The Fatal Conceit of Every Ruler
that he can control everything
Politics, according to Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, is about the enemy. Any human community that experiences an enemy must rally together under a war leader to defeat the enemy. And a community at war must subordinate itself to its leader and fight as one to defeat the foe.
But when the enemy is defeated, what then? Then the leader comes up with all kinds of reasons why a top-down hierarchical system is still needed to save the community from chaos. And that is why just about every society we know about features a hierachical system with the war leader at the top, his lieutenants as his faithful followers, and the ordinary peasants at the bottom.
In fact, that is not the way that the world, or human society, works. We have realized, especially over the last 200 years, that human society is much more complicated than mere hierarchy, and that the horizontal interactions between humans are more important, both economically in trade and gift-giving, and socially, in the “lifeworld” where, according to Jürgen Habermas, it is not the single consciousness of the ruler that defines the world but all of us together, and we test and share our experience of the world in conversation with each other using the language we share.
And, from our market and social transactions and conversations, we leave behind a precipitate of agreement that becomes our culture and our understanding of the way things are.
Rulers are different. In his Vision of the Anointed Thomas Sowell writes about how our modern rulers believe and act as if they have a special relationship to the truth. They know, whereas ordinary commoners don’t. In Chapter 2: The Pattern, he relates how our current rulers have advanced policy in “The War on Poverty,” “Sex Education,” and “Criminal Justice.” In each case, the rulers declared a “Crisis,” declared a proposed “Solution,” ignored or explained away the negative “Results,” and came up with a “Response” that interpreted the failed “Results” as a need to redouble our efforts.
I experience “The Pattern” as the fundamental limitation of the political that I learned from Carl Schmitt. In politics, everything is about the enemy and defeating him. Obviously therefore, any setback, as in war, is interpreted as a need to redouble our efforts; otherwise we will be defeated and be driven before the enemy and hear the lamentation of our women. As I say, if a political leader admits he is wrong then it is time to resign. But no political leader is willing to do that!
We see this in the current situation of the Biden administration in June 2022. Basically, the Bidenoids made a grand strategic error in 2021 by going full bore on a trillion dollar handout and closing down oil exploration. But can President Biden address the nation and say “sorry, my bad?” Absolutely not. So he resorts to absurd complaints about Putin and oil companies not using their full refinery capacity, and ridiculous ideas about suspending the federal gasoline tax for 90 days.
But what if we are not in a war, or a “crisis?” Then, I would argue, we don’t need politics, but the normal human interaction and conversation that leads to agreement. Of course, down the ages, aside from court politics, people lower down the totem pole did exactly that. But in our modern era our rulers have developed the conceit that they can direct traffic from the court all the way down to the ordinary Joe and Jill at work and at home. I say that the results are in: top-down politics doesn’t work.
Another view is that of J.J. Clarke in The Self-creating Universe. His idea is that new things emerge out of the interaction between entities, from sub-atomic to living things to humans.
If this is true then all the conceit of our betters, from the welfare state to economic regulation to The Great Reset to ESG to the Green New Deal are bound to fail. That’s because they are not emergent, a coming together of different proposals and adaptations, but a top-down imposition of a single notion on everyone by some special person on top.
I suspect that this top-down culture is not just a folly our our present educated class but a failing of all political regimes, that issues out of the necessity of any war leader to coordinate his forces upon a single purpose, to defeat the enemy.
However, even in war, the Germans discovered in World War I, you need to push responsibility downwards as far as it can go, because the general in charge cannot comprehend everything that has to be done to attack and destroy the enemy. He can only propose the general outline of what has to be done, and that general outline is worked out and interpreted into more detailed orders as the instructions get retailed from army to division to regiment to company to platoon.
In life there is interaction, and give and take, and buying and selling, and giving and receiving, and conversation and disagreement and agreement. In politics there is only conflict, the war against the enemy.
I say that the next Big Thing in history is the emergence of rulers that know, as Susan Sowerby taught in The Secret Garden, that they don’t own the whole orange, and wouldn’t know what to do with it if they did.