Tag Archives: modern liberal democracy

Refining the Rubric: tomsbooks@5

infidel-ayaan-hirsi-aliDreyfus Harris

     December 2016 marks the end of tomsbooks’ fifth year. On January 22, 2012, a time when I barely knew what a blog was, I posted a review of John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care. That was the first of 93 postings over the next five years, reviewing 102 books (had I been counting, I probably would have paused last month to observe the 100th book reviewed, David Maraniss’ Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story, a work on my home town during my senior year in high school). The year-by-year tally of reviews is as follows:

Year          Reviews          Books Reviewed
2012             25                          32
2013             19                          20
2014              9                            9
2015            21                          22
2016            19                          19

From the beginning, my goal has been to point general, well educated but non-specialist readers to works unlikely to make best-seller lists but, in most cases, worthy of their consideration and reading time  — works often overlooked in major publications like The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books or The London Review of Books.  Most of the books reviewed here fit into a rubric of “modern history, politics, and political theory,” with McWhorter’s work being perhaps one of the few exceptions.

     Earlier this month, I sought to refine that rubric through an index by specific subject matter of the five years of reviews, now completed and available upon request. Currently, I have 37 different categories (e.g. “French History,” “Thinkers,” “Biography/Autobiography,” “Cold War,”), with much overlap; almost all reviews fit into more than one category. Looking at the index makes clear that my overall focus has most frequently been on either the United States or Europe, in many cases both. But if America and Europe is my comfort zone, I have ventured outside of it on more than a few occasions to review books rooted in other areas. My most recent review was on sub-Saharan Africa, and I have reviewed books on Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan, plus several books on Islam (e.g., here, here and here).

     While producing 1-2 reviews per month over the past five years, I gradually came to the realization that I have also been refining the rubric of “modern history, politics, and political theory” in another, more substantive way. I now see that almost all the books reviewed here explore in one way or another the concept of modern liberal democracy, a concept you  can define in different ways. The word “liberal” should not be equated with that term as used in everyday political discourse in the United States; it’s more like the “liberal” in “liberal arts.” For me, broadly stated, liberal democracy is the system of representative government we’ve come to take for granted in the West, a system that seeks to maximize both individual liberty and equality among citizens, through free and fair elections, the rule of law, free but regulated markets, and respect for human rights. Liberal democracy is also decidedly pluralist, seeking to provide a channel for as many voices as possible to compete for influence in a free and orderly, if at times cacophonous, process.

     There is no single category for “democracy” or “liberal democracy” among the 37 specific categories in my index, and I can think of only one book reviewed here that addresses the subject head on, Timothy Ferris’ The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature, reviewed in May 2012 (and categorized in the index under “Political Theory,” and “Intellectual History’). But just about every book reviewed here necessarily addresses, however indirectly, some aspect of the subject of liberal democracy,  raising issues pertinent to its story in modern times: what is it; where does it come from; where is it going; how should it work; how does it work; what are its strengths and weaknesses, it successes and failures. Of course, this includes books on instances where liberal democracy has “gone off the rails,” most notably in Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia. By my count, I have reviewed 13 books on the Nazi period in Germany and 6 on communist rule in the Soviet Union, along with 10 on “totalitarianism,” the antithesis of liberal democracy.

     Winston Churchill once famously described democracy as the worst possible system of government, except for all the others (and he could have said “liberal democracy”). It may be difficult to disagree with Churchill’s quirky formulation, but I think a more generous one is warranted. I consider modern liberal democracy to be among the most uplifting and powerful ideas that our collective human civilization has put into practice over the last three centuries, providing unparalleled opportunity for high quality of life for individuals fortunate to live in liberal democratic states. But no one has to tell me that these are dispiriting times for liberal democracy in much of the world, starting very close to home.

* * *

The Science of Liberty, Ferrismichelleo-1SternandSifton

     I trace liberal democracy’s modern roots principally to Great Britain, the United States and France, three countries I have been lucky enough to live, work and study in. Perhaps because of this happy coincidence, the history and politics of these three countries are the starting point for my bookish interests. But in each today, in different ways, liberal democracy seems to be on the defensive, facing rising xenophobia, ethnic nationalism and raging populism. In the “Brexit” campaign tinged with no small doses of anti-immigrant sentiment, Great Britain notoriously elected in June of this year to pull out of the European Union, arguably the most critical multi-national liberal democracy project of the post-World War II era. The United States in November elected as its next President a man who seems at best indifferent to the ideals of liberal democracy, often hostile. In France, the National Front party, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-European, has what looks at this juncture like better than a 50-50 chance that its leader will reach the final round for the French presidency, in elections scheduled for May 2017.

     Beyond this core, the outlook for liberal democracy at the end of 2016 appears at least equally bleak. Anti-immigrant and anti-liberal parties are gaining elsewhere across Europe, in countries as diverse as the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary and Poland (although an insurgent anti-immigrant party in Austria recently suffered a setback in its bid for the country’s presidency). On Europe’s periphery, both Russia and Turkey have overtly embraced authoritarian, anti-democratic rule, sometimes explicitly referred to as “illiberal democracy.”  Meanwhile China, the world’s newest economic behemoth, continues the oddest of combinations, a form of free market capitalism coupled with strict control over individuals’ lives and the absence of the most basic political freedoms.

    I wistfully recall the optimism of the 1990s, when the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and apartheid had been consigned to the dustbin of South African history.  Liberal democracy seemed to be on the march throughout the world.  It was then described as the world’s “default option,” with one commentator famously declaring the “end of history.” In the second half of the 21st century’s second decade, this seems like a quaint, bygone era, far longer ago than a quarter of a century. Today, our global civilization appears to be heading into the darkest and most difficult period for liberal democracy since the 1930s. We can only hope that a catastrophe analogous to the world war that erupted at the end of that decade can be averted.

     Despite the multiple reasons for concern if not outright alarm about the near future, I remain “cautiously optimistic,” as the diplomats say, about the future of liberal democracy throughout the world. It is quite simply too powerful an idea to be bottled up over the long term. While older and more rural populations may favor authoritarian rulers who promise to restore some type of mythological past, the future is not with these demographic groups. Liberal democracy will continue to find strong and often courageous support among well-educated young people and in urban centers throughout the world — in Cairo and Teheran, Moscow and Ankara, as well as Paris, London and New York.

      A spate of books on the future of liberal democracy is likely to flood the market in the months and years ahead, including works analyzing the previously unimaginable rise to power in the United States of an authoritarian leader with no apparent attachment to America’s abiding democratic principles. Occasionally, I may elect to review such works, but I suspect that such instances will be rare. Rather, I envision continuing to address liberal democracy less directly, through reviews of serious works on history and politics which, often unintentionally, contain some insight, broad or narrow, about the perils and possibilities of liberal democracy. I hope you will stay with me for what looks like a bumpy ride ahead over the next months and years.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
December 24, 2016

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What Was So Enlightened About That?

Pictures.pagden

Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment
And
Why It Still Matters 

            I remember being introduced to the Enlightenment during my senior year in college, in a course officially denominated 18th Century European Intellectual History or something to that effect. In this course, the professor, a kind, scholarly gentleman whose specialty was Diderot, introduced his clueless undergraduate charges to a sort of Hall of Fame of Enlightenment philosophes and other enlightened figures. In addition to his beloved Diderot, we met Voltaire, Montesquieu, Frederick the Great (an “enlightened despot”), and a host of others. I recall that our professor even allowed Jean-Jacques Rousseau to make a brief and tightly-regulated appearance. I couldn’t help but like the Enlightenment figures’ emphasis on science, reason, and empirical thinking rather than religion; their belief in the equality of all men – for some, even the equality of all men and women; and their willingness to rethink the “timeless verities” that had been handed down from century to century in Europe.

            But as I identified with the enlightened figures of the 18th century, I was consistently brought back to a harsher reality: hadn’t I learned in a previous year’s introductory European History course that the 18th century ended rather badly for France, the epicenter of the Enlightenment? Didn’t the French Revolution that began so nobly with a Declaration of the Rights of Man degenerate into a guillotined bloodbath, with some of the revered Enlightenment figures finding themselves on the chopping block for politically incorrect thinking or insufficient revolutionary zeal? Wasn’t our text punctuated with several gruesome sketches of the guillotine in action? And didn’t that revolutionary zeal inspire a pesky little guy named Napoleon to launch a European war of conquest? What was so enlightened about that?

            In the decades since that course, I have instinctively felt the need to check my natural enthusiasm for the ideals of the Enlightenment by reminding myself of the ignominious ending to the French Revolution, followed by Napoleonic wars of conquest. Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters seeks to uncouple the Enlightenment from the darker chapters of the Revolution and the Napoleonic era. Pagden’s answer to why the Enlightenment still matters, his somewhat aggressive, in-your-face title, is that it continues to be the baseline for the “broadly secular, experimental, individualist and progressive intellectual world” we inhabit today (p.x-xi). By insisting on “its own unfinished nature,” the Enlightenment “quite simply created the modern world. It is . . . impossible to imagine any aspect of contemporary life in the West without it” (p. 408). In particular, Pagden concludes that modern liberal democracy, the form of political system which, “for better and sometimes for worse, governs most modern societies,” is a “creation of the Enlightenment, refined and institutionalized during the course of the nineteenth century” (p.412-13). Nonetheless, the struggle over the legacy of the Enlightenment remains one of the “most persistent, most troubling, and increasingly most divisive” of the ideological divisions within the modern world (p.ix).

            For Pagden, the Enlightenment arose during the “long” 18th century, the last decade of the 17th century through the first decade of the 19th, in the aftermath of the 17th century’s religious wars and the accompanying breakdown of the authority and intellectual unity of the Catholic church. These wars, the Reformation, the “theologically destabilizing impact of the revival of Skepticism,” and the discovery of the Americas had “dealt all the self-assured claims of the theologians a blow from which they never recovered’ (p.96). By the end of the 17th century, Christianity was no longer able to provide the “intellectual and consequently moral certainty that it once had done” (p.406). Pagden describes two broad, intertwined intellectual trends which marked the Enlightenment: reliance upon science and reason, rather the religion and theology, to explain the human species and the universe; and what he calls the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment, its emphasis upon what unites the human species across a vast array of cultures and languages. Pagden sets out these trends in eight erudite if sometimes difficult to follow chapters, each with a snappy title (e.g. “Bringing Pity Back In”; “The Fatherless World”). The most argumentative portion – and for me the most enticing – is his conclusion, entitled “Enlightenment and Its Enemies,” evoking Karl Popper’s World War II-era defense of liberal democracy, The Open Society and Its Enemies.

            The Enlightenment can be studied from numerous angles, but most encompass the study of the thinking of Europe’s enlightened figures, a “self-appointed elite” whose members were, as Pagden phrases it, marked by their “intellectual gifts, their open-mindedness, their benevolence toward their fellow human beings. . . and their generosity” (p.322). Each student of the period has his or her own favorite figures. My undergraduate course seemed to turn around Diderot, whereas Pagden’s interpretation gives preeminent place to two philosophers who thrived outside France, the Scottish David Hume and the German Immanuel Kant. Although the thinking of each ranged broadly, Hume personifies for Pagden the secular thread of the Enlightenment, the effort to supplant religious and theological explanations of man and the universe with a “science of man,” based on such notions as “sentiment,” “empathy, “and “virtue,” rather than simple self-preservation, as Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher and quasi-atheist, had posited. In somewhat different terms, both Hume and Kant articulated the Enlightenment’s cosmopolitan universalism.

            Hume became the “single most influential proponent of a secular ethics based upon a ‘science of man’ which the Enlightenment ever produced” (p.153), Pagden writes. For Hume, the world’s religions – those “sick men’s dreams,” as he called them (p.125) — had only muddled, corrupted and complicated human lives. His demolition of religion was, Pagden argues, “more assertive, better argued, more profound, and has been more long-standing than that of any philosopher besides Kant” (p.146). Moreover, unlike Kant, Hume was “able to demonstrate that religious belief could not exist ‘within the limits of reason alone,’” using Kant’s phrase (p.146). Hume agreed with the Old Testament view that “however varied actual human beings might be, they all shared a common identity as humans,” with “no universal difference discernible in the human species” (p.162). For Hume, “habits,” “manners,” “customs,” are the stuff of which our worlds are made. All that distinguished the “wisest European from the most ignorant ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ is precisely the same as that which distinguishes one ‘civilized’ people from another . . . custom, law, habit, and social expectations” (p.163).

          Pagden cautiously endorses the view of Kant as the “first of the modern liberals” and the first to claim that “modern liberal democracy was bound eventually to become the form of government that all enlightened and civilized peoples would one day embrace” (p.358). Kant’s “cosmopolitan right,” the vision of humanity moving steadily toward a future free of strife and hostility, in which all humans might pursue their own individual ends without endangering those of others, was the “inescapable conclusion of the Enlightenment project” (p.370). Kant, who paradoxically never traveled more than 30 miles away from his native Konigsberg in Germany, also foreshadowed the 20th and 21st century movements toward international justice.

            Kant’s Toward Perpetual Peace, written in the aftermath of the 1795 Peace of Basel, which ended the War of the First Coalition between Europe’s principal monarchies and revolutionary France, set out Kant’s views on ending the scourge of war. In this tract, Kant laid out the case for a hypothetical universal peace treaty that could “ensure the future and inescapably cosmopolitan development of the human race” (p.349). The influence of Toward Perpetual Peace can be seen not only in “contemporary discussions over global governance and global justice but also in the creation of the universal institutions to sustain them, in the League of Nations, the United Nations, and perhaps most closely of all, the European Union” (p.349-50). In bringing the secular, scientific and cosmopolitan threads of the Enlightenment together, Hume and Kant enunciated the Enlightenment objective of creating a “historically grounded human science that would one day lead to the creation of a universal civilization capable of making all individuals independent, autonomous, freed of dictates from above and below, self-knowing, and dependent only on one another for survival” (p.371).

            After setting forth the essential threads of the Enlightenment and highlighting its most consequential thinkers, Pagden finishes with his provocative conclusion, “Enlightenment and Its Enemies,” in which he discusses the case against the Enlightenment. The case amounts to an assault against modernity, Pagden contends, based on “some caricature of a project to reduce all human life to a set of rational calculations” (p.406). Under this view, the Enlightenment produced a culture “devoid of direction and purpose” because the Enlightenment was “fundamentally wrong about morality” as being discoverable by reason alone (p.397). Without the guidelines of tradition, custom and systems of religious belief which the Enlightenment sought to strip away, “humans are lost” and the Western world has been “suffering for it ever since” (p.398). What might be termed the German 4H club, Herder, Heine, and Hegel in the 19th century, and Heidegger in the 20th, propounded the view of the Enlightenment as a “cold, toneless, monstrous and calculating . . . It had tried to crush all of human life, difference, heroism, and desire” (p.387). Over the centuries, Enlightenment, the “Rights of Man,” “Republicanism,” and Kant’s “Cosmopolitanism” all came to be identified in the minds of conservative elites with the destructive power of the French Revolution. Or, as Friederich Karl von Moser, an 18th German jurist and government official, more succinctly put it, Enlightenment “begins with philosophy and ends with scalping and cannibalism” (p.381).

            In response, Pagden comes to what is for me the crux of his argument on behalf of the Enlightenment. Any direct causal link between the Enlightenment and the darker side of the French Revolution, he asserts, is “spurious” (p.389). Had the Enlightenment in fact been a precursor to the Revolution and to Napoleon, he writes, “it would not be of much lasting importance” (p.389). For all its excesses, the Revolution and the Napoleonic era were a “necessary evil” that “ultimately cleared the way for the liberal-democratic order that ultimately came to replace the ancient regime throughout Europe” (p.389). That doesn’t sound to me like an argument that the links between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution are “spurious” (which my dictionary defines as “of falsified or erroneously attributed origin”). Rather, Pagden’s account seems to acknowledge that the Revolution and Napoleonic era were intertwined with the Enlightenment, and it is difficult to see how one could argue otherwise.

            The Enlightenment itself was a complex phenomenon, and the interpretation of its legacy some 200 years after the end of the “long” 18th century still excites passions. Given this complexity, we should not be surprised that many paths can be charted from the Enlightenment. I accept as well-founded the link which Isaiah Berlin perceived between the Enlightenment’s utopian universalism and the game plan which Vladimir Lenin devised for Russia. That another path from the Enlightenment leads to modern notions of liberal democracy, Pagden’s primary contention, seems unassailable. And it is not unreasonable to contend, as Pagden does, that the Revolution and the Napoleonic era were necessary disruptions to clear that path. But that is a more modest contention than that links between the Revolution and the Enlightenment are “spurious.”

            After the horrendous wars and genocides of the 20th century, we know that we cannot always count on reason to prevail. There is still tribalism of many sorts that precludes us from seeing the common humanity linking individuals across the globe, and atrocities are committed in the name of religion nearly every day. But the Enlightenment impulses represent for me now, as they did in that classroom several decades ago, the more noble side of human beings and human experience – if only I could only rid my mind of those guillotine sketches in my college textbook.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
January 24, 2015

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