In 1971 the performance artist Chris Burden stood against the wall of a California art gallery and ordered a friend to shoot him through the arm. That .22 rifle shot was the opening salvo of a movement that came to be called “endurance art”—an unnerving species of performance art in which the performer deliberately subjects himself to pain, deprivation, or extreme tedium. Try as he might, Burden never quite matched the shock of his spectacular debut (and he did try, once letting himself be crucified onto the back of a Volkswagen Beetle).
As fate would have it, I had just shown my students at Williams College the grainy footage of Burden’s shooting when we learned of his death in May. Curiously, the clip did not provoke them as it had their predecessors in my classrooms in decades past. No one expressed any palpable sense of shock or revulsion, let alone the idea that the proper response to the violation of a taboo is honest outrage. One student fretted about the legal liability of the shooter; another intelligently placed the work in historical context and related it to anxiety over the Vietnam War.
Placing things in context is what contemporary students do best. What they do not do is judge. Instead there was the same frozen polite reserve one observes in the faces of those attending an unfamiliar religious service—the expression that says, I have no say in this. This refusal to judge or take offense can be taken as a positive sign, suggesting tolerance and broadmindedness.
But there is a broadmindedness so roomy that it is indistinguishable from indifference, and it is lethal. For while the fine arts can survive a hostile or ignorant public, or even a fanatically prudish one, they cannot long survive an indifferent one. And that is the nature of the present Western response to art, visual and otherwise: indifference.
In terms of quantifiable data—prices spent on paintings and photographs and sculptures, visitors accommodated and funds raised and square footage created at museums—the picture could hardly be rosier. On May 1, New York’s Whitney Museum moved from 75th Street to the Meatpacking District and reopened in a $422 million building. The move first seemed inexplicable when it was announced several years ago, but it has proved to be a brilliant stroke. Relocating to a hotter and more fashionable neighborhood abutting the wildly popular High Line Park is one of those gambits that instantly transforms the logic of the game board, like castling in chess. The new Whitney was designed by the furiously prolific Renzo Piano, and while it will not please everyone (its boxy swivel of platforms distressingly recalls the flight tower of an aircraft carrier), it swaggers with brio and panache and is fast becoming one of the world’s best-attended museums.
Equally robust is the art market, to judge by a Christie’s auction on May 11 that set several records, including the highest price ever paid at auction for a work of art: $179.4 million, paid by an anonymous bidder, for Picasso’s Women of Algiers (Version O). One can expect more such record-breaking in the next few years as the art market is increasingly roiled by Hong Kong dollars, Swiss francs, and Qatari riyals. (The buyer of the Picasso was subsequently revealed to be the former prime minister of Qatar.)
But quantifiable data can only describe the fiscal health of the fine arts, not their cultural health. Here the picture is not so rosy. A basic familiarity with the ideas of the leading artists and architects is no longer part of the essential cultural equipment of an informed citizen. Fifty years ago, educated people could be expected to identify the likes of Saul Bellow, Buckminster Fuller, and Jackson Pollock. Today one is expected to know about the human genome and the debate over global warming, but nobody is thought ignorant for being unable to identify the architect of the Freedom Tower or name a single winner of the Tate Prize (let alone remember the name of the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature).
The last time that artists were part of the national conversation was a generation ago, in 1990. This was the year of the NEA Four, artists whose grants were withdrawn by the National Endowment for the Arts because of the obscene content of their work. Their names were Tim Miller, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Karen Finley—the latter especially famous because her most notable work largely involved smearing her own body with chocolate. As it happened, their work was rather less offensive than that of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, who had been the subject of NEA-funded exhibitions the year before. Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix immersed in a jar of his own urine was called “Piss Christ.” Mapplethorpe’s notorious self-portrait featured a bullwhip thrust into his fundamental aperture. Even the New York Times, a stalwart champion of Mapplethorpe, could not honestly describe that photograph, let alone publish it, referring to it with coy primness as a “sadomasochistic self-portrait (nearly naked, with bullwhip).”
That controversy ended with a double defeat. In a case that was heard by the Supreme Court, the NEA Four failed to have their grants restored. But Senator Jesse Helms and Representative Newt Gingrich likewise failed in their determined effort to defund the NEA (total budget at the time: $165 million). And the American public—left with an impressionistic vision in which urine, bullwhips, and a naked but chocolate-streaked Karen Finley figured largely—drew the fatal conclusion that contemporary art had nothing to offer them. Fatal, because the moment the public disengages itself collectively from art, even to refrain from criticizing it, art becomes irrelevant.
This essay proposes that such a disengagement has already taken place, and that its consequences are dire. The fine arts and the performing arts have indeed ceased to matter in Western culture, other than in honorific or pecuniary terms, and they no longer shape in meaningful ways our image of ourselves or define our collective values. This collapse in the prestige and consequence of art is the central cultural phenomenon of our day.
It began a century ago.
For most of human history, works of visual art were the direct expression of the society that made them. The artist was not an autonomous creator; he worked at the behest of his patron, making objects that expressed in visible form that patron’s beliefs and aspirations. As society changed, its chief patrons changed—from medieval bishop to absolutist despot to captain of industry—and art changed along with it. Such is patronage, the mechanism by which the hopes, values, and fears of a society make themselves visible in art. When World War I broke out in 1914, that mechanism was delivered a blow from which it never quite recovered. If human experience is the raw material of art, here was material aplenty but of the sort that few patrons would choose to look upon.
When I went to Germany to study architecture in 1980, it was still common to see wounded veterans from both world wars. The first seats on buses or subways were reserved for them and were usually occupied. One day a fellow student and fellow history buff chanced to remark that the worst cases were from World War I, but of course one never saw them.
“They never show their faces?” I asked, naively.
“Mike,” he said, “they have no faces to show.”
He was speaking of the Verstümmelten—the mutilated, those who lost jaws, cheeks, and noses in the shambles of the trenches, where a raised head was the target of choice. They had been so wounded, brought to a nearby field lazaretto and put together as much as possible, that they would spend the rest of their lives seen only by the family members who tended to them. “There is one,” my friend said—I can still picture the expansive gesture he made—“in practically every street.”
Not until then did I properly grasp the unbearable intensity of German artists such as Ernst Kirchner, Otto Dix, and George Grosz, who created their most memorable work during the war or just afterward. The human body—dynamic, beautiful, created in God’s image—had long been the central subject of Western art. It was now depicted in the most tormented and fragmented manner, every coil of innards laid bare with obscenely morbid imagination. Kirchner and Dix depicted the gore. Grosz, who refrained from showing actual injuries, was even more disturbing. He made collages of faces out of awkwardly assembled parts, like a jigsaw puzzle assembled with the wrong pieces, suggesting those sad prosthetics that would have been an ubiquitous presence in 1918.
Christianity had introduced the motif of beautiful suffering, in which even the most agonizing of deaths could be shown to have a tragic dignity. But things had now been done to the human body that were unprecedented, and on an unprecedented scale. The cruel savagery of this art can be understood only as the product of collective trauma, like the babble of absurd free associations that tumble from our mouths when in a state of shock. That kind of irrational expression was the guiding principle of Dada, the movement that came about at the end of the war and that was made famous by Marcel Duchamp’s celebrated urinal turned upside down and named Fountain. Even the name Dada itself was a quintessential absurdist performance, selected at random from a French-German dictionary (the word is French baby talk for “hobby-horse”).
Dada applied unserious means to a serious end: the search for an artistic language capable of expressing the monstrous scale and nature of the war. But the absurdist moment was short-lived and quickly superseded. The toppling of Europe’s three principal empires and the Russian Revolution seemed to confirm that the West had entered into a radical new phase of cultural history, the most consequential since the rise of Renaissance humanism half a millennium ago. There was a general sense that a world radically transformed by war required an equally radical new art—an art of urgent gravity. While modern art had certainly existed before the war, there now came into being a comprehensive “modern movement” that was active in all spheres of human action, not only in art but in politics and science as well. In its wake, Pablo Picasso rose from being a mere painter with a quirky personal style to a world-historical figure whose work was as important to the future of mankind as Einstein’s or Freud’s.
All this gave the modernism of the 1920s its tone of moral seriousness, which became even more serious once the Great Depression began. One sees this high-minded seriousness most strikingly in the architects of the modern movement. They saw their mandate as the solving of the central architectural challenge of modern life—how to use new materials and means of construction to make housing affordable and cities humane. Today the lofty principles that motivated them seem quaint, such as that German fixation on the Existenzminimum. This was the notion that in the design of housing, one must first precisely calculate the absolute minimum of necessary space (the acceptable clearance between sink and stove, between bed and dresser, etc.), derive a floor plan from those calculations, and then build as many units as possible. One could not add a single inch of grace room, for once that inch was multiplied through a thousand apartments, a family would be deprived of a decent dwelling. So went the moral logic.
We may shudder at the thought of so many identical families penned into so many identical boxes, but at root this idea was an expression of a humane and humanistic view of the world. It took for granted that the mission of architecture was to improve the human condition, even as modern artists assumed that theirs was to express that condition. To accomplish this, they did not require the traditional patron. The prestige and power of those patrons had been diminished by the war, and with that diminution went their ability to dictate to artists. That became even more pronounced after the stock-market collapse in the late 1920s, especially in the United States. When the Museum of Modern Art introduced European modern architecture to America in its celebrated 1932 exhibition of the International Style, it dismissed the traditional capitalist client with remarkable highhandedness. A half century of robust artistic and architectural patronage by the industrialists who had ruled American life since the Gilded Age was written off with a sneer by the exhibition’s organizer, Alfred Barr: “We are asked to take seriously the architectural taste of real-estate speculators, renting agents, and mortgage brokers.” In other words, the making of art was far too serious to be left to sentimental clients who might mistakenly desire a narrative painting with a clear moral message, or a facsimile of a villa they had admired in Tuscany.
After World War II and the introduction of the atom bomb, it seemed pointless to try to preserve the confused traditions of a civilization that had brought the world to the ledge of oblivion. Instead, the artists came to believe they had to dispense with the entire accumulated storehouse of artistic memory and the history of the benighted West in order to begin anew.
The 1950s painter Barnett Newman summarized this line of thought pretentiously but accurately:
We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of western European painting. Instead of making “cathedrals” out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.
“We are making it out of ourselves” is a fair summary of the revolution in patronage the modern movement had brought about, in which the artist himself had now been transformed into his own patron. And yet, radical as were Newman’s existentialist “zip” paintings, consisting of spare, massive vertical stripes smoldering like a cosmic portal about to open, they remained traditional in one key respect: They still existed in a recognizable moral universe. For all their portentous grandiloquence, the zip paintings still speak of that ancient durable strand in the Western tradition, a belief in the tragic dignity of man.With the irreversible decline of that belief, it may be said that the age of postmodernism began, and that the journey to the present state of monumental public indifference to art started to accelerate.
Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” is the first attempt to define the rapid change in attitude that was taking place in the early 1960s toward art, society, tradition, everything. It was not so much a change in style or philosophy as in sensibility. This new sensibility, Sontag wrote, “sees everything in quotation marks” and “converts the serious into the frivolous.” Although the condition of the world seemed ever more serious—the Cuban Missile Crisis had just taken place—a younger generation in the Western democracies had determined that the proper response was to be even less serious, to throw up one’s hands and confront the world with irony. Even as Sontag wrote, that new sensibility was being reflected in painting (Andy Warhol), sculpture (Claes Oldenburg), and architecture (Robert Venturi), each of whose works exist, in some sense, in quotation marks. Common to all was a shared posture of irreverence and ironic detachment. This new dispensation worked itself through the veins and arteries of the art world with remarkable briskness from studio to gallery to museum to classroom. In one respect, the insouciance of pop art came as a refreshing breeze. Warhol’s soup cans and Oldenburg’s giant floppy hamburgers made no momentous claims to have banished nostalgia, legend, and myth; though in part they were intended to reveal the hollowness of capitalist commercial culture, they could not help but offer subject matter that was attractive, reassuring, and familiar. These were the still lifes of prosperous postwar America, and, like their 19th-century counterparts with their glistening fruit and vegetables, they spoke of abundance.
Only in architecture did the new sensibility take a while to establish itself. What client would wish to invest their millions in an “ironic statement”? The Quaker sponsors of Guild House, a retirement home in Philadelphia, were chagrined to learn that the metal sculpture over the entrance was meant to represent a giant television antenna—in the words of its architect Robert Venturi, “a symbol of the aged, who spend so much time looking at TV.” Unimpressed by his claim that it was inspired by the Château d’Anet, they promptly had it removed.
In the same way that pop art was meant as criticism yet featured a welcome note of playfulness, postmodern architecture did offer a playful, witty alternative to a modernism grown stale and formulaic. The calamitous failure of urban renewal was now everywhere apparent, and modernism’s claim that it could create humane cities was exploded definitively in Jane Jacobs’s brilliant The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). After a time, postmodernism’s jaunty irony was carried into the American cityscape by commercial clients such as AT&T who built the first uninhibitedly witty skyscrapers since the art deco towers of the Roaring Twenties. The burden art had carried since the end of World War I—the obligation to express ponderous things in ponderous ways, the burden to be on perpetual guard duty in the avant-garde, ever alert to any reactionary tendency—had been cast off.
For the most part, though, this new nonchalance was short-lived. Oldenburg’s goofy seven-foot Floor Burger (1962) was pleasantly apolitical. But a mere seven years later, he would produce the most memorable item of antiwar art to come out of the Vietnam War, Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, a parody of a tank he erected in front of Yale University’s administration building. Instead of a gun turret above its treads, it sported an oversized lipstick, not proudly erect but distressingly flaccid (Oldenburg’s sardonic commentary on masculinity and war). Although it was removed within a year (to be replaced later by an inferior replica in permanent materials), Lipstick was a harbinger of the return of seriousness to the art scene, a seriousness now tinged with fury, indignation, and, increasingly, politics.
A whole spectrum of other political causes soon found expression in art—environmentalism, feminism, Chicano rights. This new seriousness differed sharply from the old. If modernism had understood itself to be upholding and developing the culture from within, revolutionizing Western art in order to save it, its postmodern successors offered a critique from without. This was the counterculture that emerged after the collapse of the postwar liberal consensus, and its stance was essentially adversarial, distinguished by hostility to the existing order. It viewed the advanced industrial society of the West not as the highest development of human civilization but rather as a corrupt enterprise whose shameful legacy was slavery, colonialism, and exploitation.It is easy to see why an artistic culture unwilling to champion even the abstract concept of Western culture would feel resentful toward a modernism that sought to do just that and would try to cut it down to size. Indeed, a canard was widely disseminated that abstract expressionism—the least political of all art movements in its rejection of the politicized social realism of the 1930s, which found its most enduring expression in Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings—was itself a CIA plot. According to this deranged view, the Congress for Cultural Freedom had sponsored international exhibitions of artists such as Pollock and Willem de Kooning as part of a CIA-subsidized campaign of cultural imperialism. While this highly tendentious reading of history has been roundly discredited, it has passed into the conventional professional wisdom.
Most of this slipped under the radar of the American public, which had by the 1970s established a kind of concordat with the art world. Whatever art had to offer—minimalism, conceptualism, photorealism—was a zany precinct where anything might happen, a source of entertainment, a zone that might be safely regarded with benign neglect. There was no arguing with success: When confronted with something as willfully bizarre as one of Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines (wherein a stuffed Angora goat might be inserted through an automobile tire), the public was happy to say “don’t ask, don’t tell” and tiptoe away with a smile on its collective face. After all, Rauschenberg was very famous, and his art made him very rich. If you didn’t like it, fine; somebody would and would pay huge sums for it.
Such was the concordat that fell apart spectacularly in the late 1980s, and when it did, artists were just as shocked as the public.
From time to time, so-called conceptual artists had looked to find new ways to use the human body artistically. Their agenda was by no means to express humanist values or even beautiful suffering—quite the contrary. In 1961, Piero Manzoni offered for sale 90 tin cans purportedly containing the Merda d’artista (to this day it is uncertain whether or not the cans actually contain his excrement, since to open one would cost on the order of $100,000). Manzoni’s foray into scatology was a prophecy of things to come. Ten years later, Vito Acconci became a minor celebrity with his performance of Seedbed, which involved his hiding under a platform in a gallery and speaking to visitors above while masturbating.
If these acts had any political agenda at all, it was anarchy. But in the wake of Roe v. Wade and then the AIDS epidemic, the human body assumed a political significance it had not had since abstract expressionism had banished life-drawing as one of those “devices of Western European art” that Barnett Newman had condemned. Now, as Barbara Kruger proclaimed in the celebrated poster she designed for a 1989 abortion-rights rally, “Your body is a battleground.”
There poured forth a great deal of body-centered art. Its one great constant was a high quotient of rage—as furious as any statue-smashing interlude in the long history of iconoclasm. Here was an anguish and loathing not seen since the days of Grosz and Dix, both of the self-hating variety (expressed through masochistic acts) and generalized rage against society (Serrano’s urine-immersed crucifix). I think of Ron Athey’s now notorious Four Scenes from a Harsh Life, for which he incised patterns into the back of a collaborator with a scalpel, dabbing up the blood with paper towels that were affixed to a clothesline and swung out over the wincing audience.
Such art, unlike that of Grosz, offered no coordinates from which society could navigate to find a higher purpose. Rather, it fulfilled the definition of what the late Philip Rieff called a “deathwork,” a work of art that poses “an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture.”
Given this art’s flagrantly, deliberately transgressive nature, it is remarkable how surprised and bewildered its creators were when they felt the full measure of public disapproval, which came to a climax with the effort to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. After all, having been properly vetted and feted at every step by curators and journalists, academics and bureaucrats, these artists quite reasonably assumed that they were beyond reproach. That there was yet another actor out there in the mists, a public upon whose judgment their fate might depend—a public that might act to withdraw state funding of projects that were expressly intended to transgress its values—seems not to have crossed their minds.
One Harvard scholar suggested that Serrano erred because while he knew “his photograph to be provocative, he did not count on such a broad audience outside the art world.” But what to make of an artist who does not wish to have a broad audience or speak to his own society? At a minimum, it is not even political art—art that seeks to persuade or focus attention—if it exists only within the silo of its own echo chamber.
Although the body-art movement lost its incandescent fury as the AIDS crisis subsided, there lingered a fascination with the degraded human body. This reconfigured itself in the 1990s as the movement known as “abject art,” which the website of London’s Tate Gallery tactfully defines as “artworks which explore themes that transgress and threaten our sense of cleanliness and propriety particularly referencing the body and bodily functions.” The most notorious example came seven years ago when a Yale art student presented a performance of “repeated self-induced miscarriages.” According to her own account, she inseminated herself with sperm from voluntary donors, “from the 9th to the 15th day of my menstrual cycle…so as to insure the possibility of fertilization,” afterwards using “an herbal abortifacient” to induce the desired miscarriage. Here was indeed a deathwork, proud and unashamed. (The only solace is that she might not, in the end, have actually carried out her project in reality.)
Such projects, real or imaginary, returned the spotlight to the human body. But this was hardly the body that was, as Hamlet put it, “like a god in apprehension.” Rather, it was a ravaged and wounded thing, degraded and defenseless. One can almost understand the popularity of the ghastly flayed and “plastinated” bodies exhibited by Günther von Hagen, the notorious corpse artist, in his traveling “Body Worlds” exhibition.1 Unlike the degraded victimhood on display in most examples of abject art, his figures evoked dynamic action and freedom, and at least a shard of hope.
When viewed against this dispiriting backdrop, poor punctured and perforated Chris Burden seems like an Old Master.
And yet, and yet. Even as the public was flinching from the excesses of performance art and abject art, it was embracing museums as never before. The newly opened Whitney is the last of New York’s four major museums to renovate, enlarge, or replace its home in recent years. It reflects a worldwide trend that began in 1997 with the near simultaneous openings of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which made overnight celebrities of their architects (Richard Meier and Frank Gehry, respectively).
Bilbao had another, more consequential effect. In just three years, it famously recouped the cost of its construction (which was underwritten by the provincial Basque government) partially through admissions but mostly through increased tourist revenue. This was dubbed “the Bilbao effect,” the notion that the building of a prestige museum can transform
the international profile of a city and make it a pilgrimage destination.
This helped launch a feverish wave of international museum-building that still shows no sign of abating. In fact, the only thing remotely like it is the cathedral-building boom of the Isle de France in the 13th century, when each city vied to build the loftiest, thinnest, and brightest Gothic nave.
If one compares the performance of museums to other entertainment facilities in the United States in terms of box office, the museums come off splendidly. According to the American Association of Museums, annual attendance hovers at about 700 or 800 million, and it did not even suffer declines during the recession of 2008. These figures far exceed the combined attendance at major-league sporting events and amusement parks. This is not by accident, for museums have been assiduously cultivating their attendance for quite some time. The process began with the “Treasures of Tutankhamen” exhibition that opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1978 and drew a record 1.8 million visitors. Startled museum trustees, previously accustomed to covering the annual deficit with a discreet check, took notice of the lines stretching around the block. The temptation proved irresistible, and the culture of the museum reoriented itself toward the regular production of a reliable blockbuster.
By any measure, there is hardly an institution in the Western world so healthy as the museum today. By any measure—there’s the rub. For some things cannot be measured but are important nevertheless. In 1998, exactly 20 years after the Tutankhamen exhibition, the Guggenheim brought forth “The Art of the Motorcycle,” an exhibition widely panned as without educational merit. Yet it, too, was a crowd-pleasing sensation, and it, too, broke attendance records. There may be a considerable difference between the gold mask of King Tut and a Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle, but not in the calculus of quantifiable data by which museums gauge their success. Still, it did not seem to trouble the general public that art museums now sported motorcycles and helicopters (in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art), for they no longer expected museums to offer objects but an experience. The temple of the arts had been transformed into what the critic Jerry Saltz has called “a revved-up showcase of the new, the now, the next, an always-activated market of events and experiences, many of which lack any reason to exist other than to occupy the museum industry.”
Nor was the academy willing to draw any helpful distinction between King Tut and the Harley-Davidson, certainly not on the basis of aesthetic quality. To claim that the mask of Tut was in some way superior— to privilege it, in academic jargon—required making aesthetic or historical determinations that scholars were increasingly unwilling to make. For a generation they had been schooled by those French 20th-century intellectuals Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida who said that art and literature were best understood as expressions of a structure of power. Better to eliminate altogether the word art, which evokes unhappy images of dominant cultures expressing their hegemony, in favor of the aesthetically neutral term visual culture, which makes no judgments about merit but merely looks at the purposes for which one makes works of art—or, in their terms, “objects of visual interest.” Thus with no clear directive from society to stress the good, museums have by default chosen to stress the new. The Met’s most successful exhibit over the past 10 years was a display of high-couture dresses by Alexander McQueen, a fashion designer who had hanged himself in his London apartment a year earlier.
Surely, such a large category of human achievement as the fine arts cannot simply become irrelevant and cease to matter. Or can it? In his prophetic essay “The Prevention of Literature,” George Orwell speculated that literature might one day be crippled by totalitarian regimes’ enforcement of intellectual conformity. The writing of imaginative prose demands an unfettered intellect, something incompatible with political orthodoxy of any stripe:
Prose literature as we know it is the product of rationalism, of the Protestant centuries, of the autonomous individual. And the destruction of intellectual liberty cripples the journalist, the sociological writer, the historian, the novelist, the critic, and the poet, in that order. In the future it is possible that a new kind of literature, not involving individual feeling or truthful observation, may arise, but no such thing is at present imaginable. It seems much likelier that if the liberal culture that we have lived in since the Renaissance comes to an end, the literary art will perish with it.
It seems absurd to predict that the novel itself might one day become extinct, and yet Orwell was right to connect its heyday to the “Protestant centuries.” From Defoe and Fielding to Austen and Dickens, the stuff of the novel was the account of finding one’s place in the world—either through marriage, choice of profession, or journey of inner growth. In feudal Europe, however, one’s place in the world was fixed. Before the novel could come into existence, the specific course of the individual life had to become a thing of interest, and for this to happen, the feudal order had to fall.
Orwell recognized that the novel, like any genre of art, is the product of a particular cultural moment. Each genre reflects certain systems of belief and social structures, and it will flourish with them or shrivel accordingly. At the end of the Middle Ages, passion plays and manuscript illumination withered away; shortly thereafter, the Renaissance court conjured up opera and ballet. This was the last great comprehensive reconfiguration of artistic genres, which has left us with the formal hierarchy in which the triad of painting, sculpture, and architecture represents the most prestigious and significant of the arts. These were the principal arts concerned with the making and adorning of palaces and churches, and the trends they codified soon worked their way down through the decorative arts—ceramics, textiles, and the like. And they maintain their inherited prestige, although the ground beneath their feet has changed dramatically.
Most recently, the great shakeup in the hierarchy of art genres came about through technological innovations. The first major new artistic genres to arise since the age of the absolutist court, photography and the motion picture, are its products. (Perhaps digital art in some form will become the defining new genre of this century, or it might in the end be more important as a means of transmission, like the phonograph record.) These new technologies do not merely add to the repertoire of existing genres, expanding choice in the great human bazaar of entertainment and expression. They also affect the relative position of all other genres, all of which are in competition with one another, for consumers as well as for talented producers.
A new technology can change the cultural moment with shocking speed. America’s culture of vaudeville, vibrant for a half century, sank into oblivion after the introduction of sound in film in 1927. Fred Allen, one vaudeville performer who found a lifeboat in radio, observed with chagrin how theater chains promptly began to bill motion pictures above their vaudeville programs. The big bands of the Swing Era and their culture of nightclubs and ballrooms could not survive television. Now it is literary culture that is on the chopping block. According to Publishers Weekly, the greatest sales of nonfiction books was achieved in 2007—the same year (the magazine might have noted) that Apple introduced the iPhone. Since then, book sales have been declining steadily, up to 10 percent a year.
But technology alone cannot explain what has happened to the fine arts in the past few generations.
The same period has witnessed a catastrophic breakdown of the belief systems that sustained Western civilization. The belief in its goodness and fundamental virtue, once the unspoken premise on which society operated, is something that any high school student, properly instructed, knows how to debunk. The word civilization is endangered, as shown by Google’s Ngram, which tracks the frequency of word usage in print. After 1961, civilization began to be used less and less; by the mid-1980s, its usage had dropped by half. At that very moment, the ironic usage of the word “civilization” started to rise sharply. As Sontag predicted, everything could be put into quotation marks. As goes the word, so goes the concept.
Without a sincere concept of the meaning of civilization, one cannot explain why a masterpiece of Egyptian New Kingdom art counts for more than a creation of 1960s industrial design (other than in dollar value). If one cannot do even that, it is hard to see how one might set out to make serious and lasting art. To make such art—art that refracts the world back to people in some meaningful way, and that illuminates human nature with sympathy and insight—it is not necessary to be a religious believer. Michelangelo certainly was; Leonardo da Vinci certainly was not. But it is necessary to have some sort of larger system of belief, a larger structure of continuity that permits works of art to speak across time. Without such a belief system, all that one can hope for is short-term gain, in the coin of celebrity or notoriety, if not actual coins.
If art is merely the expression of a structure of power, then to dislodge it from its traditional position of prestige in the public square would be a liberation. It would be a similar liberation to dispense with the whole trove of traditional culture—public rituals, folk songs, patriotic fables and myths, true holidays (as opposed to days off from work)—that from the vantage of Foucault might be viewed as oppressive instruments. And indeed they have been largely swept away. But their place has been taken by the institutions of mass media, commerce, and advertising, which exist for the present, are unable to speak across time, and are now occupying much of the terrain formerly held by traditional culture and fine art.
Architecture is the one art that cannot afford to alienate its public—it simply costs too much to build something, and so the architect must still please his sponsor to get his work done—but it, too, has suffered by losing its sense of historical continuity. As it has done so, it approaches the state of advertising—large, eye-catching, memorable objects created by celebrity designers with a signature style. It is no coincidence that when this began to happen, some time in the 1980s, architects stopped working to resolve their buildings—meaning, they ceased their labors over the details and minor features of plan and elevation that would ensure that a building’s parts expressed in miniature the order of the whole. Architects such as Wright and Louis Kahn did not know about DNA when they designed their greatest works—but they understood the principle that the logic of the whole was embedded even in its tiniest element. Virtually no architect does this anymore (apart from a few Japanese masters), and it would be pointless to do so.
The final irony is that the contemporary museum building, the colossal works of freeform sculpture by celebrity designers, may be the only lasting work of art produced in our age. For the making of a great building was once akin to making a fine musical instrument; today the task more nearly resembles the making of a successful billboard.
For a generation or more, the American public has been thoroughly alienated from the life of the fine arts while, paradoxically, continuing to enjoy museums for the sake of sensation and spectacle, much as it enjoyed circuses a century ago. The public accepts that it has nothing important to say about who we are, though it does occasionally rouse itself when something is at stake that does reflect our collective values. When Daniel Libeskind proposed rebuilding the World Trade Center in the academically fashionable deconstructivist style, the public outcry resulted in his being replaced and the construction of a sober and dignified tower. A similar outcry has delayed the building of Frank Gehry’s perversely anti-heroic memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, which might yet be realized (never underestimate the power of bureaucratic stealth). But these are exceptions to the pattern of a dormant and indifferent public.
This estrangement has been a disaster for the arts, which need to draw inspiration from the society and culture that is its substrate. It is a myth that an art withdrawn from the realm of public inspection and disapproval is a freer and superior art. The impulse to evade censure can inspire raptures of ingenuity. (The passage of the prim Hays Code in 1932, which led to four decades of censorship in Hollywood, increased the sophistication and wit of American films by a magnitude.) We hear much about art enriching the human experience, which is an agreeable platitude. But it is the other way round. The human experience is needed to enrich art, and without a meaningful living connection to the society that nurtures it, art is a plucked flower.
Chris Burden could never repeat the stunt that made him famous, for the trick about breaking taboos is that you can do it only once. After that, all you can do is endlessly reenact the breaking long after the taboos have gone.
And all that remains is what is broken.
1 I wrote about this exhibition in “Body and Soul” in Commentary’s January 2007 issue.
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How Art Became Irrelevant
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Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.