#83: The Purpose of History, or, We Need to Explain Democracy Better

Francis Fukuyama has been much ridiculed for allegedly claiming that we had reached the “end of history” in the 1990s after the victory of democracy over socialism. His argument, however, was more complex, and consisted rather in an update of Hegel’s analysis of the consequences of the dual victory of Napoleonic France (and its proclaimed democratic ideas) over both the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia. Hegel’s definition of history – put very simply – is the process throughout time by which the ideal political system is discovered. The “end of history”– again, very simplified – thus happened in 1806 in above mentioned victories.

Napoleon’s aim was the restoration of the Roman Republic under a French banner, utilizing the rallying cry of “liberté, egalité, fraternité” – liberty, equality, fraternity – for his success. He did end the institution of serfdom (a version of slavery widespread in Europe) wherever he triumphed. As he did not triumph in Russia, serfdom there ended later. In the end, Napoleon succumbed to the seduction of empire and cannot be understood as the bringer of democracy; but the ideas his armies transported were successful enough to scare the sclerotic Prussian state into reform. Already, democracy had taken root in the American colonies, just as British Parliament had become more important than the king. The signs of the times were clear: the old ways – or rather, the monarchic ways – were done. The very old ways – Roman Republicanism – were the way of the future.

This is what “the end of history” means: From now on, any government that does not draw their legitimacy from the people as the sovereign, will be seen as illegitimate and is doomed to fail eventually. This is the reason that even the worst dictatorship on the planet calls itself either a republic or democratic. Already in Hegel’s times, it was clear that the victory of democracy was merely rhetorical. Democracy in France did not succeed until 1871, and Prussia would not become democratic overnight, but it would take till 1918 for the first German democracy to come into being.

Communist-Socialist states called themselves “people’s republics”, National Socialism claimed to bring about true democracy, and some monarchs or autocrats routinely see themselves as the vehicle through which the people somehow rule. The terms “democracy” or “republic” are regularly used to hide non-democratic systems.

This is done frequently by the means of a major conceit: “Democracy” is reduced to the mere act of holding elections. This is a deliberate distortion aimed at limiting the threshold for respectability. Any dictator can hold elections; but the trick lies in how you set up the democratic field, what candidates you allow, how you count, and what count you publish.

Democracy is more than that. Elections do matter, but are meaningless without the reliable, equal and incorruptible rule of law. The rights of the individual are paramount to any democracy, and underlie the demand for human rights. Civil liberties, including absolute free speech, freedom of religion, and the absolute freedom of the press are paramount. Connected to that are property rights, and free enterprise (which does not exclude regulation ensuring a free and fair functioning of the market). Corruption has to be minimized. Minorities need to be protected, specifically political minorities. Democracy does not work if the winners in an election can punish the losers with abandon. There needs to be a separation of powers and a form of checks and balances. Changing the constitution should be difficult. Representative democracy will be necessary for any state larger than a single town. Federalism and strengthening local governments will help to undercut the danger of democratic deficits originating from representative democracy (republicanism).

As you can see, this is all much more complicated, but it is complicated for a reason. Dictatorships and dictatorial movements – even if the couch themselves in the language of democracy – have nothing but disdain for any of that. Sham elections and party-line courts guarantee that true democracy does not endanger the rule of autocrats or oligarchs.

Right now, it seems that democracy is under attack by a variety of forces. Some dictatorships have seemingly had successes in good governance and modernization. That is certainly not impossible in the short run, but problems will accumulate in the longue durée.

The argument for democracy, in the end, is about practicality: It is the only system that works for everyone over time. It is the only system that can self-correct and increase liberty, equality, and the values of shared humanity for all. It is also the only system that will be at peace with systems like itself. Functioning democracies do not wage war against each other – it has never happened in history. Wherever democracy succeeded, peace followed, and social peace and justice have been allowed to progress. History may not be over, but the path, the destination, the telos (meaning purposeful end) is clear.

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Clearly, this is a more complicated topic, and I will follow up on this in more detail in further posts. As they say, “stay tuned.”

#46: We Need to Move Beyond the Left/Right Paradigm

There have been plenty of attempts to redefine the Left/Right paradigm that still seems to reign supreme in most people’s minds, especially in journalism.

Originally established in the French National Assembly in 1789, it divided parliamentarians between those in support of the French Revolution on the left, and the supporters of the Establishment on the right. It is a seating arrangement from more than 230 years ago. It makes sense to simplify matters when it comes to seating, as you have to place people in a room, and where one person sits, nobody else can sit. This was my first lesson as an altar boy, and it makes sense when it comes to such matters.

But aren’t political ideas more complicated than seating plans?

If you generalize the seating, it becomes immediately clear that it is a very situational problem. If the division is between disruption/revolution on the one side, and conserving/establishment, depending on the political party, what is “left” and what is “right” cannot be considered stable. If the establishment follows Socialist ideas, are supporters of Socialism suddenly right-wingers? If both Socialists/Communists and National Socialists on one side stood against Social Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals on the other in the Weimar Republic, are those in favor of disruption all on the “left”, and those in favor of democracy all on the “right”?

Is everybody who is not on the side of the Socialists on the “right”? Social Democrats have suffered for decades under being labeled failed revolutionaries – and sometimes seem to surrender to the stereotypes themselves rather than to defend their moderation in defense of democracy against disruptive radicalism. Similarly, what do Conservatives who defend democracy have in common with Fascists and National Socialists? This simply makes no sense.

We currently see a vivid demonstration of the outright idiocy of such labels:

  • Those “resisting” Coronavirus prevention measures fall visibly into a variety of political camps. Recent demonstrations in Berlin illustrated that clearly: Alternatives, Hippies, LGBTQ advocates, concerned democracy defenders, so-called sovereign citizens, as well as outright Neo-Nazis joined in a happy commingling. In the US, social protests of any spectrum seem to merely pay lip service (if at all) to protective regulations.
  • Putin has shown support for both right-wing and left-wing extremist parties in the recent decades. He is seen as an inspiration for both.
  • China’s communist leadership is cow-towed by everybody expecting political and economic favor, notwithstanding its civil rights abuses.
  • Antisemitism has flourished on both the “left” and the “right” recently under the label of “criticizing Israel”, a very transparent attempt to single out the Jewish state as the alleged source of all evil in the world (this becomes clear by being a sin of omission: the same “critics” remain silent on China, Turkey, Russia, or any other state (every single one!) that has ever incorporated territory originally not their own).

There are countless more examples, and there air several attempts at solving the classification problem by thinking in quadrants rather than two sides only (typically, by drawing an axis of totalitarianism vs. libertarianism, and another of individualism vs. groupishness).

It is disappointing to see the old and outdated paradigm still abound. Either we are not learning anything, or old ideas simply die hard…

#18: What’s Left: Communism, Socialism, Progressivism, Social Democracy, and the Value of Dissent

There seems to be a notion out there that there are different stages of being left-wing or progressive. This goes back, of course, to Hegelian ideas about the Spirit of History, the End of History, and stages of development, which, in some way, were given a materialist spin by Marxism.

Anybody who believes that somehow, “as a society”, “as a people”, “as humanity”, we are moving in some direction through time, following the laws of History (with a capital H), is somehow believing in a “progressive” vision of society, in the sense that we are “moving along” an imaginary arrow of time leading somewhere. If you believe that eventually we will get flying cars, that we will colonize space, that humanity will somehow “evolve” through this process, and that this process is inevitable and that we should help it along, this is what it means to be a progressive, probably. History (with a capital H) is not just the more or less understandable accumulation of events that have happened, but it is a force that can be studied, whose laws can be understood, and the lessons of such study can be applied to our lives and our political vision. This is what “Historical Materialism” means, in a nutshell.

One opposing vision – and there can be many – would be that we are rather ambling along in an un-Historical way through our somewhat chaotic, unpredictable lives, hoping to make sense of things, but living in the humility that every society that ever existed has eventually crumbled, every state fallen, every human being eventually died, and humanity always living under the condition of being an imperfect approximation of larger goals, but never truly being able to live up to it, because of what is called the human condition. The lesson here would be to live your life as much as you can in a moral fashion, to improve the lives not just of yourself but also of others around you, to realize that nobody is perfect and that nobody should be blamed for that, but also, that such realization should not crush you down, but should enable you to pursue realistic goals, to live with hope and with the confidence that no matter what roadblocks life will have for you, you are doing everything you can, and this is just what life is all about. I would call this an agnostic view, maybe even mildly conservative, and it certainly is not seductive, even though probably more realistic.

Even less comforting would be fatalism, or complete acceptance of the order of things, although that could be liberating in the sense that the realization of your eventual complete inability to live forever saves you from even the semblance of false hope.

Yet people seem to need a positive vision, they need hope, they need something to cling to in order to go on. They need comfort, they need something to distract them from those parts of life that are not uplifting. Religion might be a solution, but true religion (true in the sense of not offering false promises or too simplistic answers), or rather theology, is more complex than typically desired, and that which could be called folk-religion may provide some hope, but it oftentimes falters under pressure. The classical question of Theodicy, “how could God let that happen,” does not really have theological substance. If “God is always greater” than our understanding, such a question is pointless, and it does not fit very well with higher-order religious systems. “God wills it” – if not applied to justifying horrendous human activity – is probably the best theological equivalent of Murphy’s Law. While probably true, it is surely neither uplifting, nor attractive.

Thus we come back to how to craft a vision for society. Some Progressivist vision – i.e. the general idea that things will improve over time – can certainly prove attractive. It might thus also seem seductive to help History along and shape that vision politically. Why wait unnecessarily if we can already make things better for everyone? As Marx remarked in his Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” So far, so understandable. But how? Marx himself – contrary to popular belief – did not have a concrete vision. He never finished Capital himself, and we should be careful about drawing too concrete conclusions from his incomplete thinking on this. But there is one point that Marx has been making consistently – and most clearly in his letter to Ruge – and it bears repeating time and time and time again, and deserves to be quoted in full. It begins as follows:

“everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. …”

Tough stuff. We do not know the future, so it is better now to rather than to “dogmatically anticipate the world” (i.e. to create some dogmatic utopian state), the new one will come about through criticism of the old. Criticism, or critique, is more than just liking or not liking an idea, but a critical interrogation (truly open-ended) of the powers that be (and – because of the rejection of dogmatism – of the powers that challenge the powers that be. Then follows one of the great Marxian pen-drop put-downs, that caustic and acerbic wit for which he is so well known. But let’s continue, let the past be the past, and what do we need now?

“… Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. …”

Maybe Hegel appeared in Marx’ mind and whispered something of consciousness and spirit, and we get Marx at his most Hegel-ish aloof moments where bold statements are pounding the argument. There is no proof here, only him saying that there is. But it sounds cool. What he probably means is that philosophers can no longer be content at warming their armchair only with presumably complex thoughts spouted at adoring apprentices, but have to apply themselves at matters relevant for the people, for society, to actually liberate people from Plato’s cave rather than to bedazzle them with their skill. Thus now:

“… But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” (Marx to Ruge)

Thus if we aim to create a better future, we need to be careful, and make sure that we stay skeptical. This sense of skepticism and critique is interwoven into all of Marx’ thought; it is practically his conditio sine qua non, the condition without which you cannot think about him. Ruthless skepticism means a skepticism even of skepticism. All power needs to be critiqued always. This position is more important than any other political idea Marx may have had; and it is the one impulse remaining throughout all of Marxist intellectual history. And Marx is, or should be, or is frequently declared to be, the cornerstone for the leftist movement itself. You could start with Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus, or with Jesus, or with Francis, or Acquinas, or many others, but Marx it is, typically.

Marx’s demand for criticism is a demand for intellectual freedom, and thus for democracy. Utopia ruins freedom, as it is by definition perfect, and the enemy of perfection is the enemy of, well, everyone who wants a utopian future. Marx wants to make things better, but he wants to keep thinking.

The enemy of thinking is dogma. Whenever dogma enters the equation, you enter the perversion of leftist thinking. The “left”, or in French “gauche”, or better, in Italian, “la sinistra”, gets its “sinister” reputation partially from the caustic personalities of a Karl Marx, a Richard Wagner, a George Orwell, a Lech Walesa, or a Christopher Hitchens, Umberto Eco, or Slavoy Žižek. This is as sinister as things should go.

Communism is dogma, it left-wing is utopianism of the worst and most oppressive kind. It is the utopian vision, and states who pursued it, called themselves Socialist (and aspired towards the Communist ideal). “Socialism” and “Communism” are thus the same thing, and “Democratic Socialism” is the term used by revamped Communist parties in former Soviet-style Socialist countries to delude people about what they really are. Socialism can never be democratic if it attaches itself to the idea of dogma, of utopia. You cannot modify socialism through democracy; socialism is a dogma, and dogmas are inherently anti-democratic, anti-criticism, and anti-thinking.

The only thinking alternative is Social Democracy, where democracy (which tends to align with capitalism, because free thinking and free markets go well together) is modified (or mollified) by social thought. Social Democracy is not a failed attempt at becoming socialist or communist. It’s the other way round. Dogmatism, whether it is socialist or communist (or national socialist!) is always a perversion of social democracy.

There is nothing wrong with being moderate, there is nothing wrong with being skeptical, there is nothing wrong with thinking. Any system that wants people to comply rather than to think on their own is not something a thinking person should want to pursue. As Kant said in “What is Enlightenment,” Sapere aude, dare to reason on your own. He was more polite than Marx, but Marx still asks us to think for ourselves, and to support others to do so as well. After all the sound and fury of Marxist discussions and arguments, this is what is, and should, be left.