Crisis and Control (and a Remarkable Speech)

When Christendom existed the general object of the princes who ruled its lands, guided by the teachings of the Faith and what had worked for their predecessors, was to provide and maintain peace and prosperity for their peoples.  The degree to which they achieved that end was the measure of their success as rulers, in their own eyes as well as the world’s. That was the case even with rulers  who might be careless in their personal lives about the precepts of the religion.  This for dynastic reasons, if no other.  After all, a realm that was not peaceful and prosperous would not be a fit inheritance for a ruler’s sons.  Indeed, it might not be there for the sons to inherit.

True, the princes who ruled Christendom’s lands might sometimes war on one another, and victory at arms was seen as dressing a ruler in some glory, but since the princes of those days lacked large standing armies and modern technology, and moreover were constrained by recognized Christian moral standards from deliberately targeting non-combatants as was done throughout the 20th century, the wars were always limited in scope.  Unless they lived in a town under siege, typical subjects would be largely untouched by them.  A peasant farmer could labor in a field, blissfully unaware that a battle was going on a few miles away.

The point is the last thing a Christian ruler wanted on his hands — even a ruler with a taste for glory — was a crisis.  Crises, and the emergency measures they provoke, were to be avoided because they always disturb social peace and can very quickly threaten a country’s prosperity.  In part, that is because the emergency measures adopted to meet a crisis will usually involve change, a departure or break from tradition, from the way things were done in the past even if the old way, before the crisis, had proven itself conducive to peace and prosperity.

Why do we recall this Christian history here? Do we not live in post-Christian times? To what purpose is it to remember how things were when Christendom existed, especially in a day when Americans are promised, not peaceful continuity with what has worked in the past (much less anything faintly resembling government that takes into account the teachings of the Faith), but change as never before, “change you can believe in”?

The fact is nothing ever really happens all of a sudden, not even change.  Today’s events and developments always arise from yesterday’s, or yesteryears’.  To be familiar with the past, even if it is of what has been lost, helps us understand the present and to guess, if not know, the future.  Thus if we wish to grasp how it is that in 2009 a political leader can be triumphant by promising change, it is useful to be familiar with the way things once were, and still more useful to know when and why they became different.

They became different in what had been Christendom at the end of the 18th century with the overthrow of Christian government and the ascendency then of the liberal notion that life on Earth — life in society — should be governed according to the will of men instead of God’s — as if He did not exist.  The proximate events signaling the rise of this notion were the French Revolution of 1789 and the beginning that same year of the official career of the United States as a liberal republic, not a Christian one. Political leaders have understood ever since, if but instinctively, a truth pithily stated in 1958 by the novelist Aldous Huxley.

It was in his book Brave New World Revisited.  Therein he ruminated on political, social, scientific and other developments that had taken place since the original publication twenty-six years earlier of his most famous novel, Brave New World.  If there is anyone who hasn’t read it, the novel depicts the result of moral anarchy in an age dominated by science and technology: a world of human beings made robotic through genetic engineering and conditioning who find happiness — peace and prosperity, if you will — in subordination to an all-powerful state.

Huxley had many interesting things to say in the 1958 book, but none more pertinent a half-century later than a passage where he writes of emergencies multiplying to the point that the members of a society wind up living virtually in permanent crisis.  He was precise, and surely correct, about the outcome of this condition: “Permanent crisis justifies permanent control of everybody and everything by the agencies of central government.” Of course when permanent crisis finally produces permanent control, permanent peace and prosperity, or at least some kind of “happiness,” are supposed to be at hand.

Anybody who thinks modern political leaders are not self-consciously aware of the importance of crisis to the achievement of their ends might take a look at a passage of A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.  The book’s author, the late historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, quotes JFK saying, “The nation will listen only if it is a moment of great urgency.” We should understand “listen” in the sense of agree, especially to the enactment of measures that will increase government control of something and thereby the political leaders’ power.

Not that the leaders seek this power for self-aggrandizement or intend to exercise it to anybody’s detriment.  On the contrary.  As Mirabeau, one of the leaders of the French Revolution of 1789 declared: “In times of anarchy one may seem a despot in order to be a savior.”

This is something remaining Christians need to understand about liberals, whether the latter be of the Left or ones called “conservative”. They are not simply on a power trip.  They — most of them — sincerely believe in what they do. Liberals believe that government without reference to anything higher than the will of themselves is the best kind.  Indeed, after two centuries of liberalism’s sway over the minds of men as well as the affairs of nations, most would not suppose another kind could exist (except dictatorship, which would be government according to the will of one man) and if the only kind they can conceive controls more and more — how business is to be conducted, how children are to be educated, who is or is not married, even who will live or die — the nearer all of us will be to being “saved”.

In any event, Americans in recent years have seen some pretty dramatic examples of crises resulting in an increase in government power. There was, for instance, the way Congress rubber-stamped the Patriot Act in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  Now, in the current economic crisis, we have had (and will continue to have) a whole series of measures producing a symbiosis of Big Government and Big Business and Finance that would once have been recognized, and labeled, Fascist.

Not that we want to give the original Fascism a worse name that it already has.  Merely trying to get something like a minimum wage for Italian workers was a struggle for poor old Mussolini.  He could only dream of being able to nationalize a bank.  But, then, he was in power in the 1930s, back when Brave New World was first published.  There has been a great deal of “progress” since then.  Doubtless it could be argued whether the progress has been more toward Brave New World or the grim vision of Orwell’s 1984, but we don’t want to get into that here.

(We also choose to ignore conspiracy theories.  The present writer does not believe, though I know conspiracies do exist, that 9/11 or the present economic crisis were engineered by federal agents in order to be able to increase government power. The retired head of MI5 recently expressed the view that the British government exploits the threat of terrorism to achieve that end, but such engineering is entirely unnecessary, for nowadays there is nearly always a crisis going on, as we have observed, and any will result in an increase in government power — not simply a terrorist attack or financial meltdown, but the “crisis” of education, the “crisis” of climate change, the “crisis” of the rising cost of medical care, the “crisis” of violent crime, even a natural disaster.  We can almost ask: Of everything going on in U.S. society and the world, what isn’t a “crisis” nowadays? In the face of any, our liberal leaders, believing in the first place in the power of government (which is to say, their own) the way Christians used to believe in the power of God, and also politically fearful of being seen as “doing nothing,” will be bound to intervene, and by intervening inevitably further extend their power over citizens’ lives.  Not to intervene is simply not part of their mindset.  It would be inconceivable to them or, it must be said, most of the public, to leave New Orleans, for instance, to rebuild itself after Katrina the way San Francisco did after the devastating earthquake of 1906 when there were no federal “assistance programs”. This will be the case whether the leaders are of the Left or on the “conservative” right wing of our national liberalism.)

Now, as we have been saying here, there is certainly nothing new about governments becoming more powerful when they take action to meet a crisis.  This has happened for as long as governments have existed and whether the government was that of a tribal chieftain and a few elders, the Roman Senate, that of an anointed Christian monarch, or (in the famous words of the currently much-invoked Abraham Lincoln) what we theoretically enjoy in the U.S. today: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Even in 1933, when things had not “progressed” nearly to the point they have today and Franklin Roosevelt took office, important Americans advocated very drastic change to deal with the Depression.  The era’s most influential columnist, Walter Lippmann, wrote that the exercise of “‘dictatorial power,’ if that is the name for it, is essential.” U.S. Senator William Borah, Republican of Idaho, proclaimed himself prepared to forget party affiliation and “give our incoming President dictatorial power for a certain period.” Borah’s Republican colleague, David Reed of Pennsylvania, declared, “If this country ever needed a Mussolini, it needs one now.” Roosevelt himself, in his Inaugural Address (now remembered only for “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”) spoke of a possible “temporary departure” in which he might seek, if need be, “broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” The crowd listening to the speech is reported to have cheered enthusiastically.

In the event, FDR didn’t reach for such “broad” power.  It wasn’t necessary, not with Congress full of men like Borah and Reed.  Of the fifteen major laws Roosevelt proposed to Capitol Hill in his first 100 days in office, laws which would revolutionize the U.S. government and American society, all were passed virtually without debate.

The main difference between today and 1933 would appear twofold: 1) In 1933 there was only the economic emergency.  Today we are beset by all kinds of crises, or so it seems. 2) There has been a great deal of “progress” since Roosevelt, instrumental as he was in getting it going.  For instance, when FDR took the nation into war in 1941, he felt obliged to go to Congress for a declaration of it, as required by the Constitution.  Ever since Truman dispensed with that nicety (Korea, 1950), no President sending troops into combat has felt similarly obliged.  The style now is for the Commander-in-Chief to appear on television and tell us “I have ordered…” We are used to it.  So why not, instead of ordering the invasion of a country that has not attacked the U.S. or against which no war has been declared (Iraq, 2003), go on TV to announce something like: “Congress having failed to act in this crisis which threatens to become a catastrophe, by the authority vested in my office by the Constitution, I have ordered…” You name the crisis and imagine what could be ordered. Whatever it would be, we know it could be as unChristian as the launching of an unjust war.

Having noted here the importance of crises to the dynamic of modern liberal government, and contrasted such government to what existed when the West (of which America was an outpost) was still Christian, what we shall want to do at an early date is conjecture on some of what may be proposed by the new Administration by way of remedy when everybody who matters in the U.S. seems to agree the nation is mired in multiple crises, the most pressing of which is the economic one.

That will be, we said, for an early date.  Right now, what begs to be done is draw the reader’s attention to what had to be one of the most remarkable speeches delivered in the present writer’s adult lifetime. I draw it to your attention because: 1) You probably don’t know about the speech because most U.S. media ignored it; and 2) it could not be more radically different from what is being heard out of Washington these days.

The speech would not be remarkable coming from Ron Paul.  However, it was in fact delivered by Vladimir Putin, prime minister of a country that not so long ago had no private banks or private anything else.  His subject was the virtues of free enterprise and the forum in which he spoke was last month’s annual gathering of the world’s political, business and financial elites in Davos, Switzerland.  The scant news accounts I saw did not report the audience’s reaction to Putin.   One imagines it could have been stunned silence. What reaction would be more likely when Putin, mincing no words, declared early on: “I want to remind you that, just a year ago, American delegates speaking from this rostrum, emphasized the U.S. economy’s fundamental stability and its cloudless prospects.  Today, investment banks, the pride of Wall Street, have virtually ceased to exist.  In just twelve months, they have posted losses exceeding the profits they made in the last 25 years.  This example alone reflects the real situation better than any criticism.”

What is the real situation? It is that of an economic and financial “perfect storm, which denotes a situation when nature’s forces converge in one point and increase their destructive potential many times over.”

How did this perfect storm arise? It is due to “colossal disproportions that have accumulated over the last few years.  This primarily concerns disproportions between the scale of financial operations and the fundamental value of assets, as well as those between the increased burden on international loans and the sources of their collateral”

Well, that ought to be clear enough to everybody, but what caused the “disproportions”? The situation was “brought about by excessive expectations.  Corporate appetites with regard to constantly growing demand swelled unjustifiably.  The race between stock market indices and capitalization began to overshadow rising labor productivity and real-life corporate effectiveness.” In other words, we kept consuming more and more, even as we produced less and less.  The whole system was based on generating “unearned wealth, a loan that will have to be repaid by future generations.” Of course the bubble, as we have come to call it, “would have collapsed sooner or later,” and “in fact, this is happening right before our eyes.”

Indeed it is, but that doesn’t keep our liberal leaders from trying to reinflate it, as currently they are doing.  They should not, according to Putin.  What is needed is to “assess the real situation and write off all hopeless debts and ‘bad’ assets.  True, this will be an extremely painful and unpleasant process.  Far from everyone can accept such measures, fearing for their capitalization, bonuses, or reputation.  However, we would ‘conserve’ and prolong the crisis, unless we clean up our balance sheets.” More specifically, what should be avoided is “excessive intervention in economic activity and blind faith in the state’s omnipotence.”

If Putin understands that “instead of streamlining market mechanisms, some are tempted to expand state economic intervention to the greatest possible extent,” he also knows — Who would know better than a Russian? —   where the temptation can lead.  “In the 20th century, the Soviet Union made the state’s role absolute.  In the long run, this made the Soviet economy totally uncompetitive…. Nor should we turn a blind eye to the fact that the spirit of free enterprise, including the principle of personal responsibility of businesspeople, investors and shareholders for their decisions, is being eroded in the last few months.  There is no reason to believe that we can achieve better results by shifting responsibility onto the state [emphases added].”

We said Putin’s speech would not be remarkable coming from Ron Paul.  That it was delivered by a Russian prime minister is what made it so.  Yet it was not really surprising from Putin.  As we all saw in widely-published photos a couple of years ago, he is one world leader (I’d guess the only one today, with his younger colleague President Medvedev being another possibility) who wears a cross under his shirt.  As a Christian, he knows something about freedom, real freedom.  He knows there is more to it than the exercise of the “right” to vote in an election that offers no morally acceptable candidate or to shop until you drop.

Pope Benedict greatly upset the Church’s ecumaniacs when he declared that “properly speaking, there is no interreligious dialogue.” In its place, he proposes to conduct dialogue that is intercultural.  On that level, the trip he is expected eventually to make to Russia could prove more fruitful than a visit he has paid to any formerly Catholic, but now liberal, nation. The question arises: Is history about to repeat itself? Nearly two centuries ago Europe was saved from the oppressive rule of Napoleon thanks to Russia.  The pope at that time was an actual prisoner of the self-proclaimed “Emperor”. Will the Holy See, in pursuing its mission to safeguard Christian interests in this world, find its best ally anywhere today in the East?

One last note: In little things much really can be read.  For those who persist in believing the U.S. is somehow Christian, or still so, it ought to have spoken volumes that when Chief Justice John Roberts was summoned to the White House to readminister President Obama’s oath of office, the action was performed without a Bible because no copy could be found in the Executive Mansion.  Ignore it that the Obamas didn’t pack one when they left Chicago.  There is a White House library.  One might think that if only on account of Scripture’s importance as a reference in American literature (especially Scripture in the King James Version) there might be a copy on its shelves, but evidently even that is not the case.