MARX said many things, including “[…] I’m not a Marxist.” But my favourite thing he said was “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living.” Say what you like about him and his other theories, I like this quote. It’s contains two points. The second is interesting, but the first is more practical.
What if the values, ideals and principles a society can follow are fundamentally constrained by a complex matrix of circumstance over which it has little or no control? That is, in any context, our agency is limited in the aims to which it can realistically pursue are limited, pursuing other aims, or pursuing these achievable aims by the wrong methods will lead to unexpected, undesired, harmful or even catastrophic results.
Therefore, what if pursing values, ideals or principles however noble but in the wrong context or without due diligence is incredibly dangerous? Our religious heritage still seems to shape the way the theoretical foundation of our secular society is framed. This heritage taught us to hold on to our ideals, define ourselves by them, spread them and act on them. But it also taught us to maintain awe for a higher power and to be mindful of human fallibility. This seems to have fallen out of fashion. Until recently at least we have rested on the laurels of Western Liberalism’s triumph over its 20th century ideological rivals, taking for granted that our society rests on a solid foundation of proven principles and institutions which provide us with stability and prosperity. We also put our faith in our own rational and technological ability to solve practically any problem.
But wealth disparity has been growing since the financial crisis, partly caused by laissez-faire ‘neoliberal’ economic policies. The narrative is similar to that leading up to the Great Depression of the early 20th century and the Long Depression of the late 19th century, both of which were followed by major war. These wars, their preceding economic crises, and genocidal nationalism surrounding them, deeply haunted the great statesmen of the age, who, with some inter-war hiccoughs of ill-advised triumphalism or lapses in realism, finally worked to build a post-war order of peace and stability with a relatively prudent and humble consideration of the constraints they faced.
The higher levels of power and geopolitics are Machiavellian to the marrow. A state claiming that they just want to teach the world to sing, there’s no such thing as the classic security dilemma- a potential adversary should accept their stated goals and not see ostensibly defensive built up as a possible cover for offensive build up, is simply intellectually insulting. Meanwhile, at the domestic level, proclaiming a progressive stance on identity politics while shrewdly undermining any organized opposition to wealth concentration is not only abusive, but inviting a return to the cycle of crisis and war mentioned above. In the post-Cold War period, our statesmen and policy-makers seem to be complacent and triumphalist, self-righteously dismissing the possibility of internal systemic threats to our stability and prosperity, leading to western economies built on trillions in personal and national debt, and crises of faith- Brexit, Trump, and so on. Meanwhile, self-righteous, triumphalist geopolitical maneuvers in various countries from Iraq to Libya to Ukraine have at least partly backfired, undermining the narrative of the inevitable ascendancy of liberal democracy.
What if there were specific circumstances which allowed the rise of liberal democracy, not just the development of better and better liberal progressive principles and institutions? What if these specific circumstances are falling away one by one? First the incredible wealth and technological advantage the western countries enjoyed due to colonial exploitation (and its post-colonial legacy) and the discovery of the new world. Aren’t these advantages waning vis a vis various non-western countries? What if having a huge, temperate, virgin, resource-rich continental nation with impeccable geographical security to champion liberal democracy had as much an effect on liberalism’s success as the actual merits of it itself? What if both the demands of domestic labour movements and the competition with a competing ‘communist’ political economic order (related to one another, but not in straightforward ways) were key to liberalism’s successful development? What does it mean that both are now gone? What if the growth of liberalism was fueled with easily accessible energy resources, not to mention the petrodollar system, both of which may be ending? What if certain illusions were only sustainable while some of these largely economic conditions were in place, illusions about the potency of ideals, theories and rationality over economics and human nature, about the fundamental soundness of our institutions, and about our ability to remake the world around us with the desired results?
Put simply, what if we need to be guided less by what should be, what would be best or ideal, and more by what we can do within the circumstances we find ourselves, materially, socially, and as limited, at best semi-rational creatures with murky drives and motivations? What if a mania for liberty however noble is distracting us from more fundamental imperatives? Maybe living in this or that western liberal state in this or that post-war decade was the greatest privilege awarded in human history, that doesn’t mean that this order is sustainable in changing conditions or that the spread of this order to new states with differing and dynamic conditions is possible. The USA might come out of four or eight years with a wild card president and maintain dominance but such a fluke election result could be a geopolitical existential threat for even the most powerful old world states, so many of them maintain a form of soft authoritarianism. Instead of pursuing a dogmatic normative emancipatory ideal in every and all circumstances, I’d advocate pragmatism. First, we should spend a lot more time getting to know ourselves psychologically and then nurturing our close, vital relationships, taking care of those dearest to us. When these spheres of our experience are in good condition, we can contribute positively in broader spheres. Our rationality, stream of consciousness or precious universal ideals aren’t who we are, who we are is deep inside the murky and frighting depths of our psyche and reflected in how we interact, particularly with those closest to us. I think this basic personal reorientation would lead us to realize that we don’t have much control over who we are, we don’t have needs and desires, they have us. This reorientation would lead to a radically different approach to society and politics, one shaped by the realization that we have agency, we can achieve security, dignity, belonging, love and self-realization if we are mindful of the constraints of the situation we are thrown into.