The Debatable Land #15: Holding the waves and holding the line
History never ends but it may be fulfilled.
Sundry personal matters prevented me from writing a newsletter last week but, with the hope that later is better than never, here is this week’s edition. My thanks to you all for subscribing and special thank yous to the super-righteous amongst you who have upgraded your subscriptions.
The Vindication of Francis Fukuyama?
Of all the English kings poor old King Canute remains the most traduced and not just because he was a Dane. In the popular view, at any rate, Canute remains a figure of idiocy, a warning against regal hubris and a reminder that even the mighty are as often clay-footed as not. There is, to be sure, much to be said for this cutting-down-to-size. Modesty and prudence are useful virtues.
But I have always preferred the contrary view that far from thinking he could command the waves to recede, Canute was actually attempting to demonstrate the limits of kingly authority. By ordering the incoming tide to retreat he was showing his otherwise overawed courtiers that nature could not be bent to the monarch’s will and if this were true of the sea, might it not also be true of other matters beyond man’s control?
Which brings me to poor old Francis Fukuyama. Few political theorists have been so widely traduced since Fukuyama proclaimed the so-called ‘End of History’ more than thirty years ago. It is true Fukuyama first posited this notion in 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down, and true, too, that the giddy optimism of that notional New World Order has since faltered or proved too cheerful and been compromised and sometimes even refuted by subsequent events.
But Fukuyama was not arguing that events will cease occurring. By “history” he meant something different: the ideological development of states had come to an end and the triumph of liberal democracy was that there was no plainly superior alternative to it and, indeed, nowhere for a liberal democracy to evolve to. The “end” of history was to be understood as history’s fulfilment.
Fukuyama argued that this represented “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. This, though, was caveated in the sense that “the ideal will govern the material world in the long run”.
On reflection, that view allows space for democratic decline. It concedes the possibility democratic states might unwind their own achievements, forsaking the gains earned by their own long, slow, often difficult, progress towards the happy, fattening, contentment of liberal complacency. Something of this sort may be seen, I think, in the United States today; still a superpower but a nervous and irritable and uncertain one unavoidably confronted by the unpalatable reality of its own relative decline.
Well, the last few weeks have once again been littered with sagacious articles declaring that “history is back” or that this is “the end of the end of history”. That similar takes were found in the aftermath of previous shocks (9/11, the 2008 crash) merely demonstrates there is no end to the ending of history.
Be that as it may, my doggedly optimistic sense is that none of this disproves Fukuyama’s core thesis. Value judgements are suddenly back in vogue and while other forms of government still prowl the earth it is newly reasonable to observe - newly necessary, in fact - to proclaim liberal democracy’s superiority. If this betterness is unevenly observed even within liberal democracies and manifestly imperfect almost everywhere, it remains the case no plausible alternative exists - as a matter of ideology - that has proved, or looks capable or proving, superior.
Sure, China shows a different path. The hope that economic expansion and integration into the global economy would eventually lead to political emancipation in China is, for now, shipwrecked by experience.
But - and this seems important - few (if any) countries actually wish to be China and even some places which are Chinese - Hong Kong, for instance - do not wish to be China in the way China demands it to be. The Beijing model may not be exportable. Dependency on China is not the same as valuing China.
Some of the problems with liberal democracy - the recurring “crises” about which we have heard so much for so long - stem from the realisation that, actually, yes, this really is as good as it gets. There are no fresh mountains to climb, no sense of progress towards some higher goal, no push towards a new frontier.
If liberalism retreats it does so because of its own weakness, not because alternatives to it have proven superior. Liberalism’s secret suspicion is that maybe, just maybe, its enemies have a point. Hence the manner in which conservatives in the west are always quick to diagnose “decadence” at home as the source of our weakness. Vladimir Putin agrees, of course, even if he may now be surprised to discover that decadence is armed with anti-tank missiles. And, look, there is nothing new about this either: before August 1914 all kinds of folk - from crusty conservatives to radical futurists - reckoned a spot of bloodletting wouldn’t be the worst thing to befall Europe. A kind of cleansing, if you will.
We need not go that far - for doing so is a kind of aesthetic crime while Ukraine bleeds - to recognise that Russia’s aggression has nevertheless had a galvanising effect. It has given western liberals a cause and many, I think, have been surprised to discover the extent to which they missed such a thing. (It has already had political consequences too: I think Emanuel Macron was highly likely to win this year’s presidential election in France before the war but Putin’s invasion has made his victory almost certain. The republic must be defended.)
To be for something necessarily means being against something else. If anything has returned in recent weeks it is the value, the necessity, of judgement. Some places and some ideas really are better than others and there should be nothing shameful in insisting upon these truths. Nothing terrible, either, about insisting upon the reality of truth too.
This being a matter of history, it is marbled with irony. Ukraine was not a poster infant for liberalism three months ago and nor was Poland, a country whose nationalist - and often disagreeable - government has been reimagined as a muscular defender of decency and liberal - these things are relative - values. Well, so be it. Purity is defenestrated when the times demand it. The bigger picture does count even if the components from which the collage is created are more complicated.
How long will it last? Well, pessimists are often right. The impressive unity and cohesion demonstrated by European nations may prove only a temporary phenomenon. The eastern half of the EU may, on the whole, demand longer-term solidarity but as always the real decisions will be made in Paris and Berlin. It is not difficult to imagine circumstances in which Europe edges back from the commitments it has made in recent weeks. The words will doubtless remain fine; the actions a little less so.
That would be a mistake. I have heard enough declarations that this is “Europe’s moment” to be suspicious of any fresh claims this time has finally arrived and yet, notwithstanding that, there are grounds for thinking it would be a good thing if the moment has at last been forced upon a continent that has often preferred other people to do the hard work and, more importantly, the hard thinking.
Joe Biden’s administration has done plenty in terms of sharing intelligence with Ukraine and its partners and it has committed significant sums of aid - in financial terms and in military supplies - but it still somehow feels as though the Americans are not at the front themselves. Doubtless that reflects an awareness of the risks inherent in there seeming to be a direct US-Russian conflict but if this is just a feeling it is one based upon a deeper, more troubling, truth: the Americans are the bank of final resort but America is no longer as trustworthy as was once automatically considered the case.
Biden is - surely? - only a one-term president (it might be better for the Democratic party to accept this now before it is forced upon them) and the spectre of Trump 24 - ghastly as it is - should concentrate minds in every European capital. The Americans have long groused that unreliable European allies are not necessarily useful allies at all; that boot is increasingly often going to be worn on the other foot.
Nevertheless, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a clarifying moment and one which reminds us that many of our domestic struggles and worries are, in the bigger scheme of matters, largely arguments over small differences. That is an overdue correction, albeit one imposed by a ghastly turn of events. Even so, it is useful to be reminded of this.
Fukuyama remains a glass two-thirds full kind of guy [FT£]:
The travails of liberalism will not end even if Putin loses. China will be waiting in the wings, as well as Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and the populists in western countries. But the world will have learnt what the value of a liberal world order is, and that it will not survive unless people struggle for it and show each other mutual support. The Ukrainians, more than any other people, have shown what true bravery is, and that the spirit of 1989 remains alive in their corner of the world. For the rest of us, it has been slumbering and is being reawakened.
The question is, then, how long this spirit remains alive and, more importantly, awake? As old Ben Franklin said, “A republic, if you can keep it” and that’s the test and the standard and the challenge for liberalism too. It always was but is so all the more obviously now.
On the other hand…
Maybe Putin has a point? (I am looking forward to Yoko Ono’s peace plan.)
Here is Bono’s “poem” in all its Jesus-Suffering-Christ ghastliness:
Oh Saint Patrick he drove out the snakes With his prayers but that’s not all it takes For the snake symbolises An evil that rises And hides in your heart As it breaks And the evil has risen my friends From the darkness that lives in some men But in sorrow and fear That’s when saints can appear To drive out those old snakes once again And they struggle for us to be free From the psycho in this human family Ireland’s sorrow and pain Is now the Ukraine And Saint Patrick’s name now Zelensky
Also: poor, much misunderstood serpents.
The first shall in time be last
This is where a) a mania for “zero covid” will get you and b) the problem with rejecting the outside world. China’s home-grown vaccines are not as effective as mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna and so offer people - especially older people - less protection against omicron than is the case with the mRNA jabs. Why won’t China use these vaccines too? That, as a friend in Shanghai observes, is a very good question made all the better for being the kind of question you are not to ask.
But it is a reminder that for all people gape in wonder at the Chinese state’s ability to move mountains - literally, I suppose - at extraordinary pace we might also pause to remember that authoritarian regimes are also, at some level, invariably stupid regimes. China is locking its people up because it will not admit the futility of zero covid or accept that foreign vaccines work better than their own. Their choice but also a reminder Beijing is not the end of history.
A song of Ice and Fire
Sure, this New Statesman profile of Angela Rayner is a friendly one but Labour’s deputy leader has much to commend her anyway. It’s a commonplace to observe that the House of Commons benefits if it is populated by as many different types of people, from as many different backgrounds, as possible. Labour’s deputy leader adds a lot, even if you disagree with her on many things. And besides, anyone who spends hours painting their office while notionally also attending a LAbour NEC zoom meeting has a lot to recommend them.
Also, this is an anecdote worth savouring:
In a side office, the team eat baked potatoes – Rayner’s is filled with tuna mayonnaise – and she engages in a weekly ritual. Every Friday she calls an elderly lady who we shall call Edna, with whom she was paired on a charity phone-a-friend scheme before she became deputy leader. The call is long: it begins with an enquiry about tomato soup and takes in the shrinkflation of the Cadbury’s Flake. Edna has a fire in her: “They’re saying it’s smaller for the sake of our health!” Rayner, picking at her potato with a fork, says, “You and me are kindred spirits.” They have never met and Edna knows her only as a local mum of three. She wouldn’t vote for Rayner even if she knew who she was – Edna is a Tory. Edna once mentioned she’d seen that deputy Labour leader on telly, and she “can’t talk properly”.
But Rayner is also a politician who, you know, wants to win and this differentiates her from many on the left. Thus:
“This government is chaotic. But we can’t just hope that they implode and the voters say, ‘well, you’re less crap’. We have to recognise that we failed massively in 2019. If we can’t then we let down the public – again. I’m not prepared to do that. The stakes are too high.”
How does Labour win? “We’ve got to articulate this in language that people understand – we can get very technocratic. Most people don’t go rooting through manifestos. It’s about how we make people see that Labour is the party that has always stood for opportunity and aspiration. The welfare state, the NHS, social housing – these made people’s lives better. We can be radical but also pragmatic. Radicalism isn’t recklessness.
“We’ve got to be proud of our past achievements, which the Labour Party is never good at. If we achieve 96 per cent, we’ll go on about the 4 per cent we didn’t. It infuriates me. I’ll never, ever apologise for the last Labour government. Did we get everything right? No, of course not! But we did so much!”
Well, quite. Domestic politics is naturally quiet and well-behaved while all eyes are on Ukraine but it will at some point return and the prime minister may discover that not even Putin can save him from his many troubles.
Meanwhile, Labour are building something. A work in progress, obviously, but the start of something. If they can find a way of pitching Starmer (Ice) and Rayner (Fire) to the correct audiences you can begin to see a Labour government taking shape. A long way to go, for sure, but you need to do the work now, not in the six months before an election.
Five minutes of Ronald Reagan telling Soviet Union jokes.
That’s all this folks. See you here next time. As always your support is much appreciated and if you like any of this you remain at liberty to share it on Twitter and Facebook or by email or whatever. Many thanks.
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Time to tell the Saudis and the order jumped up princes in the Gulf that either the oil Wells start pumping or they can find out how much fun living in their neighbourhood is without the US Fleet, western arms sales & military bases that show the tough edge of Liberal democracy (our tanks can travel more than 10 miles without breaking down & being stolen by farmers) & give the lie to the “weakness & decadence of the west”