I promise that UR will not turn into the Carlyle Channel—all Carlyle, all the time.
However, we have yet to seriously examine Carlyle’s track record as a prophet. The true force of the mad sage emerges only when we compare his future to our past—and our present. If Carlyle’s predictions are significantly more accurate than those of his more conventional peers, his reputation as a true prophet and general Sith Lord is confirmed. If not, he is just another crazy homeless person in the library.
What we’d really like is Carlyle’s own history of the 20th century. Perhaps Rick Darby can help out with his ouija board. Until this channel opens, however, we are stuck with Google Books. (Question: does anyone at the Googleplex know they’re serving the Occasional Discourse? Does anyone at the SPLC read UR? If so, wouldn’t suing Google generate fantastic press? And say—how’s it coming with that diversity effort?)
Fortunately, it is not too hard to retrospectively construct a Carlylean interpretation of the 20th century. And for those who disagree, there is UR. (I would not be surprised if I’m the only human being who read Frederick the Great this year.) Just tilt your head and slip the mollusc in your ear.
Carlyle can be quickly identified as a predictor of unusual accuracy by two major correct predictions about the 20th century. One: the 20th would be a century of democracy, in which the political center moved consistently to the left. Two: it would be a century of murder, misery, tyranny and anarchy, “enormous Megatherions, ugly as were ever born of mud.”
The first prediction was pretty standard. The second was quite unusual. Their combination is distinctively Carlylean and, more broadly, Victorian and British. You will certainly have a hard time finding anyone outside these categories, except a grumpy old Mugwump or two, who believes in both these predictions. They are clearly correct, and they were on paper by 1850.
Or perhaps Democracy, which we announce as now come, will itself manage it? Democracy, once modelled into suffrages, furnished with ballot-boxes and such like, will itself accomplish the salutary universal change from Delusive to Real, and make a new blessed world of us by and by?—To the great mass of men, I am aware, the matter presents itself quite on this hopeful side. Democracy they consider to be a kind of “Government.” The old model, formed long since, and brought to perfection in England now two hundred years ago, has proclaimed itself to all Nations as the new healing for every woe: “Set up a Parliament,” the Nations everywhere say, when the old King is detected to be a Sham-King, and hunted out or not; “set up a Parliament; let us have suffrages, universal suffrages; and all either at once or by due degrees will be right, and a real Millennium come!” Such is their way of construing the matter.
Such, alas, is by no means my way of construing the matter; if it were, I should have had the happiness of remaining silent, and been without call to speak here. It is because the contrary of all this is deeply manifest to me, and appears to be forgotten by multitudes of my contemporaries, that I have had to undertake addressing a word to them.
The contrary of all this;—and the farther I look into the roots of all this, the more hateful, ruinous and dismal does the state of mind all this could have originated in appear to me. To examine this recipe of a Parliament, how fit it is for governing Nations, nay how fit it may now be, in these new times, for governing England itself where we are used to it so long: this, too, is an alarming inquiry, to which all thinking men, and good citizens of their country, who have an ear for the small still voices and eternal intimations, across the temporary clamors and loud blaring proclamations, are now solemnly invited. Invited by the rigorous fact itself; which will one day, and that perhaps soon, demand practical decision or redecision of it from us,—with enormous penalty if we decide it wrong! I think we shall all have to consider this question, one day; better perhaps now than later, when the leisure may be less.
If a Parliament, with suffrages and universal or any conceivable kind of suffrages, is the method, then certainly let us set about discovering the kind of suffrages, and rest no moment till we have got them. But it is possible a Parliament may not be the method! Possible the inveterate notions of the English People may have settled it as the method, and the Everlasting Laws of Nature may have settled it as not the method! Not the whole method; nor the method at all, if taken as the whole? If a Parliament with never such suffrages is not the method settled by this latter authority, then it will urgently behoove us to become aware of that fact, and to quit such method;—we may depend upon it, however unanimous we be, every step taken in that direction will, by the Eternal Law of things, be a step from improvement, not towards it.
Not towards it, I say, if so! Unanimity of voting,—that will do nothing for us if so. Your ship cannot double Cape Horn by its excellent plans of voting. The ship may vote this and that, above decks and below, in the most harmonious exquisitely constitutional manner: the ship, to get round Cape Horn, will find a set of conditions already voted for, and fixed with adamantine rigor by the ancient Elemental Powers, who are entirely careless how you vote. If you can, by voting or without voting, ascertain these conditions, and valiantly conform to them, you will get round the Cape: if you cannot, the ruffian Winds will blow you ever back again; the inexorable Icebergs, dumb privy-councillors from Chaos, will nudge you with most chaotic “admonition;” you will be flung half frozen on the Patagonian cliffs, or admonished into shivers by your iceberg councillors, and sent sheer down to Davy Jones, and will never get round Cape Horn at all! Unanimity on board ship;—yes indeed, the ship’s crew may be very unanimous, which doubtless, for the time being, will be very comfortable to the ship’s crew, and to their Phantasm Captain if they have one: but if the tack they unanimously steer upon is guiding them into the belly of the Abyss, it will not profit them much!—Ships accordingly do not use the ballot-box at all; and they reject the Phantasm species of Captains: one wishes much some other Entities—since all entities lie under the same rigorous set of laws—could be brought to show as much wisdom, and sense at least of self-preservation, the first command of Nature. Phantasm Captains with unanimous votings: this is considered to be all the law and all the prophets, at present.
If a man could shake out of his mind the universal noise of political doctors in this generation and in the last generation or two, and consider the matter face to face, with his own sincere intelligence looking at it, I venture to say he would find this a very extraordinary method of navigating, whether in the Straits of Magellan or the undiscovered Sea of Time. To prosper in this world, to gain felicity, victory and improvement, either for a man or a nation, there is but one thing requisite, That the man or nation can discern what the true regulations of the Universe are in regard to him and his pursuit, and can faithfully and steadfastly follow these. These will lead him to victory; whoever it may be that sets him in the way of these,—were it Russian Autocrat, Chartist Parliament, Grand Lama, Force of Public Opinion, Archbishop of Canterbury, M’Croudy the Seraphic Doctor with his Last-evangel of Political Economy,—sets him in the sure way to please the Author of this Universe, and is his friend of friends. And again, whoever does the contrary is, for a like reason, his enemy of enemies. This may be taken as fixed.
And now by what method ascertain the monition of the gods in regard to our affairs? How decipher, with best fidelity, the eternal regulation of the Universe; and read, from amid such confused embroilments of human clamor and folly, what the real Divine Message to us is? A divine message, or eternal regulation of the Universe, there verily is, in regard to every conceivable procedure and affair of man: faithfully following this, said procedure or affair will prosper, and have the whole Universe to second it, and carry it, across the fluctuating contradictions, towards a victorious goal; not following this, mistaking this, disregarding this, destruction and wreck are certain for every affair. How find it?
All the world answers me, “Count heads; ask Universal Suffrage, by the ballot-boxes, and that will tell.” Universal Suffrage, ballot-boxes, count of heads? Well,—I perceive we have got into strange spiritual latitudes indeed. Within the last half-century or so, either the Universe or else the heads of men must have altered very much. Half a century ago, and down from Father Adam’s time till then, the Universe, wherever I could hear tell of it, was wont to be of somewhat abstruse nature; by no means carrying its secret written on its face, legible to every passer-by; on the contrary, obstinately hiding its secret from all foolish, slavish, wicked, insincere persons, and partially disclosing it to the wise and noble-minded alone, whose number was not the majority in my time!
Of course, this pair of predictions is just an example. Hindsight can easily identify correct predictions in the corpus of any essayist. We cannot consider Carlyle’s actual accuracy in retrospect without counting all his correct and incorrect predictions, then comparing them to those of a contemporary peer. Perhaps this could be a useful exercise for some anomic beaver with a spreadsheet.
We can produce a more interesting effect on the modern mind, however, by presenting ways in which Carlyle understands the 20th century better, in the 1850s, than almost anyone in 2009. Specifically, we can employ Carlyle to teach you about the 20th century—and if not you, your uninitiated friends.
Only one simple demonstration is required. You see, for Carlyle the pair of prophecies described earlier—the rise of democracy in the 20th century, and the extraordinary level of political murder in the 20th century—are not independent predictions. They are causally connected. The rise of democracy is the cause of the Holocaust, etc.
While this proposition seems self-evident to Carlyle, pretty much no one believes it today. Will historians eventually conclude that he was right? If so, Carlyle beats them by 150 years—and counting. Counting for a while yet, I suspect.
To the democrat, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, democracy appears as the cure for the 20th-century’s political ills. A cure born in serendipitous synchrony to its disease, like the Monitor for the Merrimack. It reaches the scene of the crime just in time to try to save the victims. Succeeding for most, sadly failing for some. So you may see some blood on its hands or clothing.
If this alibi were not interesting enough, any exculpation of democracy leaves the tragedies of the 20th century uncaused. If the narrators of democratic history were more confident that these events were indeed causeless, random and without pattern, they might be less addicted to the passive voice. Instead you see it every day in the papers: “three people were killed today in…” Or even better, the false active: “today, violence killed three people in…” Indeed. Thus in the 20th century, which was also the century of democracy, violence killed hundreds of millions of people.
Of course, neither Carlyle nor I can deny that North America and Europe in 2009 enjoy local peace, at least in the conventional military sense. Recent political violence in these areas has been minimal. But any hegemonic conqueror can and typically does suppress political violence: democracy, or Genghis Khan. This does not help us assess the net total of political violence in a counterfactual universe in which democracy, or Genghis Khan, had decided to mind their own business.
Surely the easiest argument against Carlyle’s hypothesis is that most of the atrocities of the 20th century were committed not by democracy, but by its enemies—totalitarian states of both the right and left. Again, democracy is at the scene of the crime only in its capacity as an officer of the peace. It is not just the blood of the victims which appears on its hands and clothing, but also that of the real killers.
Again, perfectly true. It is possible to construct a definition of an orthodox democracy, and possible to show that orthodox democracies have by far the cleanest hands in the 20th century’s military mass murders—under 21st-century principles of “human rights,” for instance, we see only a million or so civilians incinerated by urban firebombing. A peccadillo for the age. Sure.
But clean hands do not exclude causality. The fascist and socialist totalitarian states of the 20th century—Hitler, Mao, and Stalin, basically—existed as exceptions, throwbacks, in the age of rising democracy. Hitler, Mao and Stalin committed the crimes of Hitler, Mao, and Stalin, making them the proximate causes of these events. We still may ask: what caused Hitler, Mao, and Stalin? What was the origin and nature of these regimes? If we find the fingerprints of democracy behind them, we may continue to suspect it as the ultimate cause.
The argument that democracy caused Hitler, etc., may seem an unusual and abstruse one. In the democratic narrative of the 20th century, indeed, it makes very little sense. In the Carlylean narrative it is almost so obvious as to be unworthy of mention, as we’ll see.
The Carlylean explanation of Hitler, Stalin and Mao is that fascism and Communism are both, each in a very different way, democratic phenomena. They existed in the century of democracy because they could not have existed without it.
We will make this argument at length, later. It is a subtle point to explain, however. It is easily suspected of sophistry, or (as Carlyle would put it) Jesuitism. An introduction to Carlyle’s 20th century can only start with a much less subtle blow to the head.
To demonstrate how easy it is to retell history without changing any of the facts, let us supply a Carlylean reinterpretation of the events by which democracy gained its hegemony—the wars of 1939–45. The result will attribute ultimate causality for the Holocaust to the democratic movement in general, and the Roosevelt administration in specific.
First we must remove the existing cloak of hagiography. Beating the Nazis (a feat in which my own grandfather participated, quite enthusiastically) is perhaps the main moral claim to fame of our present democratic overlords. The moral logic is simple. Hitler committed the Holocaust, the Holocaust was evil, FDR fought Hitler and beat him, so FDR must be good.
A saint may fight against a knave. Alternatively, two knaves may fight. A dragon may be slain by St. George, or by another dragon. In the former case you are left with St. George, who deserves a reward for slaying his dragon. In the latter case you are faced with a dragon, which did only what dragons do. He was probably the bigger of the two, and now he is even bigger than that.
Unfortunately, there is no moral system on earth which assigns any points for either (a) the unintended consequences of one’s actions, especially when (b) these consequences do not actually happen. So if (a) America’s war had been undertaken, either by its leaders or its masses, with the intention of saving the Jews from Hitler, and (b) any significant number of Jews had been actually saved by this policy, credit on this count would most certainly be due. And we would see what we want to see—St. George slaying the dragon.
But I am not aware of any historical school which espouses either of these propositions, neither of which has any relationship to reality. In reality, the American authorities were only slightly less eager than their German counterparts to conceal the Holocaust. As any bail bondsman can tell you, this is called being an “accessory.” Not good. As for saving Jews, all contemporary claims that America was fighting a war for the Jews emanate from Berlin, not Washington. Goebbels was known to tell the truth on occasion, but not this occasion.
Moreover, the Roosevelt administration at its highest level knowingly concealed the crimes of its own Russian proxies at Katyn, an atrocity no less horrific in quality if not quantity. America in this war is just as responsible for Russian war crimes as Germany for the work of its Lithuanian special police. Total responsibility for the offenses of one’s dependents, clients and proxies is a clear case of natural law, both at the individual and sovereign levels.
One layer of camouflage is seldom sufficient. Lurking beneath the mythical war to save the Jews is the equally mythical Axis plan to conquer the world. Unlike the Holocaust, this is a genuine work of living propaganda—a device of British Security Coordination, which forged the infamous map in which South America is divided into Nazi Gaue. Quite simply, no such plan existed.
Hitler most certainly had a plan to conquer Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe is not the planet, and nor was it in any sense liberated by the war. Mein Kampf’s grand strategy was that Germany must expand to the East and remain at peace with the West—especially the British Empire. Hitler’s geopolitical fantasy, and the perennial core of his perennial peace plans, was a world in which Germany dominated the Continent with land power, serving as an equal but not a rival to British maritime imperialism. Curiously, the Third Reich and the British Empire are now equally defunct—another coincidence.
Of course, having conquered the East, Hitler or his successors might have developed new appetites, revised said plans, and decided to conquer the West as well. Those requiring the 20th century to constitute the end of history are yet another class of automatic apologist. Of course, after the Anglo–Soviet split, the West in any case faced a ruthless, militaristic Eastern totalitarian state with clear ambitions to world domination. (And actual domination of Eastern Europe.)
We thus begin to see the outline of the foreign policy that Carlyle would propose for America and Britain in the 1930s. A Carlylean judges the quality of a government’s actions by comparing them to what that government should have done, and he is not shy about using hindsight to construct this alternative.
Or, of course, the prophecies of the master himself. The Carlylean alternative being simple:
When the Continental Nations have once got to the bottom of their Augean Stable, and begun to have real enterprises based on the eternal facts again, our Foreign Office may again have extensive concerns with them. And at all times, and even now, there will remain the question to be sincerely put and wisely answered, What essential concern has the British Nation with them and their enterprises? Any concern at all, except that of handsomely keeping apart from them? If so, what are the methods of best managing it?—At present, as was said, while Red Republic but clashes with foul Bureaucracy; and Nations, sunk in blind ignavia, demand a universal-suffrage Parliament to heal their wretchedness; and wild Anarchy and Phallus-Worship struggle with Sham-Kingship and extinct or galvanized Catholicism; and in the Cave of the Winds all manner of rotten waifs and wrecks are hurled against each other,—our English interest in the controversy, however huge said controversy grow, is quite trifling; we have only in a handsome manner to say to it: “Tumble and rage along, ye rotten waifs and wrecks; clash and collide as seems fittest to you; and smite each other into annihilation at your own good pleasure. In that huge conflict, dismal but unavoidable, we, thanks to our heroic ancestors, having got so far ahead of you, have now no interest at all. Our decided notion is, the dead ought to bury their dead in such a case: and so we have the honor to be, with distinguished consideration, your entirely devoted, FLIMNAP, SEC. FOREIGN DEPARTMENT.”—I really think Flimnap, till truer times come, ought to treat much of his work in this way: cautious to give offence to his neighbors; resolute not to concern himself in any of their self-annihilating operations whatsoever.
Thus the Carlylean foreign policy for USG and Britain in the 1930s is the same as the Carlylean foreign policy for USG today: abandon, disown and release all foreign protectorates, dependents, “allies,” client states, puppet states, and other “little friends.” Rather, each sovereign nation should just mind its own business for a while and see how that works out.
After a Carlylean reaction, there is no world policeman, no world judge, world parliament, or world anything. Even the traditional practice of exchanging permanent diplomats is obsolete. Governments often have things to say to each other, but they can get used to saying it by email.
And if Bolivia and Paraguay wish to wage war, that war is the business of Bolivia and Paraguay. Washington has no particular interest in which side may be in the wrong. It is certainly either Bolivia, Paraguay, or both. Moreover, if Spain herself does pick a side, intervenes in favor of it, and eventually uses this as a pretext for reacquiring both Bolivia and Paraguay, the Flimnaps of Foggy Bottom shall gaze serenely down on the entire affair—requesting, at most, that all sides avoid weapons which might cause global atmospheric or marine contamination.
Thus, if we imagine this principle applied to Europe in 1933, a Carlylean regime in 1933 disavows all involvement in Continental politics, including the League of Nations and the protection of the various invented states of the Little Entente. All of which were, in 1933, much better-armed than Germany.
If Germany wishes to have a war with Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc., that is the business of these nations. If Czechoslovakia and Poland wish to defend themselves from Germany, they should arm sufficiently and band themselves together for the purpose. If not, they must accept German suzerainty. In the actual event, they behaved as if they were armed, but the arms on which they counted were not their own—but those of Britain and France, which in retrospect were obviously insufficient to defend them.
Meanwhile, of course, if these wars expel valuable refugees—especially a high-value population such as the Ashkenazi Jews—Britain and America will stand ready to snap them up, just as Frederick the Great was happy to snap up French Huguenots expelled by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
Thus under this strategy, Nazi Germany (assuming the most aggressive intentions) either enlarges itself to the East, or fails to do so. If populations are displaced, for crazy Nazi reasons or otherwise, they are relocated to the Western Hemisphere. (Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, for one, wanted as many Jews as he could get.) It is possible to construct a global military disaster, genocide, etc., emerging from this counterfactual scenario. But it does not seem likely, whereas with the road taken we know it is certain. Hindsight is a bitch.
And more damningly, the Carlylean answer answers a question we didn’t know we had. Remember: we have eliminated the two most frequently presumed rationales for the Allied side of the war. Roosevelt was not fighting to save the Jews, for he gives no appearance of giving a crap about the Jews. And he is not fighting to thwart the Nazi project of invading Mexico, for he knows there is no such project. What, then, is he fighting for? What is the nature of the Allied cause?
There is a three-word answer: “the United Nations.” Basically, the Anglo-American coalition (which in fact called itself by that name during the war) is fighting for a vision, which vision might well be described even better by the name it now carries: “the international community.” Skeptics will note that this phrase can always be replaced with the term “State Department,” with negligible change to the meaning of the sentence.
More concretely, the fundamental question of the war was: if Germany and Poland disagree, whose business is it? Germany’s answer was: it is the business of Germany and Poland. This answer is roughly coincident with classical international law, in which each nation is the only final judge of its interests. The Anglo-American answer was: it is the business of the international community. And so, in modern international law, it is. The Allies having defeated Germany, just as Germany defeated Poland. Might and right always converge in the end.
From the perspective of classical international law, Britain, which has been acting as the sole global hyperpower since 1815, and her new partner in crime America, are essentially asserting suzerainty over the Continent. They, and their stable of satellites, are to make the rules of international affairs henceforth. And indeed there is only one way for Germany to dispute this claim of suzerainty, which like all sovereign claims grows stronger the longer it is not disputed, and establish its status as an independent and equal country: make war, needless to say without permission, on the Anglo-American client states that after the last war were created out of its territory.
Thus, Anglo-American democracy causes the war, and its resulting terrors and destructions, because the nascent system of global suzerainty it set up in 1919 forces Germany to either accept a position which is permanently subordinate to the Anglo-American system or “international community,” effectively sacrificing her independence as a nation, or demonstrate its disobedience by violently attacking that community. The dog has been backed into a corner; it must either cringe and submit, or bite. It probably should have cringed.
But military causality is always a dark and difficult point to argue. This would be Carlyle’s explanation of these events, I think, but it is not his most powerful argument. Not only were Stalin, Hitler and Mao the products of bad democratic foreign policy, but their own movements could not have existed without democracy.
Rather, fascism and socialism (including the various Communisms) are inherently democratic phenomena. It is thus obvious that they came to exist in the century of democracy. This argument, too, may strike you as implausible—but wait and see.
Because first, this nasty pair suggests a cheaper, uglier, more banal explanation for Carlyle’s seeming success as a prophet. As Wikipedia correctly notes:
If Carlyle predicts that your house will burn down, and your house burns down, Carlyle is a prophet. But if he was seen on your porch with a can of kerosene, he’s an arsonist. The plot thickens.
To understand the 20th century, we have to understand what socialism is and fascism was. To understand it from a Carlylean perspective, we need to understand the relationship of democracy to each—and to Carlyle himself. To Carlyle, democracy is the ultimate cause of the Holocaust; to democracy (or at least to Wikipedia), Carlyle is that ultimate cause. He is both prosecutor and defendant in the case.
The essential step in understanding socialism and fascism is understanding the difference between these Megatherions. They are both Megatherions all right, and both born in mud. Moreover, both muds contain a significant concentration of Carlyle. But they are two very different muds—and mud should not be confused with Carlyle.
While there are no qualitative distinctions in history, the difference between socialism and fascism is about as close as it comes—it’s up there with virus versus bacterium. Or perhaps, for a closer medical analogy, liver cancer and lung cancer. Lung cancer can spread to your liver and/or vice versa, but the tumor is always descended from either lung or liver. Similarly, while the structure, apparatus and practices of socialism and fascism may in advanced cases converge, the origin of the malignancy is always precise and distinct.
Orthodox libertarians and, increasingly, conservatives have a particularly easy wrong answer available to them on this point. The wrong answer is that socialism and fascism are two forms, with negligible or cosmetic distinction, of one pathology of government—statism. Statism being the condition of having an enormous government which does all kinds of stupid, useless, and/or counterproductive things.
This clicks naturally with the theory of Carlyle as villain. Carlyle is most certainly a statist in the abstract libertarian sense of the word. Libertarianism is in fact a revival of the Manchester liberalism of Carlyle’s time—whom the reader may meet as “M’Croudy, the Seraphic Doctor of Political Economy.”
From Carlyle’s end, Manchester liberalism is one of the principal symptoms of 19th-century democracy—the other being the philanthropism of Exeter Hall. Note that 21th-century democracy has boosted Exeter Hall to the nth degree, but retains some fragments of Manchester liberalism only grudgingly and with contempt. This too must be explained.
But here is Carlyle on M’Croudy—directly following the first passage on Democracy:
Or perhaps the chief end of man being now, in these improved epochs, to make money and spend it, his interests in the Universe have become amazingly simplified of late; capable of being voted on with effect by almost anybody? “To buy in the cheapest market, and sell in the dearest:” truly if that is the summary of his social duties, and the final divine message he has to follow, we may trust him extensively to vote upon that. But if it is not, and never was, or can be? If the Universe will not carry on its divine bosom any commonwealth of mortals that have no higher aim,—being still “a Temple and Hall of Doom,” not a mere Weaving-shop and Cattle-pen? If the unfathomable Universe has decided to reject Human Beavers pretending to be Men; and will abolish, pretty rapidly perhaps, in hideous mud-deluges, their “markets” and them, unless they think of it? In that case it were better to think of it: and the Democracies and Universal Suffrages, I can observe, will require to modify themselves a good deal!
Observant readers will note that Carlyle, the prophet, errs here. He asserts that Manchester liberalism is so simple and obvious that it can be explained to voters, who can (he seems to vaguely imply) be trusted to vote for it. This may have been true in the 1850s. If so, voters have changed—alas.
But let’s examine this Carlylean critique of libertarianism. Carlyle says: libertarianism is an epiphenomenon of democracy, because it is or purports to be a formula that dictates the actions of a sovereign—i.e., the government must do this and must not do that. In democratic parlance—a position, platform or ideology.
Platforms are essential to the conduct of democratic government, because the only legitimate way to rule in a democracy is to construct a party which agrees on a platform. Thus, the simpler and more appealing the formula, the better. Thus the existence of libertarianism, from this skeptical and delegitimating standpoint, is explained. Thus Manchester liberalism got somewhere in mid-19th-century Britain, although libertarians with more or less the same platform got nowhere in late-20th-century America. Simpler and more appealing formulas, such as “hope” and “change,” having since been invented.
Thus, Carlyle helps us explains why libertarianism was a democratic trope in the 1850s, and also why the democracy of 2009 is fundamentally un-libertarian. Anti-democratic libertarians can begin and finish their thesis here. The idea of libertarianism as a fundamental form of government, and non-libertarianism (or “statism”) as an equally fundamental form, is most plausibly explained by the political needs of democracy, not any actual natural phenomenon.
That said, we will accept this category, “statist,” a little longer. Before we look at socialism and fascism independently, we need to observe the shared Carlylean roots around which both are built. In the Carlylean narrative, socialism and fascism are both corruptions of the Carlylean ideal. They combine Carlylean truths with un-Carlylean shams.
Carlyle is a “statist” in that he considers the State to have absolute responsibility for the well-being of the nation it governs, and absolute authority to take any act it considers necessary to optimize that well-being. Quite simply, the Carlylean likes a strong hand at the tiller. And a strong tiller, too. This taste he shares with the socialist and the fascist—his fellow enthusiasts of government power.
Here all three part ways with the tradition of classical liberalism, under which so many American and British institutions were founded and re-founded in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and whose central motif is the belief in limited and/or divided government. One cannot be either socialist, fascist, or Carlylean, without either abandoning this belief or warping it beyond recognition. (Carlyleans and fascists abandon it. Socialists warp it.)
But at the next stop, the Carlylean parts ways with his 20th-century buddies. It is he who stays on the bus, and they who get off. Socialism and fascism produce a mix of substandard and disastrous results, for a simple reason: both originate in democracy, a precancerous growth always pregnant with some malignancy.
In almost every historical case of democracy, factions have arisen which can be arranged along a right–left axis. In the Athenian era, for example, hundreds of city-states developed a factional pattern in which a nominally demotic party competed against an nominally oligarchic party. This pattern must be a consequence of human nature, for it appears in all eras and populations without any apparent structure of transmission.
The socialist one-party state arises through the total victory of a faction, party, or movement of the Left. The fascist one-party state arises through the total victory of a faction, party, or movement of the Right. (Note that victory is victory, by means legal or illegal.)
The stable two-party democracy remains pregnant with both. And its stability is illusory: the same nominal parties remain, but their actual positions shift inexorably toward the Left. Thus we see chronic rather than acute socialism, which has the same endpoint—sclerotic emphysema of Brezhnev—but slower, and with a lot less drama. Unless it breaks down, of course.
(Note that under this definition, it is impossible to argue that “Hitler was a socialist.” On the Weimar political spectrum, which was no different from ours, the NSDAP was a party of the Right. Thus its total victory can only constitute the condition of fascism. Of course you may use any definition of “socialist” or “fascist” you like, but the above will be found to closely match your intuitive sense of the matter.)
It is these democratic roots which fatally poison both socialism and fascism. Since the origin of the socialist or fascist regime is always a democratic party, achieving power at least partially through democratic tactics, the regime cannot escape democracy as a source of both external legitimacy and internal structure. The mark of Cain is always on it.
Your captain is a strong hand on a strong ship. But he is no Baptist. Will he round the Horn? Famously, if sober. Otherwise, in the belly of a fish. As an ingredient in government, even just a mixer, democracy is a deliriant—like Jimson weed. Cocaine sends you up, whisky brings you down, acid swings you around. But you never know what a man will do on Jimson weed. You might want to find another captain for the Southern Ocean.
This origin in democracy should not be confused with genuine popular sovereignty, or actual sailing of the ship by ballot-box. Such a thing is almost unheard of. It is not that socialist or fascist states actually extend significant decision-making power to the people at large. This is almost never the case, not even in working democracies with genuine contested elections.
If you look at any government of the 20th century and ask, who helms the ship around the Horn? Who tells the sailors when and how to reef the anchor, swab the mast or jibe the poop deck? Your answer will not be: the people who vote in “American Idol.” Your answer will be: the pros. Public servants. The people who always do it. Which is not to say they do it right.
However, a socialist or fascist state, being by definition the descendant of a democratic movement, (a) cannot cease to adore some mythic construction of popular sovereignty, and (b) cannot afford to lose the actual adoration of its subjects. Both are central to its legitimacy.
And both, as we will see, are central to its insanity—in two very different ways. Because both socialism and fascism must maintain the sham of popular government, they have the seed of mendacity always inside them. That seed always finds fertile soil, and indeed life in a socialist or fascist state always becomes life in a jungle of lies. Which is typically the least of your problems.
Thus in socialism and fascism, we see the worst of both worlds. The state is (or at least may be) strong. But it is also mad. Thus, sometimes, often or always, its strength is wielded in the service of Chaos and not Cosmos. In short, the 800-pound gorilla is on acid. No wonder the night-watchman state seems like such a tempting idea.
The Carlylean insists: the forces of sovereignty must be mastered. There is no alternative. To limit the State to what it should do, prohibiting it from doing what it should not do, is to commit an act of tautology. Suppose you make it promise? What use are the gorilla’s promises? Either you have mastered him, or not. If not, he will do as he likes. If so, you have taken his place.
Observe the fascist or socialist State again, through the eyes of the orthodox libertarian or classical liberal. We see an 800-pound gorilla on acid, whooping it up at the wheel of a running bulldozer. Your libertarian says: stop that bulldozer! Your Carlylean says: stop that gorilla!
A bulldozer, well-made, well-maintained and well-operated, is a positive force in the world. But only if it is controlled by a man and not a gorilla. If you saw a bulldozer driven by a qualified bulldozer operator, dear libertarian, would you cry: stop that bulldozer! I think not. You might be amazed at all the good works a qualified bulldozer operator can work with a bulldozer.
Of course, the world at present contains no such thing as a qualified bulldozer operator. Which is hardly the Carlylean’s fault. And it still contains men, who are not gorillas, and can learn. They can also be drug-tested.
But this analogy, though picturesque, is as far as we can go with the two together. Socialism and fascism are different things. We must examine them apart, each through the Carlylean lens.
Let’s do fascism first, because fascism is easy. Fascism is Carlyle, implemented by swine. Thus, you can go through Carlyle, finding Carlylean heroes, and replacing them with swine. The result will be fascism.
This exercise is exceptionally simple for those with a progressive education. Not only do you already know everything about the crimes of fascism, how to recognize it, how to fight it, etc., you cannot conceive of a Carlylean hero who is in fact a hero, and not a swine at all. Your mind rebels against the very thought.
Fortunately, history—which for you is the story of the 20th century, because progressives hate the past—demonstrates that in all cases, swine appear in the position at question. Therefore, the dispute is settled. With this assumption, proven by experience, let’s see how Carlyle is a fascist. We might, for instance, choose this passage from Shooting Niagara:
I always fancy there might much be done in the way of military drill withal. Beyond all other schooling, and as supplement or even as succedaneum for all other, one often wishes the entire Population could be thoroughly drilled; into co-operative movement, into individual behaviour, correct, precise, and at once habitual and orderly as mathematics, in all or in very many points,—and ultimately in the point of actual Military Service, should such be required of it!
Soldier-Drill, for fighting purposes, as I have said, would be the last or finishing touch of all these sorts of Drilling processes; and certainly the acknowledged king would reckon it not the least important to him, but even perhaps the most so, in these peculiar times. Anarchic Parliaments and Penny Newspapers might perhaps grow jealous of him; in any case, would he have to be cautious, punctilious, severely correct, and obey to the letter whatever laws and regulations they emitted on the subject. But that done, how could the most anarchic Parliament, or Penny Editor, think of forbidding any fellow-citizen such a manifest improvement on all the human creatures round him? Our wise Hero Aristocrat, or acknowledged king in his own territory, would by no means think of employing his superlative private Field-regiment in levy of war against the most anarchic Parliament: on the contrary, might and would loyally but help said Parliament in warring down much anarchy worse than its own, and so gain steadily new favour from it. From it, and from all men and gods! And would have silently the consciousness, too, that with every new Disciplined Man, he was widening the arena of Anti-Anarchy, of God-appointed Order in this world and Nation,—and was looking forward to a day, very distant probably, but certain as Fate.
For I suppose it would in no moment be doubtful to him That, between Anarchy and Anti-ditto, it would have to come to sheer fight at last; and that nothing short of duel to the death could ever void that great quarrel. And he would have his hopes, his assurances, as to how the victory would lie. For everywhere in this universe, and in every nation that is not divorced from it and in the act of perishing forever, Anti-Anarchy is silently on the increase, at all moments: Anarchy, not, but contrariwise; having the whole universe for ever set against it; pushing it slowly at all moments towards suicide and annihilation. To Anarchy, however million-headed, there is no victory possible. Patience, silence, diligence, ye chosen of the world! Slowly or fast in the course of time you will grow to a minority that can actually step forth (sword not yet drawn, but sword ready to be drawn), and say: “Here are we, Sirs; we also are minded to vote,—to all lengths, as you may perceive. A company of poor men (as friend Oliver termed us) who will spend all our blood, if needful!” What are Beales and his 50,000 roughs against such; what are the noisiest anarchic Parliaments, in majority of a million to one, against such? Stubble against fire. Fear not, my friend; the issue is very certain when it comes so far as this!
Fortified by your progressive education, which is at this moment flashing the red alert, you see instantly that this program, implemented by swine, is fascism. And implemented by non-swine? It has no name—for history has yet to see its like.
And where do the swine come from? In the 20th century? Gosh, in the age of democracy, why would one find a sudden effusion of swine in government? A famous Hitler campaign poster showed him with Hindenburg, “the Field Marshal and the Corporal.” Traditionally, of course, any such fraternization would be a military offence.
Again, fascism is fascism because it arises out of democracy. Against the Left of intellectual consensus, universalist philosophy, bureaucratic disinterest, and bohemian disorder, it pits the forces of popular consensus, parochial tradition, vested or corrupt interests, and military order.
Each of the above has its place—both the Athenian perspective of the Left, and the Spartan judgment of the Right. A healthy society can see itself through any of these glasses, or all. But none in recent memory has combined the Athenian and Spartan virtues—it is a difficult merger. Carlylean order does not preclude the bohemian, but the combination is delicate at the least.
But to create this Spartan force in a democracy is to create, essentially, the Nazi Party. Or the Republican Party. If your party is just a theatrical production and has no actual intent of seizing power, it is the latter; if its plan, hopefully not a secret plan, is “one man, one vote, one time,” it is the former. Neither is a benefit to humanity, at least as described.
When the NSDAP seized absolute power, what seized absolute power was an organization which was more or less a government in exile, whose leader was a palpable nut, and whose supporters consisted largely of the lower-middle classes—relatively ignorant and ill-informed. This was not a military coup. It was the electoral victory of a democratic political party.
Had Weimar been terminated by a military coup, perhaps under Captain Ehrhardt or the like, the order that replaced it might have been a military order—a complete renunciation of democracy, a return to the Prussian traditions of Frederick the Great. Instead, as a democratic movement, the militarism of the Nazis had a notably paramilitary quality. For instance, calling the SA the SA was rather as if Youth for Western Civilization were to name its paintball brigade the “Special Forces.” It’s definitely not the way to get the actual Special Forces on your side.
It is this difference—the line between military honor and tradition, and paramilitary brawling and thuggery—that separates men from swine, and Carlyle from fascism.
The trouble is that if you try to modify the Nazi path to power to remove the swine, it is not clear that you have a path to power. There were plenty of non-swinish German nationalists competing with the Nazis. Only the Nazis, however, could build an entire party of swine. And even in Germany, enough swine and friends of swine could be found—which is hardly surprising, when you see that the choice was not the Nazis or nothing, but the Nazis or Weimar.
So once the Nazis seize power: power is held by a party of swine. With Hitler at the top. Many have joined the Party because they want to help restore Germany; many have joined it because they want to get ahead; some have joined it because they want to get revenge on the Jews. It is this organization, nominally under Hitler’s absolute rule but in practice more dangerous to him than he is to it, that now rules Germany. And at the bottom, below the Party, is the Deutsche Volk—whose opinions are coordinated by the propaganda techniques familiar to all, and coordinated quite successfully too. This too is a relic of democracy: popular sovereignty.
This is the outline of a Mafia state. This pyramid can impose order outside itself, but internally it is not and can never be ordered. Germany is a sea of warring acronymic agencies, increasingly corrupt. The Nazi system is still often dynamic and successful because it is so new and so young. Had it lived longer, however, the structure of bureaucracy and venality would have ossified, producing a transition not unlike that between the regimes of Louis XIV and Louis XVI. Hitler was certainly no Frederick the Great, and even Frederick’s system did not fare well under his dissolute heir.
Thus what we see in fascism is the last gasp of the European ancien régime, heavily contaminated by vices implicit in the attempt to restore order by democratic means. Fortunately, the whole question of fascism is of only academic interest in the 21st century, because no such attempt could now succeed. Only the very unusual conditions of postwar Germany and Italy made it possible to construct a successful fascist party, even one constructed with generous helpings of swine. Now and for the foreseeable future, there is no practical democratic politics of the Right—moderate or extreme.
On to socialism.
It is just as easy to find the link from Carlyle to socialism. Walt Whitman will find it for us:
Then the simplicity and amid ostensible frailty the towering strength of this man—a hardy oak knot, you could never wear out—an old farmer dressed in brown clothes, and not handsome—his very foibles fascinating. Who cares that he wrote about Dr. Francia, and Shooting Niagara—and “the Nigger Question,”—and didn’t at all admire our United States? (I doubt if he ever thought or said half as bad words about us as we deserve.) How he splashes like leviathan in the seas of modern literature and politics! Doubtless, respecting the latter, one needs first to realize, from actual observation, the squalor, vice and doggedness ingrained in the bulk-population of the British Islands, with the red tape, the fatuity, the flunkeyism everywhere, to understand the last meaning in his pages.
Accordingly, though he was no chartist or radical, I consider Carlyle’s by far the most indignant comment or protest about the fruits of feudalism today in Great Britain—the increasing poverty and degradation of the homeless, landless twenty millions, while a few thousands, or rather a few hundreds, possess the entire soil, the money, and the fat berths. Trade and shipping, and clubs and culture, and prestige, and guns, and a fine select class of gentry and aristocracy, with every modern improvement, cannot begin to salve or defend such stupendous hoggishness.
Whitman is not making any of this up. You will indeed see Carlyle, especially in his early works—before he has entirely rid himself from his old group of Radical friends, to be exact—take just this tack. Much of it is still found in Chartism (1840).
Carlyle will: criticize economic inequality; mock laissez-faire economics; deplore the growing dehumanization of the new British proletariat; denounce industrial pollution; call for massive national literacy campaigns; propose that government organize unemployed workers; etc., etc., etc. All these ambitions of the muscular State are distinctively socialist.
Of course, they are not exclusively socialist aims, since we see them also under Hitler. Aims alone do not enable us to distinguish socialist and fascist regimes, which are distinguished by origin rather than result. Over the long run, the two can develop a remarkably similar structure and apparatus—I suspect the Third Reich, had it survived, would have looked rather Brezhnevian by the 1980s. But this is parallel evolution: analogy, not homology.
For a deeper connection between socialism and Carlyle, we need to understand the shared inspiration of the two. Since Carlyle was considerably under the influence of Scottish Calvinism, and the roots of socialism run through (Calvinist) Puritanism, the religious connection does not require a great leap of faith. The Carlylean imperative of the State is to discover the laws of God and implement them on earth. This is a dream easily recognized in the progressive of a century ago, a Herbert Croly or Edward Bellamy or Benjamin Franklin Trueblood, none of whom would have had any qualms in describing his utopia as a New Jerusalem.
Finally, we need to recognize perhaps the most distinctive and subtle quality of socialism, which is that socialism (again in origin, though this quality disappears in the nasty end stages) is a fundamentally aristocratic movement. Moreover, it is aristocratic in the Carlylean sense: the actual meaning of the word, rule of the best. Socialism, always in origin and perpetually in the true democratic state which still contains a competing Right, is the alliance of the smartest, the wealthiest, the most powerful, and the most beautiful.
The Left is the faction of the professors, the scientists and the scholars, the cognitive elite. It is the faction of the true ultra-rich, the old money, the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts and Fords, and their trustafarian hipster junkie grandchildren. It is the faction of the journalists and the bureaucrats, the activists and astroturfers—the wielders of power. And, of course, it is the faction of movie stars and other celebrities, who for all their flaws have climbed a long greasy pole. The closer you get to the top in a democratic society, the more pervasive socialism becomes.
So Carlyle said to his readers: England is going to the dogs. A new aristocracy is needed to replace the old, stultified, dying hereditary caste of land and title. This must be an aristocracy of merit and service—a true nobility. It must cast aside the dogmas of laissez-faire and be unafraid to govern, to garden, to intervene and improve.
And indeed, the Christian Socialism of the Fabians and Progressives, rooted not only in Carlyle but in Ruskin and Morris and Dickens, developed precisely along these lines. Its goal was to improve society, both physically and morally, through the energy and nobility of the State. And indeed it outcompeted all major competitors. There is no school of Carlyleans today, but every school that isn’t a madrassa in Qom is a school of progressivism.
And the trouble was: it was all wrong. The results were exactly opposite the original intent. The poor were not morally uplifted and converted into gentlemen; they were degraded and converted into savages. A new underclass of unprecedented human degeneration appeared below the proletariat. The New Jerusalem did not arrive. New Babylons, new Haitis, new Armageddons beyond words, enormous Megatherions all, slithered up on their great bellies.
Alas, socialism can be explained in one sentence. Socialism is the last stage of democracy. The process may be fast and bloody, as in the French and Russian Revolutions, or slow and mostly peaceful, as in Britain. But it is not generally reversible by any conventional means.
By pouring their talents into the democratic movement, the new aristocracy of progressivism ensured the following results:
First, that bad ideas would blossom and good ones wither and disappear. Progressivism has become a veritable religion of quack goverment. Its policies are always counterintuitive: it preaches leniency as the cure for crime, timidity as military genius, profligacy as the acme of economics, “special education” as the heart of pedagogy, indulgence as oversight, appeasement as diplomacy. As it goes from one disaster to the next, progressivism never considers the possibility that the obvious, rather than its opposite, could be the case. Occam’s Butterknife is the only tool in its kitchen.
So everywhere that socialism or communism triumphs, we see the same phenomena: hypertrophy of the bureaucracy, destruction and/or assimilation of organizations outside the State, expansion and widespread delinquency of the underclass, decimation of the working class, decay and disappearance of manufacturing industries, persecution of upper classes and successful minorities, destruction of old cities and production of hideous totalitarian architecture, ubiquitous depression both economic and psychiatric. These effects are not pleasant to anyone, progressive or otherwise. But their production does not slacken.
Except for the occasional psychopath, a man to be found in all walks of life, this is never the intent of the socialist. My own grandfather was a CPUSA member, and this was certainly not his intent. Nonetheless, they all happened. (And the CPUSA is again best friends with the White House—just as if it were 1934. Or South Africa.)
But why? What causes this pattern of repeated failure? Why, with its intellectual firepower, can progressivism not self-correct? After all, its public-policy experts are supposed to be scientists. They publish papers—with numbers. Surely this makes them scientists, and science is self-correcting, i.e., always right.
Alas. Not everyone who writes papers with numbers is a scientist. The most you can say is that your subject is either a scientist, or a pseudoscientist. Also, while it is correct to note that science can be self-correcting, it is incorrect to assume that it must be, i.e., is incorruptible. Nothing whatsoever is incorruptible—certainly not science.
The Platonic guardians of the socialist state—scientists, planners, bureaucrats, or whatever you call them—persistently prefer bad ideas because of the organizational structure of the socialist state. Again, democracy is the fundamental and irrecoverable flaw.
Because socialism is democratic, it distrusts, opposes and tends to destroy organizational structures which are built on (a) hierarchical command, (b) personal responsibility, and/or (c) financial interests. Your socialist state will never produce a structure in which a single planner is responsible for, say, North Carolina; can fire whomever he likes in the administration of North Carolina; and gets fired himself, if North Carolina does not blossom into a subtropical Eden. This is an organizational structure that one might find in, say, the British Raj. It is not democratic in nature, nor socialist.
Instead, the socialist state divides power and spreads it as widely as possible—within itself, of course. Its decisions are not personal, but procedural. A procedure is a better procedure if it cuts more stakeholders into the loop—if it is a more open process. Here we see clearly what the State is doing: it is building a support base from its own employee roster, and it is purchasing support by exchanging it for power. The feeling of being in the decision loop produces a remarkable effect of emotional loyalty, no matter how trivial the actual authority may be.
There is just a slight downside to this: when socialism fails, no one is responsible. No system of ideas, even, can be responsible—for a system of ideas would be an ideology, and public policy is not determined by ideology. Thus many will tell you that economics failed in the crisis of 2008, but no one can possibly do anything about it. Certainly, no producer of economic wisdom in the universities, nor consumer in Washington, need feel even slightly threatened. Tenure is tenure, and civil-service protection is civil-service protection. Our masters serve for life.
Moreover, in an environment where failure confers no punishment, we would expect bad policies to outcompete good ones. Much as islands without predators are dominated by flightless birds. Freed from the need to actually succeed, the bad policies can offer everything to everyone—permanently. But alas, no dodo is forever.
Thus the power of socialism to take a perfectly good aristocracy, and corrupt it to the service of lies, incompetence and the Devil. The trouble is that for everyone to get a tiny slice of power’s pie, no one can actually do the job of ruling—a concept which conflicts with the entire idea of public policy. A government based on the principle of hierarchical rule simply does not have enough work for all the aristocrats who need to feel important. It is too damned efficient. Thus it is abhorred, and shunned, by all.
Second—and worse, to the Carlylean eye—because it embraces democracy only to contradict it completely, socialism has a permanent core of mendacity, which breeds new lies the way a clogged birdbath breeds mosquitoes. This sham aspect is at the root of all its failures. To the Carlylean, no structure built on lies can be expected to last.
For the progressive does not actually believe in the philosopher’s stone of democracy, the instinctive and growing wisdom of the masses, Walt Whitman’s wet-dream. He in fact despises (often, though not always, rightly) all ideas that flow from the masses up: these are “ideologies,” and their electoral manifestations “politics.” Nothing is so important as keeping government apolitical and non-ideological.
Or to be more precise, nothing is so important as keeping government in the hands of its Platonic guardians—the aforementioned progressive aristocracy. Who alone can round Cape Horn. For everything that the socialist state does—in Moscow then, in Washington now—there is an entire caste of scientists, exquisitely trained and rigorously selected, from whom all apolitical and non-ideological public policies flow. Not since the heyday of the Board of Rites or the Logothete of the Course has such intellectual firepower been trained on the problem of government.
The power flow of democracy is simply reversed. Rather than the sovereign People leading and directing their “public servants,” it is the servants who lead and the People who follow. The function of elections and elected officials in a progressive democracy is to educate the electorate, to speak from the “bully pulpit,” to help it become the progressive and enlightened People that it deserves to be. In classic astroturf style.
Thus, elections become simply another propaganda mechanism. If this mechanism fails every now and then, the progressive establishment has more than enough institutional inertia to wait out and defeat any temporary attack of the primitives. No permanent imprint on Washington can be or ever has been left by the post-progressive Right, from McCarthy through Bush. Indeed, in Europe, there is nothing at all like the Republicans, and daily life in Europe seems more or less the same for it.
So there is a sham here. To be fair, this sham is hardly a socialist invention: it is a staple of democracy in all eras. Robert Michels described it well as the Iron Law of Oligarchy, almost a century ago. It seems easy to excuse progressives for merely finding this natural tactical feature of politics, and taking advantage of it.
And in fact it is. But it is also interesting to examine the result. Lies are always interesting, and those who defend them still more so.
Those with a taste for historical scholarship of less august vintage than we usually prefer, here at UR, may enjoy Edmund S. Morgan’s Inventing the People (1988). In this multi-century survey, winner of the Bancroft Prize, the author—professor emeritus at Yale—repeatedly and deliberately describes the legal and constitutional doctrines of the democratic faction in Anglo-American history as “fictions.” The body of the book is quite well-composed and quite thoroughly damning, to my ear at least.
Professor Morgan, however, wants to make sure we do not take this as any kind of a criticism. Rather, he is a cold-eyed believer in what, here at UR, we call “psychological security.” In his introduction, he writes:
Government requires make-believe. Make believe that the king is divine, make believe that he can do no wrong or make believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people. Make believe that governors are the servants of the people. Make believe that all men are equal or make believe that they are not.
The political world of make-believe mingles with the real world in strange ways, for the make-believe world may often mold the real one. In order to be viable, in order to serve its purpose, whatever that purpose may be, a fiction must bear some resemblance to fact. If it strays too far from fact, the willing suspension of disbelief collapses. And conversely it may collapse if facts stray too far from the fiction that we want them to resemble. Because fictions are necessary, because we cannot live without them, we often take pains to prevent their collapse by moving the facts to fit the fiction, by making the world conform more closely to what we want it to be. We sometimes call it, quite appropriately, reform or reformation, when the fiction takes command and reshapes reality.
Although fictions enable the few to govern the many, it is not only the many who are constrained by them. In the strange commingling of political make-believe and reality the governing few no less than the governing many may find themselves limited—we may even say reformed—by the fictions on which their authority depends. Not only authority but liberty too may depend on fictions. Indeed liberty may depend, however deviously, on the very fictions that support authority. That, at least, has been the case in the Anglo-American world, and modern liberty, for better or for worse, was born, or perhaps we should say invented, in that world and continues to be nourished there.
Because it is a little uncomfortable to acknowledge that we rely so heavily on fictions, we generally call them by some more exalted name. We may proclaim them as self-evident truths, and that designation is not inappropriate, for it implies our commitment to them and at the same time protects them from challenge. Among the fictions we accept today as self-evident are those that Thomas Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal and that they owe obedience to government only if it is their own agent, deriving its authority from their consent. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate these propositions by factual evidence. It might be somewhat easier, by the kind of evidence we usually require for the proof of any debatable proposition, to demonstrate that men are not created equal and that they have not delegated authority to any government. But self-evident propositions are not debatable, and to challenge these would rend the fabric of our society.
It is not the purpose of this book to challenge them, and my use of the word fiction has no such intention. I have been troubled by the pejorative connotations attached to the word, but I have been unable to find a better one to describe the different phenomena to which I have applied it. I can only hope that the readers who persevere to the end of the book will recognize that the fictional qualities of popular sovereignty sustain rather than threaten the human values associated with it.
To which Carlyle has an answer, and a terrible one. I leave you with his words:
What is Democracy; this huge inevitable Product of the Destinies, which is everywhere the portion of our Europe in these latter days? There lies the question for us. Whence comes it, this universal big black Democracy; whither tends it; what is the meaning of it? A meaning it must have, or it would not be here. If we can find the right meaning of it, we may, wisely submitting or wisely resisting and controlling, still hope to live in the midst of it; if we cannot find the right meaning, if we find only the wrong or no meaning in it, to live will not be possible!—The whole social wisdom of the Present Time is summoned, in the name of the Giver of Wisdom, to make clear to itself, and lay deeply to heart with an eye to strenuous valiant practice and effort, what the meaning of this universal revolt of the European Populations, which calls itself Democracy, and decides to continue permanent, may be.
Certainly it is a drama full of action, event fast following event; in which curiosity finds endless scope, and there are interests at stake, enough to rivet the attention of all men, simple and wise. Whereat the idle multitude lift up their voices, gratulating, celebrating sky-high; in rhyme and prose announcement, more than plentiful, that now the New Era, and long-expected Year One of Perfect Human Felicity has come. Glorious and immortal people, sublime French citizens, heroic barricades; triumph of civil and religious liberty—O Heaven! one of the inevitablest private miseries, to an earnest man in such circumstances, is this multitudinous efflux of oratory and psalmody, from the universal foolish human throat; drowning for the moment all reflection whatsoever, except the sorrowful one that you are fallen in an evil, heavy-laden, long-eared age, and must resignedly bear your part in the same.
The front wall of your wretched old crazy dwelling, long denounced by you to no purpose, having at last fairly folded itself over, and fallen prostrate into the street, the floors, as may happen, will still hang on by the mere beam-ends, and coherency of old carpentry, though in a sloping direction, and depend there till certain poor rusty nails and worm-eaten dovetailings give way:—but is it cheering, in such circumstances, that the whole household burst forth into celebrating the new joys of light and ventilation, liberty and picturesqueness of position, and thank God that now they have got a house to their mind? My dear household, cease singing and psalmodying; lay aside your fiddles, take out your work-implements, if you have any; for I can say with confidence the laws of gravitation are still active, and rusty nails, worm-eaten dovetailings, and secret coherency of old carpentry, are not the best basis for a household!—In the lanes of Irish cities, I have heard say, the wretched people are sometimes found living, and perilously boiling their potatoes, on such swing-floors and inclined planes hanging on by the joist-ends; but I did not hear that they sang very much in celebration of such lodging. No, they slid gently about, sat near the back wall, and perilously boiled their potatoes, in silence for most part!—
High shouts of exultation, in every dialect, by every vehicle of speech and writing, rise from far and near over this last avatar of Democracy in 1848: and yet, to wise minds, the first aspect it presents seems rather to be one of boundless misery and sorrow. What can be more miserable than this universal hunting out of the high dignitaries, solemn functionaries, and potent, grave and reverend signiors of the world; this stormful rising-up of the inarticulate dumb masses everywhere, against those who pretended to be speaking for them and guiding them? These guides, then, were mere blind men only pretending to see? These rulers were not ruling at all; they had merely got on the attributes and clothes of rulers, and were surreptitiously drawing the wages, while the work remained undone? The Kings were Sham-Kings, play-acting as at Drury Lane;—and what were the people withal that took them for real?
It is probably the hugest disclosure of falsity in human things that was ever at one time made. These reverend Dignitaries that sat amid their far-shining symbols and long-sounding long-admitted professions, were mere Impostors, then? Not a true thing they were doing, but a false thing. The story they told men was a cunningly devised fable; the gospels they preached to them were not an account of man’s real position in this world, but an incoherent fabrication, of dead ghosts and unborn shadows, of traditions, cants, indolences, cowardices,—a falsity of falsities, which at last ceases to stick together. Wilfully and against their will, these high units of mankind were cheats, then; and the low millions who believed in them were dupes,—a kind of inverse cheats, too, or they would not have believed in them so long. A universal Bankruptcy of Imposture; that may be the brief definition of it. Imposture everywhere declared once more to be contrary to Nature; nobody will change its word into an act any farther:—fallen insolvent; unable to keep its head up by these false pretences, or make its pot boil any more for the present! A more scandalous phenomenon, wide as Europe, never afflicted the face of the sun. Bankruptcy everywhere; foul ignominy, and the abomination of desolation, in all high places: odious to look upon, as the carnage of a battle-field on the morrow morning;—a massacre not of the innocents; we cannot call it a massacre of the innocents; but a universal tumbling of Impostors and of Impostures into the street!
Such a spectacle, can we call it joyful? There is a joy in it, to the wise man too; yes, but a joy full of awe, and as it were sadder than any sorrow,—like the vision of immortality, unattainable except through death and the grave! And yet who would not, in his heart of hearts, feel piously thankful that Imposture has fallen bankrupt? By all means let it fall bankrupt; in the name of God let it do so, with whatever misery to itself and to all of us. Imposture, be it known then,—known it must and shall be,—is hateful, unendurable to God and man. Let it understand this everywhere; and swiftly make ready for departure, wherever it yet lingers; and let it learn never to return, if possible! The eternal voices, very audibly again, are speaking to proclaim this message, from side to side of the world. Not a very cheering message, but a very indispensable one.
Alas, it is sad enough that Anarchy is here; that we are not permitted to regret its being here,—for who that had, for this divine Universe, an eye which was human at all, could wish that Shams of any kind, especially that Sham-Kings should continue? No: at all costs, it is to be prayed by all men that Shams may cease. Good Heavens, to what depths have we got, when this to many a man seems strange! Yet strange to many a man it does seem; and to many a solid Englishman, wholesomely digesting his pudding among what are called the cultivated classes, it seems strange exceedingly; a mad ignorant notion, quite heterodox, and big with mere ruin. He has been used to decent forms long since fallen empty of meaning, to plausible modes, solemnities grown ceremonial,—what you in your iconoclast humor call shams, all his life long; never heard that there was any harm in them, that there was any getting on without them. Did not cotton spin itself, beef grow, and groceries and spiceries come in from the East and the West, quite comfortably by the side of shams? Kings reigned, what they were pleased to call reigning; lawyers pleaded, bishops preached, and honorable members perorated; and to crown the whole, as if it were all real and no sham there, did not scrip continue salable, and the banker pay in bullion, or paper with a metallic basis? “The greatest sham, I have always thought, is he that would destroy shams.”
Even so. To such depth have I, the poor knowing person of this epoch, got;—almost below the level of lowest humanity, and down towards the state of apehood and oxhood! For never till in quite recent generations was such a scandalous blasphemy quietly set forth among the sons of Adam; never before did the creature called man believe generally in his heart that lies were the rule in this Earth; that in deliberate long-established lying could there be help or salvation for him, could there be at length other than hindrance and destruction for him. O Heavyside, my solid friend, this is the sorrow of sorrows: what on earth can become of us till this accursed enchantment, the general summary and consecration of delusions, be cast forth from the heart and life of one and all!
Cast forth it will be; it must, or we are tending, at all moments, whitherward I do not like to name. Alas, and the casting of it out, to what heights and what depths will it lead us, in the sad universe mostly of lies and shams and hollow phantasms (grown very ghastly now), in which, as in a safe home, we have lived this century or two! To heights and depths of social and individual divorce from delusions,—of ‘reform’ in right sacred earnest, of indispensable amendment, and stern sorrowful abrogation and order to depart,—such as cannot well be spoken at present; as dare scarcely be thought at present; which nevertheless are very inevitable, and perhaps rather imminent several of them! Truly we have a heavy task of work before us; and there is a pressing call that we should seriously begin upon it, before it tumble into an inextricable mass, in which there will be no working, but only suffering and hopelessly perishing!—
Moldbug on Carlyle
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