Saturday , August 20 2022

Exiting History and the Myth of the Bipolar World

City Of Westminster - London, City of London, England, London - England

The ‘End of History’ has been postponed. Fukuyama, its author, assures us that ‘the spirit of 1989 is not dead…and is being reawakened’ by the Putin hiatus. The End of History and the triumph of liberalism is still there, according to Fukuyama, the Putin incident just a blip in the flow of the progressive river. It is only a temporary retrenchment from liberalism; it is liberalism against the world of authoritarianism. Fukuyama is the Ptolemy of History. Now, within the twinkling of historic time, we have left the globalised world and entered the new ‘bipolar world’. It is the binary, bipolar world of the west. Within a matter of days after Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine- the ‘globalised’ world we knew had vanished. We were informed we are now, suddenly, inhabiting the ‘bipolar’ world. Bipolar thinking is nothing new to the Occident. It was the ‘good and evil’ world of Christianity which Nietzsche mocked, Crusaders and Islam, the Occident and the Orient, right versus left, black and white, equality and inequality. There is no bipolar world; merely the convergence of the world to ‘materialism’. It was De Tocqueville who, in 1840, foresaw the unravelling and ‘exiting’ of history:

‘Our planet is currently home to two great peoples who, having set off from differing starting points, are now advancing towards the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Saxons. Each of them seems to be heeding a call towards holding half the world’s destinies in his hands one day.’

But the bipolar view of history sees the decline of ‘the west’ as symptomatic of external factors; the contraction of Empire, the deceleration of globalisation and the rise of aggressive autocratic states. It is seen as something which ‘opposes’ the west, extrinsic; if only it would go away. The binary analysis is easy because it pictures the enemy clearly; a nation, a dictator, a virus. But the truth, as always, is the paradox of humanity: we look elsewhere for the sources of troubles but to stare into the dark lake of ourselves is far more illuminating. The crux of the matter is that the west has seen a decline in internal cohesions in two spheres: political and moral. By moral, I mean that the modern epoch has attempted to ‘moralise’ history.

The first aspect can be theorised in what Carl Schmitt saw as the ‘Concept of the Political’. Within liberalism, the ‘political’ develops in opposition to the state, whereas in Ancient Greece, for example, they were synonymous. That is, the state becomes prey to a process of ‘neutralisation’ as other actors within civil society dominate discourse. They can be religious, social, economic. However, the political is not ‘primus inter pares’ (one amongst equals) to these domains and needs to preserve its hegemony; otherwise, the political is watered down and the state loses its identity. The political was the fundamental basis which determined the other domains if they ‘become’ political; for example, if the Church moves from the overtly religious to espousing social issues. This process of ‘depoliticization’ is endemic to modern liberal democracies. Legalism, management and technological escapism have replaced the orbit of the state. Civil Society becomes a metapolitical realm of pluralist interests. There is then the creeping tendency of groups to ‘become’ political. Schmitt’s criteria for delineating the political from the other is that of ‘Friend and Foe’-a political state means the ability to recognise internal threats. The rise in the militancy of external civil society violence (BLM, Proud Boys etc) results from both a hopeless splintering of community and identity and a diminution of political authority. This can be seen with the recent Supreme Court decision on abortion and the degeneration of the federalist system. Political authority becomes watered down, compromised, confused. For when the state no longer reflects or can utilise political will- the society becomes a mere shopping centre of competing interests trying to be noticed amidst the noise. The liberal state ‘has’ the power to be political; this was seen in the Covid lockdowns- the difference is that the liberal state ‘chooses’ which is a ‘threat’ to the state. The liberal state differentiates the ‘enemy’ on moral grounds rather than one of security. The Judiciary inhabits the political world and takes on an increasingly moral outlook. Hence the tyranny of minorities over the general will. 

The bifurcation of liberal v authoritarian is looking outward, externally for the source of the problem. In reality we live in a world increasingly authoritarian, but not bipolar. Democracy now works on a sliding scale from participation to exclusion. The UK for example, ever since the Lloyd George veto of the House of Lords, works as an executive dictatorship, as the ‘first past the post’ representative system ensures power is centralised in the cabinet. ‘Representative’ is a necessary illusion for it gives the appearance of ‘participation’ in a very elitist system. Therefore, the root causes of the present malaise are not indicative of one set of values against another, of dictatorship or freedom, of bipolarism. They are indicative of an internal corruption, a departure from the political, for pyrrhic victories of liberal thinking. It was De Tocqueville who, in 1840, noted that the ‘Liberty and Egalitarianism’ of the revolution contained an internal contradiction. It is that liberty and equality cannot both be achieved in the same measure. They exist on a sliding scale; the more equality the less liberty and vice versa. Modern liberalism has accentuated these issues; the move towards authoritarianism a result of the need to squeeze costs (labour etc) within a geopolitical environment of resource inflation. There has been a ‘forgetting’ of the telos which made these societies successful. Rostow, in his ‘seminal ‘Stages of Growth’ states that societies, having met the ‘pre-conditions for take off’ move through industrialisation until they reach the stage of high consumption. Then the habits of success are discarded for the comforts of materialism (and in the present milieu the mass distraction of technology); the ‘Nomos’ of the society ungrounded, uprooted. Materialism, having triumphed, needs the authoritarian to survive.

This blurring of the political and civil society is reflected in the international arena. The establishment of international bodies such as the UN, NATO and the EU etc were designed to contribute to peace, to stability. But they remove the political from the world, they have led the states of the west to ‘exit’ from history. You cannot delegate the political. Likewise, you cannot universalise the nation state. By this you are presuming an ‘opposition’ to the other, of those not in the special grouping. You are presuming difference. The Chinese and the Russians have not lost sight of the ‘Concept of the Political’. As the old Chinese proverb says ‘It matters not whether a cat is white or black; what does matter is that it catches mice’. This feeling for the political, and its corollary, the homogenous state, is what influenced the originator of the field of Geo Politics-Rudolf Kjellen. Kjellen carried on from Hegel’s concept of the state as spirit or organism. Therefore, the state is more than a collection of individuals. The politics of the state is influenced by its natural environment. There are constant factors such as climate, coastal length, natural borders etc and also variable factors such as natural resources, demographics. Within geopolitics, the homogeneity of the state is paramount as it results in a vitality, a coherence. The era of maritime empires has been displaced by the vast land empire- this, and the crucible of resources, is the playing field of the new geopolitics. There is no ‘universality’ of states as each reflects a legacy of tradition, religiosity, etc. However, the western liberal democratic states, have attempted, through globalisation, to escape the constraints of low growth domestic markets. This has exacerbated tensions worldwide as a proxy war exists over access to raw materials and resources. Therefore, a return to the sacrosanct nation state, where De Tocqueville’s concept of a legitimate independent justice, based on legal principles, governs the state, is necessary for cultural vitalism. The state, not the judiciary, is the seat of the moral. Again, the return to the ‘Political’ is necessary. By abandoning the traditional ‘borders’ of nation state legitimacy, the western states have ‘exited history’, and given authority to pseudo-political organisations such as the EU and UN. Instead of ‘Philosopher Kings’, state morality has been delegated to the ‘Trahison des Clercs’ of modernity. 

The second aspect of the dissonance of modern liberalism is the moral historicist project of the ‘end of history’ utopia. This has been accompanied by an attempt to impose a morality in every aspect of civil society. It has a troubled legacy, none more absurd than the Marxian eschatological project of the final utopia of communism. In European Antiquity history was seen as a cyclical phenomenon, roughly equated to the ploughing of the seasons, the ebbing of tides. However, with Christianity and the myth of the ‘Golden Age’ there began the concept of a beginning and end to history. Further to this was added a ’moral’ dimension- that to achieve the utopia certain policies, exceptions, dictatorships are permitted. This is visible in the movement to the ‘Omega Point’ where all differences are expunged, equality (theoretically) achieved and a oneness of culture becomes axiomatic for government and corporate alike. The political races through all aspects of society like the flood. The ‘end of history’ project then becomes missionary and colonial; these great values must be exported to the ‘Orient’. The ‘reason’ of the ‘Enlightenment’ becomes sacrosanct, reason is embodied in Kantian law and then, with the idolisation of the individual achieved, society becomes a mere utilitarian arbitration of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. In the modern epoch Marxism and the Judeo-Christian have converged in the spirit of egalitarianism. The medieval monastery has been replaced by the liberal university; since theocracies can be religious or secular. What we have is a type of historical nausea, where the idea of time evaporates, the world plunged into a sea of safety, where tensions, difference shall not arise.  An eternal oneness which Levi Strauss described as the ‘cold society’, a non historical society based on material comfort and safety.  The ancients had a phrase ‘nihil sub sole novi’ meaning ‘Nothing new under the sun’. In this time is a sphere, a cycle and history, civilisations are living organisms with their inequalities and imperfections. Liberalism moves from culture, through civilisation and, after materialism, consumes itself and ‘exits’ history. 

About Brian Bolger

Brian Patrick Bolger studied at the LSE. He has taught Political Philosophy and Applied Linguistics in Universities across Europe. His articles have appeared in magazines such as ‘The Montreal Review’, 'The Salisbury Review';, ‘The European Conservative’, ‘The Village’ (Ireland) etc. His new book, 'Coronavirus and the Strange Death of Truth' is available now in the UK and US.

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