The End of Democracy?

By Win McCormack
(Tin House magazine Issue # 37)
Fall 2008

In the summer of 1989, after the success of democratic forces led by the Solidarity union in Poland in June and before the fall of the Berlin Wall that autumn, Francis Fukuyama, a previously obscure right-leaning thinker who was then deputy director of the policy planning staff at the Department of State, published an article in the neoconservative journal the National Interest called “The End of History?” The article, which caused an intellectual sensation internationally, argued that the ongoing collapse of Soviet Communism, and ipso facto of any remaining legitimacy for Marxist-Leninism, represented the end point of political philosophy and of serious ideological conflict in the world.

Fukuyama’s thesis was ostensibly posited within a strictly Hegelian framework. Thus he could parry with seeming ease the criticisms that followed, such as those of Samuel P. Huntington, who in a subsequent issue of the National Interest pointed out the continuing existence of a number of actual conflicts around the world and the likelihood of more to come. Fukuyama was not talking about actual, material conflicts; he was operating in the Hegelian realm of abstract ideas, and in that realm the liberal democratic idea and ethos now reigned supreme and unchallenged. Its last serious challenger, Marxism, aka Communism, had been thoroughly vanquished, and there was no other on the horizon, nor was there ever likely to be another one again.

An aspect of Fukuyama’s thinking many commentators (though not political scientist Shadia Drury) overlooked was that Fukuyama did not believe this putative triumph of democracy was actually a good thing. To the contrary, Fukuyama was affiliated with a group of anti-democratic intellectuals who took their lead from Nietzsche in believing that liberal democracy represented not the fulfillment of man’s innermost needs and highest ideals but rather a subjugation of them to a mass slave mentality. This group included Leo Strauss (recently notorious because of his deep influence on some of the worst members of the George W. Bush administration), Allan Bloom (a colleague of Strauss at the University of Chicago and a teacher of Fukuyama who wrote the elitist Nietzschean tract The Closing of the American Mind), and Alexandre Kojčve, a close friend of Strauss and, according to Shadia Drury, Fukuyama’s chief intellectual influence (he was even more pessimistic about democracy than Strauss). Fukuyama came fully out of the closet with his anti-liberal, Nietzschean bias when he titled his book The End of History and the Last Man, the “last man” referring to the final degenerate product of modern liberal society in Nietzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.

My own immediate and sustained reaction to the Fukuyama brouhaha, different from that of most others, was that Fukuyama was not saying anything new. At least, he was not saying anything new to me. I’d heard it a generation before, in the mid-1960’s, when I was majoring in Government at Harvard. Professor Louis Hartz was teaching us that there was not then in existence any viable intellectual alternative to liberalism, least of all Marxism, and Soviet specialist Adam Ulam was adumbrating how Marxist theory and modern liberal theory were two sides of the same coin, namely the obsequious worship of industrial capitalism. In Fukuyama’s own Hegelian terms, the idealistic struggle between capitalism and socialism had ended long before; it had merely needed time to play itself out in the material realm. Contrary to what Fukuyama thought or imagined about what he had written, it was not a an ideational reality he was taking note of but the material manifestation of it arrived at long ago.

In 1993, Samuel P. Huntington responded more fully to Fukuyama in an article in Foreign Affairs, “The Clash of Civilizations,” later expanded into a book of the same name and whose title soon became a phrase at least as common in political parlance as Fukuyama’s “The End of History.” In the article, Huntington conceded the termination (at least for the foreseeable future) of the kind of ideological conflict that had underpinned the Cold War, but argued that it would soon be replaced by a more historically typical clash between cultures. Huntington defined a civilization in terms of its culture, and equated a civilization’s culture with its religion. The three main contending cultures in the coming era, Huntington thought, would be the Christian West, the Islamic civilization primarily concentrated in the Middle East or nearby, and Chinese Confucianism (a system of social and political ethics that Huntington took as the functional equivalent of a religion).

The year before, during the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s sailing to what was for Europe a New World, I had watched a TV documentary that explained the real complex of motivations behind this trip more clearly and honestly than it had been explained to me in school, where I recall being taught that the purpose of the voyage was to find a quicker route to the spice islands, or Indies, now known as Indonesia. At that time in history, as the documentary laid out, there were three main interconnected civilizations in the “known” world—Christian Europe, the Islamic Middle East, and an Asia dominated by Confucian China. China at the time was the manufacturing center of the world, from whence Europe procured most of its valuable goods. On their way to Europe, these goods had to pass through the Middle East, where traders levied a substantial surcharge on the cost of transportation. Because of this situation, Europe was the poorest of the three civilizations, and by a long shot. So the actual purpose of Columbus’s journey was to find a way to circumvent the Middle East and procure goods (primarily manufactured goods like silk, but also spices) directly from Asia, thus increasing Europe’s wealth relative to its two rivals (a wildly successful project, as it turned out).

When I came across the issue of Foreign Affairs containing Huntington’s article the following year, I said to myself, “Holy Moly!” (or words to that effect).  It seemed to me that, after the Renaissance, after the Enlightenment, after the Industrial Revolution, after all the upheavals and disasters of the 20th Century, the basic, underlying political structure of the world was still almost exactly the same as it was in 1492. This was a stunning revelation. Huntington, who had also been an important political science teacher of mine, had once again proved his theoretical brilliance. After 9/11, he was, of course, taken by the whole world to be almost a kind of political seer.

Recently, however, Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has provided what I think is a necessary corrective to both Fukuyama and Huntington. In an article in the April 23, 2008, issue of the New Republic titled “The End of the End of History: Why the Twenty-first Century Will Look like the Nineteenth,” Kagan sees not a world of nations moving inexorably, if fitfully, toward realization of the last great idea of history, liberal democracy, nor a world rent primarily by clashes among the three civilizations of China, Islam and the West. Kagan instead sees the great coming struggle as one between democracy and autocracy, and he pinpoints what I myself have been thinking for some time now is the single most important and most troubling political phenomenon of recent years: China’s apparent success in proving that authoritarian—nay, totalitarian—government can coexist with a thriving capitalist economy.

A putative symbiosis between capitalism and democracy has been one of the chief tenets of liberalism for a long time now. The liberal freedoms—and particularly freedom of thought—have been deemed essential to the existence and functioning of capitalism, for without those freedoms, it is assumed, you can’t have a free and open economy, and vice versa: you can’t have those freedoms without also having the capitalism that accompanies and requires them. Indeed, the supposed interdependence between capitalism and democracy has been one of the main arguments used by the defenders of capitalism against its critics, and the dismal economic performance of the former Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, along with, until not too long ago, Communist China, has been cited as irrefutable proof that capitalism and freedom are joined at the hip. Now all of a sudden, in the world’s most populous country and its oldest existing civilization, the connection between the two seems to have been severed. China, still authoritarian to the core (as recent events in Tibet demonstrated), has been producing the highest rate of economic growth in the world, and shows no signs of slowing down.

There are those who believe China’s autocratic capitalism is a transient stage which will eventually have to give way to the demands for legal rights of a rising middle class and the exigencies of an ever-developing and complex technology. They may well be proven right—indeed, I very much hope they are. But Paul Wiseman’s April 23, 2008, article in USA Today, “In China, a Battle over Web Censorship,” which cast grave doubt on that thesis, caught my eye just as I was beginning to accumulate materials for this essay.

The Web has been praised as a technology that, because it is intrinsically anarchic, will eventually undermine authoritarian control in China. In an excerpt in this issue from his new book, Marcos Mulitas Zuniga, an internaet political pioneer, lauds the role of the internet in the “Orange Revolution” in the Ukraine. But Wiseman describes in detail how the Chinese government, using a mixture of old-fashioned intimidation (e.g. putting people in jail) and creative technology of its own, “has proved that old-school Communist apparatchiks could tame something as wild as the Web.” The government’s techniques include building in chokepoints where it can physically monitor all traffic over the internet; forcing self-censorship by making websites responsible for what appears on them; spreading its own official propaganda over the internet and inserting “cartoon cybercops” who pop up to remind viewers that they are being watched; and enlisting the all-too willing help of major capitalist technology companies in the democratic West (Google and Yahoo have been the worst offenders in this regard). All of this together amounts to, according to the OpenNet Intitiative, the “world’s most sophisticated Internet filtering system” And what PEN has called “The Great Firewall.”

Kagan is much less worried about radical Islam, the obsessive and nearly sole focus of American foreign policy since September 11, 2001. While admitting its enormous destructive potential—Islamic terrorists could still some day gain access to nuclear weapons, as they have aspired to—and though foreseeing a protracted struggle between it and the forces of modernity, Kagan does not view it as a serious systemic threat, simply because the major nations of the world, whatever their other differences, all have in common the acceptance of the basic cultural elements of modernity, as do most of the world’s peoples, including a majority of those in the Middle East; there is very little actual support around the world for Islamic radicalism’s program of returning, culturally, to the Arabian Middle Ages. The struggle between autocracy and democracy, however, which Kagan reminds us has been in progress (interrupted or merely masked by the ideological struggles of the twentieth century) since the Enlightenment, is real, and who will be victorious in this struggle is, once again, far from certain.

As Kagan points out in his New Republic piece, China is not the only important country in the world choosing to follow the authoritarian path. Coming up close behind it is Russia, another of the world’s largest countries. This nation-state, an economic basket case at the end of the 1990’s after a decade-long experiment with democratic freedoms and popular sovereignty, is now, under the aegis of ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin, and with the apparent strong support of its populace, both increasingly autocratic and increasingly productive economically. More and more in foreign policy, Russia and China cooperate with each other as well as other authoritarian regimes, such as Iran, that share a similar political values that are opposed to the United States and the rest of the West. “The global competition between democratic governments and autocratic governments will become a dominant feature of the twenty-first-century world,” Kagan predicts.


* * * * *

While the authoritarian powers of China and Russia have been on the rise, the leading democracy in the world, the United States, has seemed suddenly and precipitously headed in the opposite direction. David Boren, a former moderate-conservative Democratic U.S. Senator who is now president of the University of Oklahoma, has written a book called Letter to America, in which he says: “The country we love is in trouble. In truth, we face grave danger as a nation. If we do not act quickly, that decline will become dramatic. The signs are clear for all to see. Only those in deliberate denial could fail to notice.” Topping Boren’s list of signs is “the catastrophic drop in the way the rest of the world views us.” (Boren was chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee when he was in office.)

Let me quote from an investment report that recently came across my desk. The report emanates from a group of coldblooded financial analysts whose job it is to figure out how to maximize investment returns for their capitalist clients—not from, say, a liberal think tank. The quoted passage is in a section dealing with the recent run-up in commodity prices, particularly the price of oil:


Unfortunately, one of the main causes of the commodity bubble has been a factor that was also a major driver of many past commodity bubbles: geopolitics…The long series of U.S. foreign policy errors of the last several years, and the resulting decline of U.S. power and influence, has played a major role in this trend…the ongoing occupation of Iraq is a major factor driving the high level of global tensions and decline of U.S. power and influence that have greatly contributed to the increase in commodity prices….Unfortunately, Iraq’s multi-factional civil war continues to grind on. Improved U.S. military strategy in Iraq (mostly as a result of reduced neoconservative interference with professional military decisions) has somewhat reduced the level of violence in the country, but has also deepened the regional divisions that make it unlikely that Iraq can again stand on its own as a unified nation...Neoconservative foreign policy goals continue to elevate oil prices in other ways as well. Concerns about the risk of a U.S. attack on Iran, which would sharply increase commodity prices, probably account for another $10-20 per barrel…Air power is one of the few aspects of U.S. military power that remains relatively strong, but even that may weaken in the coming years. U.S military strength is a key national asset and source of global stability, but it is being seriously eroded by the effects of the extended occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recently indicated that major weapons systems, including new aircraft, may be vulnerable to spending cuts if they are not deemed relevant to fighting insurgencies. Meanwhile, future rivals to U.S. power such as China and Russia are increasing military spending and improving their military technology…The deteriorating U.S. federal budget will create very difficult choices in coming years between restoring U.S. military readiness, maintaining Social Security and Medicare commitments, and avoiding large tax increases…The U.S. position in the world is also no longer what it once was; whereas eight years ago the U.S. was envied, loved, and feared around the world, now the opposite is generally the case.



What effect might this precipitous erosion of U.S. prestige and power be having on the state of Democracy in the world? In a recent New York Times column, “The Democratic Recession,” Thomas Friedman reported: “The term ‘democratic recession’ was coined by Larry Diamond, a Stanford University political scientist, in his new book The Spirit of Democracy. And the numbers tell the story. At the end of last year, Freedom House, which tracks democratic trends and elections around the globe, noted that 2007 was by far the worst year for freedom in the world since the end of the cold war. Almost four times as many states—38—declined in their freedom scores as improved—10.” Friedman blames this trend partly on the fact that states whose economies depend largely on oil and gas revenues tend not to be democratic, but adds: “The decline of U.S. influence and moral authority has also taken a toll,” and, quoting Diamond, “There has been an enormous squandering of American soft power, and hard power, in recent years.”

Also prominent on  Boren’s list of signs of a U.S. decline is the equally appalling state of the nation’s domestic infrastructure. This dire situation was detailed by Sarah Williams Goldhagen in an April 27, 2007, article in The New Republic titled “American Collapse.” The article was written soon after two notorious recent calamities in urban America— in Minneapolis, the tumbling of a forty-year old bridge into the Mississippi River that killed at least five people and injured approximately one hundred more, and in mid-town Manhattan, the explosion of an eighty-three-year-old asbestos-wrapped steam pipe that killed one person and injured a dozen more (the pipe’s owner, the Con Edison company, had inspected and certified it as being in good order that morning).


* * * * *

"America’s metropolitan regions,” Goldhagen wrote, “are in serious trouble. Bridges, utilities, and flood-prevention systems, whether publicly or privately owned, are grossly neglected. Suburbs are sprawling like unchecked chickweed. Cars are stuck in ever-mounting hours of traffic. Cities are bleeding people. School buildings are overpopulated and crumbling. Waters are polluted. Shipping ports are decrepit.” Goldhagen contrasts this situation in the United States with the state of things in other parts of the world:


Visit metropolitan regions in many of the developing countries in Asia, and the gross inferiority of America’s physical infrastructure is immediately apparent…At every turn, a citizen moving through the built environment of these countries sees and uses physically embodied signs communicating to them that in their society, public life matters.

But forget, if you wish, the vast infrastructural building taking place across economically exploding Asia and the Middle East. Look no further than Europe or Canada, areas in what used to be called the industrialized world, where metropolitan regions are facing the same problems of demographic shifts, higher labor costs, and aging infrastructure that we face in the United States. Again and again we find examples of metropolitan regions that have successfully risen to these challenges.


According to Goldhagen, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has estimated that the United States would need to spend $1.6 trillion to bring the country’s infrastructure up to only minimal standards. The ASCE has apparently given no estimate of what it would take to bring our infrastructure up to the higher standards prevailing in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Canada, and we can probably only begin to imagine.

How did we reach, almost unawares, this crisis of infrastructure in our country? Goldhagen attributed this to two factors. The first is sheer cost. Large infrastructure projects, such as a new mass transit line or waterway system, even a new park or a bridge, cost “an extraordinary amount of money,” something that strikes fear in the hearts of local politicians. “When a proposed tax or budget item can be specifically linked to the officials whom voters elect to their own state or local offices, the political disincentives to address a metropolitan region’s infrastructural needs are enormous.” Since Reagan’s first budget, federal funding of local infrastructure construction has been steadily declining. The federal government, which used to provide the bulk of these monies, has drastically reduced its role, while state and local governments have been unable or unwilling to step up to the plate. (Tom Frank, in this issue, discusses how devolving costly federal programs and responsibilities to the state and local level has been part of “conservative” governing strategy since Reagan.)

The second factor impeding the proper maintenance and necessary upgrading of America’s infrastructure has been the inherently—indeed, constitutionally mandated for the most part—fragmented nature of the American political system at all levels. “Even in the heyday of infrastructure building in the United States from 1930 to 1970”, Goldhagen noted, “it took an imperious wheeler-dealer such as Robert Moses” to take maximum advantage of the funds that the federal government stood ready to provide. Goldhagen quoted Robert Caro, biographer of Moses; although he did not much like the high-handed ways of his subject, he nevertheless conceded in his book The Power Broker that “the problem of constructing large-scale public works in a crowded urban setting…is one that democracy has not yet solved.”

“American democracy, that is,” Goldhagen pointedly added. She summarized: “Owing to the disincentives to address the country’s infrastructure that are built into the American democratic system—and to the rightward shove of our governance in the last twenty years, which has militated against even discussing, let alone addressing, large-scale public needs—the political obstacles to taking America’s infrastructural problems seriously are enormous.”

The American political system itself, as designed by the Founding Fathers, seems to be at the root of many of our problems of governance. In addition to the extreme fragmentation among levels and entities of government noted above, the sharp division of powers between different branches (the radical separation of executive and legislative power alone marks us as exceptional) also can make it a very difficult system through which to govern effectively. As well, the operation of the electoral college, which effectively disenfranchises voters in many or most states, and the way in which U.S. Senate seats are constitutionally apportioned to states without regard to population call into serious question not only the efficacy but the quality of American democracy. This has also facilitated the ascension of reactionary far-right forces in the country, adding to our political paralysis. The continuing inability of the government to address our energy challenges in any creative way (or in any way at all) is another prize example of the problem, as is our continuing lack (alone among modern industrial nations) of an adequate universal health care system.

Since the spread of democracy began in the nineteenth century, not one single newly enfranchised country has chosen to adopt a political system resembling that devised by the Founders. Even more striking, perhaps: in instances where the United States has been in a position to try to impose democracy on another country—Japan and Iraq, notably, and to an extent Germany—the U.S. itself has chosen not to impose its own peculiar brand. The U.S. system of democracy is not a model for rest of the world. The one aspect of our system universally admired by peoples around the globe—if not their governments—is our Bill of Rights. But over the past seven and a half years we have experienced a frontal presidential assault on a tradition of civil liberties dating back not just to the founding of the Republic but to seventeenth-century England. If we do not soon reverse the etiolation by the right wing (they do not deserve the term “conservative,” least of all in this context) of our precious civil liberties, what position will we be in to morally resist the bid for dominance by authoritarian world powers?


* * * * *


While things are often even worse than they appear, sometimes they turn out to be not actually as bad as they first appeared. Maybe that will be the case here, with respect to the condition of the United States and democracy. That is the thesis of a piece in the May 12, 2008, issue of Newsweek magazine by editor Fareed Zakaria called “The Rise of the Rest,” an excerpt from his new book, The Post-American World. “Others,” Zakaria says, and indubitably he has Robert Kagan in mind, “paint a dark picture of a world in which dictators are on the march. China and Russia and assorted other oil potentates are surging. We must draw the battle lines now, they warn, and engage in a Manichean struggle that will define the next century.”

Zakaria himself will have none of this. “Today’s rising great powers are relatively benign by historical measure,” he asserts. They will choose, he thinks, to “get rich within the existing international order.” They “occupy an uncomfortable gray zone, neither friends nor foes.” Zakaria sees signs of hope wherever he goes. As he travels the Middle East, for instance, he is “struck by how little Iraq’s troubles have destabilized the region.” He finds that “the underlying reality across the globe is of enormous vitality.” As for the United States, it is “currently ranked as the globe’s most competitive economy by the World Economic Forum,” and “remains the most open, flexible society in the world.” When he compares this dynamism with “the closed and hierarchical nations that were once superpowers,” Fareed sees little cause for concern. The “rise of the rest” is one of the “most thrilling stories in history.” The United States is succeeding in its “great, historical mission”—globalizing the world.

Someone who does sees grave cause for global concern is Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA and also an expert in physiology, evolutionary biology, and biogeography. After reading his disquieting, if not terrifying, book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, one wonders about the future of industrial capitalism itself, let alone bourgeois democracy. Diamond demonstrates, with exhaustively detailed research, that all previous human social systems that have fallen apart have done so because (though he is careful to point out there are often other contributing factors) of the destruction they wreaked on their natural environment. Put differently, by undermining the ecological balance of their surroundings, they compromised their own ability to survive. Prime examples of this phenomenon in its most extreme form, which Jared calls “ecosuicide,” include the fates of the inhabitants of Easter Island, of the early Norse settlers of Greenland, and of the Anasazi of the ancient American Southwest.

The world today confronts all the same man-made ecological problems, such as deforestation and habitat destruction, overhunting and overfishing, soil problems and water management problems, and human population growth, as did previous societies, together with a brand-new and potentially more lethal one: the human-induced climate change, known as global warming, that is a direct and inexorable result of our industrial civilization’s almost complete dependence on fossil fuels for the energy that drives its machinery. Moreover, today’s world has an important characteristic lacking in previous eras: the inextricable interdependence between different parts of the globe and its different cultures and nations. The fall of the civilizations of Easter Island, of the Norse in Greenland, and of the Anasazi in North America had no wider impact beyond the borders of those isolated and unfortunate peoples. That would not be true today, which, as Diamond points out, is the real significance of the phenomenon called “globalization.”

The original, fundamental, and still-vibrant dream of liberalism—the dream adumbrated, with whatever irony and mixed feelings, by Francis Fukuyama—is the spread of bourgeois democracy and consumer affluence to every single corner of the globe. It has been considered by most, if not by the right-wing Nietzscheans or those left-wing romantics who have opposed industrialization from the start, a worthy and noble dream. But in perhaps the most uncompromising section of his book, Jared Diamond flatly argues “the dream’s impossibility.” He says:


There are many “optimists” who argue that the world could support double its human population, who consider only the increase in human numbers and not the average increase in per-capita impact. But I have not met anyone who seriously argues that the world could support twelve times its current impact, although an increase of that factor would result from all Third World inhabitants adopting First World standards… Even if the people of China alone achieved a First World living standard while everyone else’s standard remained constant, that would double our human impact on the world…. Even if the human populations of the Third World did not exist, it would be impossible for the First World alone to maintain its present course, because it is not in a steady state but is depleting its own resources as well as those imported from the Third World.


What if the leaders of the industrial and industrializing countries of the world insist on trying to maintain their current developmental trajectories? “Because we are rapidly advancing along this non-sustainable course, the world’s environmental problems willget resolved, in one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today,” Diamond writes. “The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies. While all of those grim phenomena have been endemic to humanity throughout our history, their frequency increases with environmental degradation, population pressure, and the resulting poverty and political instability.” Diamond has two opposing maps in the book intending to show that those countries suffering the most severe environmental deterioration (Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Madagascar, Mongolia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Soloman islands) are the same—exactly the same, without exception—as those experiencing the greatest political unrest.


An outcome less drastic than a worldwide collapse might ‘merely’ be the spread of Rwanda-like or Haiti-like conditions to many more developing countries,” says Diamond, “while we First World inhabitants retain many of our amenities but face a future with which we are unhappy, beset by more chronic terrorism, wars, and disease outbreaks. But it is doubtful that the First World could retain its separate lifestyle in the face of desperate waves of immigrants fleeing from collapsing Third World countries in numbers much larger than the current unstoppable influx. I’m reminded again of how I picture the end of Gardar Cathedral Farm and its splendid cattle barn on Greenland, overwhelmed by the influx of Norse from poorer farms where all the livestock had died or been eaten.


Is the world-wide doomsday ecological and political scenario projected here by Jared Diamond inevitable? He himself does not maintain that it is. He includes in Collapse a section that carries the heading “Reasons for Hope”—only a few pages, admittedly, within a total page count of 525, but nevertheless that is better than if he could muster no pages at all. His first reason for hope is that, in his judgment, the ecological problems we face are not insoluble; precisely because we are causing these problems ourselves, we are ultimately the ones in control of them. “Apply solutions already available.” Diamond’s second reason involves the ongoing spread of environmental consciousness around the world coupled with the increase in long-range environmental planning within various organizations, including NGO’s, corporations, and governments. Another reason Diamond adduces for optimism is an increasing responsiveness of business—or, more correctly, of certain specific businesses, and certain specific types of businesses—to environmental problems and concerns.

But of greatest importance, I think, is the emphasis professor Diamond places throughout on the role of enlightened leadership in mobilizing a society to confront its environmental problems, the actions of the Tokugawa Shogunate in reversing the deforestation of Japan in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries being his foremost example from the past. The key variable in the behavior of a society’s leaders, Diamond finds, is the extent to which the leaders identify with the rest of the populace and feel themselves sharing the same problems as everyone else. This insight raises an alarm bell with respect to the United States, where social and political developments over the last quarter-century (in some or large part because of deliberate policies consciously pursued by right-wing Republican administrations, though Diamond does not bring this up) have been going in the exact opposite direction of that situation. David Boren wrote, “Year after year we watch as our middle class shrinks,” and quoted Justice Brandeis: “You can have democracy and a society sharply divided between the rich and the poor, but you cannot have both for very long.”

In a chapter in his book called “The World as a Polder,” Diamond contrasts the United States unfavorably with the Netherlands, where the constant threat of being overrun by the sea and the necessity of maintaining reclaimed lands below sea level (called “polders”) long ago forced Dutch of all classes into collective consciousness and action. Diamond writes,


That acknowledged interdependence of all segments of Dutch society contrasts with current trends in the United States, where wealthy people increasingly seek to insulate themselves from the rest of society, aspire to create their own separate virtual polders, use their own money to buy services for themselves privately, and vote against taxes that would extend those amenities as public services to everyone else…Underlying such privatization is a misguided belief that the elite can remain unaffected by the problems of society around them: the attitude of those Greenland Norse chiefs who found that they had merely bought themselves the privilege of being the last to starve.


In his December 10, 2007 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, Al Gore said regarding the planet’s climate change crisis that “the outcome will be decisively influenced by two nations that are now failing to do enough: the United States and China.” China, with recently the highest rate of growth in the world, is now also the world’s single worst polluter by almost every measure. Near the beginning of a June 2008 article in the Atlantic Monthly titled “China’s Silver Lining,” James Fallows states: “China’s environmental situation is disastrous. And it is improving.” He repeats this sentiment (which Jared Diamond shares) in reverse form toward the end of the article: “There are positive developments in China. And the situation is grave.” A single statistic: right now China burns about one-third of the coal used in the world, and every year it burns 10  percent more coal than it did in the previous year. Fallows (along with Diamond) vests some hope in the apparent increase in seriousness about the environment throughout the Chinese government, as manifested, for instance, by the fact that it is currently revising its performance rating system for officials so that they are rated on environmental protection achievements as well as their accomplishments in economic growth.

Diamond also reposits hope in the very fact of China’s extreme political centralization—what he politely calls its “unique form of government, top-down decision-making [that] has operated on a far larger scale there than anywhere else,” which might, he speculates, enable it to confront its environmental emergencies as ruthlessly as it has its problem of overpopulation. And the question of what degree of governmental centralization or decentralization, or combination thereof, might be best suited to staving off ecological disaster in any given country and the world is a major one. But Diamond also raises another important question, which may be the single most important question of the era: can technology manage to solve the environmental problems technology itself has created, or will technology create new problems faster than it solves the old ones (assuming it can solve those)? Or, as he puts it specifically with respect to China: “The development of environmental problems is accelerating, the development of attempted solutions is also accelerating, which horse will win the race?” And here I can offer some more personal observations.

I recently attended the annual meeting of the venture capital firm in which my older brother is a partner. The original partners of this firm, including my brother, are conservative Republicans who met each other serving in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, though I would say from hearing some of their political views that they might be closer to the mind-set of George W. Bush than to that of his father. There was, throughout the day-and-a-half gathering, a new and novel emphasis on the threat of global warming and strategies for investing in technologies (for example, solar power) to combat it—in fact, the main theme of the whole convocation was essentially the investment opportunities provided by the necessity to address the problem of global warming. The speaker at the opening dinner was a professor from Princeton, expert in the field of climate change, who spoke of the difficulty of reversing the damage the process has already done to the world’s ecosystems while holding out strong hope for stopping its continued spread. In introducing him to the audience, the presiding partner apologized to someone in the audience who was apparently a fan of Rush Limbaugh and of Limbaugh’s stated disbelief in global warming. “I am a big admirer of Rush, and agree with most things he says,” the partner demurred, “but he is dead wrong about global warming.”

A nice anecdote, and encouraging as far as it goes, but the matter as a whole actually goes much further. My brother’s oldest son, a graduate of Stanford in both engineering and business administration, operates an affiliate branch of the venture capital firm in China. He is married to a Chinese woman whose father is one of the major silicon chip producers in Taiwan (she grew up and was educated in the United States). Her name is Peggy Liu. And lo and behold, my niece-in-law Peggy turns up in James Fallow’s Atlantic Monthly piece as one of his prime examples of positive developments in the field of environmentalism on the Chinese mainland:


I talked with two foreign representatives of nongovernmental organizations—Peggy Liu of the Joint U.S.-China Cooperation on Clean Energy (JUCCCE), and Lila Buckley, of the Global Environmental Institute (GEI)—that have been working with the central and provincial party schools to develop new courses and emphases. Liu, a Chinese American veteran of the tech and venture-capital industries who now lives in Shanghai, started JUCCCE last year as a way of pooling Chinese and international efforts on the environment…The group is developing bilingual Web sites intended to connect Chinese scientists, officials, and bureaucrats with their counterparts overseas, and is trying to connect party officials and factory managers across the country with international advisers…


So far, [Liu] said, the Chinese government has welcomed rather than impeded her projects. “The government’s green policies are among the most progressive in the world—seriously,” she told me. “The challenge is to build an environmentally conscious work force and have it pervade at every level. It’s as if Starbucks were building a whole coffee culture at once.”


Ah, it’s nice to have an optimistic niece.

It is conceivable that the mechanisms of our existing system of industrial capitalism will be able to save the planet from the worst consequences of the ecological crisis that these same mechanisms—those of the market and the profit motive and technology—have themselves created. Certainly it is apparent from the above that gimlet-eyed, ambitious capitalists, with allies in the public sector and without much regard for inflexible ideology, already have this effort underway, and in the two countries Al Gore has cited as the most vital for the cause. Time will tell whether the horse of advancing technology can, in effect, outrun itself.

What of the future of democracy? I think it is clear that the survival of political democracy, or of any extant political system, now depends above all on its ability to successfully confront the environmental problems that threaten civilization. The political systems that are able to do this will prevail, and those that prove unable to do so will fall by the wayside of history. I see four generalized possible outcomes or “ideal types” in this contest (“ideal type” thinking is a generalizing methodology, developed by Max Weber, that I learned from Professor Huntington).

First, it is possible that authoritarian government—some mix of a moderate to high degree of economic freedom with a low to non-existent degree of political freedom, such as we are currently witnessing in China and Russia—will be more efficient in dealing with a crisis of this magnitude. Jared Diamond hints he thinks this might turn out to be the case when he speaks with obvious admiration of China’s “unique” (and age-old) “top-down” system. Second, as Fareed Zakaria and others might suggest, the historically greater openness, creativity, and flexibility of American democracy could enable it to better adapt to such a grave but constantly shifting crisis, and other democracies will follow suit. For this to happen, the country will have to forcibly jettison the right-wing ideological influences (and particularly the anti-democratic ones, else there will be no American democracy) that have held sway and seriously distorted American social and economic policy for a generation now. This may also require some wrenching adjustments in the nation’s constitution that move it closer to a standard parliamentary system. Third, it is possible that both authoritarian and democratic capitalism will successfully confront their environmental problems, and even that they will behave symbiotically and cross-pollinate one another, as in the example I cite from my brother’s venture capital firm and its wider network. Fourth, it is possible, unfortunately quite possible, that neither variant of industrial capitalism, the democratic or the authoritarian, will manage to halt the ecological destruction underway, and that human societies will descend into the kinds of barbaric chaos envisioned by Jared Diamond in his most nightmarish scenarios.

It is worth pondering whether, in order to avoid this last, depressing scenario, a deeper change may be required than one of pure technology. Preserving the small planet we live on, and the civilization humans have painstakingly constructed over centuries, may require a change in fundamental values. At the conclusion of Collapse, after reviewing past civilizations that staved off disaster in the nick of time, Jared Diamond wrote: “All of these past and recent reappraisals of values that I have just mentioned were achieved despite being agonizingly difficult. Hence they also contribute to my hope. They may inspire modern First World citizens with the courage to make the most fundamental reappraisal now facing us: how much of our traditional consumer values and First World living standard can we afford to retain? I already mentioned the seeming political impossibility of inducing First World citizens to lower their impact on the world. But the alternative, of continuing our current impact, is more impossible.” Earlier in the book Diamond had stated: “It appears to me that much of the rigid opposition to environmental concerns in the First World nowadays involves values acquired early in life and never again reexamined: ‘the maintenance intact by rulers and policy-makers of the ideas they started with,’ to quote Barbara Tuchman.”

Four decades ago, I sat in the last class of my last course in political philosophy, and marveled at the fact that it ended with two essays written by Lenin in 1905 and 1917. Since Lenin was more totalitarian tactician than real philosopher, and since Marx had completed the main outlines of his philosophical thought by around 1850, this meant that the course was really ending in the middle of the nineteenth century. Why, I wondered, had there been no original political philosophizing since then? How could this be? Forty-plus years later, the situation has remained basically unchanged, despite some brilliant tinkering with liberal theory in the interim by John Rawls and his disciples and opponents. All serious political thought still takes place well within the confines of the premises of nineteenth-century liberalism, the very philosophy that has brought us to the impasse at which we stand. I still wonder: When will we finally begin to think anew? Or, since this is a literary journal, and with an ironic bow to Mr. Marx, maybe it would be fitting to ask the question this way (with reference perhaps to literature as well as politics): When will we begin to take our poetry from the future, instead of the past?



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