The
Old
Cause

by
Joseph R.
Stromberg

 

January 7, 2000

Futurism, Fukuyama,
and Folksong Hermeneutics

COMING SOON TO A FUTURE NEAR YOU

Just when I was getting over a deep depression caused by Newsweek's tall tales of the new world a-coming symbolized by the recent change of digits, I made the mistake of reading the Wall Street Journal's week-end ventures into futurism. "Futurism" got some bad press in recent years, as well it might, owing to Newt Gingrich's Tofflerite wildings. I mustn't forget to add that the original, turn-of-the-last-century futurist movement – d'Annunzio, Marinetti, that crowd – have also gotten bad press as art-phonies who mostly signed up for Italian fascism, as soon as it was available. These are complex matters, of course, and for all I know the "art" may have been real.

GONE ABOUT AS FAR
AS THEY CAN GO

I begin with the WSJ of January 1, 2000. Mr. Thomas Petzinger tells us that everything's up-to-date in Cyber City. Well, not exactly, and yet his article is not lacking in truth. It is true that communication costs and transaction costs are being reduced. It is true that smaller flexible organizations tend to be the centers of innovation and that networks of smaller organizations can be more effective than the stereotypical Engulf-and-Devour kind of conglomerate megacorporation (post-Fordism and all that). It is equally true that costs and prices are falling steeply in cyberspace. This is not, however, a repeal of the laws of economics so much as a reliving of the 19th-century experience of increasing prosperity accompanied by falling price levels. It takes place precisely in an economic sector not too subject, yet, to helpful government regulations and guidance. There is a lesson in here which may go beyond Petzinger's perfectly valid points about the centrality of ideas in capital-formation (something eloquently pointed out by the Czech economist Eugen Lobl in the early 1970s).1

HALF-A-THOUSAND-YEAR REICH?

Needless to say, our chosen topic, foreign policy, soon turns up. G. Paschal Zachary tackles the outlook for the empire – actually using the E-word – in three scenarios, two reasonably sunny and one bittersweet and sad. In future #1, the American empire successfully rules the world to at least 2500 A.D. (we don't do "C.E." in this column); its only real opponents are backward Russian nationalists and Islamic fanatics. In future #2, American civilization – if we may use that word – is so popular and successful that all the world clamors for admission to the American union, a prospect that would have flattened even James Madison, who originated the argument for republican expansionism. ("Will the Senator from Baluchistan, yield the floor?") This will all work for centuries, it seems, because it will be federal, just like our present system[!] – which suggests that Mr. Zachary understands "federalism" much as Nelson Rockefeller did when he proclaimed a "new" one, over thirty years ago, which is to say, not very well.

A CLOCKWORK BUCHANAN

But what of the less than happy future behind door #3? Mr. Zachary steps on our heart (and squashes that sucker flat) when he forecasts the return of "isolationism." Horror show! Turning "inward" and "resentful," Americans refuse to lead the world, which brings on war with China over Taiwan, a worldwide depression, European resurgence, Japanese nuclear armaments, and – at home – the temporary rule of evil anti-multiculturalists who, denying the inevitable, try to derail the historical tank-engine.2 Well, anyone can make a sow's ear out of a silk purse, but the idea that it would only occur to "an angry and inward-looking U.S." to mind its own damned business is very hard to fathom. But all would not be lost, Mr. Zachary assures us, for the New Europe – inspired by our very own "democracy," egalitarianism, and, oh yes, "openness" – will replace America as a heroic force for moral imperialism (my reading), having "learned more" from US history than the mean old Americans did. We're such awful rednecks, really; no wonder we need replacing by those more "diverse" than ourselves.

END OF IDEOLOGY, END OF HISTORY, END OF LIFE AS WE KNOW IT

I confess I have no idea where this fellow is coming from; that is, I have some idea, but I find it counterintuitive that the kinds of things likely to result from US world-fiddling should be thought chargeable to a merely hypothetical "isolationism" which we do not even enjoy. But we are on a roll now, as far as grasping the WSJ's preferred foreign policy goes, and laissez les bons temps rouler. Not unexpectedly, this brings us to that philosophical fellow – favorite wherever he goes – Mr. Francis Fukuyama, Hegel's own choice for his reincarnation, writing in the previous day's WSJ.

For those who have been asleep, Mr. Fukuyama proclaimed the "end of history" ten or so years ago, on the grounds that, absent the Soviets, mankind can look forward to the relentless onward march of "liberalism" (as lately understood), "democracy," and the rest; look forward, that is, to a timeless Pharaonic reign of welfare-warfare states on the US/Eurological model. Great! May we take a 500-year nap, or are we held to strict participation? Mr. Fukuyama paints a big canvas and last Friday was no exception.

Speculating about "what if" the Germans had taken Paris in 1914, he says, "it could have been the German century."3 Of course, without a long World War I there would have been no Bolshevik Revolution, no Hitler, "no World War II, no Holocaust, no Cold War and no Chinese or Vietnamese revolutions." Some of us would stop right there, thinking an important point had been made – but that overlooks the "cunning of Reason"! Reason, it turns out, is so bloody cunning that in fact it really was worth all the slaughter of World War I, all the slaughter by regimes made possible by that war's disruption of European civilization, the slaughter of World War II, and that of its (sort of) inevitable successor, the Cold War.

Reason is too clever by half. Fukuyama writes that a "German century" could have been "peaceful and prosperous" – but that's just not good enough. But why must he call it a German century, when his own premise merely holds that Germany – having defeated France – would be the dominant power on the continent under the semiparliamentary-semi-authoritarian, but civilized regime of the Kaiser? Would the Americans all take chloroform and withdraw from world commerce just because Germany was having a good run? But on to the pivotal issue that makes many millions of deaths preferable to peace and prosperity, marred only by co-existence with those terrible Germans. It is just this: that world "would have been stratified, corporatist and ultimately based on racial and ethnic hierarchy – a world made safe for South Africa." My heavens!could any greater evil be imagined? Yes: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler – there may be others – and the wars themselves (and do cite for me the millions killed by Verwoerd, Vorster, and the lot for the entire period of the "apartheid regime"). Well, at least we know where the fellow stands.

Old Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel might be surprised to learn that his "cunning of Reason" was aiming at egalitarianism the whole time he thought it was working to make the Prussian monarchy the highest peak of human achievement, but no worries, mate. With bigger fish to fry, we can come back to hierarchy and corporatism later. I am interested in the idea that war is "neutral" morally, much the way that money is neutral in the Keynesian model of the economy. And just between us egalitarians, what are millions murdered in war when "equality" and anti-hierarchy are at stake? Does reason truly say, "Go kill off millions, disrupt a civilization, and then do it a few more times," just so you can implement a debilitating brand of socialism instead of the instantly fatal kind? I think we should take war more seriously than that. War might turn out to be an evil in its own right, possibly as great as social discrimination and private clubs. War might well be murderous, expensive, destructive, criminal, and other things, but I leave off before I am suspected of writing a fundraising letter for the rulers of several paid-up "democracies" in good standing.

MEANWHILE, ON THE AUSTRALIAN FRONT

This is why I like war films from down under. Australian war films tend to take seriously the possibility that people have died "in vain," as the expression goes. American war films, by contrast, seldom do so. Critics could say that Australian film makers work with a lot of sentimental left-wing baggage about proletarian socialism and the brotherhood of workers everywhere and prefer class war to wars organized by states. If that's a leading theme of the Ozzy films, I've missed it. Films like Breaker Morant, ANZACs: The War Down Under, and Gallipoli seem more grounded than that. They start from what I hope is the fairly uncontroversial notion that wars have, er, drawbacks, and sometimes grind people up for no good reason at all. This sound insight – lost on would-be world-savers and their apologists – is worth calling to mind whenever such gentry offer us a brand-new war or sermons on the glorious ones we've had.

At the beginning of ANZACs, the wealthy "squatter's" son rides in and finds his elders on edge about a war just under way in Europe in August 1914. He asks, quite reasonably, What does that have to do with us? Whether his lines express a healthy "isolationism" or the filmmakers' latter-day Australian nationalism, the lad's father soon sets him straight about duty to the empire – so the dismal tale can get going, relieved only by Paul Hogan playing a wisecracking corporal.

This is quite enough film reviewing, yet before I leave the front, I want to mention a song-cycle which overlaps our topic. John Greenway, a conservative anthropologist who did extensive fieldwork on American and Australian folk music in the 1950s, noted this iceberg in 1959. Remarking that "[a]pparently there is something about the cattle industry that turns its practitioners into sentimental idiots," he traced both Australia's "The Dying Stockman" and America's "The Streets of Laredo" back to an Irish source, "The Rake's Progress" (also "Old Rosin LeBeau," "Rosin the Bow," and "The Dying Soldier").4 Somewhere in the last two centuries, we ended up with two somewhat different songs (with different melodies), which shared some of the same lyrics. More recently Eric Bogle, an Australian folksinger originally from Scotland, made the most of the version with the business about drums beating slowly and pipes playing lowly to create a magnificent anti-war song, "No Man's Land," which dares to say that World War I's cannon fodder did die in vain. The truth hurts, of course. This sort of thing is more acceptable down under, and Slim Dusty – the crowned king of Australian country and western music (or "bush ballads") – has recorded the song, as have many others worldwide. Not satisfied with this, Bogle wrote the gloomy and gut-wrenching "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" and "The War Correspondent" (who sits in a Saigon bar, pondering the futility of the whole thing), making it a trilogy. Anyone out there with a band and some spare time ought to record a medley of these songs as an exercise in historical discology. You can start with Tex Morton's version of "The Dying Stockman," Buck Owen's jokey version of "The Streets of Laredo," and maybe the Clancy Brothers' version of "Rosin the Bow."

THE FOLK-SONG ARMY FIGHTS OFF CRIMPS AND KIDNAPPERS

Now, traditional songs from the British Isles take a look-in on war from time to time. Sharp young fellows armed only with shillelaghs and their inborn wits often outsmart heavies from His Own Royal Press-Gang, or wherever, or simple people bemoan the disruption of ordinary life which even traditional wars – more limited than those of our century – entailed. If they'd only known that all that social equality was coming.... I find it hard, anyway, to find any "leftism" – or indeed any politics at all – in these songs, with the obvious exception of Jacobitism, which won in song what it lost in real life at Culloden.

MAKING THE BEST OF A BAD SITUATION

But enough about obscure ballad-writers and songs. I mustn't be seen to say that there's more common sense about the evils of war there than in high-powered neo-conservative think-tanks. Actually, I am saying that. As for hierarchy, Fukuyama complains that a foreshortened World War I "would have left unimpaired the cultural self-confidence of 19th-century European civilization" – a prospect too awful to bear, it seems. With the Germans running Middle Europe, the British empire might have lasted longer, decolonization would have been postponed, and, in America, civil rights for Blacks and women would have been delayed. The dead millions themselves cry out against such a violation of history's railway timetable! If they can see the necessity, surely we can. And it's reasonably cunning, certainly, to play both cards – race and gender – to prove that the wars and destruction of the 20th-bloody-century were worth more than the powder to blow them to hell, but perhaps I should shun martial metaphors. Patriotism may or may not be the last refuge of scoundrels, but egalitarian hand-waving might be the first refuge of social democrats, however "conservative."

As for corporatism – the alliance of state, big business, and trade unions to cartelize markets and eliminate competition – it is conspicuous by its presence. There is a substantial literature on the subject. The Dutch, Swedish, Austrian, and (sometimes) British economies are mentioned. Noting that America is too big and freewheeling to permit full-blown Euro-corporatism (although the New Dealers tried under the N.R.A.), writers on corporatism refer to the US system as "pluralistic corporatism" – but corporatism all the same. Evidently, the dead millions and the defeat of the Kaiser weren't quite enough to keep it from being around, but it is doubtless a much nicer corporatism than the Germano-European kind would have been.

WAITING FOR TEFLON

Fukuyama writes that in addition to getting us all that social improvement on schedule – and cheaply too, if you don't count the price – war has promoted technological development, giving us the internet (drumrolls, please), just as surely as NASA gave us teflon. No one would have invented anything new or useful without that healthy stimulus – pay no attention to all those 19th-century US Patent Office Reports. Ludwig von Mises comments that "[n]ot war, as Heraclitus said, but peace is the source of all social relations."5 Here Mises, the "narrow" economist, seems the better social philosopher than the professor of public policy.

In words that might have been aimed directly at Hegel's "cunning of Reason," the 19th-century Swiss historian Jakob Burckardt wrote that defenders of any great malefactor will claim that "without his foreknowledge, great historical purposes lying in the remote future were furthered by his deeds."6 I suppose it could be said that I've been unfair to Mr. Fukuyama's actual views on war and peace. Perhaps he isn't knowingly making out the best possible case for the evils of the 20th-century. Perhaps he has a great sense of the tragic, which I have overlooked; but seeing what he does with concepts like reason and God, let's hope he doesn't take up interpreting Aristotle's Poetics.

[1] Thomas Petzinger, Jr., "So Long, Supply and Demand," WSJ, January 1, 2000, p. R31. How much the pace and direction of innovation, even in the much-touted knowledge sector, may be distorted by our paper economic system is suggested by Anthony Deden's "Reflections on Prosperity," 29 December 1999.
[2] G. Paschal Zachary, "The empire's state," ibid., pp. R45 and R49.
[3] Francis Fukuyama, "It Could Have Been the German Century," WSJ, December 31, 1999, p. A10.
[4] John Greenway, Australian Folksongs and Ballads ([cassette] New York: Folkways Records, 1959), "An Introductory Note," p. 3.
[5] Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1963), p. 173.
[6] Jakob Burckhardt, Force and Freedom: Reflections on History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1943), p. 117.

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Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He is a part-time lecturer in History at the college level. You can read his recent essay, "The Cold War," on the Ludwig von Mises Institute Website. His column, "The Old Cause," appears each Monday on Antiwar.com.

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