Gotham Diary:
Foreign Oppression
July 2018 (I)

10, 11 and 12 July

Tuesday 10th

Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism is not a fun read. It’s as well-written as it can be, I suppose; as the history of a line of economic thought, it’s clear even when its subject isn’t. If nothing else, it has pried my attention away from Friedrich Hayek.

Ten years ago, I don’t think I’d ever heard of Hayek. Maybe fifteen. When I looked into him, I couldn’t figure him out, or pin him down. I still can’t. I even read a book about the Mont Pèlerin Society (Angus Birgin’s The Great Persuasion) and remained mystified. It seems to me that Hayek was an earnest but not very clever man. Dim bulbs don’t cast a lot of light.

What with the fuzziness surrounding the use of “liberalism,” it’s no wonder that I found “neoliberalism” indigestible when it emerged into general commentary about twenty years ago. When journalists spoke of the “neoliberal” supporters for intervention in Iraq, I thought that they were referring to tough-minded, pro-democracy policy makers, most of them Jewish and not fond of Arabs. That their motivation was essentially economic never crossed my mind.

Even until the day before yesterday, I thought that “globalists” were businessmen who dreamed of free markets and the world peace that would ensue if everybody bought the same Nikes and ate the same McDonald’s. I sensed that they dreamed of everyone’s taking home the same pay, too, but I couldn’t believe that American statesmen would ever permit American workers to suffer such impoverishment. Even though that is precisely what they seem to have been doing.

Slobodian has cleaned up all of this sloppy thinking. I now grasp that the slipperiness of “neoliberalism” is attributable to its uncertain regard for democracy; it is certainly not pro-. I see that “globalist” is almost a euphemism: who can be against bringing the people of Earth together? But of course that’s not what neoliberalism is about. Neoliberalism is about securing the property rights of international businesses against the “caprices” of local sovereignties. Its idea of democracy is centered on consumers: one dollar, one vote. I can’t believe I never figured this out for myself, but I am certainly shocked by the extent of neoliberal influence within the Western democracies.

“Democracy” is the whitewash on the sepulchre.

A conspiracy conducted out in the open, by the Heritage Society, the American Enterprise Institute, the US Chamber of Commerce, and so on. I thought these were all just sort of conservative, right-wing organizations. In true liberal élite fashion, I didn’t consider their ideas worthy of consideration. And maybe they’re not. But now I know that they’re expressed in an open code.


Wednesday 11th

Of course, reading the thoughts of von Mises, Hayek, and Röpke that are quoted in Globalists reminds me how often I have said the same things, pointing out “the problems of democracy.” A hasty reader might well conclude that I’m a neoliberal myself. But I regard the problems of democracy as challenges: democracy is the important thing. It isn’t for the neoliberals. For them, business is the important thing, and neither democracy nor any other form of government ought to be allowed to interfere with it.

Mind you, they say “capitalism,” not “business.” You don’t have to wonder why. “Business” sounds like the shop around the corner, while “capitalism” brings the Vittorio Emmanuele monument to mind. But capitalism has little to do with most commercial activity.

Why is this not more widely understood? Let me ask another question: why is the history of economy, or the history of economic thought, not on the syllabus? The short answer is this: we’re still too new at these things.

The social sciences, so-called, as we know them were all launched in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. They were all hived off from what prior to 1800 was called “philosophy.” In each new field, methods were devised for replacing Aristotelian rational description with dynamic critical analysis. In chemistry, for example, “fixed air” gave way to “carbon dioxide.” The first term indicated an inadequacy for respiration. The second explained it.

Like the railroad terminals in Paris and London, the new disciplines built their various redoubts: history, social studies, psychology, political theory, economics, and of course all the “hard” sciences. The student of one would never, following his proper course of studies, arrive at another. It took more than a century for interdisciplinary studies to emerge, the history of science being among the first. In fact, the history of ideas — intellectual history — is still somewhat rudimentary. I would attribute this lag to Plato’s grip on many educated minds. There is no room for history in Plato; Plato hates change. If an idea is good today, it will be good a millennium hence. And there are no new ideas. The idea of a history of ideas makes no sense in the Platonic worldview.

That’s, I think, why there is not much in the way of a history of economics. The field of history history, the kernel of which was the rise and fall of nations, did, on its own, eventually generate an interest in the history of political theory, and the upheavals and catastrophes of the early twentieth-century brought changes in political thinking out into the open. What’s still needed is a history of political economy. It’s precisely owing to the lack of such a history that terms such as “liberal” and “capitalism” are used with such incoherence.


Thursday 12th

Over the weekend, I read something about “Europe” that stuck with me. When I went looking for it, I was pretty sure that it was in the Times — and it was, but in Saturday’s paper, not Sunday’s. Max Fisher’s “Borders, Nationalism and the Fight for a Unified Europe” underlines the EU’s most embarrassing weakness. From the start, in 1949, European leaders envisioned a post-nationalist future, but, as Fisher writes,

instead of overcoming that barrier, European leaders pretended it didn’t exist. More damning, they entirely avoided mentioning what Europeans would need to give up: a degree of their deeply felt national identities and hard-won national sovereignty.

In short, pro-European leaders did what paternalistic meritocrats always do: they misled the public with a combination of silence and distraction. They ignored the problem of nationalism, and they promoted economic improvements and the convenience of border-free holiday trips. The recent refugee crisis, coming hard on the heels of a much-resented austerity program, together with the crazy upset of Brexit, have finally outed the supra-national mission of the European Union, and everyone is blushing, not at the emperor’s old clothes, but at having managed to ignore them for nearly seventy years.

Fisher’s phrase, “hard-won national sovereignty,” however, sticks in my craw. It’s not that Fisher is mistaken to assert it, but rather that the idea is so rankly bogus. European nationalism, quite famously, dates from the 1790s, when the French took to singing about their “nation,” which in fact did not exist: most of the people then living in today’s France could not speak standard French — could not, that is, be understood by “Frenchmen” living more than at the distance of few dozen kilometers away. The history of the idea of a French “nation” is not exactly obscure, but it is very ironic, given the outcome: according to proto-racist theories popular among French aristocrats at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century, France’s nobility was German in origin, long ago imported to maintain order among the unruly, semi-barbaric natives, a mongrel bunch. A hundred years later, populist revolutionaries projected the outline of national (racial) unity on this rabble, now known as “the people.” No longer defined by subjection to the deposed king, they were forged into solidarity by their negative identity: they were not blue-bloods.

Then, thanks to Napoleon, the infection was carried throughout Europe. Before the Corsican was even carted off to St Helena, seeds of language-based nationalism were sprouting everywhere. Your speech expressed your race.

It was a terrible idea, but a better one for organizing Europe in the wake of the fall of the French monarchy (which would be echoed almost everywhere in Europe throughout the next one hundred fifty years) does not appear to have been on offer. Because, in Central Europe especially, millions of people were governed by authorities who did not speak their language, nationalism became the antidote to what was now denounced as foreign oppression.

This is not to suggest that, prior to 1789, all men were brothers. At a popular level, almost everybody hated the French, because the French sat right in the middle of Europe and were immensely rich (if also immensely wasteful). Having been defeated in their foolish attempt to conquer most of France, hundreds of years earlier, the English particularly loathed the French. But they also hated the Spanish, their newer rivals in the quest for empire. The French despised the Austrians — marrying an Austrian princess to a future king of France was perhaps the worst mistake in the entire history of French diplomacy. Und so weiter. The prehistoric hostility to folks living on the other side of the hill persisted everywhere. But these tensions were more like the feelings that run among today’s European football fans than the insane hubris that nationalism would spark. Before nationalism, everyone acknowledged the obligation to play by the same rules. After nationalism, the Nazis believed that they played by different rules, not because they were better at the game but because they were too good for it.

We would all be much better off without nationalism, patriotism, and all such swollen sentiments that find no natural expression in ordinary human life. We are all local creatures, with local allegiances, unless we are not, in which case our allegiances are not of a higher, more generalized order but simply vacant.

The real problem in Europe, however, isn’t the centrifugal force of national sovereignty. It’s the condescension of of disingenuous meritocrats. If their experiment in European union fails, it will have been largely their own doing.

Why didn’t they slap down Boris Johnson when they had the chance?

Bon week-end à tous!