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A Nationalism Untethered to History

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With a breezy preface that approvingly references recent political developments in America and Britain, Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism offers a defense of the nation state. Now, there is a case to be made; indeed, there is a liberal and cosmopolitan case to be made. The nation state has been the most successful vehicle of liberalism yet achieved and there are good, liberal reasons to be suspicious of the rise of supra-national institutions such as the European Union. A book making that case could have been a very important contribution to our current impoverished debates on the matter.

The Virtue of Nationalism does not set out to be that book. The book’s self-declared aim is state the case for nationalism and for a distinct kind of national state. It defends nationalism in opposition to liberalism, globalism, imperialism, or cosmopolitanism. The nation state Hazony champions is the nationalist’s state and, as we shall see, inevitably the ethno-nationalist’s state. Troubling as this might be on its face, the main weaknesses of The Virtue of Nationalism are less in its aim and more in its incoherent methodology, the brazenness with which ill-fitting examples are forced into too-clean categories, and its utter lack of familiarity with the scholarship associated with its subject matter.

What, then, is the case for nationalism?  And what are the virtues of nationalism?  There are several points that Hazony makes which are fairly standard, and with which one can concur. The competitive European state system did play an important role in the economic and political successes of the West in the last half-millennium. Attempts to build states in the Middle East that ignore ethnic, linguistic or religious difference do seem doomed to fail. And there is a strong Burkean and Hayekian case for relying on a form of political organization that has served us well historically. These arguments are well and good but are not novel, nor are they central to Hazony’s case.

The novelty of The Virtue of Nationalism is twofold. First, Hazony’s positive vision of a national state is based on the biblical account for the early Israelite kingdom. He elevates ancient Israel into a model for how to think about nation states. He sees this Old Testament model as informing the rise of Protestant states in the early modern period. And, on this basis, attempts to delineate a virtuous Protestant trajectory of national development and a sharp distinction between national and imperialist states.

A second novel feature of this book, is that the nationalism Hazony defends is essentially an ethnic nationalism, though he doesn’t use that term. He bases his claims for the virtues of nationalism on an argument that human sociability, trust, and sympathy is closest among family members and then extends out to members of one’s “tribe” or even nation but cannot be sustained among human beings as a species. Hazony’s national state is based around a core set of tribes who share common culture, language and religion; outsiders can be adopted into it; but it hard to see how their culture, traditions or language can have anything but a secondary role in such a society.

In the current political environment, these views should not be ignored.

A narrow categorization

Hazony begins by describing a dichotomy between two types of political order: the tribe and the imperial state. In a tribal order, authority is personal, familial and reciprocal. The most serious downside of the tribal order is that there is frequent conflict. The polar opposite to the tribal order is an empire. Empires promise to unify all peoples; hence they can bring peace and prosperity. But authority under imperial rule is distant and abstract. According to Hazony, cosmopolitan empires cannot command genuine loyalty, for “in the absence of a common threat to provide a genuine basis for unified action, the call to unite all mankind appears worse than vacuous” (p. 79).

Having laid out these two extremes, Hazony argues that the national state provides a happy median, avoiding both the chaos of tribal anarchy and the despotism inherent in an imperial state:

When the tribes of a nation unite to establish a national state”, he writes, “they bring to this state the familiar and distinctive character of the nation, its language, laws, and religious traditions, its past history of anguish and triumph” (p. 101).

Note that here, what Hazony calls a national state emerges where there already is a “nation.” We can set aside, for now, the fact that in this argument, the problem of “nation-building” or creating national identity is conveniently skirted.[1]

Hazony notes that a national state can overcome the endemic violence of the tribal order while harnessing shared loyalties and cultural values. Here Hazony waxes lyrically about the collective endeavors made possible by an independent national state. But, as the argument progresses, one realizes that Hazony has no stable criterion for designating which characteristics adhere to a national state and which belong to either the imperial state or the tribal order. The ideal types Hazony establishes in order to build his argument collapse upon examination.

Consider one of the key virtues Hazony attributes to a national state: that it renounces the bellicose ambitions of the imperial state. National states, we are told, fight limited wars to obtain limited ends. By contrast, imperial states are committed to an ideology of continual conquest. How does this argument fair empirically? By Hazony’s own account, the Athenians, English, and Dutch — all exemplars of the national state model — hardly refrained from creating empires.[2]  Historically the only factor limiting the ambitions of most of the national states he cites has been weakness or lack of opportunity.

The lack of any coherent methodology for assessing his own claims leads to incoherence. National states frequently develop imperial ambitions. Moreover, actual imperial states, we are told, tend to be based on core ruling nations which “[form] a tightly bonded core of individuals who will defend one another at all costs against peoples whom they have conquered” (p 98). In a single chapter Hazony simultaneously claims that a virtue of nation states is that they recognize “the boundaries of the nation and its defensive needs as placing natural limits upon its extension” (p 111) while also denouncing “the imperialism that had come to dominate the policies of Britain, France, Russia, and Germany” and claiming that World War 1 was “the fruit of European national states’ infatuation with imperialism” (118). If by Hazony’s own account, this key virtue of the national state is frequently violated by actual national states, why should we place much faith on it?[3]

This problem is pervasive throughout The Virtue of Nationalism. In the parlance of my native discipline, economics, the author continuously selects on the dependent variable. Take any historical state or event. If something turns out to be good, attribute it to nationalism. If something is bad attribute it to the opposite of nationalism. Thus, we are told that Nazism and Japanese imperialism had little to do with nationalism. According to Hazony, these states were “imperialist.”

What is just and what just is

Another fundamental problem is that what is just and what just is are frequently conflated. Hazony’s vision is of nation state that emerges indigenously from a group of tribes that share a common culture, language, and religion. He argues that this ethno-nationalism is good because it is realistic, it builds on the sympathy that we naturally feel from those who are similar to us and which we don’t feel towards foreigners. For Hazony, this empirical observation somehow implies an ought. The fact that we sympathize more with victims of, say, natural disasters in our own country than in others is not just true, but somehow good.

He contrasts this to the liberal political order which he views as synonymous with the contract theories of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and John Rawls. For Hazony this liberal order is a “dream world” (p 34). He supposes that Hobbes and Locke and indeed modern liberals view the social contract as a relevant historical account of the origins of societies, states, and government. This of course would be fantastical. But, of course, I’ve never encountered anyone who holds this position. For liberals who built on the writings Locke, such as Rawls, the state of nature is a theoretical construct to probe our intuitions concerning justice and political authority.

The fact that successful nation states have harnessed the sympathy we feel for members of our family and extended kinship group and transplanted them to the nation is indeed valid. But this tells us little about what type of political order is just.

Even if we judge a theory purely on its realism, Hazony’s argument falls short. His account is inspired by the Biblical account of the origins of the Kingdom of Israel. Setting aside issues of the biblical literalism, Hazony’s account of other instances of state formation carries with it the air of a fairytale and are almost entirely divorced from historical reality. There is no recognition that, in the examples he cites, the formation of states required the erosion or outright destruction of tribal authority.

The Athenian state, we are told, was created based on the “unification of tribes” (p 80). The Greek cities “were tribal states that failed to unite under a single national state” (p 257). But what Hazony does not tell the reader is that Athenian democracy was based on the abolition of the original tribes of Athens. Cleisthenes and the founders of Athenian democracy understood that tribal loyalty undercut and undermined loyalty to the city. Hence the electoral “tribes” that formed the basis of Athenian democracy were artificial, with no connection to extended family groups. The claim that Athens functioned as free state because of loyalty to “nation and tribe, which contributed the necessary cohesion to the state” is a fantasy.

From Hazony’s account one would not learn that tribal identity and familial loyalty are usually a major barrier to the formation of effective nation states. In his study of Arab society, The Closed Circle, David Pryce-Jones discussed how tribalism does not just mean frequent recourse to violence, as Hazony acknowledges, but deep cleavages and distrust which impeded any attempts to organize at the societal level.[4] Pryce-Jones quotes Pierre Bourdieu to the effect that among traditional Arab society:

The family is the alpha and omega of the whole system: the primary group and structural model for any possible grouping, it is the indissoluble atom of society which assigns and assures to each of its members his place, his function, his very reason for existence” (Pryce-Jones Loc. 410).

Having provided a stylized model of how a nation might emerge out of separate tribes,

Hazony applies the ancient Israelite template to early modern Europe. References like “the coming together of the Netherlandish tribes as a national state under the Dutch Republic” (p 80) are ahistorical. A careful reviewer would have noted that clans, tribes, or powerful extended family networks ceased to be important centuries prior to the establishment of the Dutch Republic.

Hazony appears unaware of the fact that scholars attribute the success of European nation states precisely to the weakness or absence of clans and tribes.[5] An extensive literature documents how the Catholic Church eroded tribal and clan based loyalties by prohibiting cousin marriage, encouraging widows to remain unmarried, and advocating for marriage as institution for consenting adults. These developments, the practice of deferring marriage into one’s mid-20s (known as the European Marriage Pattern), and precocious urbanization meant that Dutch society consisted of small nuclear families, not tribes.[6]

Though he notes that families and tribes can adopt genetically unrelated individuals, his notion of a national state is unmistakably rooted in a sense of shared tribal identity. But what is the nature of this identity? How is it formed? How did individuals extend notions of local or tribal identity to the level of the modern nation?

These are questions that historians of nationalism have wrestled with for decades. Rather than addressing these concerns, we are offered breezy statements such as “Thus the English adopted the Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish into a broader British Nation” (p 128). This statement simply elides centuries of conflict, negotiation and investment in a constructed, fragile, recent identity and entirely ignores the imperial character of English (and Scottish) intrusions into Ireland.

Ignoring the literature

A charitable reading of The Virtue of Nationalism is that the author has extrapolated a political theory from the biblical accounts of his own homeland. Thus, his preferred story is one in which different tribes, unified by language, religion and a shared culture (and perhaps ethnicity) strike an alliance to meet outside threats and form a national state. This theme is repeated throughout the book[8]. But very few national states conform to this creation myth. As a result, Hazony is forced into a series of ahistorical assessments about which past societies embodied the virtues of nationalism (or the sins of imperialism).

Non-specialist readers might miss the fact that there is an extensive literature on the origins of nationalism. A common theme in it is that nationalism is a recent, 19th century invention. Hazony mentions this in an endnote but he does not actually engage these arguments at any point in the text. This is a revealing omission. You can believe, as I do, that the claims of the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and others about the invention of nationalism are overblown while still acknowledging the basic point that national identity is often the product of a national state rather than its precursor.

Curiously, Hazony also does not touch on the distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism emphasized by historian Liah Greenfield.[9] “Civic nationalism” does not appear in the index. And, for the most part, he writes in terms of a shared religion and culture. But how should we think about “tribes” except in ethnic terms? It is troubling that, rather than confronting this topic directly, Hazony’s cites Johann Herder as follows:

The most natural state is, therefore, one nation, an extended family with one national character . . . Nothing, therefore, is more manifestly contrary to the purposes of political government than the unnatural enlargement of states, the wild mixing of various races and nationalities under one scepter. A human scepter is far too weak and slender for such incongruous parts to be engrafted upon it. Such states are but patched up contraptions, fragile machines . . . (p 112)

Rather than wrestling with the exclusionary implications of Herder’s nationalism, Hazony simply approves of Herder’s assessment, leaving the reader to wonder whether the modern, multi-racial, United States is one of Herder’s “lifeless monstrosities.”

A frank conversation about national loyalty, and especially the history of the nation state and its role in the advances of the modern world, are needed now more than ever. Unfortunately, The Virtue of Nationalism has very little to offer to such a conversation. The topic of the book has a natural appeal to those who feel defensive when national sentiments are attacked by liberals and progressives, and indeed it has been taken up in the conservative media and elsewhere on that basis. But these outlets would be better suited to careful scholars such as Greenfield, Azar Gat, or Michael Ignatieff. What Harzony offers readers is a far cry from these authors in both scholarship and in the logic of his arguments.

[1] Indeed, the definition of a nation for Hazony is “a number of tribes with a shared heritage, usually including a common language or religious traditions, and a past history of joining together against common enemies” (p 100).

[2] Hazony acknowledges this on page 120 but doesn’t seem to realize the damage this does to his argument earlier.

[3] The claim that there is a stark dichotomy between limited wars between national states and “ideological wars” does not survive scrutiny.  One ruler’s legitimate national interest is another’s overwhelming hubris.  Louis XIV claimed that he was securing the natural boundaries of France; his opponents that he aimed at dominion over all of Europe.  Similarly, it should be recalled that the French Revolutionary armies were defending their own borders in 1792 at the onset of what history has labelled the Napoleonic Wars.

[4] David Pryce-Jones (1989). The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs. Harper & Row. London.

[5] Alan MacFarlane, (1978). The Origins of English Individualism. Wiley Blackwell. Larry Siedentrop, (2014). Inventing the Individual. Belnap Press. Cambridge, MA.  Francis Fukuyama, (2011) The Origins of Political Order. Profile Books.  Jack Goody (1983). The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe. Cambridge University Press.

[6] Note also that the Dutch Republic was not a national state but a fairly loose federation of city-states.

[7] He cites Herder positively that “Nothing, therefore, is more manifestly contrary to the purposes of political government than the unnatural enlargement of states, the wild mixing of various races and nationalities under one scepter” (p 112).

[8] Thus on page 123: “The national state takes advantage of the basis for a genuine mutual loyalty that already exists among these warring tribes — a common language or religion, in addition to a past history of defending one another as allies in the face of common enemies — to establish a unified national government”.

[9] For instance in, Liah Greenfeld (1992) Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, Havard University Press, Cambridge MA

Featured image is The Black Stain , by Albert Bettannier

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Democracy and its contradictions: Revolt

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[The following is the third of three posts inspired by a reading of François Furet’s magnificent history of the “idea of Communism,” The Passing of an Illusion.  Here are links to part one and part two.]

The destruction and dismemberment of the Soviet Union at the hands of Russian nationalists was a prophetic event, though few grasped this at the time.  Nations bundled together under the abstract principles fashionable after World War I were coming undone:  Yugoslavia in 1992, Czechoslovakia in 1993, the Levant in 2011.  This, too, passed unperceived within any unified field of vision.  A tidal wave of particularism, of political fragmentation, was about to sweep over the globe, leaving little untouched.  None saw it coming, and only a handful, even after the fact, understood what had transpired.

The overwhelming reality at the end of the Cold War was the triumph of the last universal doctrine:  liberal democracy.  American elites interpreted the conflict, retroactively, as an ideological equation working toward a single inescapable solution.  Democratic nations would show the way.  Undemocratic nations, with a little help from the marketplace, would become democratic.  No alternatives existed.  The world had arrived at the fulfillment of history:  “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Francis Fukuyama’s thesis has been the object of much criticism and derision, yet it was and remains, in its essence, correct.  No universal system challenged liberal democracy in 1989, when Fukuyama wrote “The End of History?”  None can be found today.  In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, some argued that religion had provided a challenger:  specifically, that Islam was at war with democracy.  But the Taliban, in Afghanistan, is a tribal entity.  The Islamist groups the US has engaged militarily, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, are sectarian and particularistic, closer in spirit to Hitler’s worship of the mystical volk than to any universal principle.  Whatever bonds of faith and behavior are meant by “Islam,” the fact remains that there is no political unit with that name.  Islamist grievance derives exactly from this fact.

If humanity is foreordained to reach universal governance, then the future must necessarily be democratic and transnational.  That was Fukuyama’s insight.  In the placid afterglow of the Cold War, many intelligent people imagined that the hour of destiny had arrived.  V. S. Naipaul, nobody’s idea of a dreamer, could write in the 1990s of “our universal civilization.”  But universalism is a choice, not a historical necessity of any sort:  and democracy holds within itself the possibility of striking off in another direction.  Even at the height of its prestige, having knocked out the last totalitarian champion, democracy remained caught in contradiction.   It promotes individual freedom and tolerates an immense amount of contingency.  An individual may seek meaning or identity in difference:  qualities that separate a person, group, or nation from the human herd.  The democratic system that seemed, in 1989, like the “final form of human government,” allowed plenty of room for the particular.  Fukuyama’s Hegelian argument failed to take this dialectic into account.

The Cold War had locked two opposed universal doctrines into postures of rigid confrontation.  With the withering away of Marxism-Leninism, contingency rushed back into history – and was immediately cashed in.

So we enter the present moment with the forces of particularism and fragmentation utterly dominant.  Democracy contained this choice, and great numbers of the public, in many parts of the world, have so chosen.  For the first time since the defeat of fascism and National Socialism, nationalism has been re-sanctified.  Though accused of being a “populist” stance, it is popular enough to help win elections in the US, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Austria, and elsewhere.  Certain features of twenty-first century nationalism recall the fascist past.  The nation, locus of meaning and identity, is said to be in precipitous decline:  it must be saved from its tormentors.  Donald Trump promised to “make America great again,” while Vladimir Putin’s calling has been to rescue Russia from the mutilated corpse of the USSR.  History, carrier of the universalist plague, has become the enemy.  Transnational aggregations of power, far from being ethically superior, have assumed the part played by the Jew under Hitler:  that of self-serving manipulators of national decadence.  Thus the European Union has been charged by Viktor Orbán of Hungary with “stealthily devouring ever more slices of our national sovereignty.” In a similar temper, the British public has voted to break loose from the EU – first overt shock dealt to the old order by the particularist revolt.

The contrasts with historic fascism, however, are much more striking and fundamental.  The nation, in politics, is always a lever:  a pivot-point.  For Hitler and Mussolini, nationalism was the pretext for conscripting the public into a mass movement controlled by the totalitarian state.  Only through the dictatorship of the avatar could particularism come to life:  this was the leadership principle.  Today the political polarities have been reversed.  Power erupts from the bottom upwards.  Modern government, perceived as a putrid “swamp,” elicits repudiations no less ferocious than those aimed at transnational organizations.  Both are in the hands of an elite class intent on foisting alien abstractions – multiculturalism, political correctness, “swinish capitalism,” economic globalization – on unsettled societies.  This governing class has become the target of the public’s rage.  Contemporary nationalism, in brief, is at war with national government – at war, it may be, against every form of authority.  The leadership principle dissolves into rant and ridicule in the age of social media.  Unlike the elaborate justifications for fascism and National Socialism, the anti-authority impulse lacks a coherent ideology.  It gives no thought to a mythical past or a revolutionary future:  therefore, its negations often resemble an escape to nihilism.

The nation, today, is a pivot to fractured identities.  Even as Britain demanded a break with the EU, the Scottish government has demanded a break with Britain.  The democratically elected officers of Catalonia were thrown in prison by the democratically elected government of Spain, to forestall secession.  In the US, state and local Lilliputians have learned to lash down the Gulliver of federal authority.  Republican governors fought a relatively successful guerrilla war in the courts against Obama administration policies.  Local jurisdictions “resisting” Trump have openly proclaimed their refusal to enforce federal laws.  At the top of the pyramid, where fascism posited the greatest concentration of political strength, one now finds weakness and failure.  David Cameron tried to keep Britain in the EU and failed.  His successor, Theresa May, tried to negotiate a divorce from the EU and has so far failed at that.  Angela Merkel wished to insert a transformed, tolerant Germany at the center of a multicultural empire.  Her policies have broken her power at home and boosted the electoral fortunes of anti-EU forces in Europe.

Absent the dictator to signify the center, the mass migration from the universal to the particular has gotten lost among a tangle of narrow and contradictory pathways.  The exercise of personal freedom has sometimes wandered beyond politics to private islands of identity, inaccessible to the rest of humanity.  “I am,” a young person assures us (by way of illustration), “queer, trans, Chinese American, middle class, and able bodied.”  Each label here denotes a boundary in the space open to debate.  To speak “as a woman” or “as a gay person” is to reject the possibility that outsiders can penetrate the group’s perspective on truth.  Those who try can be silenced by the charge of “cultural appropriation”:  that is, theft of sectarian property.  But the accumulation of labels leaves the bearer entombed in a private and subjective reality.  Communication with the world, including one’s fellow citizens, is scarcely possible.  Participation in liberal democracy, as currently practiced, is scarcely possible.  The individual can only make claims and demands on the whole.

At this point, the flight to the particular has left nationalism and even sectarianism far behind, to plunge into a featureless landscape darkened by loneliness and grievance.  The nihilist temptation – the wish to re-enter the world by smashing at it – is always present, close at hand.


The triumphant doctrines of the last 100 years have held history to be the handmaiden of universal abstractions.

Under this scheme, government’s task is to realize abstractions in a scientific manner.  The objective of politics is predetermined:  the end of history in a rational, humanitarian society.  Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the methods of politics are expected to be democratic and peaceful.  The dictatorship of the proletariat has gone out of business.  Revolution has fallen out of favor.  This engenders much uncertainty about when and how the golden age will arrive – but the line of progress is clear enough.  Fukuyama wrote confidently about “a process that gives coherence and order to the daily headlines.”  Twenty years later, Barack Obama could still chide global actors he disapproved of with being “on the wrong side of history.”

The natural form of government for such an interpretation of history is heavily top down and obedient to expert opinion.  Political disputes occur over technical matters, within a narrow band of possibilities.  The big picture is given to those in the know.  They own the map to the future, and differences among them are tactical, almost sporting.  This is the ideology of the political and intellectual elites who have run the world since the end of World War I.  The democratic carnage of the twentieth century, they believe, has been justified by its teleology.  It was the price of admission to the next stage of human evolution.  Without the vision of ordained human progress, the elite class can imagine only moral horror or political chaos:  that is, fascism or anarchy.

Nonetheless, a substantial portion of the public is now defecting from this austere, abstract system.  The movement represents a reinsertion of the particular into democratic politics, and the return of contradiction, and hence of contingency, into history.  The rise of a strangely personalized nationalism is only part of the story.  An exaltation of freedom contradicts, without ever grappling with, a culture of endless grievance.  The lack of a unifying ideology is willful:  doctrine means oppression, an unacceptable reduction in the range of possibilities.  In truth, all politics are now willful.  There is no priestly caste to interpret the future, no predestined utopia, no religion of progress or science.  There is only the human will – what Ronald Reagan called “the energy and individual genius of man” – pitted against the gathered forces of history.  By a process of association, the elite class has been condemned to play the part of history in the present drama.

The public is less interested in governing or justifying the past than in disturbing the peace in the present.

In the middle of the scuffle one finds, inevitably, the question of equality.  That too has returned with a vengeance, though also with the lack of clarity typical of our age.  The established order, ideological to the core, seems unable to consider the concept without becoming entangled in archaic, almost meaningless formulas.  Thomas Piketty’s attack on capitalism thus recapitulates Marx and the forgotten world of the nineteenth century, with one crucial difference:  in the place of revolution, Piketty inserts a tax on the rich.  Instead of a new dawn in human relations, the wretched of the earth will get a slightly larger Leviathan.  The disproportion of ends and means is immediately apparent, and probably self-refuting.

The public in all its iterations, on the right and the left, populist and sectarian, has chased after equality in a manner similarly riddled with political nostalgia and contradiction.  Donald Trump descended on a golden escalator from his Fifth Avenue penthouse to speak on behalf of “the forgotten men and women of our country.”  Trump’s economic policies betray his generational origins:  tax cuts and import tariffs would look at home in the twentieth century.  On the other side of the spectrum, the politics of identity begin with a desperate cry for equality and tolerance but end with demands for special privilege and the silencing of hostile opinion.  “Antifascist” street fighters seek to reprise Berlin of the 1930s in contemporary Berkeley, California.  Digital culture, “a world that is both everywhere and nowhere,” source of so much of the political turmoil in the real world, preached in its origins a flower-child version of egalitarianism.  Today a handful of giant corporations decide, opaquely, most of what can be said and done online.

The universal ideologies that rivaled religion in the past century appear exhausted at last.  The public has sickened of a diet of abstractions:  it has deeper needs, and is moving to supply them in the particular, that is, in the nation, the sect, and the self.  In the flight from the universal, the public has scattered all over the landscape – and a question for democracy is how citizens can communicate intelligibly at such immense distances from one another.  Particularism, by definition, means fragmentation.  Pure assertion of political will, absent a program, ends with a babble of angry voices.  The lack of a conceptual framework, now confused with liberation, is in fact an unsurmountable obstacle to finding common ground.

Yet to be persuasive, even feasible, any such framework must first wrestle with the contradictions inherent to the idea of equality.  This isn’t a search for Platonic definitions.  The concept must be adjusted and made accessible to the digital age.  The fundamental question is whether equality is seen to entail the expansion of freedom or a decrease in difference.  All else follows from this choice, and each direction carries a long train of secondary questions.  How much actual inequality, for example, can be absorbed as the price of freedom?  What means of promoting equality can be considered legitimate in an open, democratic society?  Should speech be controlled to protect marginal groups or persons?  How wide is the circle of acceptable political dispute?  What lies beyond the pale?

Much intellectual work needs to be done.  It might be argued that, in a fractured environment, this effort might amount to nothing more than talking to oneself:  but that is an exaggeration.  Half the human race speaks English and is connected through Facebook.  One can dine on kimshi in Fairfax County, Virginia, and on Kentucky Fried Chicken in Seoul, South Korea.  In strictly descriptive terms, Naipaul (as usual) got it right.  The outlines of a universal civilization are visible from every corner of the earth.  The task is precisely to endow this civilization with democratic content.  This is a tall order, to be sure, but not an impossibility, and certainly not a reason for self-fulfilling pessimism.

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Democracy and its contradictions: Revolution

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[The following is the second of three posts inspired by a reading of François Furet’s magnificent history of the “idea of Communism,” The Passing of an Illusion.  Here is a link to part one.]

The end of World War II found the universalist principle everywhere triumphant.

The two superpowers that inherited the world represented the two poles of democratic universalism at its most stringent and abstract.  The United States, Lincoln had insisted at Gettysburg, stood apart from other nations in being dedicated to a “proposition”:  that all were created equal.  The history of the country could be interpreted as an immense odyssey, full of mishaps and struggle, toward the conclusions made necessary by this premise.  Given the persistence of Jim Crow and political bossism, much distance remained on the journey – yet progress along this virtuous trajectory, by itself, allowed Americans to reject the contradiction between equality and freedom.  To the American mind, both were God-given.  Lincoln’s proposition unlocked a vast realm of contingency in which everything became possible, including the reconciliation of the universal to the particular.  The work of government, therefore, was to protect the rights of the individual in his pilgrimage to that vast frontier, no less than to enforce equality.

Despite the inevitable contradictions of American society, the US government assumed leadership of the free world as a universal mandate, unencumbered by hypocrisy or irony.

The Soviet Union, for its part, espoused universal doctrines at their most extreme – but with a difference.  Stalin ruled a one-party dictatorship in the name of democracy, and he institutionalized state terror to impose equality.  The moral inversions of revolution were for him extended indefinitely in time.  The USSR was governed as if by a small band of conspirators, with constant denunciations of “deviationists” and “saboteurs,” opaquely sectarian trials, and deportations, assassinations, and massacres on an unprecedented scale.  The bloodshed was sanctified in the birth of a “new man”:  Marxism-Leninism always claimed ownership of the perfect future.  That was its seductive charm.  The classless society, final solution to all human contradictions, hovered just beneath the horizon.  Stalin invented the totalitarian state and terrorized his own people to end, by brute force, the oppressive cycles of history.  After two world wars, many thoughtful observers were willing to embrace this Faustian bargain.

The 45-year collision between the US and the USSR – that is, between unequal freedom and undemocratic equality – has been called the Cold War, but the label scarcely does justice to the realities of the age.  Tens of millions were put to death in the Marxist nations alone, an ideology-driven crime spree that has yet to receive full accounting.  The battleground nations – Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Angola – suffered almost as severely.

The conflict was perceived to be a “war of ideas,” and was hedged with abstractions to a degree unmatched even by the Wars of Religion of the seventeenth century.  Universal principles were inflated to the full dimensions of reality, squeezing out the exceptional and the particular.  Nationalism was masked in revolutionary jargon.  Dictatorships became “democratic republics.”  The hot wars of the period were fought for universal reasons in inconsequential places like Korea and Nicaragua.  The United Nations, a conflicted, inept bureaucracy, nonetheless retained a sort of science-fictional legitimacy as global arbiter.  Other transnational institutions proliferated with abandon, for purposes of war and peace:  NATO, SEATO, the Warsaw Pact, the World Trade Organization, COMECON, the Common Market, the various tariff-reduction “rounds.”

Given the terms of the struggle, advantage lay with whichever side could claim the most complete and sincere surrender to democratic universalism.  By a curious paradox, this largely favored the totalitarian state.  It had crushed individual freedom, ostentatiously, on behalf of “real” democracy and economic justice.  The revolutionary faith tolerated judgment only from the skewed perspective of the future:  all present horrors would be applauded retrospectively.  In the decades after World War II, Marxism-Leninism spread far beyond the European homeland, penetrating nations, Furet writes, with little previous exposure to democracy or Christianity.  American failure to hold on to South Vietnam gave this tendency the feel of inevitability.  Hordes of Western artists and intellectuals jumped on the Soviet bandwagon, afraid to be left behind by history.

In contrast, the US faced the charge that it was a merely bourgeois democracy:  an empire of selfishness and alienation festering under the cover of individual rights.  Marxist analysis, which many intellectuals endorsed, denied the universal reach of the American adventure.  To be bourgeois was to be ruled by money – the most repulsive kind of particularism.  Events, from Vietnam and race riots to campus revolts and the baffling Watergate scandal, appeared to confirm that the nation was indeed a house divided.  By 1979, a sitting president could warn of “the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives” and “the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”

Yet Jimmy Carter was an anomaly.  US governments and elites responded to the Cold War with a sustained effort to align national life with the universal abstractions it was expected to embody.  The particularism of the South with regards to race was finally obliterated.  Local political machines were reformed out of existence.  The welfare state grew enormously to compensate for the inequalities of freedom.  Intermediate entities, like the states and the parties, were drained of much of their authority.  The presidency towered over politics, and the political process was made more inclusive and democratic, hence more unpredictable.  From 1945 to 1980, the pull of the universal transformed American society.  The election of Ronald Reagan completed the process by raising to office the most visionary American leader since Woodrow Wilson – and the most militant defender of personal freedom, it may be, since Thomas Jefferson.


There is no doubt that material causes featured prominently in the discrediting of Marxism-Leninism and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  The Soviet economy couldn’t compete with the US.  Reagan’s weapons build-up pushed the old men in the Kremlin to desperate measures.  In this context, the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev appear as a forlorn attempt to lash the egalitarianism of the one-party dictatorship to the productive superiority of liberalism.  The gamble proved fatal:  Gorbachev, putative savior of the USSR, made history as its undertaker.  The contradiction he sought to bridge was too immense and fundamental.

Other contradictions, arising from the “war of ideas,” contributed to the downfall of the Soviet system.

The Soviet Union was a nation and an engine of revolution.  It had particular interests and a universal mission.  Tension was inevitable and could not be papered over by phrases like “national Bolshevism” or “socialism in one country.”  Stalin openly stoked Russian patriotism in response to the German invasion of 1941.  The Third International was dissolved in 1943.  After the war, Soviet troops occupied East Europe and set up puppet regimes by brute force rather than revolution.  Revolts were suppressed in blood and iron.  The 1968 “Prague Spring,” which held out hope for “socialism with a human face,” was crushed under the tread of Soviet tanks – alienating, at long last, much of the European intellectual class.  At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union began a long march to particularism that would end only with its own dismemberment.  The schism with Mao Zedong’s China was a decisive juncture along this path.  If the two great Marxist-Leninist nations were now divorced, who retained ownership of the future?

The idea of revolution stood at the heart of the riddle.  Revolution was the reason for the Soviet Union’s existence, yet by the 1960s the heirs to October 1917 ruled over a nuclear superpower and a restive empire.  Radical political change was a threat, not a friend.  Neither Marx nor his philosophy of history, in any case, had much to say about the atomic age. The fires of Leninism had failed to forge a new Soviet humanity:  the classless society, like the Christian end-times, retreated to the realm of myth and hope.  At the same time, the savagery of the Soviet past, long buried under a mass of propaganda, began to seep into the light.  Khrushchev repudiated Stalin’s “cult of personality,” before being shunted off to make way for a succession of cautious Party apparatchiks.  The publication of The Gulag Archipelago in 1973 showed the totalitarian state to be (in the words of Bernard-Henri Lévy) “barbarism with a human face.”  Intellectuals in need of revolutionary heroes began to look outside the USSR, among exotic avatars like Mao and Castro.  Yet these men were nationalists rather than world redeemers – and Mao’s regime displayed, to the edge of madness, every pathological excess associated with the dream of revolution.

It took a genuine proletarian revolution in Gdansk, Poland, in 1981, to confront the Marxist-Leninist system with the sum of its paralyzing contradictions.  The Polish proletariat demanded freedom from the dictatorship of the proletariat.  It chose indeterminacy over equality.  In the national elections of June 1989 it got just that, setting in motion the process that would lead, five months later, to the fall of the Berlin wall and the cracking apart of the Soviet empire in East Europe.

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24 days ago
New York, NY
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Democracy and its contradictions: Reaction

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[The following is the first of three posts inspired by a reading of François Furet’s magnificent history of the “idea of Communism,” The Passing of an Illusion.]

Democracy is caught in a contradiction:  between universal claims of equality and particularist claims about individual freedom.

Equality makes no exceptions.  This principle planed away the categorical differences in status inherited from aristocratic society – noble/bourgeois /peasant, man/woman, etc.  Henceforth all were “citizens.”  All were, in some transcendent way, equal members of the democratic nation in the first instance, but also equal and undifferentiated members of the great movement toward a democratic international order that would impose justice without borders.

Equality, in short, is the necessary foundation for the many-mansioned house of democracy.

Freedom of the individual is more closely associated with liberalism.  In the liberal vision, the individual, shielded by rights and protections against the tyranny of others, must be free to find his way, express his thoughts, and accumulate wealth as he sees fit, within the law.  For Furet, the accumulation of wealth is the chief attribute of bourgeois society.  Even if one finds this characterization too simple (and too French), there can be no question that competition for wealth is one attribute of liberal society.  This activity can never be described in universal terms.  It’s private and particular.  The end result is an enormous disparity in wealth and influence between supposedly equal citizens.  Freedom, in other words, entails indeterminacy and inequality, while democracy demands an unchanging and universal ideal of equality.

The nation stands at the pivot-point of contradiction.  Nationhood can be conceived in universal terms, as it was in the French Revolution and the revolts of 1848.  In those cases, the democratic nation was seen as a beach-head in the overthrow of the Old Regime and the establishment of a rational new international system.  Conceived in particularist terms, however, the nation is a mere aggregate of private ambition and interests, played out in a territorial theater that must be defended, or even expanded, at other nations’ expense.  This was the mindset of manifest destiny and of the men who led Europe into World War I.  The assertion of nationality uber alles is willful and therefore indeterminate:  liberalism can elide into ethnic or racialist thinking, in which the nation stands opposed to the state, or it can fracture even more microscopically along group or personal “identity” lines.

In neither instance is the nation a stable end in itself.  As a source of meaning and an object of loyalty unto death, the nation is always a stage on the way to something greater or something more intimate than itself.


According to Furet, World War I, the first fully democratic war, ripped open the contradiction at the heart of democracy.  Whole societies threw all they had at one another.  The original war aims were particularistic – Alsace-Lorraine, overseas colonies – and entire populations went to battle in a spirit of exalted patriotism.  But four years of fruitless slaughter demanded a reinterpretation commensurate with the sacrifice.  Woodrow Wilson waged war for the “liberation of peoples,” by which he meant some impossible mix of democracy and “national sovereignty.”  Lenin blamed the war on bourgeois greed, even as he reclaimed the mantle of democratic egalitarianism and the glory of revolution.  The historic nations of Europe, which had grown organically around a monarchy and were governed by a muddle of principles and classes, were destroyed in the conflict.  They were replaced by abstractions.  Four great empires were butchered on the altar of national sovereignty.  The smaller inheritor states, Furet comments, were just as mutually hostile and ethnically incoherent:  but they were blessed by a universalist grace.

Whatever the role of the bourgeoisie, the war was in essence a failure of the nation-state system.  The narrow claims of nationality had loosened the red-rimmed tide that nearly drowned European civilization.  By 1918, appeals to particularism had lost all purchase on the political and intellectual classes.  Two universal principles of legitimacy for governments and nations confronted each other over the wreckage of war:  representative democracy, internationalized through the League of Nations, and revolutionary equality, propagated by the Third International.

Almost at once, a powerful reaction set it.  In the context of specific histories and societies, both democracy and revolution could assume the aspect of alien and destructive forces.  In Germany and Italy, the nation was amputated from history and the state, and made to stand for an abstraction:  the volk, the chosen people, with eternally frustrated claims to greatness.  German-ness and Italian-ness had nothing to do with one’s passport.  It was a mystical extract of blood and memory (that is, fictitious history), articulated by the two avatars, Hitler and Mussolini.  The fulfillment of the nation, like the classless society, lay in the far future.  The method of getting there, borrowed from the Bolsheviks, was to be revolution and dictatorship.  It was never clear that the mass of people shared the pacifism and anti-nationalism of the intellectuals.  Then as now, the people craved identity and meaning.  The new particularist movements sought to oblige with cinematic spectacles and a radical conception of the nation as an instrument of war.

The future between the wars was crowded with anti-democratic stakeholders.  The question, for a person of good faith, was whether history belonged to the particular or the universal, embodied in “totalitarian” regimes of the right and the left.  Only armed conflict could settle the matter.  If, as Furet remarks, World War I seemed inexplicable in terms of what preceded it, World War II was inevitable.  Hitler’s program demanded a conflagration, just as it demanded a holocaust of “non-Aryan” peoples under his control.  National Socialism had placed a transcendental burden on the particular.  That burden could be eased only through the conquest and extermination of lesser races.  The Nazis, it should be clear, stood far removed from the simple nationalism of 1914.

The catastrophic defeat and dissolution of these regimes in the cauldron of World War II negated their chief claim to legitimacy:  that of national strength.  With the ignoble deaths of the avatars, the “leadership principle,” last word in particularism, stood refuted.  German chancellors of the postwar period would seek to expiate rather than dominate.  Italian prime ministers would head national governments almost denuded of effective power.  Yet even defeat was not as damning as the visual evidence, broadcast by the victors, showing Hitlerism to have been a death cult that sacrificed millions to the ravenous gods of ideology.  Totalizing the particular had always meant, in principle, the end of any space for social or ethnic difference:  but films of the extermination camps exposed, irrefutably, the moral horror of that principle in action.

The appeal of revolutionary particularism to public opinion and intellectual tastes was in this way extinguished, if not forever (there’s no forever in history) then certainly to the present hour.  Today fascism and Hitler live on strictly as empty labels and boogeymen – the worst kind of political insults.

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25 days ago
New York, NY
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The Loud Thing Quiet

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Unquiet has been my lot lately, for a handful of reasons, the visitation of death being only one of them–which is enough, if you ask me. Disquiet? Restlessness in conscience.

I have settled firmly into middle-age. It began five years ago, on my fortieth birthday, when, just as my elders predicted, my eyes began to shut down. Let me qualify that: I still have perfect vision, 20/20, clear as Burl Ives’s Lipton Tea, up until about four feet in front of me, and at that distance coming in, I emit high-pitched yelps to determine location and motion.

After a period of mourning, I made my way to the local apothecary, made visual contact with the proper aisle from the doorway, then, as I approached the reading glasses section, I slowed down, the weight of middle-age anchoring my every step. Youth stood somewhere outside, waiting for the next gust of wind to carry it away. My hand reached out, fumbling for a pair of reading glasses, any pair that I might hold up to my eyes so that I could read the advertised power of magnification on the various offerings of the entire inventory of reading glasses. I found a pair which suited me practically: very narrow rectangular glasses over which I might peer at recalcitrant students. I scowled in the mirror at the sight: reflected back at me was an adult version of myself. Then, without having to move my feet, I reached over to pick up a bottle of analgesic (heh: he said “anal”), and I began to read it.

For the first time in a considerable number of months, I felt joy, and it was the joy of relief, for I could read once more, and I could read without suffering. The lights in the building suddenly flickered, and as I looked up, I heard a sudden gust of wind, a short, fresh breeze, and then it was gone.

reading glasses rectangle

The preparation of youth to ride on the career arc is a preparation filled with anticipation, a sack of doubts enclosed each by a little plastic egg of knowledge–Knowledge–the ground upon which we tread in order to shuffle around on this groundless mortal coil. Indeed, youth does somehow blossom, as experience teaches us failure and success, more or less, for some more or less than others, the pink blossoming yielding to rich green, perhaps a little money in the bank, a spouse, a house, a bigger apartment on the way to a suburban home in which to continue growing and prospering. The early stages of prosperity is our obsession, and our minds are ever fixed upon it. The first whispers are heard but not heard.

It is all for nothing.

“I am rising in my field of expertise! See, I have established myself! Even failure is a learning experience, a temporary setback, a springboard from which to leap up and forward, wiser, craftier, warier.”

The birds of the air and varmints of the earth find the fruit of your vine to be very sweet indeed, and free. New York State grins, saying, “Thank you very much.” The Treasury Department of the United States scowls, saying, “You should be grateful we leave you anything at all.” You find yourself thinking forbidden conservative thoughts, but you comfort yourself, saying, “‘Tis libertarian, dammit, not conservative.” As soon as you think those thoughts, the institutions which preserve for you a modicum of happiness and comfort approach, hat in one hand, other hand outstretched, eyes low, “Please, sir, your children thus benefit.” And you put money in the outstretched hand, and a little more in the hat.

It seizes you, the loud thing, shouting when you try to sleep, “IT IS ALL ASHES!”

“No, no. It is sweet fruit of my labor. I taste a little bit of it; it tastes of prosperity, of longevity, of fortitude! See? I can see it! I have reading glasses now!”


Breath quickens and labors, the fruit of which is open eyes, aching shoulders, crazed twilight fantasies of an arc which is pointed downward. What seemed a gentle grade yielding after a length of time to the end of it all has steepened dramatically, ending in a sucking maw.

“Father. Husband. Vocation. Avocation. Citizen. They’re going to take it all away. All of it.” These are mere offices, at that, without any inherent malice in and of themselves; they represent how we even awaken to the rising sun.

The coil of mortality tightens ever so. It is the loud thing, sending whispers over every single thing you propose to do.

The mediocrity I can live with; the general futility troubles me greatly. I thought I was pursuing him, but it is not so; he has only waited for me, and I am his. I thought I would advance some ideal, even in mediocrity, just pushing the thing forward infinitesimally, along with all my peers, in the right direction, but there is no pushing the thing. It is ephemeral, a cloud, a deception, not even a coherent dream. It is, indeed, an arc which ends in utter meaninglessness. Why do we percolate so?  Why do we puff ourselves up over accomplishment? Why do we think we can see what is right before us?


Helen Keller

Yet we say to ourselves: isn’t life so much better? See these graphs! Poverty is being eradicated the world over! But to what? Toward a sun which will wink out? To alleviate our suffering and the suffering of others to help endure the blink of an eye we appear? We are by far the most prosperous people in the history of the world, yet we are by far the most unhappy, contentious, childish wretches in the same measure. We are decidedly ungrateful, a spoiled lot of undisciplined toddlers, emotionally underdeveloped babies, despite all our self-praise through various international prizes and awards. How do we see ourselves in this way?

It is a malady of the human heart, I think, to know with absolute certainty that we are to make progress to a kind of permanent prosperity, but with equal certainty knowing that such permanence is fleeting. A notion of preserving something “for the children” is a noble one, but it is not anything at all. As Michael Jackson taught us, we are the children. What he never taught us was of whom we are the children. He did not because he could not. Not even he could see the object of our desire.

reading glasses 1

If I may speculate on the crisis which afflicts the middle-aged, we who eschew checking the clock in the middle of the night for the effort of finding one’s reading glasses, it is just this unanswered question: the days of being cared for are long gone; the days of caring for are waning quickly. And what then? I suppose one ceases avoiding the anxiety, standing to, representing in your body a piece of eternity, if there is such a thing, getting on with it because that’s what there is to do: get on with it.

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27 days ago
New York, NY
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Nihil Nisi Bonum

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Death made an unexpected visitation upon one of our friends, and now he is excluded from our company, unless you happen to be of his faith, and then you are excluded from his company, for the time being, and, really, only by sight. As such, he has unfortunately embodied this website. Brock Cusick, requiescat in pace.

I was thinking about–can’t help but think about–our last conversation. It was…how shall we say…not one I wish was our last, but it stands as our last conversation, and it was unpleasant, so there you go. Until the great test of my faith shall come, it will remain standing as a monument to the ruin wrought by pettiness. How petty? How petty a conversation is it that mars the dignity of a perfectly innocent, genuine, kind, nihil nisi bonum fellow? He was giving me a hard time about my decision for my D&D character to roll initiative at disadvantage, and I was annoyed. That’s how petty.

I’m 45 years old with four children! He was 39 years old with three children! And all the responsibilities thereof, which we commonly consider of adulthood, requiring some measure of gravitas, sobriety, and maturity! It was so petty, so petty, but it was the last conversation I ever had with Brock. He private-messaged me, which annoyed me, but that was Brock. That was his way. And he was adorable that way, a wonderful teddy bear of a man, but I was so annoyed.

There was another important death in my life, one which I may or may not write about all the time, and I know without being told that his wife–the fellow who died importantly, his wife–I know she was in the room screaming at him about something, probably something important, and she walked away–he was standing while they argued, not at all ill, not visibly, accomplishing some chores around the house–she walked away, and when she returned a few moments later, he was dead on the floor.

And so we are excluded from each other. It is true.

Only in part, I think. A marriage of over thirty years, even a rocky one, has probably established some rather deep roots, giving life to life, a grandeur nourished to grow around a knot. Brock was kind to me, and I, to a lesser degree, was kind to him. In addition to the faith we share, we have nourishment in kindness which does not have to be overcome by the rot of pettiness. This petty conversation we had is no horrible disfigurement; it is a knot, character for the grand old living tree.

I was afraid to go to bed on Monday night, the day I learned Brock died. I was afraid in the realization that I could be so reaped by death, and excluded, leaving my wife and children excluded from me and all the roles I fulfill for them, along with friends, students, clients, and family. Unable to sleep, I wandered from room to room in the house, resolving to behave more gently, kindly, and, as it is with teenagers in the house, with long-suffering fortitude. I sincerely hope that I have been properly chastised, on the one hand, to act as fertile soil for the roots necessary for relationships to grow. I sincerely hope that I have been comforted, on the other hand, so that I can forgive myself for being so bloody annoyed at Brock.

I think it is childish and entirely selfish for me to have said, as I have been saying, “I never want to make another friend ever again.” For all the unnecessary hurt we dole out to each other, even by dying, kindness is far more nourishing towards growth, far more than withdrawal.

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33 days ago
New York, NY
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