Talking to visitors from abroad about their impressions of Germany and reading the reports of foreign correspondents, one is struck…
Among the specters that haunt our times, none evokes more fearsome speculation than that of a revived ultra-nationalist Germany that will discard parliamentary forms and bring back militarism and totalitarian terror. It happened before, and the economic progress and political stability of the West Germans under Adenauer, far from stilling the sense of menace, has heightened it in many quarters. Today, with German rearmament and sovereignty all but a fait accompli, the situation seems even more packed with contradictions and unknown factors. In our series of appraisals of present-day West Germany from various points of view, we last month published “The Fragmented People That Is Germany,” by Fritz Stern, who saw beneath her present stability a social and political fragmentation that seemed to bode ill for the future. Fritz Rene Allemann here discusses one of the most prevalent fears about Germany: that Bonn will go the way of the Weimar Republic, setting the stage, by its weakness, for another catastrophic overturn.
Talking to visitors from abroad about their impressions of Germany and reading the reports of foreign correspondents, one is struck most of all by the mistrust revealed. I do not mean the mistrust felt by people who are convinced that the Germans are, and are doomed to be aggressive, nationalistic, militaristic; who feel that any strengthening of Germany is dangerous to the world, and that the amazing capacity for economic reconstruction the Germans have displayed since 1945 is more a reason for fear than admiration. I mean those other, and more numerous, observers who, ready as they are to give the Germans the benefit of the doubt, are still suspicious of the “German miracle”—not the economic one as much as the less obvious and there-for more peculiar-looking political “miracle.” I mean people like the American journalist who, on the night of the 1953 elections, said the returns were “too good to be true.”
The reason for this suspicion is doubt as to the strength of a state synthetically created in the test tubes of occupation powers, and doubt as to the stability of a structure resting on admittedly “provisional” foundations, and whose creators themselves spoke originally, not of a state, but of a “fragment of a state.” These doubts have one basic justification: as long as Germany remains divided, any German regime, no matter how secure internally, must rest on a precarious foundation. Pacts, treaties, and defense measures may give it external support, but they will not dispel the “German question.”
Without national unification the Bonn Republic remains unstable to the extent that the center of gravity of the German national consciousness does not coincide with its center of consciousness as a political unit. To grasp this fundamental fact is to grasp the German reality, which is not altered by the fact that at the moment many West Germans, perhaps the majority of them, seem in practice quite ready to accept, if not the division, as such, of their country, at least its consequences.
But to point, as so many do, to the fate of the Weimar Republic as casting doubt on the solidity of the Bonn Republic, seems much less legitimate. The Weimar Republic was never popular; and so, people think, the Bonn Republic can never be either: for it is, like Weimar, the product of defeat. The state that in 1918 took over the heritage of the Kaiser’s empire was from the first permeated by reactionary elements and, with their connivance, was attacked and finally overthrown by radical and revolutionary forces that had never participated in it and had never accepted its legitimacy. So today people wait for a new Hugenberg and a new Hindenburg to cripple the “Second Republic” from within, and then betray it to a new von Papen and a new Hitler from outside. So compelling is this parallel that even the most sober and unprejudiced observer finds himself making unconscious associations and measuring Bonn by the standards and yardsticks of Weimar.
This tendency is increased by the fact that the constellation of political forces in Europe amid which the Weimar Republic lived from beginning to end is by no means a distant historical memory. In France, the Fourth Republic has in recent years lived under the threat of Communism and the latent danger of an alliance between the far left and the far right like that which, from 1930 to 1933, hamstrung and then destroyed parliamentary democracy in Germany. Nor is it certain yet that this danger has been eliminated. In Italy the last elections—plus the Montesi affair—signaled the beginning of a process that threatens to grind the “Center” between the millstones of Communism and Nenni socialism on one side and of monarchism and neo-Fascism on the other, just as the center in Germany in the early 30’s was ground to pieces between Communism and the Nazis.
Can West Germany, West Germany alone, escape a similar fate? In a country with hardly any democratic tradition of its own—or, one might say, with hardly any unbroken political tradition—will democracy be able to maintain itself while all around in Europe parliamentary government grows increasingly shaky, even in countries where it has a long tradition?
Such questions are quite legitimate and understandable. As understandable as the fact that the stability of the new German state should seem a little enigmatic to political analysts and commentators, and strike them, for just that reason, as a kind of sinister calm before the storm. No storm is in sight, but German as well as foreign observers continue to be on the look-out for one.
In the October 1954 issue of the Frankfurter Hefte, Eugen Kogon, its editor, views with despair the prospect of German rearmament controlled only by the democratic forces of the Bonn Republic instead of by the fixed framework of the EDC. He is terrified by “so much empty self-confidence.” “This Federal Republic—provisional through and through—is reckoned as stronger than the Germany of Weimar. Bonn is considered more powerful than Berlin was in its time!” The mere thought that Bonn can accomplish a work of national “integration” at which Weimar failed strikes a German “European” like Kogon as not only alarming but fantastic. Nor is Kogon the only one who feels this way. Many people, especially on the left, who are afraid of German rearmament have its internal rather than international risks in mind. Over and over one hears it said that Bonn is simply not strong enough to support a burden under which Weimar collapsed.
To the extent that this fear encourages foresight and alertness it is good and healthy. But it is still no warrant for defeatism. The arguments of those who weigh Bonn against Weimar and find it wanting are based on the false assumption that the democracies of 1918 and 1945 arose out of very similar situations. They overlook the deep changes, psychological even more than political, that have taken place in the German people. These changes reach deep into political life and the relation of the individual to the state.
Five years ago, when I had just arrived in Germany, it was, significantly, neither a politician nor a journalistic colleague who first opened my eyes to the German reality. It was Werner Heisenberg, the atomic physicist and Nobel prize-winner. The Germans, he told me then, had had their fill of revolution. With a thoroughness peculiar to themselves, they had pursued the logic of revolution to its suicidal end. Now they no longer felt the need for things extraordinary, all they wanted now was quiet and the chance to work in peace, establish their households, raise their children, and enjoy a settled life. “Germany,” Heisenberg told me, “is a burnt-out volcano. We have lived so long amid constant changes, upheavals, and unrest that we have only one wish left: to let things, if not altogether unendurable, stay just as they are!”
That was at the end of 1949, a few months after the first elections to the Bundestag, which gave the three Western occupation zones of Germany a common political representation, and a more or less common political life. The second Bundestag elections, a year and a half ago, struck me as an emphatic confirmation of Dr. Heisenberg’s argument.
The results have been interpreted as a demonstration in favor of “Europe,” as a personal tribute to Konrad Adenauer, as approval of a cautious and dexterous foreign policy, as grateful acknowledgment of the “economic miracle,” and as a rejection of economic planning. All these interpretations are correct in part. But the whole truth lies deeper than the sum of these partial truths.
It is certainly undeniable that West Germans are convinced of the necessity for a European understanding, even if they still nurse much national and even nationalistic resentment. And in spite of many disappointments and false starts, they still believe that the only real guarantee for such an understanding lies in common European institutions. Furthermore, they see with a self-awareness not devoid of self-satisfaction how, nine years after the most catastrophic defeat a great state has suffered in modern times, their country is once again about to take her place in the front rank in Europe. For the first time, as their government assures them and as they can see with their own eyes, Germany, though defeated and still occupied, still without sovereignty and split into two parts, has won admission to a worldwide system of alliances, and thus broken out of an isolation that neither the Weimar Republic nor the incomparably stronger Imperial Germany had been able to crack. The West German rump state has in a few years succeeded in becoming the wooed and respected partner of the American colossus.
Those Germans who regard with satisfaction, or even arrogance, the new role the Bonn Republic has assumed in world affairs are not blind to the fact that it has been made possible by a special set of historical circumstances. However, they also consider it the political achievement of the old man who has guided the young state over the last five years; and in voting for Adenauer’s party on September 6 they signified their gratification with a foreign policy that has widened Bonn’s freedom of political movement while regaining the confidence, or at least respect, of Germany’s former enemies. But Adenauer’s electoral victory was also due to his government’s economic policy, which with the magic wand of economic freedom had brought prosperity more rapidly than anyone had expected. This has been no small factor in the present political situation in West Germany, where everybody remembers the cold and hunger before 1948.
But these internal and external successes could not have awakened the response they did had they not coincided with the new German temper, its new “conservatism.” One can speak of “restoration,” but the term neither adds nor detracts from the fact.
The opposition—not only the official and parliamentary opposition, which is Social Democratic, but the unofficial and unparliamentary opposition that draws its strength from the resentment of the defeated as well as from the mephitic ordure Hitler’s Reich left behind in many hearts and minds—this opposition has complained loudly at the price that had to be paid for Bonn’s external successes. Adenauer was charged with having won them at the cost of “national interests,” and his government’s policies have been branded as those of an “American satellite regime.” And indeed Germany’s new prosperity has been bought by a sacrifice that many Germans found harder than that of “national interests”: by renouncing the social reforms of which so many Germans, even among the middle classes, had dreamed during the years of hardship right after 1945.
So far the German voter has judged the achievement worth the cost. He has done so because his reactions are still predominantly “conservative,” because in his present mood he prefers the bird in hand—especially when it is so fat—to the two in the bush. He thinks “realistically” and cares less about ideas than accomplishments. The relatively deaf ear he turns to nationalist slogans as well as to plans for social reorganization only reflects his distrust of programs and revolutionary ideas in general. It reveals his preference for sober calculation as the way to avoid new upheavals. We have here the psychology of a post-revolutionary epoch, of a “return to the self,” of the renunciation of myths.
The deepest meaning of the 1953 elections lay in that they revealed the mental and spiritual transformation of a people who no longer believed in visions and “greatness,” but only in the tangible and near at hand. The volcano was indeed burnt out.
But the Weimar Republic, too, had its period of “stabilization,” of economic reconstruction, and for a time it made slow but steady progress in foreign relations. This was between the ending of inflation in 1924 and the onset of the depression in 1929. And people voted then, too. However, the Reichstag elections of 1928, after Stresemann’s successes at Locarno and Thoiry, after the era of the first German “economic miracle,” and after a heavy influx of foreign credits, did not bring a strengthening of the conservative forces. Instead, they provided the Social Democratic party with the greatest electoral victory it knew between 1919 and the end of the Weimar Republic.
The elections of 1928 were held under conditions similar, both internally and externally, to those of 1953. But then it was the moderate left, in 1953 it was the right center that profited. More important, however, is the fact that even at that time, when the Weimar Republic stood at its zenith, a significant part of the German people had consciously seceded from the legal state, seeking either new forms of economic, social, and political organization, or else a restoration of the old forms that had collapsed in 1918. The Weimar Republic had indeed “stabilized” itself—but the subsoil of unrest and dissatisfaction, of deep insecurity, on which it did so must have been evident to anyone who could make sense of election returns.
One symptom of the situation was the strength of the Communists. Nowhere in the whole world outside Russia did the Comintern have such a well-organized and popularly supported party machine as in the Germany of the 1920’s. Even after the crises of Weimar’s first five years had been overcome, a majority or at least a very large minority of the workers in the crucial economic centers, especially the heavy industrial ones, followed the Communist party—at least as long as that party called them to the polls instead of the barricades. The Ruhr and the central industrial areas around Halle and Merseburg, Berlin, Hamburg, and the Mannheim-Ludwigshafen district were all strongholds of Communism.
Not that the Communists ever offered any real threat to the Weimar Republic after the first postwar days. Their threat then was as small—or smaller—than it was in France during the late 40’s and early 50’s when Communists controlled strong trade-union and important administrative positions, which they never did under the Weimar Republic; in Weimar Germany, the attraction of their ideas was greater than their organizational strength. But at the very least they had behind them at that time millions of men—and these men, refusing to recognize the Weimar regime as their government, stood apart from the democratic parties, angrily hoping for a social upheaval.
The communist hold over the industrial proletariat under Weimar was matched by the bitter but in most cases latent hostility to the government of a considerable section of the German bourgeoisie. This was long before the Nazi tide began to rise. Whether these elements, which had once ardently backed the Empire, now thought of themselves as conservatives, pan-German nationalists, or “national liberals,” they were in large measure just barely willing to accept the Republic as a legal entity whose government they would permit their representatives to participate in, and they were not ready at all to accept it as a political one with moral authority.
Attacks on the Weimar Republic as “anti-national” were by no means a prerogative of the extreme right alone, but the stock in trade of parties like the old German National party, and a considerable section of the German People’s party, that were considered highly respectable. This “national opposition” often enough formed part of the government, and individuals in it continued to hold important positions in the executive apparatus of the government even when the parties to which they adhered were forced into parliamentary opposition. But the “national opposition” not only refused at bottom to accept the revolution of 1918; it refused also to admit that the defeat of 1918 had even happened, and offered a solid front against any policy which assumed its reality. The legend of the “stab in the back,” the murder of Walther Rathenau, the vilification of the first President, Ebert, the furious resistance to Stresemann, an administration of justice that, in the name of the Republic, consciously and systematically undermined it—all these were the ways in which both the “national” and the radical right sabotaged the state.
This inner secession from the legal state of whole strata of the population with which the Weimar Republic had to contend from first to last has so far had no parallel in the Bonn Republic. Democracy and parliamentary government may be argued about, they may be exposed to dangers on many sides—but they are not fought over today in West Germany. This does not mean that the new state is firmly anchored in popular feeling. There are many Germans who are critical of everything the word “Bonn” stands for, who question it, and have no particular respect for it. But even where the Bonn Republic is not loved or respected, it is accepted: accepted indeed without warmth, coolly and calculatingly, perhaps even as a necessary evil—but accepted nevertheless. There is no longer a large and compact body of Germans who have isolated themselves from the government of their country and regard themselves as outside it.
In spite of powerful support from the Eastern zone, Communism has sunk to a mere sect—not least of all because the satellite regime on the other side of the Elbe offers the German people a daily demonstration of the reality of totalitarian bureaucracy. As for the radical right, nothing provided a better demonstration of its weakness than the helpless and hopeless collapse of the Socialist Reich party, the only neo-Nazi organization that could be taken halfway seriously, as soon as it was outlawed by the courts. Ideas may not be destroyed by court rulings, but the specters of ideas vanish at the first mere show of opposing power. And if “reaction” of the Hugenberg and Hindenburg type is not dead under Bonn, such reaction still acknowledges the Republic’s reality and strength by the democratic and “European” disguise it assumes. It may try to subvert the state, but it has to don the mask of federal republicanism in the effort.
This makes a great difference between Bonn and the pre-Hitler period, perhaps a crucial one. It means that no real counter-image to the idea of Germany as a parliamentary democracy is any longer available—not because democracy has been adopted by the whole German people as a positive goal, but because it has been accepted by them as the existing fact.
That no counter-image, or counter-images, to democracy are now at hand by no means constitutes the only difference between Weimar and Bonn. The radical shifting of emphasis that has taken place in West Germany’s domestic politics is more than a reflection of changes in the German mentality. It also reflects the fundamentally different international situation in which the Federal Republic finds itself.
Weimar and Bonn were both products of national defeat, but their similarity in this respect ends right there. Weimar had to shoulder the blame for a lost war. Millions of Germans were convinced that the First World War had been lost in the rear, not at the front, and by a “betrayal”—by that “stab in the back of the fighting army” which became the mainstay of the propaganda of the anti-republican right. The fact that the Kaiser’s armies still held large areas outside Germany’s borders, and that revolution in the rear and surrender to the Allies came at the same moment, could only strengthen this false impression. It was as if the Weimar Republic was not so much the product as the cause of the defeat.
In this respect the Bonn Republic has an enormous advantage over Weimar. Responsibility for the German defeat rests squarely and unmistakably with the Nazi regime. Hitler’s desperate attempt to stave off the declaration of bankruptcy to the last moment, and to continue a war already lost until Germany was totally destroyed, amounted to a capital crime against the German people. This crime became, in the aftermath, a guarantee for German democracy insofar as it settled the question of responsibility for defeat once and for all.
The allied policy of “unconditional surrender” is said to have been a fatal error because it destroyed any chance of restoring a European balance of power. It is also claimed that this policy made it more difficult than ever for the German people to rise against National Socialism before the Allies intervened, and perhaps actually kept them from doing so. Whatever truth there may be in this, “unconditional surrender” did serve to make one thing clear beyond all doubt: that any post-Hitler government, though it might be burdened with the consequences of military defeat, would not have to bear the “guilt” for it: it was Hitler’s own minions who surrendered.
The Weimar Republic was felt by many of its citizens to be a fall from a preceding high point of German power. The Bonn Republic was born of a similar fall, but its development as a political entity has by now become identified with a new consolidation of the country, even if it is only that of a rump one. Weimar had always to carry the heavy inheritance of the Empire out of which it was born. Bonn began out of nothing, but for this very reason its achievement looms all the more conspicuous and real in the eyes of its subjects. The very depth of the fall into which totalitarianism plunged the Germans makes the steep curve of their climb back seem all the more spectacular. And this climb back, it cannot be over-stressed, is now inextricably connected in the German mind with democracy, parliamentary government, and constitutional legality. The totalitarian state became in 1945 the symbol of total catastrophe, and it has since then, moreover, become identified with foreign domination because of what has happened in the Eastern zone. Democracy, in contrast, stands out in the postwar experience of the Germans as the way to international as well as domestic liberation.
Certainly, the significance of these comparisons between Bonn and Weimar should not be exaggerated. But it would be even wronger to overlook them. Today perhaps the majority of Germans are critical of the myth of the nation-state and extraordinarily receptive to the myth of Europe. Even those elements whose political habits of thought remain nationalist for the most part simply cannot avoid acknowledging that Germany’s recovery as a nation took place, and could only do so, within the framework of Bonn. Under the Weimar Republic it might have seemed at times that a “national” policy could—perhaps had to—be compatible with enmity to the democratic state. Today German national feeling is inextricably linked with the existence of German democracy. The nation-state—and the German one especially—may have been rendered obsolete and anachronistic in Europe by historical events, but the fact that the Bonn Republic has managed to strengthen the international position of the German rump state precisely by a policy that aimed beyond the nation-state toward a pan-European future means a lot.
The consolidation of national “sovereignty” at this point in Germany’s and Europe’s history may not be an altogether unmitigated good, but from the standpoint of the stability of constitutional democracy in Germany, which is what concerns us here, it is all to the good that the conflict between a “national” policy and one of European amity and unity is taking place within the German state itself, and that the dividing line between the two parties does not coincide with that other line which divides loyalty to the legitimate state from secession.
It may be regrettable that the West German Social Democratic party should dissociate itself from the supra-national point of view and, in complete contradiction to its own spiritual traditions, inscribe “national restoration” on its banners at the same time that it fights against “social restoration.” Yet this same Social Democratic party, in half-willing, half-unwilling opposition since 1949, offers by virtue of its own democratic traditions one of the surest supports of the federal-republican form of government. This fact is not altered by the Social Democrats’ insistence on the provisional, fragmentary character of the West German government, or by their resistance to every attempt to identify the West German rump state with the German nation itself. In their own way the Socialists are working thereby to create a nationalist rallying ground inside German democracy, and to prevent the word “national” from being identified with the word “anti-democratic” as it used to be in Germany. This is of decisive importance in a time when the conflict between national and “supra-national” tendencies is far from settled.
As long as nationalist reaction survives in Germany, and is not totally dissolved in the idea of a united Europe, the future of German democracy will depend on its being able to link the forces of nationalism with the democratic process. That is to say: a strong, unambiguously democratic political force must be present that is able to formulate and represent a “national” policy, and not allow patriotism to become, as before, the monopoly of anti-democratic forces. This is the only sure guarantee that, even if the political pendulum should swing back towards nationalism, it will not break out of the legal framework of the German Federal Republic.
The Bonn Republic seems better protected than Weimar in more than one way against such swings of the pendulum. The sharp differences between a government coalition and an opposition that, like itself, upholds the federal-republican form of government and its constitutional basis, provides incomparably more room than the Weimar Republic ever could for sharp fluctuations of public opinion. This means the possibility of containing a political, economic, or social crisis within orderly forms of political struggle. And this possibility is strengthened further by the fact that practically no political force of any importance exists in West Germany today—certainly no organized political force—that stands outside the legal state in open hostility to it. Nor can one speak, as under Weimar, of the spiritual secession from the state of whole strata of the German population.
Under the Weimar Republic the existence of democracy was assured—and even then only half assured—when a quite special political situation obtained: namely, when a coalition of Social Democrats, Catholic Center, and bourgeois liberals had sufficient support from the electorate to control the Reichstag. As soon as the pendulum of votes swung to the right or left of the midpoint of this coalition—or swung, as it usually did, simultaneously to the right and left of it—a democratic majority capable of governing was no longer possible, and the government was forced to seek support from groups like the German Nationalists that made no secret of their enmity to the legal state. Hindenburg’s election as president of the Reich, and thus as defender of a constitution to which he was thoroughly indifferent if not hostile, was a symptom of this political instability, and of the narrowness of the foundation on which German democracy then rested. The Weimar Republic could be governed only when there was either no purely republican government or no partly republican opposition. This was true long before the crisis began that in the Reichstag elections of 1930 deprived the government of any parliamentary basis at all, and forced it on the path of rule by “emergency decrees”—that is, by authoritarian methods whose sole legal ground was provided by the president’s emergency powers—and so on to the self-liquidation of democracy.
The late Kurt Schumacher’s action in 1949, when he deliberately decided to keep the Social Democratic party aloof from governmental responsibility—thereby forcing the Christian Democrats, in those days by no means a homogeneous group, into Adenauer’s policy of the “bourgeois bloc”—has often been criticized, and frequently by Socialists themselves. This step unquestionably increased the inner tensions within the West German Republic and helped solidify the different political blocs to a degree that looked both unnecessary and exaggerated. But Schumacher’s policy, whatever its risks, had and has one very great advantage. Behind the position occupied by a strong and predominantly democratic regime, it creates a reserve position occupied by an even more unquestionably democratic opposition. If the tide should turn against Adenauer and what he stands for, this democratic opposition would be in the position to attract the votes of the dissatisfied and hold them for democracy. In other words, the Socialists would be able to offer it a democratic alternative to present government policy.
The Weimar Republic was never able to offer this alternative in practice, and so when the great swing of 1930 came in the wake of the depression, it swept the whole structure of constitutional democracy away with it. There was simply nothing present on the political scene that might have channeled all the dissatisfaction and revolt aroused by economic catastrophe in the direction of a democratic change of government. Without a strong democratic opposition that could have made such a change of government possible, the very political foundations of the regime were destroyed in the end.
This is not to say that the Bonn Republic would be able to surmount unscathed a depression on the scale of that of 1929 simply because of its second line of democratic defense. Such optimism would require one to shut one’s eyes to the real dangers inherent in the economic and social structure of West Germany. These dangers, which have increased since the 1920’s, lie in the one-sidedness of a predominantly industrial economy largely dependent on exports, and in the social pressure exerted on this economy by a vastly swollen population. On the other hand, however, it should be borne in mind that makers of economic policy are today less helpless in the face of crisis than they were in 1929; and that the different political conditions offer Bonn a much better chance to avoid a disaster like that which overtook the Weimar Republic.
All this does not mean in the least that the Bonn Republic has the right to view its future with unclouded confidence. The West German state is faced with tasks and problems that involve many dangers. No one aware of the realities of the German scene will be inclined to shrug off the domestic and political risks of German rearmament—to say nothing of the international and military ones. But the fact that the waters ahead are sown with reefs does not mean that the Bonn Republic must inevitably come to grief on the same ones that the Weimar Republic shattered on in its wholly different course. Nothing can cloud the vision of the political navigator more than looking for imaginary dangers, and some of the dangers that were real for Weimar are imaginary today.
There is such a thing as frivolous optimism, but there is also an equally frivolous pessimism. Not to see and take account of the real opportunities can be just as hazardous as denying the real dangers.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Will History Repeat Itself in Germany?Must the Bonn Republic Go the Way of Weimar?
Must-Reads from Magazine
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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
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.”
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
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.