March 21, 2015


Drum-Taps That Still Echo (RICHARD SNOW, March 8, 2015, wsj)

The shooting will have been over for a century and a half this spring, but the casualties keep mounting. As recently as a decade ago the best estimates of the soldiers killed in the Civil War put the number at 600,000; today's scholarship has increased the toll to three quarters of a million. That was 2.4% of the American population when the war began. As James M. McPherson observes in his brisk and engrossing book, "The War That Forged a Nation," if the same percentage of Americans were killed in a war today, "the number of war dead would be almost 7.5 million."

But the appalling mortality rate is hardly the only reason the war lives on in our culture. Mr. McPherson sees the war as lying at the heart--and the midpoint--of the American past, a terrible clarification of the ideals on which the country had been established in 1776. "Founded on a charter that had declared all men created equal with an equal title to liberty," the author writes, America had by the 1850s "become the largest slaveholding country in the world," an irony that vexes us even today, so long after Appomattox. [...]

Abraham Lincoln towers over "The War That Forged a Nation," as he towered over his own era. Mr. McPherson is especially good--and consistently fascinating--on how the president's thinking, both strategic and moral, evolved during the war, as he moved from using the emancipation of the slaves as one more weapon against the South to seeing it as the mainspring that drove the cause he led. Lincoln knew that American freedom was always imperfect, a work continuously in progress.

Shortly after his first election, speaking of the weaknesses of a Declaration of Independence that did not embrace the enslaved, Lincoln said that although the Founders knew their work was flawed, "they meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be . . . constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere." He also made clear that he saw his own efforts in the same way: "The struggle of to-day," he said in his first message to Congress, "is not altogether for to-day; it is for a vast future also."

Francis Fukuyama's Political Order and Political Decay (John Keane, 3/03/15, The Conversation)

The bigger historical picture is different, and the future bright. On a higher, long-term plane 'liberal democracy constitutes a universal evolutionary model'. It is guaranteed by the 'clear directionality' of 'the process of political development' that is pushed and pulled by long-term 'general evolution' trends. They 'dictate the emergence of certain broad institutional forms over time'.

Some readers won't much fancy the jargon, so let's reach for the vernacular, to explore Fukuyama's unaltered conviction that liberal democracy has the winds of long-term evolutionary trends in its sails. The longue durée (long term) is important to Fukuyama, above all because the modern territorial state has become the indispensable kingpin of political order. If there is no state, there can be no rule of law, or liberal democracy. Fukuyama's point can be read as a back-door critique of the farcical American-led failure to build functioning states in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. It's also a sobering reminder that liberal democracy can't be built by liberal democratic means. The type of democracy favoured by Fukuyama once required the bloody business of imposing political order on people, without their active consent. Today, the liberal democratic road to Washington remains steep, rough and rocky. It necessitates above all the establishment of political order through the state, followed by the imposition of legal restraints on state power. It is then, and only then, that free elections can take root and flourish among people living inside territorial states.

Fukuyama is an honest liberal who dares to remind his readers that liberal democracy is the offspring of the modern territorial state. The end result proved advantageous in several ways. As Fukuyama notes, with only passing references to the bloody American exception, the modern liberal state reduced civil wars. It legalised and legitimated social divisions, enabled the growth of civil society and facilitated the grand-scale enfranchisement of peoples for whose welfare it provided. And in international affairs, fixed state boundaries provided room for manoeuvre for any given liberal democracy, enabling its citizens and representatives to act with a measure of autonomy upon the outside world.

Liberal democracy in state form certainly had downsides. In the whole violent business of state building, peoples who lacked the capacity to become a modern state were typically left behind, as 'stateless people' and 'asylum seekers'; or they became the raw material of colonisation, or victims of forcible removal and outright annihilation. The United States and other democracies in 'homespun' territorial form also waged war on other peoples, and still do. These nasty effects of liberal democracy are downplayed by Fukuyama. It is as if tawdry realities in the world of 'specific evolution' are excused by the positively universal gains of liberal democracy at the level of 'general evolution'. Hence Fukuyama's conclusion: even though liberal democracies such as the United States suffer decadence and do not currently live up to their ideals, the end of history thesis that liberal democracy is the only game in town remains intact.

The taxonomy of Political Order and Political Decay is grand, so splendid that at times it resembles Jorge Luis Borges' famously fictional celestial emporium of benevolent knowledge. With the help of metaphors and insights dawn from evolutionary biology, economics, political science and modernisation theory, Fukuyama provides enlightened liberal democratic answers to every conceivable scholarly and political query. Or so it seems. The scope of the book is certainly breathtaking: national cases as different as Costa Rica, Italy, China, Nigeria, Japan and Britain are analysed with a sure hand. Yet as the narrative unfolds, and especially as we move closer to our own times, the grand emporium of liberal knowledge comes to resemble an untidy street market: forces extraneous to the analysis are randomly introduced in an effort to keep the story going. Fukuyama grows less sure of himself. Factors such as market forces, public trust and unintended consequences (Machiavelli's fortuna) are suddenly summoned, to explain why things are not going as well as might be expected for liberal democracy at the 'specific evolution' level.

Posted by at March 21, 2015 8:14 AM

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