Thursday, May 14, 2009

Of Rulers and Ruled

The May 2009 issue of Chronicles features a round table discussion (in print) on the topic, “Can the Republic Be Restored?” One of the discussants is Chilton Williamson, Jr. who writes on “The Classless Republic – An Impossible Society”. He makes a number of good points in a short (one page) entry – enough so I can quibble with a few of them while leaving the rest undisturbed. To begin with, he despairs of actually restoring the Republic or what he terms the “elite republican class”. He says, “Classical republicanism cannot survive a modern social and political anomaly that no political tradition before the postmodern era could possibly have envisioned. That is the rise of an elite that is revolutionary...” In other words, if the radicals and revolutionaries are at the top, the republic that they are at the top of is not long for this world -- as a republic, that is. Fair enough, but this does not mean that a _nation_ cannot survive – and quite readily, in fact – having a revolutionary elite at the top of the heap. This is precisely what characterizes all communist societies, past and present, of which the longest-lived to date was the Soviet Union. In fact, it is probably axiomatic that if the top layer of a communist society ceases to be revolutionary in its outlook, that society is no longer communist, by definition – regardless of how much they may protest that it still is; China is surely the most outstanding example of this at present. And in fact, even a revolutionary elite may become so impacted and “establishment” that all of its truly revolutionary impulses become vestigial – except for the impulse to propagandize. This would apply to North Korea and Cuba, for example. What could be more firmly “established” than those two governments... what could be more firmly against change, or even evolution? If you want to find true ossification in government, forget about monarchies – the few that are left tend to be fairly vigorous, in fact. You have to look at communist societies run by aging revolutionaries – or at American colleges and universities, for that matter, many of which are being run by the same “coat and tie radicals” that carried protest signs around the campus back in the 1960s. They have now become sheltered workshops for academic hacks and mediocrities, and the strongest redoubts of censorship in the land. They fancy themselves radical, but in fact are the most conservative, in the literal sense, of all institutions on the planet.

But to get back to Williamson, this time referring to Tocqueville's statement that “a true aristocracy must be based on land ownership”. By “true”, the implication is “worthy”, or “deserving of the name”. This is set in contrast to what he (CW) calls the “industrial wealth” of the 19th and 20th centuries and the “abstract wealth” of today. And I can agree up to a point, but what if we decided to go back to the land-based system of aristocracy? Who would wind up being king? Ted Turner? No thanks. I think some accommodation to the evolved nature of wealth is in order. If it were all about land, and nothing else, Russia would be the wealthiest country on earth – with Kazakhstan the 9th wealthiest, Sudan 10th, Algeria 11th, and Democratic Republic of the Congo 12th. Clearly, this criterion gets us nowhere fast. (Plus, there is also the reverse argument – what about places like Japan and Switzerland? Or Luxembourg? Or Liechtenstein? In this day and age, you can be a billionaire even if you live on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.) But the general principle that Williamson is trying to promote – that the criterion for wealth should be, in some way or other, organic to the country itself, is commendable. Why, for instance, do we refer to someone as a “wealthy American” when most of his assets lie overseas? And why do we seem so helpless in the face of aggressive overseas investments in our land and manufacturing capability – things that most other societies, historically, would have considered almost sacred and not to be sullied by the unclean hands of a foreigner?

Williamson then goes on to criticize the “meritocracy” idea as producing a relatively ephemeral ruling class that is replaced on a regular basis. This is where we have to part company, since I don't agree that this country is any more of a “meritocracy” than the Ottoman Empire was. To begin with, what, precisely, in the way of “merit” do most of our elected officials possess – other than the uncanny ability to get elected to office, in the complete absence of any demonstrated competence? Or maybe he's talking about the world of music, the arts, literature, entertainment, sports, etc., where, on occasion, one can see signs that the person who is better at the craft earns more of a reward. But no, he really is talking about government here. And I have to add that, in my opinion, even the people who rise to the top, who I guess he would consider meritocrats by definition if nothing else, aren't really running things anyway. They are working for others, who remain behind the scenes. So how did _those_ people get to where they are? Is that a meritocracy too, but of a higher order? It's possible... but what is more possible is that it is, after all, a matter of family connections, just like in the old days – the days that Williamson seems to long for. Curiously, another contributor to the same round table provides a list. Clyde Wilson says that “As with Rome, candidates for the American emperor [he means “president”] are sometimes selected by heredity, from the decayed descendants of powerful families: Roosevelts, Bushes, Rockefellers, Kennedys, Romneys, Gores.” If you add the words “or by” -- as in “from, or by, the decayed, etc.” you've pretty much covered the waterfront, in my opinion -- at least for elected positions that really count. I don't think anyone moves into the White House without the full approval of the Regime... and this is true even when the “establishment” person is the loser, as was the case with Bush I in 1992. The upstart, the “new face”, the populist – they are all thoroughly absorbed into the beast, like into The Blob, before they take office. They all become, as I have called them on other occasions, “pod people” -- and Obama is just the most recent. Do you really think his revolution is going to cut deep enough to impact the Regime – nay, to even disturb one hair on their silvered heads? Dream on. His revolution will impact whom it impacts – some for good, some for ill... but the people who are really in charge, and their favored courtiers (think: Wall Street) will sail through untouched.

But now, you might say, is this always the way it is... and was? Is there a power behind every throne (or commissar's leather chair)? Not necessarily. I think that the people who wound up in charge of the Soviet Union, for example, really were in charge – I don't think they were working for anyone else, even though the revolution itself had been aided and abetted by any number of “interested parties”. And I'll say the same thing about the communist revolution in China. Even though Mao was very much a creature of the Soviet Union, once the country was in his hands no one tried to interfere with the self-destruction and carnage that followed. (For one thing, it played too nicely into their hands, as did the earlier agonies of the Soviet Union.) No, communism is a curious thing. It seems that everyone is interested while events are unfolding, and while the revolution is going on... and for a while afterwards. Then things are left pretty much to their own devices – to “work themselves out”, as the saying goes (you know, through things like engineered famines, gulags, and so on). Democracies of the “capitalist” sort, on the other hand, remain under siege for the entire course of their existence – i.e. until the revolutionaries, either imported or home-grown, take over. This is not to say that, on rare occasions, anti-communist uprisings don't occur or are not successful – we have Spain and Chile, and a few others, to offer as evidence on that score. But overall, revolution is what it is – it's an uprising of secularism, materialism, atheism, collectivism, and modernism against church, property, family, tradition, and to some extent (but seldom completely) hereditary power and wealth. In fact, revolutions over the centuries have been characterized by a sort of ambivalence toward things like nobility and titles, France being an excellent example; but what they are invariably hostile toward is the middle class and bourgeois “values”. Those will suffer no matter what the other specifics of a given revolution happen to be... and this is particularly true in the case of “revolution from above”, which is what Williamson was talking about to begin with. For example, if you look, right now, at all of the various targets the Obama administration has picked out to aim its wrath at, you have to admit that “the rich” are pretty much getting off the hook. The targets of opportunity are, rather, the middle class, its priorities, its life style, and its values. These are what the Regime, and its servants in the administration, are already chipping away at, and starting to erode (with no small thanks to the running start it got from its predecessor... you know, the “non-revolutionary” George Bush & Co.).

So, as far as Williamson is concerned, maybe things aren't, ultimately, as radical or revolutionary as he thinks. Maybe behind the apparent power is the _real_ power, and that is constituted in the same manner as it has always been. But because it's at so many degrees of removal from ordinary people and their concerns... and because it's so well insulated from the vagaries of things like “the economy” (which is, itself, just the tip of a much larger iceberg)... it can afford to let the revolutionaries of the Obama stripe have their day, and pursue the hapless middle class up hill and down dale, the way hounds pursue a bedraggled, exhausted fox. Ultimately, the revolutionaries will begin to consume their own – as they always do – then the few remaining can be dispatched, or put out to pasture, while the inner workings of the system hum on as always. For Obama in particular, the Ash Wednesday liturgy puts it best: “Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”

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