The Dead Dragon and the Living Dragon
~by Jeremie Finck (more commonly known as North)
How do you start a guest post? Damned if I know. Whist commenting on the Greek/Euro drama and the relative skills of Prime Minister Papanderou, I made an offhand comment that both Elias and Mark Thompson asked me to expand on in a guest post. Seeing as how many of my compatriots in the commentariat have themselves made forays into guest posting I thought “why not, it’s a slow Friday”.
The origin of the subject stemmed from Elias’ bemusement at the spectacle of the “Socialist” party of PM Papanderou pushing austerity whilst being hammered by his (theoretically) right wing opposition literally from his left for the severity of the measures needed to keep Greece in the Euro. I observed that for parties of the left worldwide (and I would say especially in the US), end of the Cold War represented the slaying of the dragon of left wing fundamentalism and that those parties have responded to this by adopting a more pragmatic approach to government while for the parties of the right (most especially in the US) the dragon of right wing fundamentalism is still alive and this animates their governing philosophy at least partially with considerations as to what they need to do to bring about their new, dreamed for political order.
The Dead Dragon
Start laying your hands on left wingers in the sixties or seventies you would not generally have to interview very long before one would tell you that their preferred model of economics did exist and was engaged in the long march to triumph embodied in the centralized states of the East. This is of course an enormously broad brush to apply to the left overall and criticism of the communist bloc was common but there was an underlying theme, a faith, on the left most regions of the left that eventually communism would win out and the world would be a better place for it. Socialist and Liberal parties abounded in every country in the first world striving to bring their home states into line with this march to triumph. The end of the Cold War put an end to this.
Both the passing from this mortal coil of the true believers and by the relentless academic and journalistic autopsies of the failed communist states (and the spectacle of the nightmarish or pathetically stunted survivors like North Korea or Cuba) put a stake well and truly through the heart of communism worldwide. Disillusionment swept the left and the political organizations of the left had to respond by either changing or vanishing.
Those organizations that survived by and large did so by both accepting the market and adopting a posture of pragmatism and day to day operational focus. “We agree, pure centralized economies won’t work”, they answered “but the criticisms of communism against capitalism still have merit and while the overall project was mistaken there are components of it that have practical beneficial value.” This gave arise in the ‘90s to the pragmatic liberal or left governments which arrived at an opportune moment as the great conservative charges of the 80’s and early 90’s were petering out. These governing philosophies certainly animated movements like the Chretien era in Canada and the Clinton era in the US as well as the early Blair government in the UK.
This isn’t, mind, an entirely sunny story since some of the disillusioned doubtlessly abandoned belief altogether to simply become your standard politician for the politicians sake type that crusts upon every political system. Still, these new Lefty governments and groups had/have a certain flexibility that they can make of to their benefit to this day. The primary concern is “what do we think will work best” or “what will help the most” (or more cynically “What’ll help me the best by visibly helping my voters the most”). The focus has eased from a desire to bring about the new left world order to simply making the world as nice a place using the lessons the left thinks still works (and by quietly abandoning the tools that have been proven not to).
The Living Dragon (Or at least mostly)
By comparison to the left the right also has a dragon. Unlike the dragon of the left, however, the dragon of the right is very much alive. Elias interjected with an observation and Koz also threw in some quite useful thoughts that made me re-assess my metaphor a bit and led me to conclude that unlike the left’s dead dragon the right has a dragon with two heads; one quite alive and the other if not dead then in very poor health.
The first and much older head was characterized by Koz as “Hurrah for the ancient regime” and this is a useful description (especially from the point of view of a Canadian where we actually have an ancient regime) but not sufficiently accurate I think so I have less charmingly named it the head of rule by authority. As Elias suggested in much of the world this head was dealt a near mortal wound in the conclusions of World War II where Hitler the fascist, Mussolini the despot of personality and the Japanese imperialists were defeated by the communists and the Democracies. I would, probably very unflatteringly, lump in with this the despots of various sorts who’ve been dying off gradually worldwide and also the forces of racism, nationalism and fundamentalist religion (the head has some last gasps in it yet as the Islamists have shown).
Focusing specifically on the US this head of the dragon was best represented by the McCarthyite traditionalist (and their neocons heirs) and the theocons both of whom wished to institute a rule of authority (the neocons by right wing politicians/policy groups against an endlessly growing list of threats and the theocons by the word of God as interpreted by his chosen faithful against the endless sins of normal men).
The younger and by far livelier head is free market absolutists, characterized by libertarians. William F. Buckley deserves a mention here, I would agree, for his role in the US context of both winnowing out the most rotten aspects of the authoritarians faction (and driving them out to quietly continue dying) and convincing it to pull together with the up and coming libertarian faction. We got Regan from their efforts and arguably the death of the Left Wing Dragon (though it clearly would have died regardless). We also got the moral majority and the 1994 upset.
I will stop at this point to comment on this younger living head because I imagine Jason and many others are fixing to defenestrate me at this point and note that one of the points of this head being living is that it has not yet been definitively proven that an extreme libertarian system is incapable of working (or even of being superior to the current system). This is why one should be more cautious talking about living dragons than dead ones and I would be remiss in ignoring that it is possible that the libertarians are correct and that a minarchist (amusingly MS word keeps trying to correct this to Monarchist) state could actually work. I don’t believe that this is more likely than not myself (or else I’d myself be a libertarian) but the possibility exists.
This produces, for right wing parties but especially for the US right wing party a tendency to approach governing with an attitude of “what is needed to institute the new world order?” With regards to the GOP you also get some interesting schizophrenia as you have what is, in essence a vibrant small living dragon stitched (by Buckley, Regan et all) to a near dead larger dragon; so you’ll periodically get these spasms as one tries to shake and scratch the other off itself.
What remains on the left, then, is only those parts of the Dragon of left wing fundamentalism that have been found to have merit when exposed to the crucible of reality. The dragon was a big one and its desolate heirs are taking a long time burning away the gristle and dross to find the truths beneath but I do believe that there are truths there that have been found and more that have yet to be refined from the ruin.
What remains to be seen is what happens on the right and I remain convinced that what would be especially useful would be for the libertarians to be able to try and enact their theories on a level where they can be tested. The fastest way to get to the truth would be to unshackle the younger head from the older one and put it through its paces. The practical and moral obstacles to this remain huge, alas, we’re talking about fooling round with entire societies; though even some civic enclaves or a small couple of nations might do the trick. Perhaps seasteading will offer the venue where we’ll find out if libertarian societies can self sustain themselves and also create a higher standards of living than what we have now (I have my doubts but that’d take an entirely different post).
My own intuition is that pure libertarianism is as incapable of functioning for us fallible humans as straight up socialism is. Our best course would be to advance discovery on this matter as quickly as possible so that we can sort what is true from what we just imagine to be true about libertarianism and out of the remains of the fundamentalist ideologies from both the right and left build a balanced and as close to practically optimal society as is possible. Elias mentions left libertarians, communitarians and similar organizations and I hope that among those divide spanning groups lie the seeds of our future. A future I personally believe will combine the efficiency and individuality of the dragon of the right without its indifferent cruelty to the weak and the sense of fairness and protection of the dragon of the left without its smothering tyranny against the gifted.