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January 31, 2007

FvB on Foreign Adventurism

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Lots of fun comments on my recent posting about the Iraq War, where I asked "How do we get into these messes?" Nothing quite like a political posting to up the comments numbers! Curious about what Friedrich von Blowhard's answer to my posting's question might be, I wrote him this note:

The two things I'd raise where "why do we make these messes?" goes are a bit different than the usual, I guess. I'd tend to say 1) Foreign affairs (aka "swinging your dick around") seems to be more glamorous and appealing to many politicians than dreary ol' taking care of the chores at home is; and 2) There seems to be something in Americans that makes them think that we can either run the world or convert the world to being like us. We gotta go proselytize! Maybe that's part of America's famous religious enthusiasm. In any case, my own theory about why we stumble into these messes is that (2) makes us vulnerable to (1). What's your hunch about this?

I was hoping to elicit some history and some thinking. Bingo! Here's what FvB responded with:

Our involvement with foreign affairs stems from exactly the same moment in time that progressivism arose: the mid-1890s. During that decade there was a lot of social tension from industrialization, the creation of a single national market through the railroad revolution (and the exposure of agriculture to global markets), and from massive immigration. In 1896 W. J. Bryan, the Populist / Democratic candidate, ran against McKinley, who won big because he mobilized a lot of corporate-big business money and because people were scared by the possibility of radical social upheaval.

Right at that moment, when left and right were fighting themselves into exhaustion, we find the upsurge of what is termed "the new middle class." (The old middle class being the American bourgeoisie, the small business owners.) The NMC were professionals (doctors, lawyers, journalists, social workers, teachers, college professors, government bureaucrats) and managers of corporations -- this was the moment when the huge businesses that had been thrown together over the previous quarter-century started trying to run themselves rationally.

The politics of the NMC were weirdly off the continuum of the traditional spectrum from traditional left (populist, labor, farmer) to right (small businessmen, industrialists.) The progressives / NMCs (the two are virtually synonomous) very rapidly became more politically potent than either the traditional left or traditional right, in part because they also introduced modern-day lobbying to our system of government. They essentially embraced fascism (before it was ever named), that is, the governmental regulation/control of privately owned industry (with, of course, the NMC controlling the government).

They quickly dispatched the small-is-beautiful thinking behind the Sherman anti-trust act, because they saw how useful big business was ... to them. They instituted social controls over the immigrant masses (see my old post on the development of the high school and of the use of the education system to Americanize immigrants). Ultimately, in the 1930s, they were willing to let the working class / immigrants play a role, albeit a modest one, in the system by enabling unions and integrating big-city machine politics into the national Democratic Party. Although, you'll notice, they also neutered those big-city machines by creating the welfare state, which was the end of the urban machines.

And they embraced an active foreign policy, partially because it justifies more government control of the economy / society (see WWI and WWII, Cold War, etc.) and partially because I think they have a weird confidence that they can rationally control the world, or at least manage it by playing "balance of power" politics.

Small point: this is the same class that embraced Modernism, especially Modernist Architecture ... and this is why Modernist Architecture ain't going away anytime soon.

If you notice, the NMC is still playing the same games: embracing immigration, running an active foreign policy, justifying their rule by using the government to "guarantee" prosperity, regulating the shit out of everything, and maintaining a highly militarized society, etc., etc.

It's great having friends who know things.



posted by Michael at January 31, 2007


FvB's history is good, but it starts in a strange place.

If the Mexican War and Manifest Destiny were not foreign affairs, I'm not exactly sure what to call them. And if military events had gone differently, we'd put the Civil War in the same category.

It is much easier to understand the political history of progressivism if you understand the ideology behind it. This might be called (from a political standpoint) Unionism, or (from a religious standpoint) Unitarianism, or (from a comparative-historical standpoint, by analogy to Japan's state Shinto) "state transcendentalism."

Whatever you want to call it, you can say four things about this creed. One is that it was the dominant belief system of New England, two is that it was the primary heir of the Puritan tradition, three is that it is the primary ancestor of the creed ("political correctness," if you will) now enforced at the same institutions where it was born, and four is that since WWII it has been the state religion not just of the US but of the world at large.

A good book on the movements FvB describes is Arthur Lipow's _Authoritarian Socialism in America_. This is especially valuable because Lipow is a socialist himself, a student of Michael Harrington, and obviously there is no traditionalist bias in his views. Murrary Rothbard's essay _Power and the Intellectuals: World War I As Fulfillment_ follows its trend into the 20th century. Another interesting perspective is R.J. Rushdoony's _The Messianic Character of American Education_.

Posted by: Mencius on January 31, 2007 6:55 PM

Thank you Mencius. You just validated a point I tried to make some months ago when I suggested that there was too damn much senatorial power in the Northeast. Amen to you.

Michael, your and FvB's points are cogent and penetrating. The convergence of "in your face" do-gooderism with economic realpolitik seemed to reach a crescendo in 1916. It's been all downhill ever since.

Posted by: Bob Grier on January 31, 2007 7:25 PM

Gee, it sure would be news to Franklin, Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Henry Adams (among others) that America's involvement in foreign affairs began in the 1890's.
Also, although progressivism, which is to say, in foreign affairs minding everyone elses business, has been dominant since the early 20th century, there has always been a counterstrain, usually derided as isolationism, that has won some important battles. The Senate's rejection of American participation in Wilson's League of Nations was a big win for the anti-progressives. And Reagan's confrontational stance against the Soviet Union, although clearly not isolationist, was very unpopular with the new class, which saw itself mirrored in the Russian ruling caste.

Posted by: ricpic on February 1, 2007 8:05 AM

What Mencius said. America's wars before the Spanish American war were on American soil or on contiguous areas (the Mexican War and the Indian Wars). We had our hands full, and even then we had the Monroe Doctrine and the little excusion to Tripoli.

I don't think there's anything particularly American, New Englandish, or Progressive about any of these wars. These are the kinds of things nations do when they think they're able to. Even countries like Denmark and Belgium have had foreign adventures.

I still don't understand the significance given to the "New England overrepresented in the Senate" argument. The Senate was designed to be unrepresentative. All small states are overrepresented, while the largest states are underrepresented.

To be fair there should be two Senators for every six million people. There are sixteen states with fewer than two million people (overrepresented by a factor of three or more), and only four of them are in New England.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 1, 2007 10:27 AM

Okay, okay, remember this was an email to Michael, not a carefully written blog post. It should have read "Our modern involvement with foreign affairs..."

The real point of the email, however, wasn't included--to wit, that the NMC makes hash, intellectually and practically out of the whole notion of left-right politics...and has for 100 years. Our politics isn't really about capital vs. labor, but--in many respects--about capital and labor on one side vs. the NMC on the other. But it's almost as if the intellectual class of America (the journalists, the academics, the politicians themselves, all of whom are NMC) don't want anybody to realize what's going on.

But of course I'm just wildly paranoid.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 1, 2007 11:35 AM

Go back far enough and the Unitarians are to blame, but one might figure Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase as a proper starting point, given that he used powers not provided for in the Constitution to pull it off; an action that matched his rhetoric about an Empire of Liberty.

Good overview of the purchase, Manifest Destiny and the building of the empire of liberty here:

Posted by: James M. on February 1, 2007 12:11 PM

I half agree. The Democrats have unfortunately become the party of credentialed bureaucratic types (NMC), and foreign affairs is not on the left-right chart.

My own explanation for what's happened, though, is just that the US mobilized in 1941 and has never demobilized. The Democrats were neck deep in military internationalism, and the Vietnam War was Democratic. But the "isolationists" were run out of the Republican Party too. Furthermore, the foreign policy establishment, which is all interventionist, is very, very well connected in the big media.

Around 1936-1942 my home state of Minnesota diverged from the national consensus on both sides of the line. One Senator (Ledeen) was an isolationist who was almost prosecuted for working with German agents, but others were leftists who wanted to intervene in Spain in 1936. The state just knew it was mad and figured out the reasons afterward. Minnesota still produces its share both of right and left extremists.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 1, 2007 1:14 PM

Dear Mr. Emerson:

Why--in your opinion--did the U.S. fail to demobilize after WWII? Because of international threats that couldn't be ignored, or because of some other agenda? Or, perhaps to put it another way, what exactly did domestic politics and class agendas have to do with our decision to intervene in WWII to begin with? (Please note, everyone who wants to remind me about Pearl Harbor, that the U.S. was deeply involved with the war long before that attack--we had been an integral part of the anti-German industry supply chain for three years in late 1941. To our great profit, I might add, and to the political salvation of the New Deal.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 1, 2007 2:13 PM


My comment was way too hostile in tone, and I apologize. If I define my perspective as The Truth - and why wouldn't I? - yours is, let's say, 98% of The Truth.

We are observing the same events in pretty much the same way. The reason I prefer to look at this Hofferian movement, whatever you want to call it, as a religion rather than a class, is that the class-conflict approach has been overexposed in recent years, and any illustration of history that depends on it will be very quickly confused with a zillion other illustrations that are similar, but different.

Whereas defining contemporary "universalism" (my favorite word for it, but you could say Unitarianism, secularism, NPRism, PCism, blue-state-ism, humanism, educationalism, etc, etc...) as a religion in general, and as a branch of Christianity in specific, takes almost no effort at all.

All you have to observe is that its major beliefs (egalitarianism, pacifism, communitarianism) are straight out of the Gospels. And that the only doctrinal trait separating it from other branches of Christianity is that it does not assert the divinity of Jesus or claim that supernatural forces operate in human affairs. Echoes of these views can be found in Arian, Arminian, Pelagian, and many other heresies over the years. It is unclear why, just because it incorporates Newtonian and Darwinian science, this new synthesis should suddenly be treated as a categorical exception in Western history.

And if you look at red-state versus blue-state as a classic religious conflict between two Christian sects, I think a lot of otherwise puzzling phenomena snap into focus...

Posted by: Mencius on February 1, 2007 2:48 PM

I find FvB's analysis a little odd, in the following way. I agree that the Progressive / bureaucratic / NMC is a powerful and identifiable force in political and cultural life. I also agree with John Emerson above that the NMC was important in helping to sustain our post-WWII cold war mobilization, and was a major factor in the "Best and the Brightest" era in which the Democratic party got us into Vietnam.

BUT -- it seems obvious to me that the *current* Republican party, which is the one that got us into Iraq, has sustained its power by exploiting post-1960s *resentment* of the NMC, especially resentment of the bureaucratic intellectual class by white males, who feel that intellectuals turned against white males during the late 1960s. The emotional energy behind Fox News, talk radio, etc. is all about that. FvB's analysis completely ignores this.

During the late 1960s, liberal elements of the NMC learned from our Vietnam experience and became much more suspicious of overseas military intervention, and conservatives have resented them for that and other supposed betrayals ever since. That 1960s split, not the earlier Progressive emergence of a bureaucratic professional intellectual class, is what has driven politics over the past few decades. I wonder if FvB is one of those white males who turned against liberal intellectuals post-1960s, and is not disposed to credit them for being correct in their suspicion of U.S. military interventions.

For myself, I think we need a broader coalition that includes everyone who is suspicious of oppressive "big government" internationalism in all its forms -- including both traditional conservatives and the liberal elements of the NMC. I think people like Jim Webb point the way to such a coalition. But I worry that many middle-aged white males still value their resentment of 1960s liberalism more highly than the need to stand up against the neo-conservative elements of today's Republican party.

Posted by: MQ on February 1, 2007 4:15 PM


You are certainly right about the political force behind the Republicans, and I would be happy to be part of your coalition.

But I think what this analysis misses is that, when you look at actual policy changes that have been the result of the Republican backlash, you see very few.

This movement has certainly proved capable of electing some politicians. It has not been at all effective in rolling back any of the universalist gains of the last century and a half. It has not disestablished, or even made any serious attempt to detach from its sources of official funding, the university system, the civil and diplomatic services, and other permanent bastions of blue-statism.

Instead, it has focused almost exclusively on symbolic issues which have very little effect on the structure of Washington.

Take the war in Iraq. The neoconservative heresy was: we can roll back the steadily shrinking limes of Western order. We can add a new state to FDR's withering empire of harmony.

And indeed, the invasion succeeded. The heresy was proven. But because it was only a small heresy, because it defined itself in terms of a selective contradiction of the consensus anticolonialist wisdom (perhaps best exemplified in McMillan's "Wind of Change" speech), it had no idea where to go next.

So instead of imposing law and order on Iraq, in classic colonial fashion, and repressing all political movements which threatened the rule of law, as any effective government must do - we did nothing. The reconstruction proceeded along pure universalist lines. Leaving the field, as usual, to the local fascists.

(Or almost pure, because someone can always complain about something - and boy, did they. Real purity is as always reserved to the UN, which was driven out of Iraq by one bomb.)

So, in my view, neoconservatism failed in Iraq because a mixture of 5% Andrew Jackson and 95% Adlai Stevenson, despite the picture of refreshing, hard-bitten realism it presents to an electoral population thirsty for any trace of dissent, is really not that much more effective than 100% Stevenson. If you gave Iraq a dose of 100% Jackson, or even 30 or 40% Jackson, odds are it would be looking like Dubai or Singapore in 20 years. But there is simply not enough of that elixir to go around.

What would-be isolationists need to recognize is that both paths, universalist ("liberal") pacifism and neoconservative backlash, are equally doomed.

Universalist pacifism fails because its primary interest is not in peace, but in victory. That is, what the universalist pacifists really want to see is a Western surrender to the armed wing of universalism, that is, the Third World fascist movement.

Of course, Third World fascists, from Fanon to Osama, are not universalists at all. But since Western traditionalism is the principal enemy of both, the alliance is obvious. And it has always been easy for universalists to convince themselves that the ugly characteristics of their allies are mere oppositional reflections of the real enemy, the racist theocratic patriarchs. What James Burnham wrote in "Suicide of the West" was right - there is no end but chaos and destruction on this path.

The neoconservative movement is doomed because of its strategy of selecting and attacking, as a way of gaining power, individual features of the universalist state that it believes are obviously flawed. In doing so it implicitly accepts the rest, and when the strategy succeeds and actually does gain power, it has nowhere at all to go. It has confirmed, as a public consensus, the ideology it pretended to oppose.

I really have no idea why so many people are so interested in trying to repair the United States. The hypothesis that it is simply an unfixable organization is so much more obvious. Surely, if you disagree with this hypothesis, you should at least be able to offer some evidence as to why.

So why not abolish the thing? US out of North America?

Or at least just take a break from it. Like you do with a bad relationship. Let the states govern themselves for, say, a ten-year hiatus. Just to see what life without the beast is like. After that, or in an emergency, if Canada and Mexico turn nasty and start gnawing away at our borders, we can always reestablish it. Right down to the Department of Education, etc, etc.

Posted by: Mencius on February 1, 2007 5:00 PM

MQ: why do you write "white males" and not "white men" ?

Posted by: PA on February 1, 2007 7:05 PM

Chalmers Johnson says some relevant things.

After WWII the US didn't demobilize mostly because of the Soviet threat to Europe, I suppose. The point isn't so much that we should have demobilize, as that permanent mobilization has a cost -- it transforms the mobilized society. By 1990 when the USSR fell the first generation and much of the second generation was retired, and a third generation of careerists was working its way up the security-intelligence-military ladder. I didn't clip anything, but I remember a lot of fearful speculation in the papers by people in the biz asking who our next enemy would be, and you could tell that they realized that the rationale for their jobs was gone.

Mencius, besides believing that we liberals are all Nazis and that America is doomed and should be allowed to collapse, do you have anything else you'd like to share? Don't hold anything back.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 1, 2007 8:58 PM

Mr. Emerson:

I think you're missing my point. The New Deal ushered in the modern regulatory state, but signally failed to deliver prosperity. It was almost certainly going to be dismantled via a political reaction in the late 1930s when FDR managed to get us into WWII (initially as a 'non-combatant' arms supplier to England.) He was quite blunt about how those British factory orders were essential to continuing to win elections, and to preserving his progressive program. (Note that FDR served in Wilson's administration, and essentially remained his acolyte.) And, miracle of miracles, the war mobilization and its attendant good times cemented the authority of the regulatory state, but at the cost of permanently associating that regulatory state with the profound militarization of American society. I frankly think that constant mobilization since the 1940s has been as much as anything an NMC talisman, psychologically a "rabbit foot," guaranteeing that the regulatory state can continue to deliver prosperity.

Hence, I would argue that our permanent militarization has been undertaken largely for domestic political consumption. Of course, when you've got such a big military, every decade or so you have to trot it out...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 1, 2007 9:33 PM


Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!

Posted by: Mencius on February 1, 2007 11:54 PM


More seriously, the fact that you equate "America" with the United States is exactly the problem. It's like equating Yosemite with DNC Parks & Resorts.

As you may know, anglophone North America predates the United States by about 150 years. (Of course that's even if you count the United States as a single organization, not a series of republics of which our present is the fourth.) Some guy named Murray Rothbard once wrote a pretty cool history of it.

Posted by: Mencius on February 2, 2007 12:02 AM

Mr. Emerson:

The Chalmers Johnson material is very interesting; thanks for the reference. I withdraw my reference in a comment above to the perpetual militarization of the U.S. as a mere psychological "rabbit foot". I was tempted to do so even before reading Mr. Johnson's discussion of military Keynesianism, in part because I started to ponder the sheer number of modern industries launched as a result of military R&D--certainly the American aviation industry, the Internet, the computer industry, the nanotechnology industry (if it takes off, which it probably will), etc., etc., etc.

Posted by: friedrich von Blowhard on February 2, 2007 1:24 AM

There's a lot of literature about "militarization of progress" or "the military roots of progress" going all the way back to the enlightenment. "Docile Bodies" in Foucault's "Discipline and Punish" was about the relationship between modernized military discipline (Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus), science, nationalism, the Enlightenment, etc.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 2, 2007 12:52 PM

Mencius, my native turf was francophone until the Plains of Abraham. Minnesota was on the border between Quebec and Louisiana. On the Quebec side, I think.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 2, 2007 12:54 PM

I will admit that I'm no historian. However, Friedrich seems to be pinning all the blame for everything on this New Middle Class, and I don't think it had that kind of power or cohesion. To me the Progressive movement seemed kind of like the civil rights movement -- a segment of American society briefly found a way to exploit the structure of the legislative and judicial system to bring about change. But over the long stretch of history the system is dominated by the upper class, and things change when they're ready for them to change.

If I said anything interesting here it came from this article by G. William Domhoff, which basically provides the entire framework for my understanding of who rules America. If Friedrich can point me to anything that'll help me understand his vision of an upper-middle-class-ruled America, I'll read it. Stuff like that article about Progressives and high schools helps.

Posted by: Noumenon on February 3, 2007 3:04 PM

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