Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why History Is Not About Lara Logan

The fluid developments in Libya remind one that political history runs on wheels bigger than the latest gossip about one telegenic American. History — and Machiavelli — teaches us that every ruler, democratic or otherwise, has a relationship with the ruled and faces a critical decision when discontent sets in and an angry mob arises: kill them all and rule from fear or quell discontent subtly without changing the order of things.

The problem usually comes when the ruler changes horses in the middle of the river — which sometimes can't be avoided.

In my view of the French Revolution, for example, Louis XVI's appointment of Necker and the end of repression, marked the king fit for his eventual decapitation. Every subsequent show of force was only a demonstration of a lack of real power.

That's because every people form a compact with every ruler, whether it is written or implicit.

Stalin could kill millions, but he had to put offer secure jobs and stable wages and prices (e.g., Russian rents in the 1920s were the same as they were in the 1980s). The demise of stability under Gorbachev and later is what gave the post-Communism Stalinists the gumption to attempt a coup and even to praise the "good old days" of Uncle Joe.

Of course, sometimes the compact is itself finite: lead us to a defined "Promise Land" (the development of a modern technocratic class, for example). When such an intelligentsya finally takes consciousness of itself, the compact ends and the ruler must step down.

For Egypt, for example, simplifying much, one could argue that Nasser promised national pride, Sadat offered peace and Mubarak offered continuity amid turmoil — until society Egyptian stabilized, didn't need a hallway monitor any more and people were willing to forge some new balance of power based (we think) on elections.

As to the ballot box, let's not delude ourselves into thinking that democracy abroad — we in the United States really have a republic in which the elected officials are representatives primarily of the already powerful — is either a panacea or the only way in which people and ruler can communicate and make the necessary deals.

There are a variety of imperfections that can invalidate electoral results.

In the United States, most major party candidates of the last century easily represented 40 percent of the electorate, at a minimum. What does that mean, though? Ronald Reagan's "landslides" were predicated on the votes of no more than a third of those eligible to vote.

By and large, a rather broad majority goes unrepresented in Congress, or much less the White House. Indeed, the disunity, anger and frustration of Americans with all politicians is rooted in this fact — which the chattering class of Washington (which I mostly observe for a living) refuses to acknowledge, for good reason.

Real democratic revolutions yield results that none of us who are riding the applecart want to see.

In Iran, it was the Ayahtollah Khomeini. In Afghanistan, the mujaheddin CIA-armed rebels became the Taliban, riding on the shoulder of enthusiastic crowds; let'snot forget that the Taliban was (is?) very popular.

There is no guarantee that modern revolutions will automatically lead to Western liberal "democracy." Should there be? History renders the question moot.


Anonymous said...

I know that French Revolution is not your point but about this detail, Necker was called by Louis XVI to be the minister of finance, the first time for him to resolve the problem of expense (one billion of pounds) that cost to France your war of Independence (a loan for Marshall Plan??) Then since he was too close of the populace he had to resign, and then the revolution of July 14th happened.

About Louis XVI's weakness, the fact that he had no mistresses was then suspect...


Anonymous said...

Firstly, the American war of independence wasn´t 100% afforded by France, and french people were involved because it was convenient for them to defeat England someway. So, take it as an investment for France (not as a loan). Without the Marshall Plan and the D -Day, France would be France today? If that hadn´t happened, french would be speaking in german and getting an svastik cross drawn in their flag.

So, if Necker and Louis XVI didn´t know how to manage their investments and expenses of war, that wasn´t the USA´s fault.

Cecilieaux said...

Aside from the who owes who bit (I am not the anonymous poster), I would like to reflect on the appointment of Necker a bit. It seems to me that Necker was a reasonable man who brought some order and solicitude toward the needs of the people. There had been a famine and he attended to it. It was a concession.

I would argue that the concession was read as a sign of weakness. Then the King hardened and his enemies thought they had forced his mask to come off. To my mind it's the changing from cold to hot then cold again that was the ultimate problem.

Of course, sometimes, there is no alternative.

Anonymous said...

To the brave anonymous: Right, the war of independence was an investment for France, as Marshall Plan was an investment for the USA!