1 The power of interests
Interest is power, and illusion is power. The most astute climbers know how to multiply self-interest by illusion and how to put both of them to use to serve their own ends. Politicians transform the interests of others into their own supremacy, as industrialists convert the wants of others into their own wealth.
Power is acutely vulnerable to friction. So those who have it must learn not to use it needlessly. Like the gods, they resort to coercion only when they can’t gain their ends by fraud and dissimulation. Lies that are not buttressed by force rule precariously. Force that is not undergirded by lies costs too much. Dominion undoes itself by being too hesitant or too harsh to no purpose. Totalitarian states soon fall apart, because they are spendthrifts of their own supremacy.
A political party, like a bird, has two strong wings and a remarkably small brain.
Power corrupts people by enabling them to indulge their marauding will. Powerlessness corrupts them by coercing them to compromise their high principles.
2 Change and reaction
We want everything to change. But want it all to change in the same direction that it’s going, since it is all going so well for us.
We don’t mind if we’re on the road to nowhere, so long as we’ll get there quick. We can’t stop now, or slow down, or go back. So we have to go on and on, faster and faster to our doom.
People are persuaded to accept change not by theoretical arguments which prove its rightness but by the accomplished fact that it has already been made.
We lose hope when affairs don’t alter, but we grow apprehensive when they do. We hate and fear change. Yet we like to be always tinkering with a few things, just to shake them up. Timid people can’t bring themselves to make slight reforms till they’ve had great ones thrust on them. They dread innovations which they adapt to with ease when they come.
We now have to stake all our hopes on change to set the world right, since change has sent it so wrong.
A society needs to be horizontally flattened by equality so that it can reach its maximum velocity.
An autocracy that tries to regenerate, such as the France of Louis the sixteenth or the Russia of the tsars or the catholic church, will shortly crash, as Tocqueville showed. But it won’t crash because it tries to reform. It tries to reform because it has long been doomed to crash. Or else it may grow more repressive for the same reason and with the same results.
A true conservative ought to be, like Montaigne, jovial but not hopeful, and sceptical but not despondent.
There’s no point trying to reintroduce communitarian and traditionalist values as one option in a system of self-determining individualism. ‘Tradition,’ as Johnson said, ‘is but a meteor which, if once it falls, cannot be rekindled.’
There is now nothing worth conserving. So a reactionary must first of all be a revolutionary. How else could we retrieve the past but by seizing the future? ‘What is tumbling,’ Nietzsche says, ‘we should still push.’ It’s only by pressing onward that a state can go back and recuperate its old health.
Each camp is sure that history is on its side, conservatives because they are striving to pass it on intact, reformers because they have learnt from its blunders, and incendiaries because they are fulfilling its iron law of change. Radicals assume that they can break free of the past, reformers that they are ameliorating it, reactionaries that they can bring it back, and traditionalists that they can hand it on unscarred. But it will form the future in ways that none of them can forecast or control.
Our overstuffed and brazen age boasts that it can jettison the old ways yet still profit from the past.
3 The power of illusion
Knowledge may be power, but they gain most power who know how to use the ignorance of others to bend them to do their will.
When illusion collides with illusion, the blood that they shed is real.
Intriguers, such as Nixon, steal the people’s love by being hated vociferously by the right enemies. They know that if they make enough of these, they will make them all the friends they need.
Few things are more troublesome to control than public opinion, since few things are more easy to manipulate. Like the surf, it is soon whipped up since it is all on the surface, and it’s blown this way and that by the least flurry of wind. And now that it can be so minutely quantified, we are more in its grip than ever. The crowd is persistently demanding but cheaply impressed.
A populist politician is ready to do the right thing so long as it’s popular, and won’t do the unpopular thing except when it’s wrong.
4 The perfect deceiver
Trimming politicians use the currency not of belief but of personal trust. They don’t strive to change your views but to hitch your self-interest to their cause. They know how to win your vote even when you don’t believe what they say. Their aim is not so much to convince you as to flatter you that they need to. They make do with facades, since they know that nothing in this world has more force or substance. All they ask is that you should pretend to have faith in them, since they are merely pretending to persuade you. And we don’t care what lies they tell, so long as we calculate that they won’t hurt us.
Rabble-rousers economize not only with the truth but with falseness as well. They are so skilled in harmonizing appearances, that it’s rare that they are called on to tell a lie. ‘The best liar,’ as Butler wrote, ‘is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way.’
Sincere partisans can’t tell when they are lying from when they are just being stupid.
Even the most hypnotic orators are unable to induce us to take up an idea that we don’t already hold. The most they can do is make us see that our own prejudices are congruent with their crooked lies.
How could we have faith in a politician who has no faith in his or her own lies? It takes a charlatan to inspire unquestioning trust. It takes a great narcissist to play on our own narcissism. ‘Preachers know that the mood which comes on them as they speak,’ wrote Montaigne, ‘moves them to belief.’ They have the knack of being taken in by their own sincerity, and are guilefully duped by their own guile. ‘Always they have faith,’ says Nietzsche, ‘in that with which they infuse the most faith, faith in themselves.’ They work by ruthless manipulation and artless self-delusion. They fool us with such facility because they seem so frank. And their self-belief ripens as their deceits gain credence. It feeds on its own sense of success and good faith. How short is the step from displaying more emotion than you feel to feeling as much as you display.
Sly persuaders contrive to believe not just in their own mission but in their audience as well. Anyone who is credulous enough to trust in them must deserve to be imposed on by their faith.
Those who crave power must fool their dupes in order to get their hands on it. Those who have no power must fool themselves as a sop for not possessing it. In order to succeed you have to lie to others. And if you fail you have to lie to yourself. The one thing denied to the powerful is the freedom to speak or to hear the unvarnished truth. But they prize this as one more privilege that their power has won for them.
Most of us are not hard to fool, because we are so eager to believe, or at least too lazy to doubt.
The public demands to be lied to. And the first lie that it wants to be told is that it wants to be told the truth. As Plato said, it is the most incorrigible of all sophists. One of the hardest jobs for a lying politician is to keep pace with the public’s pious dissembling. It is so self-righteous, that it leaves them no alternative but to act like prigs and charlatans. It tutors its representatives to mimic its own hypocrisy, and then reviles them when they act like hypocrites. It elects them to lie to it. Then it rages sanctimoniously when they are shown to have done so. And it votes in one more rascal whose lies it hopes will yield it more loot. It expects them to keep up the most scrupulous standards of tartuffery. They might not act like whores if we didn’t urge them to it like avid lechers.
You can count on the people in their intermittent fits of disgust with the dishonesty of politicians to flock to the most impudent liar to save them.
Hypocrisy is a necessary skill of true leaders. Sincerity is one of the ploys of demagogues and populists.
In order to seduce our prim but crafty pretences, malignant leaders have to talk finer than they mean to act, and honourable ones have to talk worse.
Democracy is a marketplace of competing lies, in which the majority sits in judgment on which ones best seem to flatter its self-regard and feed its self-interest.
Politicians must flatter us that we do our best at all times. But we do the least best that we can get away with. And yet we do go as straight as we have to in our race to snap up as much as we can. And most of us are ready to do the right thing once it’s too late to do any good. We won’t wake to the horror that our greedy dreams have made till it’s too late to put a stop to it.
Governments now act both more equitably and more destructively than individuals. We want them to deploy on our behalf the lucrative brutality which we don’t dare to use and to mouth the showy virtues which we are too mean to pay for. We deem that groups or nations make interests irreproachable. We are proud to pursue in the mass schemes and stratagems that we would blush to own up to as private citizens. As Cavour remarked, ‘What scoundrels we would be, if we did for ourselves what we stand ready to do for Italy.’ But unfettered individualism now grants to each of us the right to act as irresponsibly as a mob.
Demagogues ride into the new Jerusalem on a scapegoat. Prior to entering the promised land, the chosen must first show that they are fit for it by subjugating or liquidating the sub-humans who by some oversight are in possession of it. ‘Thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them, thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.’ Now we are all the chosen. And the whole globe is our Canaan, which we must clear to make room for our sacred race.
We are smitten with those candidates who protest that they won’t act like slimy politicians, till they refuse to bribe us with all a politician’s oily enticements.
Disgruntled supporters may come by and by to be enthusiastic leaders. They learn to praise their loyal subordinates’ merits, which they poked fun at when they were their peers and contenders.
Bourgeois reformers plan to put a halt to the abuses by which they have profited. Bourgeois revolutionists plan to put a halt to the liberties with which they have made free.
The french revolution bore a monster with three heads, democracy, which promises too much liberty, socialism, which imposes too much equality, and nationalism, which enforces too much fraternity.
Not freedom but restraint, not equality but subordination, not fraternity but the solidarity which links one generation to the next. It’s by these alone that we could be saved. But since we are too uncontrollable to put up with them, we have no hope of being saved at all.
Liberty sets a limit to equality. Equality puts a curb on liberty. And fraternity does away with both. Liberty and equality form a toxic compound. And when mixed with fraternity they form an explosive one.
A state thrives by the liberty and vitality of its citizens which will soon rip it apart. And it must strive to free them from its own might, which is the one thing able to secure their freedom.
Our love of freedom is no more than our infatuation with our power.
A liberal state is one that hosts more parasite lawyers than productive engineers.
We now insist on our right to know. Yet we seal our eyes to all the bad news. ‘Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits.’
Democracy swings back and forth from a condescending universalism to a craven relativism.
Nature seeds superiorities. But the state singles out which types it will water and cause to grow.
We need to hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, because it is so evident that they are not. Nature, which is our generator, snips our thread capriciously, has not made us free, and makes a mock of our pursuit of happiness. Each day it deals with us as the nazis dealt with the jews. ‘Heaven and earth are ruthless,’ as Lao Tzu says. ‘They treat the ten thousand things like straw dogs.’ What rights has nature blessed us with? We grant our own kind a fictitious troop of them so as to make war on her. People are not equal. They are incommensurable. And on any scale by which they can be measured they don’t come out equal. A self-evident truth is one that lacks all evidence.
We must pretend that we all have the same rights, since we quake to think what we might do to each other if we did not. Some truths are too dangerous to be spoken. There will always be some firebrands who will have the courage and consistency to act on the false inferences that they draw from them.
We are all born equal in conceit. So we are obliged to avow that we are all born equal. ‘There are no grades of vanity,’ as Twain points out. We have each been apportioned the same sum of it, to offset the manifest disparities of our talents and fortunes. Conceit cuts us off from others, and yet is common to us all. It makes us assume that we must be unique, but it is one of the most ordinary things about us. It is the great leveller, which clips us back to equality while congratulating us on our uniqueness. Each of us now has an entitlement to the security of being equal and the vanity of feeling special.
What two prescripts must all popular politicians abide by? Woo the rabble’s truculent self-regard, and gorge the gaping maw of its greed. How could they hope to win the people’s trust, if they don’t start by flattering its judgement? No one, said Tocqueville, ‘whatever be his eminence, can decline to pay this tribute of adulation to his compatriots.’
We live in an age of democratic swagger and democratic wheedling. Ordinary people are too proud to court the powerful, but the powerful must stoop to fawn on those below them. They bow down to the electorate so that they can tie its hands. The day that Burke feared has come, when rulers act as ‘flatterers instead of legislators, the instruments, not the guides, of the people.’ Emperors used to thank the Lord for enduing them with humility. Demagogues now thank the mob, which clamours to be grovelled to the whole time. It refuses to be fooled till it has been flattered how shrewd and discerning it is.
Now that we are all equal, each of us has to compete feverishly to show that we are an inch more equal than our peers.
Democracy has taught dictators that even the masses are worth exterminating. War used to slay only the combatants, who were a small cadre of highborn men. Now it massacres vast conscript armies and civilian populations as well. Democratic persuasion makes all of us worth deceiving. Democratic warfare makes all worth slaughtering. ‘The wars of the peoples,’ Churchill warned, ‘would be more terrible than those of kings.’
Take away rank and superiority, and equality goes too. The members of one group are equal only by virtue of their shared difference from other groups. Equality is made by enforcing differentiations, layers, gradings, tiers and hierarchies. A class comes to be coequal by asserting its own rights over those that are lower than it. And it maintains its own equality by refusing it to all the rest, and it calls this fair-dealing. It constitutes itself as a class by severing itself from all the others. Each successive age is sure that it has set up a perfect justice, since it has enlarged the caste that is equal and therefore empowered to mash all those that are below it. All of us now know that we are born equal because we all belong to the one species that is superior to all lower grades of living thing, which are too weak to wrest our power from us. We are all now equal because we are biologically separate from the rest of the beasts. And this separateness gives us the right to enslave or to eliminate them at will. It is not one class preying on another. It is one species preying on all the rest.
Democracy is the narrowest and most wolfish aristocracy that has ever been. As Tocqueville showed, it excludes and disenfranchises the true majority, that of the past and the future, those who are gone and those still to come, the earth and its tutelary gods. It oppresses all but the iron cohort of the here and now. It mows down everything to clear a path for its marauding greed. It claims every right for its own, and abrogates all its duties to the rest of creation. ‘People will not look forward to posterity,’ Burke warned, ‘who never look backward to their ancestors.’ Posterity is always in the right. And capitalism will prove how wrong it was by leaving no posterity. But it won’t care, since it will have had its day of repletion. Democracy has cancelled our compact with all those who will come after us. It devours the future to stuff its own insatiable maw. It lives entirely for the present, and won’t make a thing that will outlast it. The present presumes that it ought not be bound by the ordinances of the past. Yet it usurps the right to eat up the inheritance of the future.
We assume that the only people who matter are the ones that are alive now. But all the people who matter are long since dead. We are the hungry ghosts who haunt this world of voracious mediocrity. We ‘but live where motley is worn.’
The humanity that humanism puts its faith in is the one generation now alive that we chance to be part of, which cares nothing for its long inheritance that it will lay waste for its own brief gain. The hungry majority of the hour outvotes the select majority of the ages. The living are like the rich and well set-up, who are free to tread on or neglect the dead, who are as defenceless as the poor and despised.
A true aristocracy is self-selecting. How did the children of Israel come to be the chosen seed, if not by choosing themselves? We must each work out our own rank with fear and trembling. We must, like Raskolnikov, determine if we have the right to our post by brutally commandeering it, though most of us by doing so prove that we don’t. A deed counts for as much as the man or woman who does it. But the man or woman who does it counts for no more than the deeds that he or she does.
The traits of a race may go so deep that they come out only in a small set of its members.
An aristocracy is an invaluable institution made up of worthless individuals. An academy is a worthless institution made up of notable individuals.
We are all brothers and sisters. Why else would we hate each other so bitterly? Fraternity is a fratricidal virtue. It tells you who your comrades are, so that you can band with them to slaughter the aliens who are not. It takes for its byword, as Chamfort said, ‘Be my brother, or I kill you.’
Every nation, like each one of us and the whole of our species, is sure that it is exceptional yet central, unique yet indispensable. Tell it that it’s the chosen race, and you’re sure to have avid listeners.
In order to win the people’s hearts, you have to give them an enemy to hate and a pretext to love themselves more.
A nation knits its parts into a whole by abhorring rival nations and by debarring its own nationals from securing the freedom to be individuals. ‘Each of us wants to be like the rest,’ wrote Baudelaire, ‘but on condition that the rest are like us.’
Modern states have not evolved organically through the centuries. They have been manufactured by material interests and welded close with cables, roads and railways with a view to promoting trade. Most are artefacts forged by nineteenth century nationalism or nineteenth century imperialism.
People do not make an economy. The economy fabricates the sort of people that it needs in order to run it efficiently. The ultimate product of mass capitalism is the individual consumer, shorn of its past, its roots, its regional links, its ethnic identity and its corporate memory, free to move unencumbered through the wonderland of the world market, in its orgy of getting and spending. It’s this that makes for the unrestrained proliferation of wants and the unrestrained multiplication of profit.
The individual is one of those illusions which have had such catastrophic effects in the real world.
Now there is nothing but the atomized individual and the centralized state, and no obedience or allegiance to anything intermediate, no loyalty to class, creed, clan, guild or locality. Between the boundless greed of the individual and the boundless force of the state the green earth will be pounded to a mash.
Liberal regimes license individuals to do what they want. Authoritarian regimes license the state to do whatever it wants. Totalitarian states are noxious to humans. Liberal states are noxious to nature.
Totalitarian states outlaw or coopt all the customs and institutions of civil society. Liberal states, which set up individual wants as their sole canon of value, abandon them to die of neglect.
Individualism will steadily grind down the world’s finely graded diversity to oblivious uniformity. By liberating all our variegated desires, we will make the lush world the same everywhere. In order that the world might be globalized, we all need first to be individualized. Once we’ve been freed to choose, we all pick from the same stock of homogenized commodities of the world market. ‘Variety is disappearing from the human race,’ Tocqueville wrote, ‘the same ways of acting, thinking and feeling occur in every corner of the globe.’
Intolerant societies preserve the diversity between cultures. Tolerant societies which allow diversity within their borders reduce the globe to an undifferentiated mass.
The melodramatic form of bourgeois individualism appears in the sphere of faith as protestantism, in the sphere of art as romanticism, in the sphere of the emotions as rousseauism, in the sphere of thought as existentialism, in the sphere of the spirit as transcendentalism, and in the sphere of ethics as byronism.
Catholicism commands obedience to a crooked human corporation. Protestantism commands disobedience to all but the crooked human conscience.
Individuals are all that matter, since they alone give birth to great achievements. But regimes are all that matter, since they alone breed great individuals.
Fine capacities flourish only where foul injustice stunts most fine capacities. Preeminent individuals are bred by states in which a privileged caste has the sole charter to make individuals. Strong individuals are made by strong laws, traditions, authorities, castes and institutions. Mass individualism spawns an infestation of narcissists, but few individuals. As Kraus wrote, ‘where every idiot has individuality, individuality becomes idiotic.’ And now that there are so many billions of us on earth, there is not enough individuality to go round. We have the greedy individualism which will devour everything, but not the generous individualism that could create anything. We live in the epoch of the indiscriminate ant hill.
A people loses its identity as it asserts its nationality. ‘Where there is still a people,’ Nietzsche said, ‘it does not understand the state and hates it.’ But now that there are no distinct peoples left, all that we know or trust in is the state. And now that the jews have a state like the rest of us, they are at risk of becoming as stupid as the rest of us.
Monarchs may have held unchallenged sway in the state, but the state itself was weak and limited. In a democracy there are a host of checks on governmental power, but the state is strong and omnipresent. ‘Nothing is strong in a democracy,’ Tocqueville wrote, ‘save the state.’
Totalitarianism is the birth throes which nations go through when they try to modernize too fast. Or it may be the shortcut that undeveloped countries take to grow into liberal market ones, by utilizing the machinery of the state to pulverize the intermediate framework of civil society so as to leave nothing but atomized consumers.
Despotism and fundamentalism are two harnesses which help to keep a state strapped together so that it won’t disintegrate while it’s hurtling towards modernity.
The United States ended up with the worst of both federalist overreach and hillbilly jeffersonian populism.
The development of political institutions lags behind the problems that they are required to solve. When Europe needed the centralized nation state, it still had only ramshackle local feudal authorities. And now that the world needs supranational powers to deal with global threats, it still has to make do with outdated nation states.
As the community grows more atomized, the state comes to be more centralized. And as the state comes to be more centralized and standardized, it compels each of us to grow more uniform.
The blight of intolerance bedevils the lukewarm no less than the bigot, the progressive no less than the paternalist, and the thoughtful no less than the unthinking.
Thought thrives best where it doesn’t have total licence. ‘Freedom of thought and spiritual freedom grow best under absolutism,’ as Ibsen said. But the state now sanctions its citizens to speak as they wish, since it knows that it can trust them all to think alike. ‘People,’ says Kierkegaard, ‘never use the liberties they do have, but demand those that they don’t have. They have liberty of thought, they demand liberty of speech.’ In a tyranny all are forced to think the same, and in a republic all are free to choose to. ‘America,’ as Tocqueville wrote, ‘is a country where they have freedom of speech but all say the same thing.’
The one use of an established orthodoxy is to incite the mind to restless heresy.
Free speech is a right, but free thought is a duty. And we much prefer to press our rights than to fulfil our duties.
A democracy needs free media to tell its citizens what they think.
As the conduits of communication are improved, their content is degraded.
No one now dares fault democracy itself, and we don’t dissent from the government unless to object that it ought to be more democratic.
When lawmakers censor artists for moral or political ends, they free them from ministering to moral or political aims. Censorship has hitherto been the sole contribution that the state has made to art. It has acted as the shears which prune and preserve art and stop it from going to seed.
A great writer, safely secretive and dangerously indiscreet, keeps up the front of the herd’s everyday decencies, but indecently strips bare its seamier truths.
The state can’t make its citizens happy, but for most of time it has made their life unspeakably grim. The rare outbreaks of justice in world history have provoked reigns of terror, as projects of universal welfare have led to universal wretchedness. When flesh and blood presumes that it is made for heaven, it is sure to make for its own flawed self a hell. Utopias serve to remind us how much worse our life might have been.
We deem a good society to be one that would give those like us the scope to thrive more abundantly, and would reimburse our own prowess more amply, and prize our métier at a higher rate. In a philosopher’s utopia philosophers reign as kings, and in a dentist’s utopia dentists do.
A utopia is meant to operate as an atrocious engine of correction on those who, unlike its founders, are not yet fit for it.
13 The immaculate majority
Under mass rule the majority is blest with an unimpeachable innocence. It is not to be blamed for the least offence. Like our sycophancy and our sentimentality, our indignation has now been democratized. These days the multitude must be fawned on for all its fake virtues and exonerated from all its frank crimes. All our ills must be the work of some sinister minority. As Tocqueville said, the common herd ‘lives in the perpetual utterance of self-applause.’
The herd is always wrong, even when by chance it turns out to be in the right once in a while. Fickle in all but self-flattery, it will be retracting tomorrow what it is espousing today. ‘Surely the people is grass.’ But we now know that the majority must be right, since the majority says so, and even the minority bows to its superior judgment.
14 The democracy of greed
The will of the people has redeemed greed, and christened it as the one virtue that all are obliged to practise. Each of us now has a right to seize as much as we can, and a duty to grab more than we have, so long as we don’t get in the way of the rest as they try to do the same. It is now our wants that lead us to cleave to our liberties. When we wage wars it’s to make the world safe for plutocracy. The sole freedom that most of us care for is the freedom to get and spend.
Democracy is a get rich quick scheme which has bankrupted civilization and beggared the earth.
Republican virtue sprang up as a tall tree with shallow roots, which was soon dug out to plant the squat but more robust bush of democratic greed.
Capital makes the climate of democracy, the state makes its day to day weather.
In our consumer democracies all politics is performed as a series of fierce struggles over small differences.
The seven deadly virtues of democracy are liberalism, individualism, consumerism, humanism, technomania, universalism and nationalism. None of us can now get free of them, and they will end up overturning all the restraints that make life possible.
The economy eats away the commons from below, and the state grinds it down from above.
Our grand struggles for justice are in fact mere squabbles over how to divide the spoils won by our injustice. The factions in a democracy are cartels contending to snatch the most loot to share out to their members, the left to those who have not earned it, the right to those who have no need of it.
A democracy is able to do everything but check its ungovernable appetites. Its animating principle is lack of self-control. The people has won the right to rule itself but has lost the capacity to restrain itself.
We used to be held in check by our collective illusions. Now we are lashed on by the atomized fantasies of our greed.
The state used to try to hold in check the appetites of its citizenry. Now its sole task is to feed them. For the last two centuries the liberal state has drummed into our ears that we are mature enough to be free. So it’s too late to put a brake on our childish desires, now that they have caused such giant havoc. It grants an unlimited licence to beings who lack the will or capacity to curb their unlimited cravings.
‘All men,’ as Defoe wrote, ‘would be tyrants if they could,’ and now each tame feeder can. The aim of democracy is to raise each one of us to the greedy beatitude which despots alone used to possess. Any leader now who dares to curb or interfere with our tyrannical whims must be a tyrant.
Capitalism will degrade the globe to a vast factory to stock a vast shopping mall. And socialism will reduce what’s left to a vast sickroom. The right would burn up the earth as an unholy offering to liberty and material self-interest, and the left to equality and moral self-conceit.
A conservative is now someone who insists on their right to go on consuming in the careless way that they’ve grown used to, which is the very thing that has turned the old world on its head.
Collectivism does not suppress the capitalist lust for gain. It merely redistributes it.
Capitalism is more contagious than communism, as greed is more addictive than envy.
We set democracy and capitalism to work as unerring counters to register and indulge worldwide cupidity and solipsism. So they are bound to wreak on us our doom. They are steadily destroying the planet. But since we can’t bring ourselves to give them up, we have to put our trust in them to save it. And so what will at length bring them down is not the proletariat but the earth which they’re oppressing. Their eradication won’t be the mere overturning of one class by another but will spell the elimination of our whole kind.
Greed is the irreproachable democratic vice, and the sole democratic virtue. It is low and insinuating enough to worm its way into the heart of the generality, though we claim that it blights none but a small clique of plutocrats. We conveniently fail to identify it except when it is out of all reason, in the few who have a vast deal more than the rest of us.
Bygone epochs used to feast the rapaciousness of a few favoured souls. Our own calls all of us to share in the spree. The moderate greed of the multitude will chew up far more of the earth than the monstrous greed of the few.
Monarchy was the narcissism of one man or woman. Aristocracy was the narcissism of a select few. Democracy is the narcissism of all of us, and hence is that much more voracious and invincible.
The modern state has turned into a cow of gold, dispensing day by day the milk of human kindness from its distended udders. The state used to make serfs of its citizens by brutally repressing them. Now it does so by benevolently indulging their wants. Democracy robs the populace of the self-determination which they need if they are to act as good participants in a democracy. By rendering them mild and obedient, is it readying them to be offered as defenceless prey to a coming god of blood? It is the benignant dictatorships that are the most degrading. They don’t confiscate our freedom by force, but lure us to give it up of our own will. As Tocqueville wrote, the despotism that democracy might lead to ‘would be more widespread and kinder, it would debase people without tormenting them.’ In our sheep’s paradise it is the sheep who swathe the wolf in sheep’s clothing, so that they can feel safe that it won’t eat them.
Democratic states indulge the optimistic egoism of greed. Totalitarian states indulge the pessimistic egoism of fear. And an agitator who knew how to yoke these dual passions would soon be unassailable.
All the liberators of the previous two centuries, who crowed that they were sabotaging capitalism, were in fact fortifying it, by enfranchising more and more of us to get and spend. They untied us from the restrictions of all the old authorities only to bind us to the tyranny of our own avarice. Greed makes all the revolutions. But it drapes itself in the tricolour of equity to lead them. It was acquisitiveness and not humanitarianism that broke the slaves’ manacles, ‘not,’ said Tocqueville, ‘for the sake of the blacks, but for the sake of the whites.’ They were sure to be emancipated, once their taskmasters learnt that they toil more compliantly when they have been loosed from their fetters. Liberate them, and they labour as productively as robots. ‘The work done by free men,’ Adam Smith points out, ‘comes cheaper in the end than that performed by slaves.’ Slavery was abolished, not because it is immoral, but because it had become obsolete. Mammon is a jealous god. It won’t rest till it has untethered all of us to buy and sell, and has snarled us in the net of the world market.
Now that we are free to do what we want, we have no choice but to work as hard as we can to get more of what everyone else wants.
These days, when all of us have sold our souls as willing slaves, we are indignant that there were once forced ones.
15 The creative state
A whole culture to breed one or two spendthrift generations, and a whole generation to breed half a dozen choice men and women, and half a dozen men and women to make a few masterful books, buildings, theories, symphonies and statues. All ancient Zion toiled to write one book. The whole of heaven heaved to bring forth the Quran.
All noble societies know that life is a means and not an end.
Humankind makes good its claim to be here by its few inhuman exceptions. Life is justified only by what transcends it.
All societies have been spiritually impoverished. But the great ones have enriched their heirs with works which made up for their poverty of soul.
The ruling class lends a state its order. The middle class lends it its force. It grows pregnant when its old lordly forms are fertilized by the unresting dynamism of the bourgeoisie, which is invigorated by its recently won freedom and by its ancestral animosities. Most of the finest art has been brought forth by states in which a hereditary military nobility was giving place to a new mercantile gentry.
The upper class ought to rule, since it’s good for nothing else. When the merchant class rules, it makes itself good for nothing at all.
Civilization sprang up as an accident of barbarous patrician despotisms. Mass rule has now torn it out and supplanted it with commerce and kitsch.
How could capitalism make anything that lasts, when it puts no value on work that is not done for immediate gain?
Artists and intellectuals rise out of the middle class to rebel against the middle class.
The middle class makes the future of a state. The working class will make no more than its future middle class. The bourgeoisie is the sole revolutionary class, as capitalism is the sole system that is continuously revolutionizing itself. The proletariat is the obsolete tool of one of its phases.
The sole drive that unites the members of the proletariat is their shared determination to climb out of it.
The middle class watch politics and vote for a party as the lower class watch sport and shout for a team.
Civilization is shaped by essential violence and superfluous grace. It weds sophistication to savageness, to breed a turbulent but abounding creation. It mates the brutality of instinctual energies with the brutality of constraint and organization.
Past civilizations were hard like a diamond or the claws of a jaguar. Ours is hard like a rock drill tearing up the earth.
‘The sole live societies,’ Claudel wrote, ‘are those that are energized by inequality and injustice.’ We can’t cure unhappiness, and by seeking to do so we will only sterilize all excellence. So we must choose between large achievement and a shrunken justice. There will be no grand civilization where there are no gross inequalities. We surrender to a levelling sameness, and so lose the faculty for multiform imagination.
It’s not by freedom but by repression that human kind grows capable of creating anything of worth.
Exorbitant wealth corrupts the state, and yet deplorable inequality may stimulate its highest energies. Vast and murky earnings form the muck in which civilizations flower. They were all bedded in the foul mire of usury or extortion. But our once fecund culture has made itself a eunuch for the kingdom of Mammon’s sake. It lacks the force to make anything but money.
The sweet works of imagination, whose creation and contemplation make life worthwhile, were framed when life for most people was not worth living. And now that we have made life worth living for most people, we have lost the power to frame the sweet works which make it worthwhile.
‘We can conceive of nothing great,’ Nietzsche says, ‘which does not involve a great crime.’ You can tell the great seminal periods by the stench of charred corpses from their uprisings and unrest, invasions, intrigues, pogroms and witch-hunts, rapine, persecutions, conspiracies, crusades, butcheries and liquidations. Would Europe have been reborn in the renaissance, had it not been waked by gunpowder, seditions, usurpations, assassinations, schisms, demographic slumps, depressions, inflations, dynastic disputes and epidemics? ‘Their crimes conspired to make ’em great,’ as Mandeville wrote. Civilization thrives close to violence, as the most fertile loam is found on the slopes of volcanoes. ‘Build your settlements on the slopes of Vesuvius,’ urged Nietzsche.
16 Capitalism, meritocracy and mediocrity
The old aristocratic states were the dominion of pride. The new meritocratic states are the dominion of greed. ‘For the many,’ as Aristotle points out, ‘are more interested in making a profit than in winning honour.’ They give rise to mediocrity in all but money-making, hustling and haggling. ‘There is not a single american,’ Tocqueville wrote, ‘who is not eaten up with the desire of bettering himself, but you meet almost no one who appears to cherish great hopes or to aim very high.’
Our society has left off aspiring to the best, and so all that we can do is try to grab hold of the most, and thus we will soon hack our way to the worst. ‘It will rob and plunder and accumulate into one place,’ as Blake says, ‘but not make.’
Merit is flattened and cooped by the conditions which make a meritocracy, its fiddling individualism, compulsive tabulating and bureaucratic ladder of advancement. A meritocracy opens the field for all sorts of talents, barring the few that are worth nurturing. If you hope to make headway in one, you must be extraordinarily good at being average. You must excel at being mediocre. As Tocqueville said, ‘They strain their faculties to the utmost to achieve paltry results, which soon cannot fail to narrow their vision and restrict their powers.’
We now smelt the gold of genius to coin the small change of huckstering innovation.
Meritocracy cheapens true merit by rewarding mediocrity so exorbitantly. When the world pays the plodding such high fees, as it does now, what sense is there in aspiring to do a great work? And why strive to make a thing that might last for the ages, when this world won’t last for one or two more centuries?
In our meritocracies we now mistake success for merit, as in monarchies they used to mistake birth for merit. In feudal states the mediocre were born at the top, in a commonwealth they must grope their way up to it. In days of old, as Shaw said, only martyrs and kings could win fame without the need to earn it. Now anyone can.
War is not an aberration from civilization. It is its quintessence. They are both structurings of energy and violence. The same obedience that makes dutiful citizens in peace makes conscientious killers in war. ‘It is,’ Brodsky says, ‘the army that finally makes a citizen of you.’ Cultures have warriors, civilizations have armies. Cultures fight skirmishes, civilizations fight wars. Only those species, such as ants, that have cities, federations, agriculture, specialization, organization, territorial demarcations, intricate modes of communication and complex communal codes, will wage war as well.
War is the one grand altruistic act that has pervaded the whole course of our growth. Solidarity can be mobilized on a vast scale only where it is in the service of aggression against a common enemy. So people will lay down their lives in large numbers only if it gives them the chance to kill those whom they have been taught to regard as their foes.
War is, as Heraclitus said, the father of all, and pacifism won’t cut its throat but will only castrate it.
A state that can’t make war won’t make much else. Those who lack the daring to destroy will lack the audacity to create.
Capitalist states have lost the will to fight the wars which are the sole means by which they might solve their periodic crises of over-production by stimulating aggregate demand and removing excess supply.
War is not the locomotive of history but its signal-switch. It sends the train off on a loop from which it may not find its way back till long years have passed, as it did subsequent to the two world wars.
The second world war began abjectly with the appeasement of one tyrant who had just annexed half of Europe, and it finished triumphantly with the appeasement of another.
In our quest to bring peace to the earth, we will gradually give in to a global despotism. Governments that pledge to make their citizens secure from all hazards will soon have them consenting to be serfs. By endeavouring to render fear needless, we will make bravery otiose.
A world in which we have made all things safe would be one not worth protecting. As Franklin said, those who trade liberty for security have forfeited their right to both. But we will be sure that we have grown surpassingly wise and good when we are all of one mind that we have no principles worth contending for.
Those who judge that no cause is worth dying for will soon find that they have no cause that’s worth living for.
The art of war, like the art of rhetoric, seeks to make the lesser force the greater. Commencing from slim differences it spins out of them decisive advantages.
To win allies is preferable to winning wars. To refuse to give battle may be the best defence. ‘To subdue the enemy without a fight,’ Sun Tzu says, ‘is the apex of skill.’
All inherent advantages imperil you. A moral advantage that you can’t convert to force is no help at all, and you will waste more resources to guard it than it’s worth. Defence yields a real material assistance and not a sham moral one. If you win, you feel no need to prove your cause legitimate. And if you lose, it will soon have sunk from sight. ‘The loser is always in the wrong,’ as the spanish proverb has it. No victorious war seems ill-advised or unlawful. Even the losers, if they are thrashed soundly, grant that those who beat them must have been in the right. Justice rides with the conquerors. The god of war absolves all winners. A clear victory blots out the worst wrongs, and gives a sanction to the most vicious creeds. ‘Successful crimes alone are justified,’ as Dryden wrote.
A stony-hearted tyrant knows that might makes right, a mealy-mouthed one loves to bleat that right makes might. If this were the case, then the powers that be would indeed be ordained of God, and the downtrodden would have no claim to redress. Since all that we worship is power, we cling to the superstition that right must in some way be linked to it, be it as its cause or as its effect.
Power is our real idol. So we view its mere assertion as a sure proof that its cause must be just.
An empire is the murder of the cultures that it conquers, and the suicide of the civilization that hopes to suck life from them.
All empires are brutal and moralistic. They place their trust in violence and providence, which have put the weak and godless in their hand. ‘The strongest poison ever known,’ Blake wrote, ‘came from Caesar’s laurel crown.’ Ruthless aggressors assume that they owe their hegemony more to their piety than to their might. They thank God for granting his favour to those who use it for his glory. ‘Not unto us, O Lord.’ Thus Cicero affirmed that though each nation overleapt Rome in some accomplishment, it had conquered them all by its godliness. The romans were the dullest people, self-righteous, self-pitying, incurious, smug, covetous of dainties but careless of beauty, soulless technicians and administrators not imaginers. So they of course thought it their duty to overrun the world. Now we are all romans.
A long-continued illegality, such as the outrages of imperialism, comes in time to form the very basis of law and the state. Time, power and numbers suffice to absolve any crime. Democracy can justify anything by a majority. It has legitimated colonialism by sanctioning those states in which the settler population grew to outnumber the native one.
We now see how wrong imperialism is, yet we won’t give up our rights to all the land and booty that it gained us.
Now that the old colonial powers have ceased to rape and plunder their colonies, they have turned to lecturing them on how far they fall short of the fine example that they have set them.
Conquerors and colonists have drawn the map of the world in the blood of the conquered, who are now mad to spill more of it in order to redraw it.
Colonies were the pulsating tumours by which the cancer of capitalism metastasized round the globe.
Australia was set up as a penal colony for petty thieves by honourable men who had just stolen a continent. It is a comical country burdened by a tragic history.
19 The great man
The great man in history twists the interests of emerging castes to his own ends. He is half a self-convinced messiah and half a ham showman. He rises up at times of crisis, to combine burgeoning interests, or to sever strong interests from outmoded structures. He can’t change the direction that the wave of events will take. But he does increase its amplitude, deepening its troughs, though not heightening its crests. Napoleon was a relic of the antiquated aristocratic type which the new world brandished as a battering ram to break down the old. Hitler, Lenin or Mao were outrageous aberrations who made their detours through seas of gore. Demagogues stoke with corpses the locomotive of liberty and progress. They mince flesh and bone to sawdust which they use to stuff their own reputations. ‘A man like me,’ as Napoleon tells us, ‘does not fret much about a million men.’
A great man or woman of action is an exceptional ambition yoked to a middling intellect. Napoleon may have been the only one to have had a first-rate mind.
Some heroes call up a crisis, and some crises call up a hero to confront them. A bloody catastrophe brings out great men, as the blistering sun brings out flies in carrion. They have the good luck to arrive on the scene at the very worst time. War is the poetry of history, peace is its uneventful prose. Leaders who lack a war are like poets who have not yet found their great theme to build a lasting fame on. Like a taper in daylight , they would be hard to make out in the absence of its black background. They are matches which need a cataclysm to strike flame from. And what do they care how many lives the blaze might singe? Had Lincoln not been embroiled in the civil war, he might have turned out to be a mere wily temporizer. A great leader is more an accident of circumstances than an affirmation of character.
In the next hundred years the masses will prove how woeful they can make their plight without the need of gods or great men to prey on them. They will at last be free to do just as they please. And they will use their freedom to pull down the sky on their own heads.
Those who forget the past are condemned to relive it. But so are those who remember it. Those who have pored over its registers will be best armed to reprise its crimes. The monsters who plan to perpetrate a future holocaust could cull as many hints from the past as those who aim to prevent one. Men and women of goodwill go to the school of history to find out how to stand up to tyrants. But the tyrants graduated from that college long ago. While sane and well-meaning citizens are labouring to learn from history, the mad and malignant are already hard at work making it. As A. J. P. Taylor wrote of Napoleon, ‘Like most of those who study history, he learnt from the mistakes of the past how to make new ones.’
The human race is not a single individual moved by good intentions which can learn from its blunderings by summoning them to mind.
History and experience teach us to grow prudent, not to be wise. They guide us how to get what we want, not to want what we ought.
The smug present asserts its high-handed jurisdiction over the past by presuming to learn from it. The sole lesson that history has taught us is that we have at last got loose from the past which has shaped us and that we are now free to shape the future as we like.
History is the bad conscience of humankind, which has taught it that it must be infinitely perfectible.
Now that history is more than mere legend, it no longer has anything to teach us. And when it has come to form a science, we won’t learn a thing from it. A nation that lives by immutable custom has no history, only mythology. One that can recall its past has lost it a long time back. History is the legend which is engraved on the tomb of tradition.
We try to recount events, but all we do is reconstruct them as fables. Yet we trust that when we do so we grasp what they mean, whereas all we do is falsify them, though we do grasp what our falsifications mean. As soon as an event is turned into a story, it’s lost to truth for good. But it may survive as a narrative long after it has been killed as a fact. If we live by telling our stories, it’s because they are lies. Nature, the past and experience are dumb. It is we who put in their mouths the things that we want them to teach us. We don’t learn the lessons of the past. We learn the lessons of the lore and legends that we hand on to teach us what we wish to learn. The deep precepts taught by the daughters of memory rehash the latest cant. Anyone who thinks that the past instils a simple schoolbook moralism will be too simple to glean a thing from it.
We need exemplary catastrophes in history as well as in our own lives. And each age needs its own catastrophe to prove its preconceptions. The eighteenth century, disputing divine benevolence, had its Lisbon earthquake. The twentieth century, disputing human melioration, fastened on the holocaust. The shoah, which was so prosaic in its operations, has come to stand for us as a terminal and sublime poetry.
History’s tide turns so fast, that those who take it at the flood are soon left stranded.
Leaders now spend their term in office failing to make any history and their retirement in trying to rewrite it.
We have lived through too much savage history to find our way back to the green world’s savage innocence.
History keeps a school for cynics.
The smugness of times to come will mock the smugness of our own.
How softly the horrors of history tinkle when they happen, but how deafeningly they reecho. The nightmare of history may take a generation to seep into our dreams and poison us. How belatedly the sons and daughters learn to be haunted by the spectres of what their parents lived through. The world had to wait twenty years to be shocked by the holocaust.
21 A history of the future
The United States is what the whole world is now or is well on the way to becoming, a republic of hucksters, friendly and corrupt, pacific and bellicose, jittery and bullying, shiny new and already rusting, cold-hearted and maudlin, wide-eyed and wised-up, populist and plutocratic, coordinated and disorderly, conformist and exhibitionist, regimented yet anarchic, bumptious and epicene, just being born and a long while dying, a light to the nations and an abomination, a dustbowl flowing with milk and honey, puritan and lewd, a giant blinkered by its own sanctimoniousness, rich and in debt, globalized and parochial, self-intoxicated and self-doubting. It is not a country but a plague, the pox Americana. It has infected the globe with the fever of its venal optimism, so well-meaning and so self-serving. It is a land of optimists who live in terror of some enemy which they have conjured up. The union may have grown great if it had been content to stay small. It chose instead to swell to a colossal continental empire. It fulfilled its manifest destiny by betraying its founding principles. The statue of liberty is its fit symbol, oversized, showy and hollow, a miracle of engineering and a monstrosity of taste.