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A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ominous Muse at the End of an Age


Mark Shea notes the following footprints in the sands of time:

When I was a kid, the State used language that assumed the citizen was a human being worthy of respect. "Buckle up for safety." "Keep America Beautiful".

Now the State uses a bullying, contemptuous tone appropriate for a bureaucrat who assumes "the Masses" are so much concrete to be shoveled around, so many cattle to be prodded, so many sheep to be startled in this or that direction by technicians whose job is to do crowd control. "Click it or Ticket," "Drive Hammered, Get Nailed," "Slow Down or Pay Up," and "Buckle Up, IT’S THE LAW" It is the grammar of a state that no longer believes in a free people, but in a crowd of human animals, unworthy of respect, who need to kicked because they are too stupid to be appealed to as rational beings.

The Germans has a word for it: a "Besserwisser" (Those Who Know Better).  It's a hard role not to take when you can see how other people can better order their lives, and they persistently do not do so!  You have to ask "What's the matter with Kansas?" 

Oh, well.  The Modern Ages were the Age of the State.  They began with medieval-style kings as primus inter pares counterweighted by a separate institution, the Church, to which people could appeal and which claimed that even princes were rulers "under God," that is, subject to a higher law.  IT'S THE LAW!! could be countered by BUT IT'S AN UNJUST LAW!!!  A.D. Lindsay, in The Modern Democratic State, wrote:

"It was perhaps equally important that the existence and prestige of the Church prevented society from being totalitarian, prevented the omnicompetent state, and preserved liberty in the only way that liberty can be preserved, by maintaining in society an organization which could stand up against the state."

I am minded of de Tocqueville's observation about the liberties of Americans being ensured by the little battalions of everyday life.  Between the Man and the State stood church, trade or guild, family, charities, fraternal organizations, and other free associations.  The Americans cleverly divided even the State into state, and general governments and the general government into three separate arms to prevent the concentration of the imperium in too few hands.

But as the Modern Ages progressed (and that use of "progress" is itself an innovation of the Modern Ages) kings became monarchs (i.e., ruling alone), then absolute monarchs.  But to become absolute they had to break the other pole of society: the Church was divided and nationalized as "established churches" whose bishops were appointed by the throne.  After a time, the Bourgeoisie wearied of the Monarchs and at Naseby and the Bastille (and less obviously at Appomattox) the aristocracy was overthrown.  Some countries, like England, kept their aristocrats as decorative accessories; but others, like France, cut off their heads. 

But whether run by aristocratic monarchs or by bourgeois politicians, the powers of the State steadily increased.  Sometimes overtly, as in totalitarian regimes; sometime covertly, as in bureaucratic welfare states.  Fittingly, Bismarck's Germany - a curious amalgam of autocracy and democracy - was a wellspring for much of it.  Once-private matters were brought under state control: esp. and most crucially those two pillars of the Family: marriage of the parents and education of the children.  James Chastek notes that:

Civil marriage was instituted briefly by Napoleon and optionally in some German States.  Gradually, it became mandatory: in the Hapsburg Empire in 1868, and spread to Italy (1873), Switzerland (1874), the German Empire (1875), and France (1881). Today, we cannot imagine how people might marry without permission from the State, although even as late as 1910 there were states of the Union that did not require a license.

Schools for commoner children were started by religious orders, notably by Jean Baptist de la Salle in France in the 17th century.  By the 19th century these had been made secular and mandatory: Austria (1869), England (1870), Switzerland (1874), Netherlands (1876), Italy (1877), Belgium (1879), France in the early/ mid 1880′s. Germany’s public schools pre-dated this, but became secularized at around this time. 

Note how revolutionary the 1860s-1880s were in Western civilization, over and above (or perhaps beneath) the ephemeral political revolutions.  Chastek comments:

Presumably, Libertarians and Conservatives are supposed to see this [takeover of marriage and education] as the beginning of the end and Liberals are supposed to see this as the moment that the state finally got its act together. But even without making either of these judgments it’s still interesting to see it as a choice that was made. Given the speed and extent of these changes, it was certainly a very significant upheaval, and one that certainly can’t be seen as an organic development. It looks far more like a prairie fire or revolution.

One consequence of State-run education was that the graduates lined the roads and cheered themselves hoarse when the armies of Our Nation-State marched off to the Mutual Suicide Pact of 1914.  (By 1939 they had learned better, in a far harsher school, and the streets of Berlin lay in silence when the Wehrmacht marched out, and people remained in doors.  This so infuriated the Leader that he held no more grand send-off parades.) 

Gutting all the other institutions that once stood between the Man and his State meant that Man stood alone against the State.  This might seem that things had at last boiled down to the bare essentials: it would be Libertarianism or Socialism.  No more Mr. In-Between.  But Man vs. the State is like Bambi vs. Godzilla.  The smart money is on the lizard.  The apotheosis of the Modern Ages is the totalization of the State, in either its hard or soft version. 

Tocqueville thought  that democratic tyranny would be "more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them." 

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting
+ + +

[I]t is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life...  Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately.  It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will.

SFnally speaking, What Next?  It is a mistake to extrapolate linearly beyond the range of data.  There are signs that the Modern Ages are fading and that our present time is to the Modern was the 15th cent. was to the Medieval.  (Except maybe without the Renaissance thingie.  After the great mutual suicide pact of 1914-1945, worship of the State seems to have waned somewhat and by 1968 had collapsed.  Even Leaders like Mussolini and Hitler based their legitimacy not on the constitutions of their respective States but on the Approval of the People.  When it was clear that he had lost that approval, Mussolini actually resigned!  (And a dreadful farce ensued.)  Today, even dictators feel the need to hold elections and plebiscites to legitimize their rule.  So as the Age of the State fades into the Age of the Folk, what will happen?  There is no worse tyrant than the People.  A foreshadowing: In the Early Modern Age, kings were often seen as the bulwark of the people against the unruly aristocracy, and so the bourgeoisie made alliance with the kings to suppress medieval disorder.  Perhaps we are entering the Age of Leaders, in which popular figures embody in their own persons the Hopes of the Folk.  Such a Leader may well ignore the written statutes of old-fashioned States and rule by benign decree - after a struggle with other would-be Leaders for the Adulation of the Folk.  Welcome to the re-run of the Late Roman Republic, one of the most curious mixtures of dictatorship and republicanism as the world has ever seen.  A Dictatorial Republic! 

Well, there is always Kipling's Advice:

Whether the State can loose and bind
   In Heaven as well as on Earth:
If it be wiser to kill mankind
  Before or after the birth--
These are matters of high concern
   Where State-kept schoolmen are;
But Holy State (we have lived to learn)
    Endeth in Holy War.

Whether The People be led by The Lord,
    Or lured by the loudest throat:
If it be quicker to die by the sword
  Or cheaper to die by vote--
These are things we have dealt with once,
  (And they will not rise from their grave)
For Holy People, however it runs,
  Endeth in wholly Slave.

Whatsoever, for any cause,
    Seeketh to take or give
Power above or beyond the Laws,
    Suffer it not to live!
Holy State or Holy King--
   Or Holy People's Will--
Have no truck with the senseless thing.
   Order the guns and kill!
        Saying --after--me:--

Once there was The People--Terror gave it birth;
Once there was The People and it made a Hell of Earth
Earth arose and crushed it. Listen, 0 ye slain!
Once there was The People--it shall never be again!

-- MacDonough's Song, from "As easy as A B C" in A Diversity of Creatures

1 comment:

  1. Wow. So cleanly and clearly said. I LOVE this! You've written in few words what I have come to believe over the years.

    Wow. You are one great writer.

    ReplyDelete