The Dead End of Political Supremacy
but can we do anything about it?
The great conceit of the 19th century was that politics was going to save the world. The awful truth of the 20th century was to demonstrate how big of a mess you can make when you try.
In the 21st century we are reduced to hoping, praying, that the political supremacists will go away.
So, in the 19th century rich kid Marx wrote that the the end result of capitalistm would be the “immiseration” of the working class, and that only socialism could save the workers from misery.
It is worth giving Chuck the benefit of the doubt on his analysis of capitalism using the classic economics of the day. Yes, in any industry, the profits slowly get squeezed out of the operation, so that in the end the capitalists are reduced to cost cutting to stay in business. And eventually, even cost-cutting won’t do the job. So the workers get laid off and the companies get sold off. And the buggy-whip industry is no more.
So what was the solution? Planning, rational planning, instead of the chaos of the market. Experts would plan the economy and avoid the booms and busts of capitalism, and the inevitable exploitation of the workers under the domination of capital.
By 1900, I would say, the evidence pretty clearly indicated that the workers were not going to suffer “immiseration.” Technology revolutions, in steam transportation, in oil exploration, in electricity, and in automobile transportation, indicated that workers were not just going to fade away.
Nevertheless, the Bolshevists implemented their socialism, first under Lenin until he replaced it with a New Economic Policy, capitalism with state control. Then Stalin implemented his Five Year Plan, a total failure that included the Holodomor famine in the Ukraine.
Not to be deterred, son of a wealthy peasant Mao Zedong copied Stalin’s Five Year Plan concept. His second Five Year Plan was called the Great Leap Forward and culminated in the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-61 with 15-55 million deaths. Then Mao gussied up the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 to abolish the Four Olds. Deaths? Hundreds of thousands to millions.
Elsewhere in the world social democratic governments implemented the concept of a welfare state in which up to 50 percent of GDP was devoted to government programs for pensions, health care, education, and welfare. They were to be administrated by experts.
Of course, to add to the fun and frolic we had a couple of world wars — over what, exactly? You will notice that World War I was fought to a draw, and no nation was defeated and conquered by another. The only change was that the hereditary monarchs of Russia, Germany and Austria Hungary were replaced by non-royal rulers. After World War II Germany, Italy and Japan were completely defeated, but resumed operations as slightly transformed selves after a suitable period of occupation. Russia tried an empire in Eastern Europe but gave it up after 45 years.
Now, I interpret the result of the politically directed economy as a folly and a failure. It is perfectly clear to me that the political governing class of a nation has no clue how to run an economy.
I interpret the experience of 20th century warfare as a complete failure. World War I and World War II: What was the point? Cold War? US imperialist interventions in SE Asia and the Middle East? All that the wars of the 20th century achieved was a general mucking around, a staggering loss of life, and various mass exterminations. But nothing changed.
And meanwhile — I should say, despite the economic planning failures and the wars to end all wars — the 20th century achieved a staggering increase in per-capita income and the adoption of the market economy all over the world.
What went wrong? I say that, with the development of the industrial market economy, the old basis of politics is destroyed. The only point of politics, from chimpanzee troops to human monarchies, is to defend the food-growing land from marauders. And when the whole point of human life in the agriculural age was to grow food and store it for the winter, access to food-growing land and defense of the land and its food from bandits was the whole point of humans as social animals.
Today food is grown in western Canada where almost nobody lives, and then railroaded across the Rocky Mountains to Vancouver to be loaded into ships. Food is grown on the Great Plains of the United States where almost nobody lives, and then barged down the Mississippi River to ships at New Orleans. It is grown in the Ukraine and then shipped to the Middle East, as we have lately learned.
We don’t need knights on chargers or generals and tank armies or an aluminum sky to defend our food-growing land. For one thing, food-growing land is not where the money is.
And we don’t need wise administrators deciding what food to grow and what products to produce and what social media companies to develop. Because administrators aren’t wise and don’t know nothing.
This is to say that we humans don’t need politics any more. Politics is the idea that we need armed men to defend our borders and our food-growing land from the enemy. That is good. The downside is that the armed men tend to take advantage of their situation to demand loot and plunder from the people they protect. That is bad.
Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt defined the political as the distinction between friend and enemy. Curtis Yarvin has declared that “there is no politics without an enemy.” In the Reign of Terror in France in 1793-4, the enemy was the regions of France — the Vendée, Lyon, Marseilles — that had resisted the Parisian revolutionaries. And what do you do with the enemy? You exterminate him. Simon Schama in Citizens:
The exterminations… were, in fact, the logical outcome of an ideology that progressively dehumanized its adversaries and that had become incapable of seeing any middle ground between total triumph and utter eclipse.
All respectable people are outraged by the Hitler and the Holocaust. Other people are outraged by Stalin and the Great Purge and Mao and the Cultural Revolution.
But the problem is not the monsters; the problem is the politics. Politics always descends into “us” and “them,” and ends up in the canceling, the purging, the extermination of the enemy.
In the 21st century, in my view, we are seeing the End of the Political. We see President Xi of China trying to rule that huge country from the center with his elite corps of CCP party members, and it ain’t working. We see the supra-national European Union trying to direct the various European nations from above, even though two world wars in Europe failed to break up the nation-state system. We see welfare state politicians and administrators trying to organize, by politics, numerous activities that are, in essence, social, do not require the mobilization of people into political armies.
And we also see political elites inventing reasons for their continued power, in particuarly to fight climate change and systemic racism. And I believe that the power of my notion of the End of the Political is that it explains the rise of climate change and systemic racism as a Thing. If a political elite does not have an enemy to fight, whether it is fossil fuels or racism or sexism, or poverty or hate, then it doesn’t have a reason to exist. It doesn’t have a reason to tax 30-40 percent of income; it doesn’t have a reason to regulate and administrate. And so it makes it up — out of whole cloth.
But can we find a way to disassemble the massive political structures built to fight world wars and poverty and racism, even as we are now expanding it to fight climate change?
It’s never been done before except in the aftermath of disaster. But there is always a first time for everything.