West as Christendom, particularly the non-Greek Christendom that prevailed in Europe’s outermost regions, forgetting how ironic such a definition really would be from a broad-enough perspective for Christianity to be the West’s defining feature for the past two hundred centuries or so, given how very profoundly Eastern that religion is at its root — not less so than its sister Abrahamids. In fact, on reflection, the only heritage that is distinctly Western is that which we inherit from Hellenes and their Mycenean and Doric predecessors. Today, of course, we are almost prepared to altogether eject Greece from the European family, to have her join her enemy and bedfellow Turkey — which herself bestrides ancestral Greek lands and still is largely populated by the Greeks’ descendants. If there be a guiding hand to history, it must surely be attached to the most ironic of postmodernists.
The persistent mantra of the call for limiting the size and power of government that has so captured the imagination of a certain segment of the American body politic sounds very well to those of us who would do what we will in our own personal and economic spheres, but no amount of suasion is very likely to have significant effect, aside from the occasional lip service when the country’s mood requires it, to the actual trajectory of growth of governmental power.
The sad fact is that the law of government is that it must grow, not less than it is the nature of rabbits and of entropy to increase. The simple reason for the growth is the natural reluctance of those in authority to relinquish it but rather always to increase the power they hold. What bureaucrat, after all, has ever volunteered to reduce his budget or his reach?
If we are to examine the trajectories of governmental institutions throughout history, we likewise find that once a governmental system has emerged from the infighting, it promptly will commence to establish and shore up its power position. We see this pattern, for example, in the emergence of strong monarchy in Europe in the Middle Ages, just as we do in the rise of empires of the East and of the ancients.
Only when a governmental power is overthrown, by war, disaster or even revolution does it give up the growth of its reach, only to be replaced by the next emerging government which next begins its own power-agglomeration cycle.
Despite our well-attested distaste for pseudo-scientific historic theories, for once I must come to the defense of the usually very fatuous Mr. Diamond, at least when it comes to his claim that civilization reduces violence. Conflicting claims of clashing anthropologists notwithstanding, there is little doubt that men pursue violence against one another at the slightest provocation and that in the absence of the apparatus of civilization in the form of law and its enforcement, such violence tends to only escalate.
The fact is that there are no paleolithic tribal societies still in existence that remain untouched by contact with our civilization, and — even if there were, in an ironic parallel to quantum theory — we could not study them without changing what we see. It is thus an exercise of most utter of futilities to claim, based on very spotty, often over-interpreted and — to begin with — circumstantial evidence that the original human social structures were free of war-making. Perhaps we could ask their contemporaries, the Neanderthals, for some corroboration?
Now that we have once again entered the annual time of the new year resolution and the attendant run on self-help books (and e-books) to help inspire us to improve ourselves, we even hear of such efforts — and their entirely unsurprising bad ends — on the scale of nations.
The bad end of self-improvement efforts is not surprising because it is so very nearly universal, but before we delve into the human nature — or is it a particularly American human nature?– that insists on believing that if only a measure of self-control were added to our lives then all things could improve, from melting pounds to eliminating deficits, perhaps it would be profitable to take a look at the one measure that did, once set one part of the world on the path toward prosperity, low corruption and — yes — democracy.
Let us consider first which countries have achieved this: The Netherlands came first, then England with Scotland close behind, then Germany. Also, on a different scale we have Switzerland, one half of Belgium, Canada (by extension, mostly, from England), Luxemburg and — eventually — the American Midwest. France was — and is — a laggard, and we all know of the state of South Europe and much of the rest of our little globe. Then let us consider what they have in common – and that is, without exception, a particular brand of Christianity — namely early forms of Protestantism that did away with the idea of salvation via works and substituted grace, or faith, into the equation.
Without exception these societies, when at the height of their development, far from mouthing platitudes about camels and need-eyes saw wealth instead as a big sign of divine favor rather than a result of sin, and so they honored the work of finance and commerce that were the main route to its acquisition. By contrast, all the other cultures denigrated all self-interest and viewed wealth acquisition with suspicion — not that they could succeed in banishing all wealth, but because gains were sinful it was a priori no worse to get at them through sinful means like theft or conquest.
To bring this overlong discourse back to where it started, the only way for a society to join the club of nations prosperous because of the efforts of their people rather than merely their minerals (or certain plant-based powders), one must begin by inviting preachers of the most intolerant, hell-fire breathing, patriarchal, Calvinist persuasion, setting them loose to convert the populace, and then waiting two or three hundred years for their efforts to begin to bear fruit. This would appear to work a great deal better than demonizing their wealthy for not wishing to give away large portions of their fortune or demagoguing the so-called “fair share” of taxation to pay for profligacies of the unproductive.
It is telling that whenever proponents of a political ideology discuss their particular project as the inevitable outcome of the natural process of history, they generally default to the messianic language of the Romantic-era Christian proselytes. Our current preoccupation with a mildly capitalistic democracy as the best and most-natural system of governance is the unquestioned policy of both the official and the chattering establishments, quite despite its recent paramount failures in Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan. Not even in the heat of the current presidential campaign are its premises being evenly remotely questioned.