The Powers of History

One of the most revealing cinematic moments of recent memory was at the beginning of the first Austin Powers film.

As those who saw this 1997 comedy recall, Powers, a British secret agent, had been cryogenically frozen in 1967 in case his nemesis, Dr. Evil, should ever return. Fast forward 20 years and Dr. Evil again threatens to take over the world, prompting the British secret service to reanimate our hero. Powers opens his eyes and is introduced to an American officer and also to General Borschevsky. The latter’s presence startles him. “Russian intelligence, are you mad?” he asks. When he’s informed that the Cold War between Russia and the West has ended, he doesn’t miss a beat: “Well! Finally those capitalist pigs will pay for their crimes, eh comrades?” Then he’s told who won. His sheepish comeback, with a weak thumbs up: “Groovy, smashing. Yay capitalism.”

It was parody, but this scene was nonetheless full of meaning. Formally, Powers’ loyalties were to Queen and country. But his heart was with international socialism, for socialism not capitalism was groovy to the “in” crowd. Powers was the ultimate hip guy, fashionable in politics and lifestyle choices. (His car’s license plate read “Swinger.”) Hence his surprise that the Soviet Union had collapsed. Within the framework of the fashionable Left, the idea that History (their god) was not going in the direction of socialism was unthinkable.

That history has an “arc” and that it “bends toward justice” is the foundational premise of the Left. Eliot A. Cohen recently noted how often President Obama uses this formulation, most recently in his speech after the mass murders in San Bernardino where he declared, “I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history.” This means we do not have to debate what justice is, or how just it is possible for society to be here on earth, for History answers that question. There needn’t be tragic situations where justice for some necessarily means injustice for others. In time, all such conflicts will meet a just solution. Instead we can pursue “social justice,” a term coined by a Jesuit in the 19th century, confident that, in time, that pursuit will collectively lead all of humanity toward a truly just world.

Absent the belief that all humanity is somehow part of one big organic collective that is going somewhere better, Progressives would have to ask what is justice. They would then have to allow that there are many plausible answers, and perhaps even allow there is no final solution to the human problem. Similarly, a “Living Constitution” is only non-arbitrary if we can, in fact, agree about the direction in which it “lives.”

Recall Lawrence Tribe’s comment in his 1985 book, Constitutional Choices: “Whenever I suggest in these essays, for want of space or of humility, that one or another decision seems to me ‘plainly right’ or ‘plainly wrong,’ or that some proposal or position is ‘clearly’ consistent (or inconsistent) with the Constitution, I hope my words will be understood as shorthand not for a conclusion I offer as indisputably ‘correct’ but solely for a conviction I put forward as powerfully held.” If the “right” constitutional interpretation is merely “passionately held,” and not, in fact, understood to be true, why is it not arbitrary. There are, after all, passionate advocates on all sides.  The answer is that the “right” passion is the one in accord with the “right side of history.” Absent faith in the god of History the constitutional position is exposed as a sham. What’s true of the “Living Constitution” is true of the political Left in general. Rather than face that, the Left will fight to the bitter end. And that is what we are witnessing today.

Recall that, as the great scholar of the Enlightenment, Ernst Cassirer noted, theodicy became a political problem for the Enlightenment—if men were good, why was history littered with so much evil? The answer— which was, in fact, a way of avoiding the problem—was solved by faith in History. The cartoonish secret agent’s surprise came out of this same reflex, the one that asks, how could a system deriving public virtues from private vices triumph over social justice?

These came to mind as I was reading about Bernie Sanders’ apologia for his brand of socialism. Socialism sure ain’t what it used to be. For starters, he says does not want to eliminate private property: “I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production.” Wikipedia’s entry on socialism correctly begins with the classic definition: “Socialism is a social and economic system characterised by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production, as well as a political theory and movement that aims at the establishment of such a system.”

The presidential candidate doesn’t believe in state confiscation of private property, “But I do believe,” he says, “that the middle class and the working families of this country, who produce the wealth of this country, deserve a decent standard of living and that their incomes should go up, not down.”

The most avid free marketeer agrees; he simply disagrees about the best means to that end. There are, of course, many on all sides who simply want to game the system for themselves. Classical liberals believe that the more government does, the easier it is for the rich and powerful to make the machine serve them. Progressives disagree—and American politics split between what we now call “Progressivism” and “conservatism.” After the mess Woodrow Wilson created, America’s Progressives cleverly snatched up the term “liberalism.” Since the 1930s, American liberalism has come to denote the trendy-Austin-Powers-Barack-“Arc of History”-Obama-and-Bernie-Sanders “liberalism”—not something related to Locke’s or Smith’s classical liberalism.

So why all the heat and emotion we see in our politics when the question is simply an empirical one about what set of laws and institutions would best serve the people? Because as Sanders’ clinging to the totemic word “socialism” demonstrates, we are in the realm of emotion and of religious devotion, not reason or empirical social science. Openly to say that the free market is, in fact, as good as men can do here on earth is morally offensive to those whose religious premise is that it is possible to do “better.”

Sanders and his fans might say they support not socialism in the classic 19th century sense but “social democracy” as seen today in the Nordic countries. Whether a large, diverse, federal republic like the United States can follow the Nordic track is an open question. Even if we put that aside, it’s worth noting that the differences between the current American state and the purported workers’ paradises of Northern Europe are greatly exaggerated. That is probably more true today than it was when Sanders was a younger man, for in the past generation there has been a good deal of market-friendly reform in the Nordic lands. They are much less socialistic than Senator Ben and Jerry would have us believe.

What my conservative friends sometimes don’t fully appreciate is that the actual evidence here is not relevant, just as the failure of socialism in Venezuela, and everywhere else it has been tried, is beside the point. The point is the future. The belief that we can make the world as a whole more just, and do so permanently, is a religious belief, not amenable to rational discussion. The Left, were it to accept that universal and perpetual peace is simply not possible, would have to pack up and go home. But, as Austin Powers’ confusion demonstrates, where can the Left go after the failure of the Soviet Union?

We see the answer, and the problems it entails, in Bernie Sanders’ speech—and in our confused secret agent. At the end of Austin Powers, Dr. Evil tells him that “freedom failed,” for during his long cryogenic slumber, his swinging ways came to be regarded as “evil.” Powers replies, with more enthusiasm than he had showed for capitalism, but not with perfect conviction (as I read it), that we now have “freedom and responsibility, and it’s very groovy.”

He also claims that in the 1960s “we were innocent.” Had they “known the consequences of their actions,” the psychedelic lotus-eaters would have behaved differently. That is, of course, an implicit admission that those who in the 1960s pointed to the difference between liberty and license were, in fact, correct. The question is, therefore, why they were ignored. But Powers is able to dismiss the other side as “uptight squares” who are only interested in money and power—precisely the stereotypes the Left continues to rely on when describing those who disagree. Dehumanizing the other side is a common psychological move, after all.

And that brings us back to Sanders. He claims, not without reason, that his “socialism” is merely following the footsteps of Franklin Roosevelt, when FDR introduced what he hoped would be a “Second Bill of Rights.” It is worth noting that while outlining these new rights, Roosevelt declared that “Necessitous men are not free men.” To be sure, FDR added, “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” But he was pointing at something deeper.

Roosevelt was suggesting that freedom is something that one can only enjoy after one’s necessities—food, shelter, clothing—have been met. In other words, only if one does not really need to work for a living, as Roosevelt did not, is one truly free. In other words, it points to the lifestyle liberalism embraced in the 1960s, of which our comic hero Powers is a relic, and which is still so fundamental to the Left.

Campaigns like the recent ones to redefine marriage, to redefine male and female, for example, seldom produce much happiness for society as a whole. Recall Maureen Dowd asking, when the facts of human nature began to dawn on her, “was the feminist movement some sort of cruel hoax?” To the degree that male and female natures are fixed, feminism has, indeed, been cruel, as the decline in female happiness over time suggests, even if academics struggle mightily, even desperately, to find other causes. It is, after all, one thing to try to allow those women who want careers to have them, and to teach men to treat them with respect, but quite another to try, as the radicals are now attempting, to eradicate the distinction between male and female. Rather than admit that nature simply won’t allow their god History to fulfil their dreams, the Left will continue denouncing those who understand human nature as it is.

That is hardly a new phenomenon. While introducing what he hoped would be new “rights” in his so-called “second Bill of Rights” speech, Franklin Roosevelt  characterized those who disagreed with him in vile terms—still a familiar tactic of the Left to today. FDR said:

One of the great American industrialists of our day—a man who has rendered yeoman service to his country in this crisis—recently emphasized the grave dangers of  ‘rightist reaction’ in this Nation. All clear-thinking businessmen share his concern. Indeed, if such reaction should develop—if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called  ‘normalcy’ of the 1920’s—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.

I have often been puzzled by this claim. Most American “conservatives” want less government and a more free market than we have had since the creation of the modern administrative state. America’s conservatives want to defund Amtrak, not have the government make the trains run on time a la Mussolini. Fascist economies featured exactly the kind of government-business coordination that these “conservatives” oppose, but we see in Obamacare, for example. Would fascists eliminate earmarks as the GOP Congress did recently? Were the Tea Party fascistic, would it not support, rather than oppose, crony capitalism?

Yes, as I said, all this is beside the point. That those who oppose the Left are fascists is not a conclusion based upon evidence; it is a premise. To allow that there really is debate about what “forward” is in history or, beyond that, if there is such a thing as direction in history, is simply unacceptable. Hence those who disagree with the direction that all “right thinking” people believe in are not merely wrong, they are evil.  It is not a coincidence that Stalin coined the term “American exceptionalism.” He denounced it as a “heresy,” for it implied that the universal laws of history taught by his gospel, Marxism-Leninism, were not universal. If the dictator’s doctrine failed to describe American history, then it would itself be shown to be heresy.

At the heart the matter is the belief that the world can, in fact, be transformed. To accept that the American Right is arguing in good faith is to admit that human nature is rather more robust than the Left can allow, and hence, that not all that much change is possible, or at least, that that is a quite plausible way of making sense of the human condition. History, in other words, cannot “end” for the Left. It cannot be what historians have always, until the modern age, taken it to be: the record of human nature, with like causes producing like effects. That conclusion is rejected at the start. Its wrongness is, again, a premise not a conclusion based upon evidence. Unfortunately, that means we are doomed to repeat it.