The Democratic Era, Part I: The Present and the Past

I WAS GRANTED in recent days a veritable series of those most fortunate moments of awakening that sometimes come to us, in which our ignorance becomes blindingly and inescapably clear to us, and we are permitted at last to perceive certain facets of this crystalline life of ours which had before simply not caught the light. Through them, I came to realize the utter inadequacy of my grasp of the present situation (I owe this to the president elect, whose victory caught me entirely unawares, and I am much indebted to him for it), and also and more alarmingly I came to individuate certain key aspects of the metamorphosis of our times, which I believe escape the better part of contemporary analyses, on account of a number of presuppositions current among us.
      I publish my reflections here in case they might be of interest. I divide them into three parts, the first of which considers the present situation and its emergence from the past; and the second and third of which considers instead the likely forms the future will take, given the transitions now upon us.

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That Custom is the Ground of Law

THE AMERICANS are accustomed to ascribing incredible virtues to law. They tend to believe, more than not, that altering the law or the legal framework of a society is equivalent to reworking the society itself: that the panacea for political or social ills lies in the emending or writing of constitutions. The American experience would seem to some extent to legitimate this attitude: for was it not precisely our country which emerged from a bloody revolution, unformed yet politically, to frame a Constitution which has endured a quarter millennium already, carrying its people to apotheosis over all the world?
      Yet—as it must be rejoined—was that not a people already disposed to yoke itself beneath the law, and to maintain that writ as if it had been God-delivered and sacred? Was that not already a people whose English and indeed Latin origins had instilled in it the greatest natural respect for the validity and binding quality of legal documents, whose Teutonic blood had readied it for love of fatherland and upright observance of authority, and whose more factious tendencies were already bendable beneath the weight of merest paper? I fear we are wont to mistake cause and effect here, in a most dangerous way—as is not peculiar to our race. The law, when it is not imposed by a willful and dominating hand, is made in a people’s own image; and a law-abiding people, perceiving the correspondence between image and original, is like to think that it has conformed itself to the law, that its own virtues are owed to the virtues of the law, and its own vices to the law’s deficiencies. That is, so far as it goes, an edifying, if not entirely proud and noble, view: for it supposes as well the possibility that a people might through its own legislation improve itself. No one should deny that this is, indeed, possible—but it would seem to be possible only to such peoples as are already in their souls malleable to law.
      Examples from history can be adduced to support these claims. We might turn our attention most immediately to the nations just to the south and the north of United States borders, to Mexico and Canada, and to the destinies of the same.
      Following the liberation of their country from the Spanish, and after an initial period of political confusion and uncertainty similar to that experienced by America in the years following the Revolution, Mexico framed a constitution in 1824 which established Mexico as a Catholic Republic. This constitution demonstrated a marked resemblance to the American, and in most principle matters of state agreed with the provisions of the American. It differed most strikingly from the American in its explicit adoption of the Roman Catholic as the national religion. Yet this Constitution lasted not much better than a decade, when it was replaced with the Seven Laws, which considerably centralized executive power. This in turn was replaced with another constitution in 1857, a writ which closely reflected the 1824 document, but tended decisively toward secularism. Thereafter followed a turbulent period in which the new constitution was cyclically recognized and suspended. It was replaced by the present, and considerably more socially liberal, constitution, in 1917.
      It is clear on a review of the complicated and precarious history of Mexican constitutions that the legalism which the United States enjoys and presupposes has been someway absent from Mexican history. Despite Mexico’s attempts to frame a constitution which might guarantee it achievements similar to those enjoyed by its northern neighbors, no one would dare suggest that the Mexican state has been either as materially or as politically successful as the United States or Canada. Mexico suffers, indeed, severe and deep troubles of order which are not reducible to malign foreign influences, nor to any internal dearth of space or poverty of natural resources. Mexico is a vast country, the fourteenth largest in the world by surface area, and owns a territory rich in precious metals, salable elements, and petroleum. Yet its economy lags behind many European and Asiatic countries, and entire regions within its jurisdiction have fallen under the de facto rule of drug lords. The political system of the country cannot alone be held accountable for these maladies, for constitutionally Mexico does not differ so radically from many countries which have proven much less susceptible to the corruption that so often afflicts the Mexican government. The only factor that can finally be implicated to explain these differences, are the peculiar customs of the Mexicans, and whatever has brought these about (for custom does not spring of the vacuum).
      The constitution of Canada, on the other hand, is markedly different from the American in a number of important ways. Put in simplest terms, Canada is a constitutional monarchy, under the radically secular (the head of state and the head of the church are identical) rule of the British crown. Its balance of powers is distributed more vertically than laterally: the prime minister, following English usage, customarily has a seat in one of the two houses of the legislature, but his powers, if they grow excessive, can be checked by the ruling monarch. Notwithstanding these essential differences, which in another country might lead at once to the most total dictatorship, Canadian society is if anything more pacific and stable than the United States, as can be seen, for instance, by rankings of crime rates in the two countries. Once again, it would appear that there is a hidden fundament underlying legal systems which is far more important in the life of peoples, than are their constitutions.
      Or again—the earliest legal codes imposed over human beings, as for example those of Genghis Khan and Hammurabi, were insufficient in and of themselves to command human action. The idea of “law” is potent only insofar as human spirits are willing and accustomed to submit to it; the potency of law is a power invisible which governs the ready mind. The earliest law had to be literally incised onto the flesh, seared onto the soul by means of methods we would rightly deem unthinkably barbarous and cruel, but which were necessary to instill in man, not law, but lawfulness. Merely consider those penalties instated by the code which was given by the gods to Hammurabi: a cattle robber who cannot pay for what he has stolen will pay with his life; a son who strikes his father will lose a finger; he who groundlessly slanders the reputation of a woman will have his brow slashed. On the other hand, the Great Yassa, the code created by Genghis Khan, pledged mercilessness for all criminals and liberally applied capital punishment for matters which in our day would not even be considered crimes. The code of Genghis Khan was, moreover, a secret code: a man could be punished for transgressing a law that had never been promulgated. This seems to our modern eyes the pith of injustice and arbitrary tyrannical power, and so it was. But we must recall that this code was implemented in a time before such concepts had their right meaning in the human soul. The Great Yassa was not meant to establish rules over human beings, but rather was meant to instill in them the very concept of rule itself. This could not be done without bending all men before a long time beneath a mysterious authority, and habituating them to the very attitude of meek and complacent obedience.
      The harshest penalties for the most trivial infractions—that was for long stretches of time the rule governing all human legality. It is to that fact alone that we Europeans of today have earned the right to do without any such Draconian measures. Law is binding to us: but this does not mean it will be binding to an equal extent on others. Wakeful minds will read in these words a warning.
      Now, it is also precisely the recalcitrance and inconsistency of human action which has so often led to a conflation of the law of man and the law of the gods over the course of human history, or perhaps even to an embedding of the law of man within the law of the gods. For the law of the gods speaks to each new generation of human beings without interruption, and is transmitted via writings which, as they are taken to issue from divine hands or divine inspiration, are certain to be preserved and conveyed with utmost care. Their punishments or sanctions are invisible, for they occur not in this world but in the next, and so they are at once humane and persuasive. They bind the soul and not the body, which is a bond of much greater strength than that of mere shackles or cords. They establish a power in the soul which is believed to emanate from superhuman sources, and thus impose hierarchy on human life and create a center of gravity in the very heavens. And because they are believed to be superhuman in origin, they are capable of supplanting custom, or of radically sculpting it. The peculiar relation of the human law to the divine law is thus a fundamental characteristic of human laws, and determines the quality and intent of those laws.
      A final example—one, as it were, “home-bred and prescriptive”: at the break of the American Civil War, the Confederacy was tasked with determining the government that would represent it. The Constitution that the confederate government settled on was identical to that of the union from which it seceded, with a very few passages interposed to make the justice of slavery explicit and to clarify the question of states’ rights. It is likely that if secession had been permitted, the North would have continued in its tendingly democratic ways, and the South would have maintained its aristocratic ones, both Republics living out destinies at once most similar and most divergent, and this despite the fact that both sides shared an almost identical set of laws. Once again, we see that alterations in the legal fabric followed the usances of the land, that they were, rather than being determinants of custom, mere declarations of it. And, had secession been successful, it is moreover likely that a good number of the citizens of both of the resulting countries would have tenaciously persisted in the belief that they owed their peculiar civilizations primarily to the special laws of their lands.
      As I have said, that seems to me in some ways an edifying error—but it becomes unhappily perilous when it is wed to that peculiarly democratic dogma which holds that all peoples everywhere are equal and equally endeared of liberty and so equally governable, supposing only that their governments are adequately democratic and benevolent. For, if this equality truly exists, then it must suffice to replace bad laws with good ones, and illiberal governments with liberal ones, to make violent nations mild and restive populations restful.
      If ever there were a doubt about the impossibility of such chimerae, it seems to me we have made decisive test of the question in our recent experiments of seeding democracy in radically undemocratic regions. I think only the least cautious or most bellicose observer of such events would claim that the failure of our attempts has been due predominately to flaws in the law or the legal structures that we have imposed. This would be like calling it foul of the glove maker that for a few stitches his glove will not fit both the fat man and the skinny.
      The law must be fit to the people; else it must be made to fit for long and bloody years. If this basic principle is neglected, the resultant law shall simply be ignored and scorned, rendered nugatory by the daily actions of its very constituents, while its makers sit like T.H. Lawrence after the fall of Damascus, bewildered and forlorn in abandoned tribunals and parliamentary halls.

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Between Democracy and Despotism

THUS, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.
      I have always believed that this sort of regulated, mild, and peaceful servitude, whose picture I have just painted, could be combined better than one imagines with some of the external forms of freedom, and that it would not by impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.

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Note on the Late Italian Referendum

THERE IS A WORD in Italian—furbizia—which has been coming to my mind with some frequency in recent days. It is one of these words that one cannot translate; it grows straight from the innermost character and conditions of a people, and so has no equivalent on the tongues of other peoples. I sometimes wonder if comprehending this word, one might not have found a key, or at least an aid, to understanding how such brilliance of mind and such organizational chaos can exist in one and the same country, as exist here in Italy.
    The possible translations supplied by my dual-language dictionary include “cunning, crafty, sly, artful.” I might mention another possibility, although it is syntactically inadequate: furbizia has a connotation similar to what we intend when we use the verb “outfox.” None of these words, however, suffices to render. In truth, furbizia means something like “ability to take utmost advantage of a situation,” which presupposes of course that one has understood the situation in question with all the swift, penetrating intelligence of an Italian—has understood what is at stake, and who are the principle actors, and what are their principle motives, and what the likely outcomes will be, and how one may most surely arrive at the outcome that one desires. And all of this, without the least regard to morality and to law. Furbizia is that rarest thing in the social sphere: an amoral virtue.
      This would make it fascinating enough. On account of its removal from normal standards of ethics, the Italians themselves do not put a consistent evaluation on the quality of being furbo. On the one hand they freely apply it as a term of praise, applying the epithet to one another in much the same way as we might say, “How very clever of you!” Yet the common expression fare il furbo means something like “being a crafty one,” and has strictly a derogatory acceptation. If I do not mistake my ear, its complimentary use is more prevalent in those parts of Italy afflicted by the Mafia or related criminal organizations. Yet I think it would be a mistake to say that the term owes its existence to such. Quite the contrary seems to me more probable: namely, that the Italian aptitude for organized crime owes itself to the term—or rather, to the same traits of national character from which the term itself springs. The Italians display a great capacity for the local in politics; and this same capacity leads them into absurdities or contradictions in the organization and execution of larger-scale politics. The Italians see too much, and in too fine a detail: and thus they compromise their powers of generalization, and their ability to act on the basis of rule.
      I take as an item in support of this observation the failed national referendum of 4 December. I will say, before venturing an analysis of this referendum, that I have been hard-pressed since arriving in Italy to understand the intricacies of Italian governance, and I warn my reader that I am far from being an expert in any of this material, nor perhaps even an entirely reliable observer. In the first place, I am all too Anglo-Saxon in my expectations for what liberal government is or ought to be. In the second place, I live in a part of Italy which does not necessarily represent the national view (insofar as one may speak of a “national view” in Italy). But I believe it worthwhile to attempt to see the matter as clearly as we poor non-Italians may, for what occurred with this referendum reflects certain problems that have begun to make themselves felt everywhere throughout the West.

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The New Prometheans

THE ENTERPRISING READERS of my past two journal entries will perhaps have perceived, if not a contradiction between the crux of their apparent messages, then certainly a tension. For if it is true, as some among us are beginning to fear, that a catastrophe of some kind is lurking dark and huge on our horizon, then political moderation would appear to be terribly irresponsible, insofar as it obstructs the necessary awareness of urgency and the requisite will to tempestive action which ought to be our stance in such times. If catastrophe is coming, we stand at a moment of crisis: that is, a moment in which society is faced by the pressing need to act, and the simultaneous lack of awareness of this need and will to this deed. Then would it not behoove us to press the matter with our full strength—aye, with extremism, if need be—to awaken our slumbering compatriots and to make our lame public figures dance—before it is too late?
      There is without doubt aught to be said for this position, but it suffers from a very serious flaw in its tendency: namely, it overestimates the virtue of “action” to resolve, or to obviate, difficulties of such an order as those confronting us. It has an undue faith in the capacity, not just of human beings, but of human institutions, to recognize complex dangers in difficult times, to correctly diagnose their causes and chart their courses, to formulate a coherent and feasible plan to manage them, and to execute all appropriate action—all the while neither exacerbating the problem at hand, nor bringing about new and perhaps worse difficulties, nor inciting, through its own overexcitement, the final collapse of a troubled system.
      Bureaucratic institutions gain in efficiency only as they gain in simplicity, while they gain in power only as they gain in complexity: for this self-contradiction, they are fit precisely for times of stability, not times of extremity. There inevitably comes a point in the history of any bureaucratic institution in which it becomes so over-sophisticated and ineffectual, that its very clients and citizens can see no solution but to dismantle it, by force if need be. It is best to avoid such an end as much as possible, and more than ever in times marked already by great challenges. But all critical “solutions” brought about via institutional alterations, of necessity add to the weight and burden of these institutions, so that even if such maneuvers are successful in addressing the problem at hand, they lead to other and perhaps more paralyzing difficulties. Moreover, any institutional crisis—and we of today are hard on the heels of just such a one—cannot be resolved through institutions, for it is to these precisely that it owes its very existence.
      It is for this reason that in all times of crisis, those who believe that immediate action is obligatory tend, either instinctively or with the open eyes of a Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, toward the nominating of a figurehead, a leader, a “strong man”—one who, by embodying a clear and unambiguous (and therefore unphilosophical and unartistic) will, suffers none of the troubles which afflict the deliberations of large groups of human beings. Indeed, it has been recognized almost everywhere and always that the great and singular human being, given extraordinary powers, is the only reasonable antidote to the extremities of dangerous times. Thus the Romans would cede the state to a dictator in epochs of civil war; thus the French after the Revolution handed power first to Robespierre, and then to Napoleon; thus the Russian communists genuflected before Lenin, and the Germans of the first postbellum period before Hitler. Crisis, if we would rise to meet it with open action, calls for a powerful and untrammeled hand. We sacrifice a quantity of our freedom for a quantity of his control, binding ourselves to the dictum that the end justifies the means.
      The dangers in such a bargain are manifold, as I hope I need not remind my contemporaries. The powers concentrated in the dictator are virtuous only insofar as the man himself is virtuous: everything depends on the head beneath the crown. He may be Caesar; but he may also be Mao. Worse yet, he may be but the figure who opens the way to an unknown and terrible tyrant, as Lenin paved the way for Stalin. Charlatans and populist demagogues are rife in such times, and it is a sad fact that the only true method of testing the mettle of such individuals, is to invest them with power; but that method is precisely as perilous as it is valid. And it must be remembered that even in those cases in which a man of real greatness succeeds in establishing himself, as Caesar, he consolidates power around his figure, and those who follow him will almost certainly assume that power, though they very well may not share his virtue. The Roman Empire after Caesar gave us the moral sternness of an Augustus and the sagacity of a Marcus Aurelius; but it also made possible the monstrosities, the villainies, and the depravities of Nero, Caligula, and Caracalla.
      These are grand and extreme exemplars, but for their purity they are instructive. The expansion of powers so necessary to affront crisis but seldom, or imperfectly, contracts when the catastrophe has abated. Habeas corpus came back to Americans after the close of the Civil War, but the balance of powers between state and federal government has never weighed the same. The leeway granted to Roosevelt to confront the Depression have remained embedded in the executive office since. Power is an expedient absolutely indispensable to face any coming catastrophe, but it must be meted out soberly and with respect to the hazard at hand.
      Now I ask: what crisis faces us today with so much clarity that it would warrant such a reorganization of contemporary power? Those of the left will say, perhaps, that the greatest threat is global warming, or the inequalities of wealth pervasive in the world; those of the right will say it is the bureaucratic largesse of an over-glutted system ready to implode, or else the slow cultural death of the West. Others will point to the threat posed by Islam, or that more distantly represented by China. And the danger which we choose, or which our politics choose for us, will dispense to us the form of power we would abuse—whether it be military or domestic or cultural. Any and all of these “crises” have their representatives who will seek to convince us that theirs is the pressing issue of the day, which must, but must be addressed if we are to survive so much as half a century the more. Perhaps none of them, or perhaps all of them, are right, but all of them will demand expansions of extant powers to accomplish the tasks that they claim are so urgently in need of accomplishment. Whether they would avoid a third world war, the end of the Occident, a total economic implosion followed by a potentially devastating depression, or the devastation of climate meltdown, such proponents share a single trait: they are ready to act—and more than that, are ready to throw their support behind actors who will do what is “necessary” despite even the law or the rules that a prudent statesmanship would dictate.
      I submit that our true crisis, the only crisis over which we have any control any longer, is precisely this, which I will call the crisis of great expectations. There comes a moment in all hard times when some malicious spirit leans down to us, whispering into our ear the fateful formula, “Anything would be better than this.” And we, forgetting the manifest absurdity of this sentiment, the way in which it is obviously untrue, heed his words.
      We are come upon extreme times. By this, I mean not only to say that we are likely to confront a catastrophe of world proportions in not too long a time—the sense of this is only now beginning to flare in us strongly enough to make itself felt on a public scale—but rather that a segment of our thinking population has begun most ominously to permit itself the espousing of radical and undemocratic ideas. There is no term to describe this attitude. It is a modern version of Greek hubris, but it differs in two principle ways. First, it has science at its disposal. Science lends it a false sense of prescience, together with an altogether inflated conception of possibility in the face of nature. Second, it embodies a distinctly modern conception of the role of the great individual in determining the fate of nations. Truly, the only figure of antiquity to approach the dizzying heights of our arrogance, is Aeschylus’ Prometheus. We may call ours the Promethean attitude. And, if we may still learn from the ancients, it would be well for us to recall Prometheus’ fate, as revealed by the poet.
      Now I say, friends—for friends I call you, whether we agree or not, simply because you are as preoccupied with the future of our race as I am, and have not yet thrown up your hands and surrendered the idea of tomorrow—I say that I feel, as strongly as you, the peril before us, the call to meet it rather than letting it fall upon us. I know what compels you to take up the warrior’s mantel. And if I believed that “any change is for the better,” then I would with glad heart take up your banner. Only I recall that once men like you and I were tortured under a tyrant’s watch, or sent to the gulag, or exiled. If I believed that progress were guaranteed to us, and could not be reversed, then I myself would take up arms in the revolution. Yet I do not forget that there have been Dark Ages in our history, in which the past all but returned to dust, and that we owe its preservation and its recovery to perhaps only a handful of individuals who carried the flame across the darkness of the ages. If I believed that we of our water-logged democracies could rise up and choose the “right man for the job” who would by his own lights alone refashion our troubled system and provide us with one newer and better, then I would throw my small weight behind him, to do my part in hefting him up. But I do not forget that there has been but a single Revolution in all of history that did not culminate in tyranny or the rule of bad men, and that democracies as such are prone to resolve into despotism.
      What, then? Despair? Hardly. Only I say, see to your affairs, and let the times see to theirs. Let us be quiet when there is need; and when we speak, let us speak to the point. There is no crisis but which can be met through our own and most personal preparations. If we make ourselves such men as can ride the storm, then the storm will be that much less furious for all. See to your virtue, Friend, and apply your heat with care and judgement. Do not neglect the potency of example: it seems to be little, but it is only by the small daily choices of millions, tempered by the forge of greater thoughts, that culture assumes its form. Do not bow to these customs that are leading us astray: but make yourself the custom you would have prevail.
      “But!” I can already hear the protests rising, “but this will do nothing—nothing to abate the fires that even now are growing around us. It is far too little and much too late. We are past the day when small gestures could make the necessary difference: we have come to the tipping point and—flung ourselves over. Only a great response can suffice to this great menace.”
      Must I say again that I sympathize, that I agree, that I am proposing nothing like “small gestures”? Yet I tell you, if what I propose here is not sufficient, then neither will be your less moderate radicalism. You may say that I am not flagrant enough in my proposals: I beg to disagree. For this alone must we remember, we who would be the very firebearers of the day: that times of catastrophe, if such must come, are as sieves and winnows, and discover as a matter of course the man fit to them. Or better yet, and more to our point: they are as fire to test the gold. Your strong man, your figurehead, your leader—he and his guiding thought will be best chosen by the exigency of the burning day itself, to act out as that philosophy dictates. And I tell you, who are hell bent on altering the course of history: the flames are much cannier diviners of the true mettle of great men, than you or I could ever be.

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