Swans Commentary » swans.com February 8, 2010  



A Short History Of Stupidity - Part 1


by Michael Doliner





(Swans - February 8, 2010)   If human civilization lasts long enough to produce a historian of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries who lives far enough in the future to consider the facts objectively, he will either go mad, die of laughter, or shroud himself in gloom. Let us, for example, consider the first decade of the new millennium. The United States, because of "9/11," an event of dubious and suspicious particulars at best questionably attributed to an organization, "al Qaeda" or "The Database," whose own existence is highly dubious, set off on a war to capture its leader, Osama Bin Laden, who, for the vast bulk of the time the U.S. was chasing him, was dead. The U.S. expanded the war to Iraq to capture weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. All this was done to protect "our freedoms," which, in the course of the wars, the US government trampled underfoot, setting up a vast network of torture chambers and abrogating almost all the articles of the Constitution written to protect those freedoms. Chasing these phantoms bankrupted the nation. Part of the reason for this bankruptcy was that the U.S. was paying the enemy not to fight and manufacturing weapons that were patently useless. Can this be anything but a macabre joke? Could anything be stupider?

Anyone who contemplates these policies can only decide that they are either the result of astonishing stupidity or that the lies are used to cover motives those leaders want to keep concealed. I am not interested in once again pointing out and complaining about all the lies that "they" tell or offering a new theory far more plausible than the ridiculous official explanation for "their" behavior. I would rather ask the question, "Why do politicians lie?" Why do they bother to tell us ridiculous stories no one who uses his brain could possibly believe? In the not too distant past kings went to war when they chose. They needed to offer no explanations to anyone. If they lost they were imprisoned, exiled, beheaded -- or nothing happened to them. Nobody asked, "Was this a just war?" No one thought they had the right to question why the king went to war.

That wars must be justified, and justified by lies, has a history that starts, once again, with the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment produced both the modern scientific flowering and the incendiary ideal of universal human equality. The expression in the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal," shows, with its logical diction, just how much Enlightenment thinkers agreed that the reverse was true, that equality was scientific. "That all men are created equal" is a self evident truth, like the foundational laws of logic, in no need of further demonstration. However, that they felt the need to "hold" this self evident truth shows that it is far from self evident. Universal human equality is a sentiment and a perspective rather then an obvious truth, but to hold it as an obvious truth is to inflame the soul with a passion for its realization. Those opposed to universal human equality will ask, "What, then are all to be equal in beauty and brains?" but to no avail if their hope is to quiet the passion.

Anyone who holds this universal truth must be thinking of newborn babes. It is here, if one is a democrat and therefore a scientist, that all men can plausibly be thought equal. To a member of the nobility even this would be absurd, for one's name and title are a part of one at birth, perhaps the most important part. Because universal human equality is a characteristic of babies the Enlightenment ideal is an educational project. Only if we educate children correctly can we ever realize the ideal. Such a project requires the present imperfect generation to sacrifice itself for the sake of this future properly educated one. The class consciousness Marx hoped for and thought inevitable is a consciousness that one's own life is but a stepping stone to some Utopian future in which a future generation will enjoy an earthly Eden. Not a particularly appealing prospect. Furthermore, since education starts and proceeds most powerfully at home, in all likelihood the project will require that children be removed from their parent's influence. The Utopian Enlightenment ideal, taken to its extreme, does lead to a totalitarian regime. Only by compromising it in a way not likely to produce success can this be avoided.

If this was not enough, the ideal of universal human equality is vague in the extreme. No one would want a dull sameness without any human excellence, a blanket average of beauty, talent, and brains. So what do they want? Equality must be equality of opportunity. But excellence needs special opportunities that cannot be available to everyone. And are we to allow the pursuit of wealth? How might one prevent it? Is there to be no superb wine because there can't be very much of it? Who will be allowed to drink it? All this is most uncomfortable, to say the least.

But none of it affects the sentiment, the passion this ideal produced. Once formulated, it inflamed all of Europe and eventually the world. It is hard to think of any other idea, unless one considers Christianity an idea, that has had such an effect. Once one hears this idea one can never forget it again, and for a poor Parisian proletarian it inflames the imagination like nothing else.

When one looks at the history of France prior to the Revolution one is struck by the aristocracy's complacency. They thought they were so secure in their rule that they seemed hardly to pay any attention to ruling. Although it was true that segments of the aristocracy had challenged the absolute rule of kings, nothing foreshadowed revolutionary upheaval. Most attribute the spark that set off this conflagration to Rousseau and his Social Contract published in 1762. "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains." Rousseau appealed to the "state of nature," an imaginary scientific construct in which the various social restrictions did not exist. The first article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen echoes Rousseau. "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good."

The French Revolution was a conflagration sparked by an idea. With it Jacobinism suddenly swept through the world with a power far greater than that of armies. The flames spread everywhere, including England where a Revolution Society quickly formed. The Englishman Edmund Burke was one of the first to express his misgivings. But he found it necessary, while doing so, to declare his allegiance to the idea.

You see, Sir, by the long letter I have transmitted to you, that though I do most heartily wish that France may be animated by a spirit of rational liberty, and that I think you bound, in all honest policy, to provide a permanent body in which that spirit may reside, and an effectual organ by which it may act, it is my misfortune to entertain great doubts concerning several material points in your late transactions. (1)

Burke's objection was that liberty as a "metaphysical" principle was all well and good, but whether it turned out to be a good thing for a people depended upon its practical effect.

I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one. Flattery corrupts both the receiver and the giver, and adulation is not of more service to the people than to kings. I should, therefore, suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France until I was informed how it had been combined with government, with public force, with the discipline and obedience of armies, with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue, with morality and religion, with the solidity of property, with peace and order, with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things, too, and without them liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long. (2)

Burke went on to argue against the abstract "rights of man" and for the concrete "rights of Englishmen" rooted in all the traditions and common laws that had grown up over many years. Burke, like all others who subsequently objected to the universal rights of man, found it necessary first to affirm the obvious rightness of the idea, complaining only that it was important that it be realized in a sensible manner. The idea of universal human liberty and equality indeed had become overnight a "self evident truth" that no one could any longer deny. Only its practical realization could be questioned. So Burke argued against the idea that reason could change social arrangements for the good.

Rousseau, as did all his followers, had argued for this idea on the grounds of legitimacy. In a hypothetical state of nature all men were free and gave up their freedom to the state for security. So legitimate political power had its source in the "General Will." This set up an abstract, for the most part unenforceable, pseudo-legal structure over governments against which citizens might judge them illegitimate to justify overthrowing them. Burke argued against the right to overthrow kings, and pointed out that the Revolution Society, in claiming this right had used "equivocations and slippery constructions"; that is, lies.

Friedrich von Gentz, Metternich's chief aid at the Congress of Vienna, translated Burke's essay on the French Revolution into German. He spent his life, when not enjoying the pleasures of aristocratic society, with thinking about the French Revolution and its effect on the rest of Europe. He published the Historisches Journal from 1799-1801, which held up English Institutions as a model for Germany and for combating the conflagration of the French Revolution. The nation-state system Metternich got credit for setting up at the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars was actually an extension of Burke's ideas about England to all of Europe.

The technique for combating the power of the idea of universal human equality was rather simple: profess adherence to the idea but object to any practical technique for bringing it about. The objections to affirmative action in the United States are a good example of this technique in action. Of course, everyone should have an equal opportunity at an education, it is just so hard to find an acceptable way to make this happen. There can be no doubt that Burke had a point -- reducing everything to rubble and starting over will lead to all kinds of excesses. On the other hand, "this doctrine [Burke's] carried to its logical extreme, was used to justify complete adherence to the status quo on the ground that tampering with any part of the delicately balanced institutional structure might endanger the whole." (3)

The nation-state system, as an expansion of Burke's idea that the "Rights of Englishmen" was a far better principle than the "Rights of Man," set up the nation-state as the home for a particular way of life. France was the home for the French way of life, England for the English. Each "people" had its own "rights." Only within its own traditional institutions can a "people" truly be free. So these institutions, especially the institution that guarantees the right of kings to rule, should not be torn down. Germany, as a home for ancient traditions, was less plausible, for the Congress of Vienna created the German Confederation out of 39 sovereign states. What did it mean to be German? Of course, in the United States the idea was completely absurd, for its institutions were barely dry behind the ears and its "founding fathers" had set them up as an Enlightenment, that is reasonable, project. To be sure, the US Constitution was not a Burkean project, having been written two years before the French Revolution, but it was an instrument designed to suppress popular insurrection such as Shay's Rebellion. The framers designed the checks and balances, if one reads the Federalist Papers, to control the House of Representatives, the only part of the government actually elected.

With the formation of the Quadruple Alliance it became clear that Burke's idea, however sincerely Burke may have meant it as a true source of liberty, had become a useful tool for the suppression of revolutionary sentiment that swept Europe at the time. Virtually everywhere one looked popular revolution simmered and threatened to topple governments. The Napoleonic Wars had so shocked the European aristocracy that for a time after their victory over him they tried to repress the Enlightenment ideal completely. They hoped to return to the status quo anti, that is the condition prior to 1792 in which monarchs ruled. Monarchists and Republicans, that is, Burkean nationalists, vied for power and both suppressed what might best be called Jacobin eruptions of Enlightenment idealism. After 1815 monarchists and republicans alike played a game of Whac-a-Mole as popular uprisings threatened to erupt in Holland, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, and indeed, everywhere. Interestingly, histories call most of these uprisings nationalistic even though many are clearly Jacobin. For example, in 1849 a revolution established the Roman Republic. "Giuseppi Mazzini was summoned to head a triumverate which would rule the new republic...Mazzini issued decrees calling for the confiscation of Church lands for distribution to the peasantry, public housing for the poor, and other humanitarian measures." (4) These are not the acts of a Burkean nationalist, and Garibaldi supported him.

Since before the French Revolution the intellectual life of Europe was cosmopolitan, with nationalism hardly a factor. Hobson quotes W. Clarke writing in the Progressive Review in 1897:

The eve of the French Revolution found every wise man in Europe -- Lessing, Kant, Goethe, Rousseau, Lavater, Condorcet, Priestley, Gibbon, Franklin -- more of a citizen of the world than of any particular country. Goethe confessed that he did not know what patriotism was, and was glad to be without it. Cultured men of all countries were at home in polite society everywhere. Kant was immensely more interested in the events of Paris than in the life of Prussia. Italy and Germany were geographical expressions; those countries were filled with small States in which there was no political life, but in which there was much interest in the general progress of culture. The Revolution itself was at bottom also human and cosmopolitan. (5)

Nevertheless, the nationalists gradually gained the upper hand for monarchist victories often spurred Jacobin insurrections. For example, the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War ignited the passions that led to the Paris Commune that same year. The nation, with its ability to funnel off Jacobin passions, was a better tool for ruling than a monarchist revival that sought to repress Jacobinism completely. So the nation-state became the protector of freedom and equality. Freedoms became not universal human freedom and equality, but "our" freedoms, specific to each nation-state. The nation funneled the passion for the Enlightenment ideal into patriotism so that, for example, the United States became "the land of the free and the home of the brave." France took the Marseillaise as a national anthem. Built in was the Burkean formula of formal adherence to the Enlightenment ideal on the one hand and, on the other, resistance to any changes that might achieve that ideal. For it is only "traditional" institutions that can preserve liberty. Such was Conservatism, the Burkean solution, that can be sincere, but more likely entirely hypocritical without the one or the other being easily detectable on the surface. Indeed the conservative person himself will have a hard time determining whether his own conservatism is sincere or hypocritical. For what could determine such a thing? Notoriously, youthful liberals became mature conservatives as the youthful belief that something might be done within the system faded into the mature knowledge that you, now successful, really didn't want to do anything. In this way the nation-state maintained the status quo, yielding only grudgingly to "reforms."

The nation-state was, as Rimbaud put it "a drunken boat," on a stormy sea with the passion for liberty and equality roiling the surface and ready to capsize the boat at any time. Those in power, to steady the boat, had to profess adherence to these "principles" but did as little as possible to achieve them and, wherever possible, abrogating them. At the same time they made every effort to redirect the passion for freedom and equality into that of patriotism, trying to make the two one.

So, to recapitulate, the aristocracy would have liked to stamp out the desire for universal human equality completely, simply erase the idea from the memory banks; the Burkean conservatives would proclaim their loyalty to the idea while hindering any steps to achieve it; and the amorphous Jacobins, numerous but disorganized, erupted here and there unpredictably in passionate exalted revolutions, their minds inflamed by the idea of universal human freedom and equality. Their lack of organization and program always doomed their efforts to futility.

The bourgeoisie, a social rather than political class, found the revolutionary fervor useful up to a point. They wanted to be free of the feudal restrictions, but, of course, resisted any idea of redistribution of property. The liked the idea of freeing the peasants from the land so that they might pour into the cities where they could use their labor. And they even wanted better educational opportunities to supply them with the necessarily educated managers. For the most part, until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, they were notoriously apolitical, but they found that nationalism provided a far more fertile soil for their activities than monarchism.

The Great War marked the final end of the European aristocracy as a political force. And with that end came a change in the justifications for wars. It is interesting to compare a document from the Franco-Prussian War with one from the Great War. The Franco-Prussian War was really about the fear France had of a Hohenzollern on the throne of Spain, which would give the Hohenzollerns too much power. Napoleon III instructed one Count Benedetti to demand of King Wilhelm of Prussia, a Hohenzollern himself, that he oppose any Hohenzollern on the Spanish throne. Wilhelm responded by refusing any further audience to Count Benedetti and sending a telegram to Bismarck informing him of what had happened. Bismarck edited this telegram, making it more inflammatory, and sent his version, the Ems Telegram, to the French. Here is an account of what happened:

After the news of the renunciation of the Prince von Hohenzollern had been communicated to the Imperial French government by the Royal Spanish government, the French Ambassador in Ems made a further demand on His Majesty the King that he should authorize him to telegraph to Paris that His Majesty the King undertook for all time never again to give his assent should the Hohenzollerns once more take up their candidature [for the Monarchy of Spain].

His Majesty the King thereupon refused to receive the Ambassador again and had the latter informed by the adjutant of the day that His Majesty had no further communication to make to the Ambassador.

Bismarck ensured that the amended version was released to the newspapers and telegraphed to all of Prussia's foreign embassies. He fully expected that both the content, and the manner of release, would act as "red rags to the Gallic Bull." It was critical, in Bismarck's view, that France be perceived as the attacking power.

French court circles gratified Bismarck's deeper purposes by viewing his version of the Ems Telegram to be intolerable and thus war was declared by the French Empire on the Kingdom of Prussia on July 19th, 1870. (6)

It was Bismarck's victory in this war and Prussia's ability to use the war to join the southern German statelets to Prussia that turned Prussia into a major imperial power that soon threatened England and led to the Great War. As usual, wherever the European aristocracy tried to stamp out Jacobin sentiments entirely, revolution broke out. The Paris Commune followed in the wake of the German victory.

In the United States, of course, there was no aristocratic party, so it was here most clearly that the Burkean conservative strategy applied. When Wilson wanted the United States to enter the Great War these were his words:

On the third of February last I officially laid before you the extraordinary announcement of the Imperial German Government that on and after the first day of February it was its purpose to put aside all restraints of law or of humanity and use its submarines to sink every vessel that sought to approach either the ports of Great Britain and Ireland or the western coasts of Europe or any of the ports controlled by the enemies of Germany within the Mediterranean. That had seemed to be the object of the German submarine warfare earlier in the war, but since April of last year the Imperial Government had somewhat restrained the commanders of its undersea craft in conformity with its promise then given to us that passenger boats should not be sunk and that due warning would be given to all other vessels which its submarines might seek to destroy, when no resistance was offered or escape attempted, and care taken that their crews were given at least a fair chance to save their lives in their open boats. The precautions taken were meagre and haphazard enough, as was proved in distressing instance after instance in the progress of the cruel and unmanly business, but a certain degree of restraint was observed. The new policy has swept every restriction aside.

The German pretext for war in 1870 was an insult one aristocrat gave to another. Intolerable behavior true, but both nevertheless remained aristocrats, not only human but a special exalted type of human. One does not duel with one's tailor, nor can he insult one. In 1917 Wilson accused Germany of inhumanity. To use submarines against passenger ships violates human decency, that is to say the rights of man. They have "put aside all restraints of law or of humanity." The law Wilson evoked here was, of course, completely fictitious. There was no international law that Germany might have violated. Wilson was appealing to a principle of "humanity," an idea rooted in the Rights of Man. Since Rousseau and all others who had tried to formulate this idea had couched it in terms of "legitimacy," Wilson appealed to this idea of "natural law." It was a direct attempt to funnel the passions of Jacobinism into patriotism.

But what it also did was brand the Germans as subhuman, the Huns. It is often said that in all wars each side brands the other as monsters, but this is a modern and disastrous result of the history we are sketching, not a universal truth. For the nation-state, as the home of freedom and equality whose "humanity" is a self evident truth, must fight those who oppose it, that is, oppose human values. Who would do that other than a subhuman being? The transformation of the enemy into subhumans allowed the war to be carried out with heretofore unheard-of savagery. The use of gas treated the enemy as insects to be exterminated, not as a worthy enemy to be met and conquered in battle.

In reality the Great War was an imperialist war. While the passion for freedom and equality bubbled away in the nation-state, the Enlightenment's other child, the Industrial Revolution and the ever booming capitalism, grew in the political shadows. Germany's complete victory in the Franco-Prussian War thrust it into the position of the most powerful empire on the continent, and in a position to threaten and soon surpass Britain. Although Empire itself was old hat, Imperialism was new, starting in the 1870s right after the Franco-Prussian War and really getting underway in the 1880s. Capitalism needed lebensraum. Whereas earlier empires were always unique, trying to draw the world or most of it under the rule of one hegemon, in the age of Imperialism several empires competed for territory. What was new was the idea of multiple competing empires. "The novelty of the recent Imperialism regarded as a policy consists chiefly in its adoption by several nations. The notion of a number of competing empires is essentially modern. The root idea of empire in the ancient and mediæval world was that of a federation of States, under a hegemony, covering in general terms the entire known or recognised world, such as was held by Rome under the so-called pax Romana." (7)

Imperialism brought a number of problems to the nation states. The one most relevant here is its need to hypocritically justify the use of the nation's military abroad in terms of equality and liberty even though these wars were essentially imperialist. The nation-state professed to be about the preservation and fostering of these ideals in a particular territory for a particular people with ancient traditions and customs. To admit this as untrue was to expose the fragile boat of state to the storm of revolution. To be sure, the justification for the nation-state was becoming ever more farcical. With all the upheavals the idea of preserving ancient institutions was a joke, and burgeoning capitalism ploughed customs and traditions under without second thoughts. Instead of ancient custom, bureaucratic red tape and simply "the system" became the hindrances du jour. Nevertheless, such justifications continued, for the fates of monarchist restorations in the nineteenth century were all too apparent. They stimulated Jacobin eruptions. Nation-states, however thin their guise, were the only hope those in power had of containing Jacobin sentiments. Imperial wars had to be justified as wars for freedom and "democracy," "democracy" having become a useful name for the amalgam of freedom and patriotism. Thus, for the first time wars had to be justified, and they could only be justified by nations finding other nations "bad," that is, inhuman. The Great War, World War I, was an imperialist war, but at its end the Treaty of Versailles sought to punish Germany, through the imposition of onerous reparations, for its bad behavior, its violation of "human decency."

Even so the specter of revolution haunted Europe perhaps as strongly as ever right after the Great War when the Bolshevik Revolution took power in Russia and declared the Soviet Union. At the time the German Communist Party was very strong as were others across Europe, and it seemed as if revolution might break out. Disgust with the nation-state system was certainly high after the extraordinary butchery of the war. Within the Soviet Union itself Trotsky and Stalin struggled for power. Their struggle involved precisely this question: could communism, that is Jacobinism, exist within a nation-state? Trotsky argued against "communism in one country," but primarily because of the contradiction between the restricted territories of nation-states and the unlimited, essentially imperialistic nature of capitalism. He did not see that the communist [Jacobin] revolution could not have a home within a nation-state because the national distinction between citizens and others violated the desire for universal human equality. Stalin won this battle. But all nation-states, including the Soviet Union, must devolve into a Burkean conservatism in which insuperable practical difficulties thwart the effort for freedom and equality.

The nation-state is an instrument for funneling off the passion for universal human equality, what I have here named Jacobinism. Its farcical parliaments, so easily paralyzed, are a perfect tool for the job. Its politicians need a sort of sliding scale hypocrisy to profess a desire for freedom and equality within the system and bemoan the difficulties of making such freedom and equality a reality. They let off Jacobin passion in endless chatter. When the pressure from below becomes too great they know how to open the safety valve with reforms to let off steam. When passions cool they seal the lid again. Witness the civil rights movement, its success, and the subsequent erosion of that success. Almost all the politicians have something creepy about them. It is only in their gaffs that they reveal their true selves. Who could better exemplify the necessary human attitude than Barack Obama? No politician working within this system can long know where his own sincere belief in Enlightenment ideals ends and where his cynical use of the system begins. It is a hypocrisy hidden even from its owner, making it that much easier to profess. It is the need to cover all actions with a whitewash of Jacobin sentiment that makes lying the essential tool of nation-state politics. And it is this need that makes its wars, necessarily against an inhuman enemy, particularly gruesome. But this is only the beginning of the story.


Carry on to Part 2 of this essay...


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About the Author

Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago (1964-1970) and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.   (back)


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1.  http://www.constitution.org/eb/rev_fran.htm  (back)

2.  ibid  (back)

3.  Charles Breunig, The Age of Revolution and Reaction 1789-1850 (New York, W. W. Norton 1970) 150-1  (back)

4.  Ibid p 253  (back)

5.  J. A. Hobson, Imperialism http://www.marxists.org/archive/hobson/1902/imperialism/intro.htm  (back)

6.  http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/history/ems_telegram.html  (back)

7.  J. A. Hobson, Imperialism http://www.marxists.org/archive/hobson/1902/imperialism/intro.htm  (back)


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Published February 8, 2010