The
Old
Cause

by
Joseph R.
Stromberg

 

Joseph Stromberg's column will appear Friday, January 7 and then will be moved to Mondays starting next week.

December 28, 1999

Time, Millennia, Empires, and Everything

POST NO MILLENNIA

This whole millennium business is a bit wearing. Leaving aside the open secret that the new millennium begins in 2001, there's all the Y2K hype and fear-mongering, only some of which comes to us courtesy of caring governments and organs of state security. This has something to do with the "complex of fear and vaunting" which Garet Garrett said was characteristic of empires. I guess they're doing fear this week. Other millennium enthusiasts probably just want to have a really excessive New Year's party, now, but after the last few decades excess is only relative. My suggestion: have a big party on January 1, 2000, to mark that scary and deeply meaning-laden change of digits, and a bigger one on January 1, 2001, to mark the true millennium's true arrival.

The concern over millennia owes much to the heretical Christianity of Joachim of Floris (or Fiore). (See Clifford F. Thies, "The Year 2000" at mises.org.) Conservative "liturgical" churches don't seem to worry much, even about the millennium. (It will happen when it happens.) It is said that those who do worry about end-times are of two schools. Pre-millennialists , as I understand it, expect a horrible conflagration – along with a drought, a famine, and a flood (as Fred J. Eaglesmith would say), and re-runs of speeches by US presidents – to break out and destroy life as we know it. The usual, expected place of origin is the Middle East. This could at least explain US policy there. Perhaps a cadre of premils are in charge, working hard to bring on Armageddon. Maybe not. The postmillennialists hold that right-thinking people must establish a thousand year reign of goodness to precede the return of Christ. Reformers of this stripe were the great bane of 19th century US politics and the scourge of drinkers into this century. Along the way, the postmils forgot all about God and theology, but their secularized heirs – from Woodrow Wilson to the present permanent regime – still want to fix everything, save everyone, and remove all temptations and occasions for (secular) sin, all of which keeps them rather busy but makes others look around for a free country to which to flee. The good news is that, if we date these efforts from the 1890s, there are only 900 more years of reform left.

DECADES AND DECADENCE

The habit of thinking of decades and even centuries as having discrete characters which can be summed up with a label may have its uses, but is subject to abuse. Was there, for example, really a "decade of greed" overseen by Ronald Reagan (presumably because Republicans are greed-friendlier than the party of endless compassion)? I can't say. Certainly, money was made on hog futures (if that's the right expression) and funny real estate deals in a marginal Southern state. And seen from another angle, as Lew Rockwell remarks, government was rather hoggish in the eighties, making it reasonable to speak of a decade of "government greed." That would make the nineties the decade of government that doesn't see any reason for independent centers of social power to exist at all. With the party of free school lunches and aerial sorties in power, everything would be as nice and orderly and peaceful as a government-run American high school, if it weren't for those right-wing loonies stirring up discontent. And what about the sixties, whose roots were in the late 1950s and which didn't play out until the fall of Saigon? Is that a decade?

CENTURIES, YEAR-HUNDREDS, AND SAECULA

So much for decades, then. Centuries are tougher to brandmark. Benito Mussolini wrote in his famous essay on fascism in the Enciplopedia Italiana that the 20th century would be "the century of the state." Score one for Il Duce. Whether this would be good, was another matter.

A few years ago the conservative historian John Lukacs wrote that the 20th century had been "short" in terms of its political-historical contours. It had run from 1914 to 1989, the years of civil war within western civilization and the rise and fall of Soviet communism, which the mass slaughter of World War had made possible. Hence, the world of the early 1990s resembled that of 1913 – not the worst world possible. It was an interesting "moment," but even Lukacs could not have foreseen how quickly the present U.S. leadership and their Euro-lackeys could completely screw up a chance to start over.

FANDY-SICKLE FOLLIES

Of course, the late 19th century, which gave way to unparalleled bloodshed and state terrorism from 1914 on, was not altogether perfect, either. One hundred years ago, in 1899, two imperialist wars were raging which helped foretell the course of the coming century. In South Africa, the British – shocked that a "defeated" foe would go on fighting – were learning all about guerrillas and taking up counter-insurgency tactics, including concentration camps, to defeat them. In the Philippines, the US army was teaching good government and orderly behavior to unruly Filipinos only just liberated from the cruel and arrogant Spanish dons. In both cases, the empires – one well-established, the other aspiring to greatness – widely advertised their high morals and humanitarian motives. Britain fought for the undisputed right of a gold-seeking rabble to vote in the Boer republics' elections and overturn the locals' entire way of life, as soon as these interlopers had a majority, and, I suppose, because the Afrikaners were abusing the help (something British subjects would never do, at least not without making it pay a whole lot better). The Americans, for their part, only wanted to bring modern sanitation, sound public administration, Yankee school-marms, and social workers to their "little brown brothers" in the far-off islands.

In the end, both countries were devastated; 26,000 Boer women and children died in British camps, while some 200,000 Filipinos died in the course of what the US chose to call the "Philippine Insurrection." An odd choice of words: Southerners were said to have "rebelled"; it's Indians that have "insurrections." But, even so, great evils were doubtless averted. Britain's sea route to India was now extremely secure (as opposed to very secure) and no one abused the help in South Africa ever after, as we well know – at least until that evil time begun by Dr. Verwoerd and ended by Nelson Mandela (as shown by the good Bishop's report). The United States had saved the poor Filipinos from falling into the hands of those terrible Germans, who would have done ghastly things, perhaps even killing Filipinos.

NOBODY HERE BUT US POULTRY

None of this, thank God, had anything at all to do with gold and diamond fields in South Africa, athwart whose full exploitation (by the sort of chaps the chaps can trust) the Boer republics were seen to stand, or with American policy-makers' oft-spoken desire to use the Philippine Islands as a jumping-off point to the much-needed China market. The imperial mind kept its moral and economic compartments fairly separate, especially in public. As befits a simpler time, the British and US popular press sometimes appealed to the sheer joy of fighting, the rush felt when giving the wogs a good thrashing, and other martial music. In our time, we hear only a faint echo of that spirit in the constant, moronic, but popular American references to "kicking [this or that foreign villain's] ass." Not much raw material there for an aspiring American Kipling, I'm afraid. Someone please break the sad news to the Weekly Standard.

WAVES AND FUTURES

That's what comes of looking at what was going on exactly a century ago. It would be fun to have a sort of joint Boer War/Philippine Insurrection centennial celebration before time runs out. I'll try to find a vierkleur flag to bring. Actually, some of those flags were in evidence at the Democratic convention of 1900, carried by a few democrats who imagined 1) that the Boers were fighting against imperialism and that 2) imperialism was generically bad. True enough, but the two wars did add to the growing Anglo-American sense of being in it together, although there was some disagreement as to who would be the senior and who the junior partner in the brave new world order of the 20th century. Now, after all those wasted Rhodes scholarships, we know, even if Tony Blair hasn't quite gotten it. Having seen the Boers and Filipinos defeated, the great powers failed to draw the lesson that guerrilla war might have a future. Then came World War I, which – aside from numberless other evils – was quite a bit like quarreling in front of the servants, made worse when the British and French put some of the servants in the field, revealing to Indo-Chinese and Indian alike that the white folks really weren't immune to lead poisoning. The poor Germans – short on colonies – didn't have any colonial natives to send to the front. Too bad they hadn't grabbed the Philippines.

Gloomy old Oswald Spengler and the American racialist writer Lothrop Stoddard both saw the potential of anti-colonial nationalist movements in the wake of World War I. (They were not happy about it.) European powers still hoped to hold their empires together with baling wire (duct tape being not yet invented), vague ideology, and inertia, while the American players imagined that they could scoop everything into their "anti-colonialist" neo-mercantilist empire, no matter what happened. Americans of the Old Right concluded that it would be wise to stay out of the impending conflicts and keep our own house in order. This advice – unheeded and almost forgotten – is the central topic of these columns.

TIME MARCHES IN A FORWARD DIRECTION

It is hard to predict the future, easy to predict the past, and interesting to look at those who predicted what actually happened. There have been true and false prophets and the general rule seems to be that false prophets are widely believed – name almost any prominent 20th-century statesman – while those who are right often fare poorly. Still, there must be some value in being right, otherwise no one would ever bother with it.

PATTERN AND PREDICTION

Organizing our insights about history around arbitrary shifts in digits seems at best a species of numerology. As for time itself, there was a lot of murky fandy-sickle philosophizing about it, which nobody understands (Bergson, Wyndham-Lewis). It's probably enough to listen to Wuorinen's "Time's Encomium" and see if anything clicks.

Even if we reject the Marxists' notion that there is some single "key" to everything, we need not give up the search for pattern in history. The pattern of empire comes to mind. Buried throughout Spengler's Decline of the West are numerous insights into particular features of the "late imperial" syndrome. Carroll Quigley's one-volume The Evolution of Civilizations achieves as much, in its way, as Spengler's two and Arnold Toynbee's ten or twelve volumes. Quigley found it useful to think of civilizations which survive to maturity as going through seven stages: Mixture, gestation, expansion, conflict, empire, decay, and invasion. These are largely self-explanatory. Western civilization is unique in that it has gone through several conflict phases (ages of contending states) without being pulled – yet – into one universal state.1

Whether the American empire will ever include all of western civilization – and whether there will be much civilization in it, if it does – is open to speculation. What is not open to doubt is the existence of an American empire. Its geographical bounds do not exactly correspond to those of its parent civilization, from which it is increasingly estranged.2 But American empire – universal state of its own civilization or not – must suffer the ravages of time. What I find fascinating is that the last three phases – empire, decay, invasion – appear to be present simultaneously in our empire.

The British empire worked as well as it did because an existing "class" consciously replaced itself with reasonably disciplined successors. An increasingly multi-vultural American "democracy," choking on egalitarian nonsense and admitting all who wish to come here, refuse assimilation, and form new pressure groups, will soon be less manageable than the democratic Athenian empire. Such a system runs up against the republican-theory paradox that – to paraphrase Will Rogers – there's more people votin' than there is fightin'. Peace-time conscription was floated lately by those who were dying for a Balkan ground war in which someone else could do the actual military dying. That is one way to resolve the paradox. The other, which some of us prefer, is to abandon the path of empire, give up universal unbidden philanthropy, and quit caning the foreign wogs.

[1] Carroll Quigley, The Evolution of Civilizations (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979), esp. ch. 7-10.
[2] For the American leadership's estrangement from western civilization, see Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 306-308.

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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 Tuesday on Antiwar.com.

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