Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"The New Liberal Aristocracy" and an Introduction to Spengler

Victor Davis Hansen writes at the National Review about what he terms the New Liberal Aristocracy (as compared to the old ones, such as the Kennedy clan). What he notes is not so much the hypocrisy, which as always been present, but that they do not even attempt to hide it--they have no shame. 
But the new liberal aristocracy is far less discreet than the old. Most are self-made multimillionaires who acquired their money through government service, finance, law, investment, or marriage. If the old-money liberals lived it up tastefully within their walled family compounds, the new liberal aristocrats are unashamed about living openly in a manner quite at odds with their professed populist ideology.

Take former vice president Al Gore. He has made a fortune of nearly a billion dollars warning against global warming — supposedly shrinking glaciers, declining polar-bear populations, and the like — while simultaneously offering timely remedies from his own green corporations, all reminiscent of the methodology of Roman millionaire Marcus Licinius Crassus, who profited from fires and putting them out. Now Nobel laureate Gore has sold his interest in a failing cable-television station for about $100 million — and to the anti-American Al-Jazeera, which is owned by the fossil-fuel-rich royal family of Qatar. Gore rushed to close the deal before the first of the year to avoid the very capital-gains tax hikes that he has advocated for others less well off. That’s a liberal trifecta: enhancing a fossil-fuel consortium, attempting to beat tax hikes, and empowering an anti-American and anti-Semitic media conglomerate run by an authoritarian despot — all from a former vice president of the United States who crusades for ending our reliance on fossil fuels and for raising taxes on the wealthy.
Class warrior Barack Obama spent his winter break in a ritzy rental on a Hawaiian beach. It cost the taxpayers $7 (or is it $20?) million to jet him and his entourage 6,000 miles for their tropical vacation. But whether the first family escapes to Hawaii or Martha’s Vineyard or Costa del Sol, the image of a 1 percent lifestyle seems a bit at odds with the president’s professed disdain for “millionaires and billionaires,” “fat cats,” and “corporate-jet owners” who supposedly can afford such tony retreats only because they have done something suspect. The media used to ridicule grandees like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush for wearing cowboy hats and wasting precious presidential time chopping wood or chain-sawing dry underbrush on their respective overgrown ranches. But for liberal class warriors, golfing and body surfing in the tropical Pacific while staying at a zillionaire’s estate become needed downtime to prepare for the looming battle against 1 percenters. One wonders about the conversation between the Obamas and their landlord. “We will stay here, but only on the condition that you remember that you didn’t build it”?
... To be cool is now not just to be rich, but to appear caring. Hollywood still seeks hundreds of millions in tax breaks unavailable to small businesses without shame because it is so manifestly compassionate. Occupy Wall Street does not camp out in Beverly Hills or Malibu, although the likes of Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio make more per year than do most Wall Street fat cats. The public wonders why Hollywood is so liberal — is it the Bohemian culture surrounding the arts? The natural creative temperament of actors? The Lotus-land surf and sun of the southern-California beach milieu? Perhaps. But penance plays a role as well. For the overpaid and pampered Hollywood movie star, calling for raising taxes, banning guns, ending global warming, and legalizing gay marriage means never having to feel too bad about living on the beach and making, under our capitalist system, more money in a month than do many Americans in a lifetime.
It is this worship of money, intrusive central government, and ... as Hansen points out ... the birth of a new aristocracy that brings me to my second subject--Oswald Spengler. Spengler, of course, has been the inspiration for David P. Goldman who writes a column (under the pseudonym "Spengler") at the Asia Times. However, even where his ideas did not directly inspire, they are reflected elsewhere. (See, e.g., Angelo M. Codevilla's "America’s Ruling Class — And the Perils of Revolution"). Robert W. Merry, at the National Interest, has an article providing an overview and summary of Spengler's main thesis, as well as some background on the man. Some key points:
But two elements of Spengler’s thinking merit particular attention. One is his rejection of the “Idea of Progress,” that hoary Western notion that mankind has advanced over the centuries through quickening stages of development, from primitiveness and barbarism to enlightenment and civilization—and that mankind will continue to advance through the human experience on earth. The Idea of Progress has animated the thinking of nearly all significant Western philosophy since its first stirrings in the thirteenth century. As writer and philosopher Robert Nisbet put it, “No single idea has been more important than, perhaps as important as, the idea of progress in Western civilization.”

In our own time, the Idea of Progress serves as progenitor of the concepts of Eurocentrism and American exceptionalism. It was the underpinning of Francis Fukuyama’s famous “End of History” perception that Western democratic capitalism represents the culmination of human civic development. It fuels today’s foreign-policy belief, so prevalent across the political spectrum, that America’s world role is to remake other societies and cultures in the Western image.

Spengler, by contrast, embraced a view of history as the story of various discrete civilizations, each with its own distinct culture, that emerged, developed, flowered and then declined. This cyclical view subsumes certain underlying perceptions. First, since civilizations and cultures are distinct, there can be no universal culture. No body of thought emanating from one culture can be imposed upon another, either peacefully or through force. And civilizational decline is an immutable rule that applies to all civilizations, including the West.

The second noteworthy element of Spengler’s thought is his view, based on his study of eight great civilizations, that the process of decline carries with it a surge of imperial fervor and a flight toward Caesarism. Hegemonic impulses come to the fore along with forms of dictatorship. As Charles and Mary Beard wrote in The American Spirit, “Spengler’s judgment of history certainly conveyed to American readers the notion that ‘Western civilization’ was doomed and that another Caesar, the conquering man of blood and iron, would bring it to an end.” This phase, which Spengler calls the civilizational phase, can last a couple centuries, and the question Americans face today, looking at the world through the Spenglerian prism, is whether their country, as leader of the West, is in the process of embracing these elements of Spengler’s civilizational phase.

[H]e pictures the great cultures as essentially organic entities whose phases of emergence, development and decline are remarkably similar from culture to culture. “Cultures are organisms,” he writes. “If we disentangle their shapes we may find the primitive Culture-form that underlies all individual Cultures and is reflected in their various manifestations.” That’s why, says Spengler, the pursuit of historical analogy is so critical to understanding the “Cycles of History”: by studying the patterns of past civilizations we can better understand our own, including its current state of cultural health or decline.

Each of these civilizations, says Spengler, is born when a people in a particular region rather suddenly develops a distinctive way of looking at the world. This world outlook is entirely fresh, unencumbered by influences from other cultures. And as this new culture emerges it develops a sense of its own mortality, which stirs powerful longings for fulfillment, which in turn unleash a passion for creative expression, new methods of inquiry and new modes of knowledge—all conforming to the distinctive “soul” of the new culture.

The passion for creative expression and new strains of culture knowledge runs on for centuries, generally a thousand years or more unless interrupted by external forces. But eventually it peters out. Then begins that civilizational phase, characterized by the deterioration of the folk traditions and innocent enthusiasms of the culture. Its cultural essence, once of the soil and spread throughout the “mother-region” in town, village and city, now becomes the domain of a few rich and powerful “world-cities,” which twist and distort the concepts of old and replace them with cynicism, cosmopolitanism, irony and a money culture.

Thus, Spengler draws a sharp distinction between culture and civilization. The former is the phase of creative energy, the “soul” of the countryside; the latter is a time of material preoccupation, the “intellect” of the city. As Hughes elaborates, “So long as the culture phase lasts, the leading figures in a society manifest a sure sense of artistic ‘style’ and personal ‘form.’ Indeed, the breakdown of style and form most clearly marks the transition from culture to civilization.”

WE PAUSE over this thinking to ponder its implications. Recall that Spengler wrote nearly a century ago, when the Western avant-garde movement was merely a tiny knot of artists bent on assaulting the conventional sensibilities of the prevailing culture. As author and critic Lionel Trilling once explained, in Spengler’s time these people weren’t interested in talking to the masses. Their art was rarefied and special, designed exclusively for the avant-garde itself, those inclined to look down on the masses and on conventional thought and culture. Few at that time predicted that this avant-garde cynicism and cultural nihilism eventually would be absorbed into the popular culture itself and be accepted, even embraced, by large numbers of people within the so-called masses—the same masses under assault by the avant-garde. But Spengler saw it coming, as merely the inevitable consequence of any civilization’s transition from its cultural to its civilizational phase.

He also predicted the West’s coming decline in birthrates brought about largely by the advent of feminism, also a feature of Spengler’s civilizational phase. Whereas the advent and success of feminism in the West is heralded in our time as a sign of civic progress, Spengler’s study of other civilizational cycles convinced him that it was just the opposite—a reflection of cultural decline, largely because it curtailed the production of children. As he puts it:
The primary woman, the peasant woman, is mother. The whole vocation towards which she has yearned from childhood is included in that one word. But now emerges the Ibsen woman, the comrade, the heroine of a whole megalopolitan literature from Northern drama to Parisian novel. Instead of children, she has soul-conflicts; marriage is a craft-art for the achievement of “mutual understanding.” It is all the same whether the case against children is the American lady’s who would not miss a season for anything, or the Parisienne’s who fears that her lover would leave her, or an Ibsen heroine’s who “lives for herself”—they all belong to themselves and they are all unfruitful.
This phenomenon, says Spengler, is seen in every society in transition from the cultural to the civilizational phase, and in all instances it leads to what he calls “appalling depopulation.” Spengler saw a similar phenomenon in the realm of politics. Looking at Athens of 400 bc and Caesar’s Rome, he sees a progressive degradation:
As everywhere, the elections, from being nominations of class-representatives, have become the battle-ground of party candidates, an area ready for the intervention of money, and . . . of ever bigger and bigger money. “The greater became the wealth which was capable of concentration in the hands of individuals, the more the fight for political power developed into a question of money.”
But what most clearly marks the civilizational phase is what he considered the inevitable gravitation toward Caesarism and empire. Spengler’s historical analogies taught him that the transition from culture to civilization unleashes a kind of Will to Power, manifest internally in a drive to consolidate power within the civilization, and externally in a drive to assert dominance over other peoples. “Imperialism,” writes Spengler, “is Civilization unadulterated.”
... IN ASSESSING our own time through the Spenglerian prism, a number of perceptions emerge. First, Spengler predicted with uncanny foresight a number of Western developments of the past century, including the rise of world-cities and the money culture, the emergence of a powerful feminism focused on the yearnings of the Ibsen woman, the force of money in politics, declining birthrates and the popular embrace of avant-garde cultural sensibilities, awash in cynicism and cosmopolitanism and bent on destroying the cultural verities of old.

Second, Spengler makes a powerful point when he says these are not characteristics and developments found in ascendant civilizations. On the contrary, many are signs of cultural and societal decadence and decline. Although the hallowed Idea of Progress has shrouded this truth from Western society, the reality is clear: the Western cultural decline, as understood and predicted by Spengler, is now complete. ...

Third, Spengler’s rejection of the notion of a universal culture provides provocative fodder for Western thinking at a time when that notion is embraced widely as a bedrock of American politics. ...
... Thus, it isn’t difficult to see why Spengler doesn’t resonate in today’s America or the West more generally, with their embrace of the Idea of Progress and the doctrine of Eurocentrism. Nor is it difficult to see why Spengler’s Cycles of History would spur yawns in societies that have come to revere—and see as progress—all the elements of the civilizational ethos foreseen by Spengler and identified by him as hallmarks of cultural decline.

NONE OF this was lamented by Spengler as he peered into the West’s civilizational future. Nor did he lament the age of Western imperialism and the decline of democratic structures that he also saw on the horizon. These too were simply inevitable consequences of the natural developmental cycles through which the West was passing. Indeed, as a product of the West he thrilled to the idea of its culminating phase of power and glory.

But modern Westerners—and Americans in particular—might want to ponder the implications of Spengler’s prediction that the first nation of the West would lead that civilization into an era of imperialism in corollary with serious erosions in its democratic structures. ...
 Although not discussed in Merry's article, one of the important elements of Spengler's model of the transition from "culture" to "civilization" was the rise of the "World City"--cosmopolitan urban centers to which money and power gravitated. He saw these World Cities as achieving a political and societal dominance over rural regions, and even lesser cities, with the concomitant disdain and exploitation that would result.

Before we leave the topic, however, it would be worthwhile to reread Codevilla's article (cited to above) and how he describes the current American aristocracy:
Today’s ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters — speaking the “in” language — serves as a badge of identity. Regardless of what business or profession they are in, their road up included government channels and government money because, as government has grown, its boundary with the rest of American life has become indistinct. Many began their careers in government and leveraged their way into the private sector. Some, e.g., Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, never held a non-government job. Hence whether formally in government, out of it, or halfway, America’s ruling class speaks the language and has the tastes, habits, and tools of bureaucrats. It rules uneasily over the majority of Americans not oriented to government.

... Much less does membership in the ruling class depend on high academic achievement. To see something closer to an academic meritocracy consider France, where elected officials have little power, a vast bureaucracy explicitly controls details from how babies are raised to how to make cheese, and people get into and advance in that bureaucracy strictly by competitive exams. Hence for good or ill, France’s ruling class are bright people — certifiably. Not ours. But didn’t ours go to Harvard and Princeton and Stanford? Didn’t most of them get good grades? Yes. But while getting into the Ecole Nationale d’Administration or the Ecole Polytechnique or the dozens of other entry points to France’s ruling class requires outperforming others in blindly graded exams, and graduating from such places requires passing exams that many fail, getting into America’s “top schools” is less a matter of passing exams than of showing up with acceptable grades and an attractive social profile. American secondary schools are generous with their As. Since the 1970s, it has been virtually impossible to flunk out of American colleges. And it is an open secret that “the best” colleges require the least work and give out the highest grade point averages. No, our ruling class recruits and renews itself not through meritocracy but rather by taking into itself people whose most prominent feature is their commitment to fit in. The most successful neither write books and papers that stand up to criticism nor release their academic records. Thus does our ruling class stunt itself through negative selection. But the more it has dumbed itself down, the more it has defined itself by the presumption of intellectual superiority.
Assuming that Spengler's theory is correct, we are well into the "civilization stage," and in fact, have reached the point of a dictatorship, albeit in the form of an autocracy rather than a single "strong man" leader. Although, perhaps that lies in a our future.

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