I want to bring to your attention Hannah Arendt’s ideas in her book “On Revolution”, first published in 1962. As you can see, she wrote it before the late-Sixties and early-Seventies here exploded with Identity Politics and the re-basing of American politics in ‘outrage’ and ‘demands’ and ‘sensitivity’.
She notes that the goal of the American Revolution – “limited government” – was akin to the British concept of “limited monarchy”: that the monarch-government is limited precisely in order to provide the ground of political liberty.
And that therefore limited-monarchy is precisely the opposite of that other, Continental Enlightenment concept of Benevolent Despotism, where the monarch-government is precisely NOT limited in its powers because it is presumed to be ‘benevolent’ and needs all the power it can be given in order to do ‘good’ things to alleviate human suffering.
Arendt notes – in 1962, before the later-1960s advent in the US of the various ‘revolutions’ in favor of ‘sensitive’ government – that a government allowed to pursue the (probably impossible) goal of alleviating human suffering and making people ‘happy’ is going to require and assume limitless power (such as happened with the French Revolution, which started off trying to alleviate the sufferings of les malheureux (the unfortunates) and wound up resulting in The Terror and then in Napoleon’s empire and its imperial wars).
Although sensitive to and sympathetic to the ideals of the French and even Soviet* Revolutions, Arendt contrasts the French (or Continental) model of revolution with the model of its near-contemporary, the American Revolution – which culminated, as it was always destined to, in the US Constitution.
The French Revolution, she says, went off the rails when it based itself – with the best of intentions – in the goal of alleviating the suffering of the people rather than in the American goal of institutionally grounding the practice and ethos of Liberty through a careful encompassing of government power.
Since the French goal was both ‘good’ and limitless (you would have to be God to eradicate human suffering, even in one country let alone among all humanity) then two characteristics of the Revolutionary government followed immediately: 1) there could be no limits to the government’s authority and power because 2) it was engaged in achieving such a supremely ‘good’ goal.
You might also add 3) that since that goal was so unarguably ‘good’, then any dissent against the government had to result either from lumpish ignorance or treacherous and evil obstructionism. And for that you would need to be ‘re-educated’ (so that you would ‘get it’) or you would need to be eliminated from public discourse – the guillotine being the most ‘humane’ yet efficient solution in that case.
So that Terror was justified in achieving so good an end (can you say Iraq and Af-Pak wars?) and eliminating those who would disagree; thus the French Revolution took on a life of its own, enforcing Terror and presuming that in pursuit of such a ‘good’ goal it would be immoral to accept any ‘limits’ upon itself whatsoever. Traditional concepts of humanity, justice, and such minimal ‘due process’ as even a late-18th century Continental population might expect – none of these ‘old’ things ( ‘abstractions’ they might be called nowadays ) could be allowed to stand in the way of so marvelous a ‘progress’. (And again, my point about the Iraq and Af-Pak wars and ‘Gitmo’.)
But since this 'marvelous' vision of a government actually taking upon itself the authority (as well as – in JFK’s 1961 formulation – the ‘work’) of God for the sake of fixing what God was apparently powerless or unwilling to achieve was so contrary to what most French folk were used to, then the Terror would be necessary both to ‘educate’ them quickly and to ‘take care of’ those who didn’t ‘get it’ quickly and willingly enough. (So ‘get it’ or you’ll ‘get it’ was the French Revolutionary option for citizens, and Lenin and Stalin and Mao merely made later improvements on the methodology).
Worse, in Arendt’s view, is that where the Americans had had long colonial experience with local self-government, and were reasonably well-situated in terms of life’s necessities, the ‘poor’ of France were a) not experienced in self-government and b) possessed thoroughly by the consuming (and quite understandable) desire of the poor to ‘have’ and to ‘possess’ … as much and as soon as possible.
She does not make light of the plight of the poor, but she does note acutely that if you give to their approach the power of a government, you’re going to get something far different from what the citizens of the newly-erected Unites States created in their Constitutional Republic in 1787.
The poor are not primarily interested in ‘liberty’, they are in eager and urgent need of satiety.
So you wind up, in the French Revolution, not with limited-government (which is precisely what the American Constitution does) but rather with the mid-18th century pipedream of a Benevolent Despotism.
And worse, a Despotism whose declared ‘Benevolence’ justified even the use of Terror to achieve its sooooo Benevolent and Good purposes and visions.
America itself, she notes, would start to feel certain of these pressures once, in the later 19th century, many came to see the country not as the Home of Liberty but rather as the Land of Material Security (although in those days, you realized that you still had to make the most of Opportunity to achieve that Material Security).
I can’t help but notice that the American Constitutional vision and ethos are in deep trouble nowadays.
Nobody can deny or ignore the Executive encroachments made during the recently-past Bush Administrations.
But We are going to commit the monstrous mistake identified long ago by the Chinese – not naming accurately the challenges that confront you – if We let it go at that.
The Regulatory-Preventive State – a creature of Congress and the Federal bureaucracy as much as the Executive – has been engorging itself for the past several decades. You might even say that less than a decade ago Bush and Co. merely applied its dynamics and energy to the sphere of foreign affairs (or misadventures).
This is not the way ‘progressives’ would like to spin the recent Massachusetts Senate election (where a Democrat – and female! – candidate was rejected in favor of a Republican male). To them this is all the work of ‘the past ten years’ and/or of unstable ‘independents’ (who, of course, ‘just don’t get it’) and/or economy-addled or unemployed and disgruntled blue-collars, and/or just those poor souls who ‘don’t like much change’ (and who then would surely be a little concerned over the past forty Biblical years around here; and there must be a lot of them). I am waiting for some well-placed ‘progressive’ to blame it all on ‘men’, but I don’t think the cadres of that particular persuasion want to be publicly quoted about that sort of thing anymore – which is certainly a change.
Yes, the assorted American revolutionistas of recent decades – and especially their legislative enablers – see their past forty years of efforts as nothing more than ‘extending liberty’. And back in that golden age of the first phase of the Civil Rights Movement that was indeed true. But ‘liberty’ in the Constitutional scheme means the right to vote and to be free from government’s sempiternal urge to gain power over its citizens; and it presumes Citizens individually mature enough to collectively deliberate and to ground the government and – like a rider does to a horse – hold the thing on the road and at a non-destructive speed.
And that’s not how things have turned out. In fact, you might reasonably wonder if it isn’t time to utter the prayer of Chester A. Riley: What a revoltin’ development dis turned out ta be!
My point, in relation to Arendt’s thought of 1962, is that the Regulatory-Preventive (or Nanny) State is not really new but is rather the insidious adoption of the French Revolutionary version of Benevolent Despotism, to the detriment of the American Constitutional vision, ethos, and construction.**
My thought is that the Politically Correct development of the Regulatory-Preventive State is not some cutting-edge new ‘reform’ or ‘progress’. Rather, it is the embrace of the Continental concept of Benevolent Despotism which is precisely what this country was founded to avoid.
So in other words, many of the ‘reforms’ of the past 40 years have not been best-suited to make the Constitution ‘better’ – or more ‘responsive’, even if they were spun and perhaps intended to be that way – but rather have constituted precisely the abandonment of the American Founding vision and the embrace of its opposite and nemesis, the Continental Benevolent Despotism approach.
Gerald Ford burbled in 1976 that this country can handle “many revolutions” all at once (itself a dubious assertion) – but the most lethal wrong-naming he made was that in reality those “many revolutions” were cast in the Continental revolutionary mode, not the American Constitutional revolutionary mode. It has proven a huge and lethal error (and does the Beltway want to acknowledge that now, at this point, after all the damage that’s been done?).
Not only were those “many revolutions” profoundly misclassified and misnamed to begin with, but the original huge mistake in Naming was sustained through the ensuing three-plus decades through the Politically Correct stifling of serious and free public discussion and analysis and deliberation; only the cadres of the ‘elites’ knew what was good for the country, in the general official line whose Leninist origins were shrewdly left unspoken.
I can't help thinking of John Murtha's 2005 description of the Iraq War: "It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion".
That’s bad enough.
But you can go a step or two further and wonder if such an intrusive type of government is now the only type that can ensure political (and even social) order at all.
Children are being raised without benefit of sustained parenting – and especially boys without sustained fathering, which bodes ill for their ever mastering the assertive and aggressive capabilities which Evolution (not to say God) has provided to them. Worse, they are growing up in a culture which offers absolutely no solid structures of belief and praxis that might compensate for the lack of structuring (Shaping, is my term for it) that might be lacking in their ‘family’ (however that is defined now) situation.
The UK magazine ‘The Economist’, in its most recent issue, identifies “a yobbo-hooligan culture” that is “taking over more and more public space, and the consequent “fraying of English civic culture” as one of the two most important problems that that nation faces as it enters the new decade.***
(And don’t forget: these aren’t just young males; being duly ‘liberated’ from ‘oppressive stereotypes’, young females have responded to the official encouragement that they too can do what ‘guys’ do … as the average ‘guy’ sets an example by descending in a spiral of increasing maturational inability to master his energies or his mores. Can this end well? Can it come as a surprise?)
It would be bad enough that the simple mechanics of under-parenting or immature parenting were beginning to play out into – by now – the second and third generation of kids.
But a whole lotta ‘deconstruction’ and the ‘valorization’ of ‘transgressiveness’ has been going on: think American ‘gangsta cultcha’ as consumerist fashion statement; think ‘non-judgmentalism’ pushed as a sufficient schematic for interpreting the world around you; think of them both being pushed as absolutely valid and useful choices for Shaping a Self and conducting an efficacious adult life.
In light of those ‘changes’, then what sober observer can really expect any sort of self-sustaining personal – and consequently civic – maturity among anyone under a certain age? Nor are things going to be getting much better merely on their own.
Indeed, to read any of the several recently published ‘victory lap’ feministical histories you realize that those cadres very much want their transgressive and deconstructive ‘successes’ to become “the new normal” and no more questions asked. And then, of course, We can all ‘move on’ into the broad sunny uplands of whatever wonders they are so sure lie ahead. They are quite satisfied that they should be greeted as ‘liberators’. (And can you say Iraq War?)
And as if on cue, Obama has recently tried publicly to sweep under the rug the latest revelations of Gitmo deaths – replete with an utterly impossible NCIS investigation report’s assertions as to what really happened – and bleat that the country should just “move on”. Surely Al Capone would have liked to have made the same plea to the Federal judge facing him, but even Capone would not have had the chutzpah. Just in case you might want to console yourself that such frakkulous mind-games don’t migrate within the Beltway universe; they have metastasized into foreign policy and the conduct of Our military and intelligence forces (which at this point are now, by the way, fighting battles of occupation on soil where the natives don’t appreciate the ‘help’).
So you’re going to need the government to do the job of the no-longer-up-to-it parents and the no-longer-operational family and cultural structures which served as the Trellis for youth’s primal energies. Government-as-parent … which, come to think of it, is something I recall one feminist answering decades ago when confronted with the question (that’s how long ago) as to who would raise the kids if Mom were off being an executive? The cadre replied with breezy assurance: That’s the State’s problem.
Well, you couldn’t come up with a better attitude to lubricate the rise of the Regulatory-Preventive Nanny State. (Kinda ironic: radical feminism leads to, even requires, the Nanny State … go figure. To paraphrase the unhappy Soviet Citizens of a bygone era: Such is our modern American reality. And as you can see, it’s spread to other countries. Such cultural and civilizational progress.)
An increasingly invertebrate, helpless, maturationally unripe citizenry, incapable of Shaping and deploying their individual energies and uschooled in either individual or public deliberation … these folks are behind the eight-ball even before you factor in low-paying jobs, not only among the former working classes but also among the aspiring elites. Would you shell out 160K for an MBA these days? Even law school grads are finding it hard to get hired. Although the military will take you as a recruit even if you’re 42. Good luck with that.
Arendt, reflecting on the French Revolution, notes that Rage and not Virtue became the requirement of ‘citizenship’. I’m going to say that that quaint 18th-century usage – ‘Virtue’ – would mean something closer to ‘Maturity’ today, although only if you included some usable element of ‘Character’ in your definition of Maturity (which, according to such Memos as I have received, is a PC no-no).
She calls Rage “politically sterile” and “impotent”. Cheerleaders for Identity Politics and Victimism – two major enablers of the Regulatory-Preventive State – would quickly crow that those two movements have proven verrrrrry potent indeed. And I would agree. Les malheureux reincarnated as les enragees.
Although the ‘changes’ they have wrought – and more specifically the consequences of those changes – have not been examined at all, although their hardly-negligible negative effects have now taken lethal hold.
And it doesn’t help that a lot of pundits from the Left don’t want to look at this problem at all. We are in dire need of some old-school Chinese Rectification of Names. (I’ll let the radical feminists – they were mostly ‘men’ – and the Multiculturalists – their culture is valid – slug it out as to the value of that ancient maxim.)
So I think Arendt has something of value for Our political and cultural situation just now.
She published in the year after JFK had issued his ringing peroration: Ask not what your country can do for you – Ask what you can do for your country.
Which, if you haven’t noticed, would have cost you your creds as a public intellectual if you had repeated it a decade later in 1971. Just so you get a sense of how far and how fast things ‘changed’ around here. (Nor have I heard anybody repeating it recently, and not even during the numerous obsequious funerary orations on behalf of the late Teddy, who made a political career out of exactly the opposite of his brother’s ‘Dream’.)
Me? I’m with Arendt, whose ‘dream’ seems to include a hefty amount of the Founders, whose ‘dream’, put up on blocks in the national garage and vigorously being disassembled so that it might never see the open road again, has been replaced with what shows every sign of being a ‘nightmare’. Traumatized, indeed – and We don’t even realize it.
Nor will this be a memory We can ever repress. Since it is not a memory at all – but the future.
You see what’s at stake in all of this.
*We recall that the Soviet Revolution took place not in February 1917 but in October 1917. The ‘workers’ had effected their revolution in February, resulting in the Kerensky government. Lenin had been caught off-guard and had to institute a second Revolution in October against the workers’ government. He was convinced that ‘the masses’ would be incapable of ‘doing the right thing’ – as he saw it – and that Russia’s only future lay in totalitarian rule by his Party and its cadres, those who ‘got it’ about what was best for the Russian people. Anyone who had ‘wrong ideas’ and dissented would be ‘taken care of’ either in Siberia or ‘against the wall’, and a Terror would be thoroughly enforced in order to quickly re-orient the entire mindset and heartset of the Russian population.
His Revolution, so ‘benevolently intended’ in its ultimate goals, was an improvement – as it were – over the French Revolution , which required a period of some years to stagger from the overthrow of the King to the enthronement of the Emperor and the bloody whackeries of the imperial wars.
**See for example this pair of Posts, here and here, examining the recent Oral Arguments in front of the Supreme Court in which the government is trying to argue, for all practical purposes, that to do the Constitutionally-required thing in this case would constitute “irresponsibility” on its part and that if it sees some way in which it can “help” the States then it should not be “helpless” to do so, regardless of what the States themselves think and whether or not they want the help in an area that – in the Constitutional structure – is none of the Feds’ business anyway. If that isn’t enough to give you serious pause, then consider that most (but not all) of the Justices can’t seem to see much wrong with the government’s assertion.
***’A History Lesson’, in ‘The Economist’ special issue ‘The World in 2010’, p. 102.