Friday, March 18, 2005

This is What's the Matter with Kansas

by William S. Kowinski

'>Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred
by John Lukacs
Yale University Press. 248 pp. $25

Simply in the ideas it addresses and the authority of its arguments, this is a profound and useful book. Historians and other scholars will have to vet its evidence and wrangle over its arguments, but much of it passes the smell test of at least one reader with the same set of questions that pervade one of the more fashionable political books of the year, Thomas Franks' '>What's the Matter With Kansas?

John Lukacs is a historian whose work encompasses politics. He distresses many because his own political ideology can't quite be nailed down. He's blue states on some issues, red states on others, it seems. And his reading of history is his own.

Given the ground it covers and its apparent nature as a summary or a summing up, this is a relatively short book. Despite Lukacs' resulting declaratory, even declamatory tone, or perhaps because of it, he often pulls back suddenly to say, but this isn't the subject of this book, but if it were... That's part of this book's considerable charm, which it needs, considering its subject.

The ideas Lukacs expresses are conclusions he has drawn from his study of history, and we get some fascinating slices of it as he assesses the world since 1870, and especially as he corrects what he considers to be improper use of language, as in throwing the word "Fascist" around too freely (he restricts it to its origins with Mussolini) and misusing the concept of "totalitarian" in respect to the regimes of the most infamous 20th century dictators.

This is meaningful because, Lukacs asserts, such dictatorships, especially Hitler's Germany, were essentially populist regimes, and populism in the modern age is associated with nationalism. So the Nazi Party was what its name said: National Socialism. But especially since all modern governments were and are historically socialist (he argues) in that they provide some social safety net, Hitler's emphasis was on nationalism. It is what links his regime to Stalin's, and in large part now, to ours.

Lukacs contrasts populism with patriotism. The patriot is loyal to the state, but the populist to the nation. The populist is more likely to be racist. "A patriot will not exclude a person of another nationality from a community where they have lived side by side and whom he has known for many years; but a populist will always be suspicious of someone who does not seem to belong to his tribe." (But Lukacs, who is so careful about many words, is imprecise in his use of "tribe.")

Why do the people of Kansas vote against their own economic interests? This was the key question of Franks' book, and a great puzzle of Democrats over the 2004 election result. Without specifically addressing that question, Lukacs answers it: "But what governs the world (and especially in the democratic age) is not the accumulation of money, or even of goods, but the accumulation of opinions." This was true in the age of monarchy, and even more true now because "the accumulation of opinions can be manufactured and even falsified through the machinery of publicity, at times even against contrary appearances." So in a way, a new definition of faith-based v. reality-based.

The emphasis on materialism as motivation is a mistake, Lukacs insists. Past a certain point of basic necessities, humans in society are concerned with, for instance, respectability: for the high opinion of others. While material belongings are a part of that, so is belonging to the group in other ways. And historically, Lukacs asserts, the group is ultimately defined as the nation.

While the conventional wisdom would contrast the power of public opinion in democracies with its silent irrelevance in dictatorships, Lukacs, who is known as an expert on Hitler and his era, does not: " is the accumulation of opinions that governs the history of states and nations and of democracies as well as dictatorships in the age of popular sovereignty. It is the main ingredient of nationalisms, the cause of wars, and of the majority support of fanatical speakers like Hitler, or of the less enthusiastic but majoritarian support of less than mediocre presidents." (The ending of this sentence was changed from the bound page proofs, where it read: "but still prevalent support of otherwise colorless presidents such as George W. Bush.")

Lukacs traces the rise of nationalism after 1870, and believes that "the masses" are less conscious of class than of nationalism. They fear foreigners and hate those who are insufficiently nationalist within their own country. (Readers right here might keep this in mind as they read the review of Homeland below.)

The "fear" and "hatred" of his subtitle distinguish the left from the right on the political spectrum. Especially at their extremes, the left is motivated by fear (of oppressive capitalists and reactionaries) while the right is motivated by hatred (for enemies of the nation, of the "people," which translates into those who aren't us.)

"But while hatred amounts to a moral weakness," he writes, "it can be, alas, often, and at least in the short run, a source of strength. Whence the advantage of the Right over the Left---especially in the age of democratic populism."

But fear, of course, is not much better. "Fear and hatred are prevalent among us," he concludes, "manifest and evident in the increasing savagery---"savagery is the proper word, not 'violence'---in and around our everyday lives."

If anything makes noise from this book, it is likely to be Lukacs assertion that liberalism is dead, and a Red State sort of populism triumphant. But it is the savagery that he seems to really want us to understand.

However, he sees conflict within this triumph, because there may be division between "two kinds of Right": "between those who believe that America's destiny is to rule the world and others who do not believe that; between those who trust technology and machines and others who trust tradition and the old human sum, between those who do not question Progress and others who do."

I don't know that I buy this division in precisely this way, but I see what he's getting at. In the book as a whole, perhaps the most glaring omission for me is a specific discussion of plutocracy and how it might interact with populism, which is a crucial element of today's that remains insufficiently explained in general.

Lukacs view of the masses is not unfamiliar, but his application to the world we know is pertinent and thought-provoking. Against the collective, mechanical, easily manipulated, nationalistic populist mass, he reintroduces other familiar concepts: freedom and the individual. "Freedom means the capacity to know something about oneself, and the consequent practice or at least the desire to live according to limits imposed on oneself rather than by external powers."

Between the lines I have quoted are his arguments as to why this is so difficult in the modern world. Lukacs presents a historical and political argument that reminds me of other themes, other fears, from the 20th century, such as the fears for "mass man" and the "outer-directed" "Organization Man" or even Jung's "extraverted as hell" Americans. To these characterizations he adds pungent illustrations of the role of publicity in government, and the phenomenon of populist religion.

Historians may buzz a bit about Lukacs' assessments: while he finds Marx, Orwell and even Machiavelli wrong or irrelevant, de Tocqueville turns out to be remarkably astute and prescient. But what I suspect is most likely to be missed, and what I found most moving, is his hope for the future. (He even refers to the "historicity of hope.") "It is hate that unites people, whereas love is always individual, rather than collective. To this we may add something that immediately negates whatever moral essence the purposes of class struggles or of racism or of modern nationalism may have: and this is that love is never the love of oneself, it is the love of another. That is the saving grace of mankind."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well done. Interesting. My only strong disagreement is that I do not believe that love is only individual love of another. One can love all life and oneself.
--Wade Hudson