How to make sense of the chaos in Washington, DC? What analogy or metaphor would lend insight?
♦ Is it the sacking of an Imperial Capital, as was the case with Rome and the barbarians?
♦ Is it a hostile takeover by a more wealthy cabal who bought out a weaker organization in order to install its own values and culture?
♦ Is it an internal coup by which insiders seize power and purge the palace of those loyal to another leader?
There are elements of all of these, with China as the external infiltrator in the first case, aligned with insiders having keys to the treasury. A network of billionaires collaborated to plunder the 2020 covid election in the second case, empowering the deep state to throw out the Trumpist rascals. The kinetic action to force submission in the third case came firstly from violent street riots across the US, culminating with military occupation to “protect” the Washington capital.
Some insights can be gleaned from three forward observers of the battle for regime change in process. The first one is Joshua Mitchell writing at City Journal The Politics of Innocence. Excerpts in italics with my bolds.
Yes, the USA is now undergoing regime change.
Joe Biden’s administration ushers in a destructive new version of the American regime.
What do the Biden administration’s three spectacular failings—the sudden and purportedly unpredictable collapse of Afghanistan, the deliberate effort to undermine U.S. energy independence with the sabotage of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and the unconscionable national border crisis—have in common? More is at work here than normal political shifts, of the sort expected when one administration succeeds another. We are witnessing, instead, a change in the very purpose of politics.
The American regime, founded on the idea of limited government, presumed that citizens were competent and largely capable of taking care of themselves.
Our competence was developed, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, through the mediating institutions of family, church, civic associations, and municipal government. No citizen competence, no limited government. That was Tocqueville’s formula—the American formula.
The first phase of the American regime, characterized by citizen competence, lasted for more than a century. Supplanting it was the second, progressive, phase of the American regime, in which expert competence purportedly replaced citizen competence. The Biden administration came to power claiming the mantle of expert competence. “The adults are back in charge,” our legacy media jubilantly proclaimed.
The failings of the so-called adults in the Biden administration are a consequence of a shift to a third phase of the American regime, a shift so large that it would be more accurate to say it is the end of one type of regime and its replacement by another. The American fixation on the politics of competence, whether citizen or expert, is being replaced by the politics of innocence.
In this new politics, what matters most is your standing as an innocent victim. If you are not an innocent victim, you are anonymous or, more likely, a threat.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives the order to fly the LGBTQ+ pride flag at all U.S. embassies, including Afghanistan, signaling that innocent victimhood is the singular policy orientation of the United States government. Much of the rest of the world is incredulous, and the effort to shape Afghanistan in our own image collapses within days of our military withdrawal.
The Biden administration shuts down the Keystone Pipeline because we are all innocent victims of fossil fuels who must be saved by green energy and the crony capitalism that will usher in a new age of cleanliness.
The United States border should not, in the eyes of the Biden administration, protect us from illegal aliens. It should instead serve as the porous pass-through for “undocumented migrants,” who, along with an ever-growing list of legally protected identity groups, are also innocent victims.
More recently, Attorney General Merrick Garland has led us to believe that parents repulsed that their children are being taught critical race theory, not to mention Orwellian assertions about the fluidity of “gender,” may be investigated as domestic terrorists under the Patriot Act. Our children, the administration insists, must be taught that they are transgressors whose doltish and deplorable thoughts conspire against innocent victims everywhere. These innocent victims must now be the singular focus of the efforts of our government—not excluding the military—which must purge its ranks of the guilty to make room for the innocent victims soon to fill the vacancies.
The Biden administration is pulling the United States into a third phase of politics. We are witnessing the birth of the politics of innocence. From this we can only expect an ongoing sequence of failures.
[Comment: Jordan Peterson describes how the politics of innocence played out in Soviet ideology of the innocent “workers” oppressed by the “bourgeoisie” :
Another problem that comes up is that Marx also assumes that you can think about history as a binary class struggle with clear divisions between say the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. That’s actually a problem because it’s not so easy to make a firm division between who is exploiter and who is exploitee. Because it’s not obvious, for example, in the case of small shareholders, whether or not they happen to be part of the oppressed or part of the oppressor.
This actually turned out to be a big problem in the Russian revolution, a tremendously big problem because it turned out that you could fragment people into multiple identities. That’s a fairly easy thing to do, and you could usually find some aspect by which they were part of the oppressor class; it might have been a consequence of their education or because of the wealth that they strived to accumulate during their life. Or it might be the fact that they had parents or grandparents who are educated or rich or that they’re a member of the priesthood or that they were socialists, and so on.
Anyways the listing of how it was possible for you to be bourgeois instead of proletariat grew immensely and that was one of the reasons that the red terror claimed all the victims that it did. So that was a huge problem, probably most exemplified by the demolition of the kulaks, who were basically peasant farmers although effective ones in the soviet union. They had managed to raise themselves out of serfdom over a period of about 40 years and to gather some some degree of material security about them. And about 1.8 million of them were exiled, about 400 000 were killed and the net consequence of that was the removal of their private property because of their bourgeois status. There was also the death of six million Ukrainians in the famines of the 1930s showing that the binary class struggle idea led to bad outcomes for many people. See Why Marxism Always Fails ]
Breaking Eggs Hoping For an Omelet
Victor Davis Hanson’s article at Daily Signal is The Ideology Behind Biden’s Disastrous First 9 Months. In it he explains that the changes imposed in 2021 by this new federal government have brought destructive consequences by intention. Excerpts in italics with my bolds.
Sheer chaos and anarchy on the border? Afghanistan—the most humiliating defeat in recent U.S. military history? A labor-starved supply chain in shambles and holiday shelves emptying out? The worst inflation in 30 years that seems soon ready to match Carter-era levels? Gas hitting $5 a gallon with winter heating fuels soaring? Free-for-all looting in the major cities without consequences? Joe Biden’s policies and Biden himself diving in the polls?
Never in recent American history has any administration birthed such disasters in its first nine months.
Yet most Americans are arguing not over the sheer chaos and disasters of the Biden administration, but rather how could such sheer pre-civilizational calamity occur in modern America? Were these disasters a result of historic incompetency? Or mean-spirited nihilism? Or a deliberate effort to create the necessary turbulence to birth a new American revolution? Or a bit of all three?
Start instead with the idea that what most Americans see as sheer ruin is not what the left-wing puppeteers (who are pulling the strings of the Biden marionette) see. Our catastrophes are their minor glitches. For them bad polling is mostly a public relations problem of an occasional uncooperative media. Otherwise, a few broken eggs are always necessary to create the perfect socialist omelet.
The Left now controlling Washington believes that the U.S. border is a mere construct. Every impoverished person has a birthright to cross into America illegally. The 2 million who are scheduled to enter this fiscal year alone is a wonderful, if occasionally sloppy, event.
Our border calamity is their celebration of humanity and a long-overdue recalibration of ossified American demography, one that will properly warp the Electoral College to provide the necessary election result.
If you believe that a culturally imperialistic America needs to be taken down a notch overseas, then the flight from Afghanistan is “impressive” and a “success”— by how quickly and efficiently we skedaddled. Why worry about a lost $1 billion embassy, a $300 million refit of the Bagram airbase, or $80 billion lost in military hardware and training? Empty shelves? Boohoo.
Grasping, upper-middle-class consumers are angry that the working classes are not willing to risk COVID infection to supply them with their accustomed holiday trinkets. So, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg intoned that the shortages mean only that the consumer class has to wait a wee bit—until Christmas Eve—to splurge on gifts.
Who worries about a little inflation? Under new monetary theory, printing dollars brings prosperity. Or as White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain put it in a retweet, inflation is a mere “high class problem” of the Peloton elite.
Only those with money worry their ill-begotten pile shrinks. But the majority without money will eventually rejoice that it is everywhere now”—finally and properly “spread,” as former president and now multimillionaire Barack Obama once promised.
As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez swore, gas and oil are going to be gone anyway in 10 years. So, if Joe Biden slashes over 2 million barrels a day in U.S. oil production, what’s wrong with that?
Didn’t Steven Chu, Obama’s energy secretary, long ago brag that when we hit $8 to $10 a gallon, we’d approach European levels of proper fuel usage? Why whine about paying over $100 to fill up, when the planet more quickly cools?
Did not Americans learn “critical legal theory” and “critical race theory”? Or as the architect of the “1619 Project” reminded us, destroying or taking someone’s property is no big deal. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey shrugged off torched downtown buildings; such torched stuff, he said, is mere “bricks and mortar.”
It is only a crime to “steal” over $500 of needed merchandise from a Walgreens in San Francisco, because the rich who make such absurd laws never have to steal goods from a pharmacy shelf.
If racists wish to point out that African American male youths are disproportionately represented in the latest crime wave, then maybe America should be learning not to create the conditions that force them to break the law.
In sum, we are on a left-wing roller coaster headed to a socialist nirvana.
Most Americans believe it is instead an out-of-control “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” nightmare with incompetents at the wheel. But the architects of such “hope and change” shrug that the occasional disturbing news that the media sometimes accidentally leaks out is merely the cost of an equitable America. One man’s anarchy is another’s road to justice.
Keep that mentality in mind and the absurdities that are mouthed by Biden, Klain, press secretary Jen Psaki, Homeland “Security” Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Pete Buttigieg, or the ravings of the Squad make perfect sense.
They are merely trying to explain to us dummies that what we think is purgatory is actually the new paradise—a promised land that, once we are properly programmed and educated, we too will welcome and thank them for our deliverance.
Social Upheaval as Theater of the Absurd: Technocracy Replaces Democracy
Matthew Crawford describes how strange for ordinary people is the everyday experience of this transformation (revolution?) in his UnHerd essay The new public health despotism. Excerpts in italics with my bolds. (The title is link to his full text which includes much more than these extractions)
Draconian rules are suppressing our humanity
I live in the Bay Area, in a county where the vaccination rate is in the mid-80s. In late July, I was dropping my younger daughter off for a soccer day camp each morning. It was 10 kids running around an open field. They wore masks for six hours each day, and it was about 85° that week. Telling my fully vaccinated daughter to put that thing on, I felt compromised for participating in the charade. The old Scots Irish belligerence started welling up.
Rules are meant to codify some bit of rational truth and make it effective. These days, we find ourselves in situations where to do the genuinely rational thing might require breaking the rules of some institution. But to do so is to invite confrontation. You may go through an internal struggle, deciding how much resistance to put up. To insist on reasons is to be ornery, and you want to be sociable. You tell yourself, there is no point in being confrontational with staff at the YMCA who are themselves simply carrying out orders. There is nobody visible to whom you can address your reasons, nobody of whom you can demand an account.
After a year and a half of this, going along with it starts to become habitual. If you defy the mask order, and are challenged by somebody doing their job as instructed, chances are you’re going to back down and comply, which is worse than if you had complied to begin with. Even if you strongly suspect fear of the virus has been stoked out of proportion to serve bureaucratic and political interests, or as an artefact of the scaremongering business model of media, you may subtly adjust your view of the reality of Covid to bring it more into line with your actual behaviour. You can reduce the dissonance that way. The alternative is to be confronted every day with fresh examples of your own slavishness.
In the Hobbesian formula, the Leviathan relies upon fear to suppress pride. It is pride that makes men difficult to govern. It may be illuminating to view our Covid moment through this lens and consider how small moments of humiliation may be put in the service of a long-standing political project, or find their meaning and normative force in it.
Specifically, to play one’s part in Covid theatre, as in security theatre at the airport, is to suffer the unique humiliation of a rational being who submits to moments of social control that he knows to be founded upon untruths. That these are expressed in the language of science is especially grating.
We need to consider the good faith intellectual positions that greased the skids for our slide into an illiberal form of governance. For, in addition to the political opportunism surrounding Covid, there were also well-meaning efforts to control the pandemic by altering people’s behaviour. The question is: what were the means employed for doing this, and what was the view of human beings that made such means attractive? What we got, in the end, without anyone really intending it, may fairly be called a propaganda state that seeks to manipulate without persuading.
Here, “science” may be plainly anti-scientific, according to the circumstances. The word does not name a mode of inquiry, rather it is invoked to legitimise the transfer of sovereignty from democratic to technocratic bodies, and as a device for insulating such transfers from the realm of political contest. Can this be squared with the idea of representative government?
The Columbia law professor Philip Hamburger writes about the administrative state. It consists of a vast array of executive agencies that empower themselves to place people under binding obligations without recourse to legislation, sidestepping the Constitution’s separation of powers. In theory, only Congress can make laws. Its members are subject to the democratic process, so they must persuade their constituents, and one another. But as the administrative state has metastasised, supplanting the lawmaking power of the legislature, unelected bureaucrats increasingly set the contours of modern life with little accountability. They stake their legitimacy on claims of expertise rather than alignment with popular preferences. This trajectory began a century ago in the Progressive era, and took large strides forward during the New Deal and Great Society.
The “restless desire to escape” the inconvenience of law is one that progressives are especially prone to in their aspiration to transform society: merely extant majorities of opinion, and the legislative possibilities that are circumscribed by them, typically inspire not deference but impatience.
It is as beings capable of reason that the legislature is supposed to “represent” us. The judicial branch regards us in the same light.
When a court issues a decision, the judge writes an opinion in which he explains his reasoning. He grounds the decision in law, precedent, common sense, and principles that he feels obliged to articulate and defend. This is what transforms the decision from mere fiat into something that is politically legitimate under the premises of republican government, capable of securing the assent of a free people. It constitutes the difference between simple power and authority.
The Nineties saw the rise of new currents in the social sciences that emphasised the cognitive incompetence of human beings. The “rational actor” model of human behaviour (a simplistic premise that had underwritten the party of the market for the previous half century) was deposed by the more psychologically informed school of behavioural economics, which teaches that our actions are largely guided by pre-reflective cognitive biases and heuristics. These biases tend to be functional, both in the sense that they reflect general patterns of reality, and because they offer “fast and frugal” substitutes for deliberation, which is a slow and costly activity.
While economics was getting psychologised in the 1990s, a parallel development was happening in political science. Before getting into this, consider the larger frame. The Soviet Union had just collapsed. This placed “liberal – democracy” in a new situation, or rather returned it to a situation that had obtained in the mid-19th century.
Liberalism and democracy are two distinct things, not entirely at ease with one another. Their differences were submerged during the Cold War when they had a common enemy in Soviet communism, just as they had been submerged previously when they had a common enemy in monarchy.
As Adrian Vermeule puts it, liberalism fears that its dependence on and fundamental difference from democracy will be exposed if a sustained course of non-liberal popular opinion comes to light. The solution is to offer an idealised concept of democracy, sharply distinguished from “mere majoritarianism.” By this device, the liberal may get to preserve his self-understanding as a democrat. This can become quite strained, as in the reflex to call the popularly elected governments of Poland and Hungary “antidemocratic”. When Pew did opinion polling in Afghanistan a decade ago and found that something like 95% of respondents expressed a preference that sharia law should be the law of the land, this was not allowed to interrupt the conviction that making Afghanistan “democratic” would require a feminist social transformation. That is, an explicitly anti-majoritarian revolution.
Obviously, the prospect of populism was already causing some anxiety. Propping up “liberal-democracy” as a conceptual unity would require a cadre of subtle dialecticians working at a meta-level on the formal conditions of thought, nudging the populace through a cognitive framing operation to be conducted beneath the threshold of explicit argument. I remember there was one grad student in my department who was running experiments on focus groups, seeing if he could get them to think the right thoughts.
As it turns out, the best way to secure the discursive conditions for “deliberative democracy”, and install a proper choice architecture that will nudge the demos in the right direction, is to curate information. Soon, the Internet would both enable and undermine these aspirations.
One of the central tenets of progressives’ self-understanding is that they are pro-fact and pro-science, while their opponents (often the majority) are said to have an unaccountable aversion to these good things: they cling to fond illusions and irrational anxieties. It follows that good governance means giving people informed choices. This is not the same as giving people what they think they want, according to their untutored preferences. Informed choices are the ones that make sense within a well-curated informational context.
Speaking at Google’s headquarters in 2007, Obama said he would use “the bully pulpit to give them good information.” The bully pulpit has previously been understood as a perch from which to attempt persuasion. Persuasion is what you do if you are engaged in democratic politics.
Curating information, on the other hand, is what you do if you believe dissent from your outlook can only be due to a failure to properly process the relevant information. A cognitive failure, that is.
The absurdities of COVID theatre could be taken as a tacit recognition of this state of affairs, much as security theater pointed to a new political accommodation after 9/11. In this accommodation, we have accepted the impossibility of grounding our practices in reality. We submit to ossified bureaucracies such as the TSA that have become self-protective interest groups. They can expand but never contract, and we must pretend reality is such as to justify their existence. Covid is likely to do for public health what 9/11 did for the security state. Going through an airport, we still take off our shoes – because twenty years ago, some clown tried to light his shoe on fire. We submit to being irradiated and groped, often as not. One tries to put out of mind facts such as this: in independent audits of airport security, about 80-90% of weapons pass through undetected. The microwave machine presents an imposing image of science that helps us bury such knowledge. We have a duty to carry out an ascetic introspection, searching out any remaining tendencies toward rational pride and regard for the truth, submitting them to analysis.
Similarly, the irrationality of the Covid rules we comply with has perhaps become their main point. In complying, we enact the new terms of citizenship.