WHAT IT ALL COMES DOWN TO
The deeper meaning of Election 2000
Monday, November 6, 2000
by RICHARD E. BERG-ANDERSSON
I have always been a "big picture" type of guy: someone who tries as best I can to take in the overview before delving into the specific. Therefore, I am going to look at the ultimate end of this year's Presidential Election from just such a "big picture" perspective; if nothing else, those who read this piece will, perhaps, gain a view of the deeper meaning of the American Election somewhat different from that most media pundits will have been offering as we enter the actual "hours of decision" this Tuesday 7 November 2000.
I am going to have to, first of all, earnestly beg the reader's indulgence here- for, in order to understand my take on one of the main differences between the two major Party candidates- Governor George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore, we are all going to have to have at least a cursory understanding of the historiography of one Arnold J. Toynbee and, in order to understand Toynbee, we are going to have to take at least a very cursory glance at the historiography one Oswald Spengler put forth in his seminal work The Decline of the West: even Toynbee, while yet coming up with the outline of what would eventually emerge as his multi-volume A Study of History, thought- at least at first reading- that Spengler had successfully dealt with the means by which the Forces of History work until Toynbee himself soon enough chose to distance himself, and then ultimately reject, Spengler's approach to the problem.
Spengler was a middle-class German writing in the aftermath of Central Europe's searing experience of World War I- an experience that would ultimately produce the madman that was Adolf Hitler: Spengler mourned the death of the Second Reich (the German Empire of the Kaisers- that which Otto von Bismarck had built but which Wilhelm II had destroyed) and he despised the nascent Weimar Republic. A reactionary conservative, he saw in Democracy a weakness rather than a strength and longed for that "grand unifier" on horseback that he saw in such historical notables as Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte; it is no accident, nor is it all that much a coincidence, that liberal popular history-writers of that epoch (most notably, H.G. Wells- with his The Outline of History) saw these two very notables as largely overrated. The Nazis, of course, would come to see in Spengler's work the argument that they were the best hope for the Fatherland; Spengler would manage to live long enough to- in his last work The Hour of Decision- score the Nazis as more or less thugs who were far removed from his grand unifier ideal. Spengler would- in his final days- be persona non grata to the Nazi regime; the Nazis were already increasingly turning to Nietzsche as the underpinning of their philosophical foundations- for Nietzsche had the added advantage of being dead and, thus, unable to complain while Hitler's minions twisted his philosophy for their own nefarious purposes.
The German language, by Spengler's time, had already made a crucial distinction between Kultur and Zivilisation. As the French historian Fernand Braudel points out in his A History of Civilizations: "Civilization, in fact, has at least a double meaning. It denotes both moral and material values. Thus Karl Marx distinguished between the infrastructure (material) and the superstructure (spiritual)... In Germany, after some confusion, the distinction finally gave.. [Kultur] a certain precedence, consciously devaluing [Zivilisation]... [C]ivilization was no more than a mass of practical, technical knowledge, a series of ways of dealing with nature. Culture, by contrast, was a set of normative principles, values and ideals- in a word, the spirit." Spengler took this distinction to a logical- albeit extreme- conclusion: in his schema of History, Kultur would be the Rise of what we would call a "Civilization" to its Zenith, Zivilisation its later Decline to its Fall.
In Spengler's view, the roots of a Civilization are in the primitive chaos of what he calls the "Pre-Cultural Period" (note well the wording)- a world of clans and tribes, chiefs and chieftains with no Politics (that is, none in the advanced sense in which we use the term) and no State. Kultur (Culture) emerges from the Primitive with the Priestly and Military Myths which combine into what the West itself would come to call the Feudal ideal, a period which marks the "Spiritual Spring" of a what we would (but Spengler wouldn't) call a Civilization; the Spiritual Summer- the maturation of Culture- is a Reformation which ends the Feudal ideal and, with it, the early phase of Culture.
Now the Culture is at its Zenith, in Spengler's view, and goes through a period of Aristocracy (interlinked States ruled by an elite)- which is checked, on the spiritual level, by a Puritanism- followed by a period of Absolutism (the climax of the Nation-State) in which the Aristocracy which once ruled are held in check by an alliance between the Ruler and the rising Bourgeoisie- the whole of which, again on the spiritual level, is checked by an Enlightenment, which Spengler views as Spiritual Autumn. Finally, however, the Bourgeoisie (thus "enlightened") turns against both Ruler and Aristocracy (which now together make up the Ancien Regime) and the Culture enters an age of Revolution. "Money" (Bourgeois "Republicanism") is the victor over "Blood" (Aristocracy and Hereditary Monarchy) and only the "grand unifier" comes along to- though only temporarily- stem the chaos caused by the collapse of the mature State form under the blows of Revolution.
At this point, with the emergence of the temporary "grand unifier", Spengler posits the transition from Kultur (which is Civilization at its best) to Zivilisation (Civilization at its most vile) and, as we have seen, it is no accident that the early 20th Century German utilized these terms in opposition in his own historiography. The "grand unifier" ultimately fails- he might die prematurely (as with Alexander) or become exiled (like Napoleon) and his unification is succeeded by the division wrought by Contending States ("Great Powers" among the Nations, if you will)- dominated by "Money" (with its- here sneered at by Spengler- "Democracy")- in which Materialism marks the onset of a "Spiritual Winter" of ensuing Decay where ethical-social ideals replace the absolute values of Religion.
The ultimate end of Spengler's "Civilization" is what he calls Caesarism in which force-politics triumphs over "Money" (and "Democracy"), the Nations devolve into one formless mass of Humanity and what Spengler calls an "Imperium" (as its name implies, an Empire) of increasing despotism becomes the Final Political Form. The formless population turns away from the tyrannical Imperium toward a final spiritual outburst which Spengler calls "Second Religiousness" made up largely of syncretic elements, the Imperium- in the meantime- is weakened over time and- as the Imperium collapses- the Primitive reasserts itself into the at-one-time civilized structures remaining from the glory days of Kultur. From this new Primitive, in Spengler's historiography, a new Culture will eventually emerge and start the cycle anew.
In Spengler's opinion, Western Civilization was- at the time he was writing- in the throes of Spiritual Winter, traveling headlong toward Caesarism (hence the title of his book- the Decline of the West [the German title yields that which is much more poetic: Der Untergang des Abendlandes: "The Twilight of the Occident"- which yielded the English title, but- more figuratively, "The Going-Down (as in the setting of the Sun) of Lands (where it is already)Evening"]): by his timetable, we- in 2000- should be on the very cusp of Caesarism as I type this! The English title, however, made Spengler world-famous: for it captured the imagination of those living in the aftermath of that first "Great War"; it would- soon enough- capture the attention of even more with the onset of a Great Depression in which the West, in fact, did appear to many to be on the decline.
Enter Arnold J. Toynbee, who was finally putting together the first parts of the manuscript for what would become the first three volumes of his A Study of History around the time the second of Spengler's two-volume work in English translation hit the bookshelves in Britain. As already noted, Toynbee was, at first, intrigued by Spengler but soon became disenchanted with Spengler's treating his Culture/Civilization as the equivalent of a living organism that is born, grows, matures, declines and dies; Toynbee was- while certain that is precisely what happened to a Civilization- equally certain it was not because the Civilization per se was a living organism (in Toynbee's view, the only living organisms were the human beings which made up the population of the Civilization: Civilization was not so much something imposed upon peoples as it was something the peoples were forced to- in effect- impose upon themselves). Toynbee was also not all that enamored of Spengler's implication- in what popularly came to be called the German's "Cyclic History" - that each period or phase of Culture becoming Civilization was of a definite, predictable length that was generally the same from Civilization to Civilization; the Englishman believed the time scale of a given Civilization to be unique to it and, thus, far more open-ended.
In Toynbee's concept, Civilizations didn't necessarily emerge out of a Primitive epoch per se; instead, he argued, their Genesis was to be found when a Society of humans faced a challenge of scale (which could be physical- a harsh climate, for example- or social- the demise of an earlier Civilization in the same region of the globe) with which the previous forms of human social organization were incapable of dealing. Civilization, at least at first, was the attempt to respond to this challenge: if the response wasn't good enough or the challenge just so overwhelming, the nascent Civilization was referred to as "abortive"; if, on the other hand, the response was too good- forever holding the culture which produced the response in stasis, a kind of suspended animation, for generations- the nascent Civilization was considered to have been "arrested". Only Civilizations which had not only responded successfully to the original challenge but for which that response produced new challenges would grow to become the mature Civilizations of World History- of which Toynbee identified 21 (later increased to 23, with further shifts and tweakings- along with recombinations and reconfigurations- virtually up till Toynbee's death in 1975).
Toynbee's full-blown Civilizations (not being German, he did not have to deal with the distinction between Kultur and Zivilisation Spengler had utilized) grew as new challenge was met by another successful response which was- in turn- met by still another new challenge which had to be met by yet another successful response, etc. The response was fomented by a "creative minority" (an elite) which the majority (the masses) would voluntarily imitate as they saw the challenge beaten back and the response working (a process Toynbee calls "mimesis"). The next challenge would be met by a different "creative minority" or elite, while the earlier elite would withdraw (either voluntarily or by force of changed events) for a time only to return later when a later challenge required them to once again take up the mantle of "creative minority" (Toynbee calls this "withdrawal-return" "palingenesia"). As long as this happy balance was retained and the challenges kept coming to which the Civilization successfully responded each time, Growth could- at least in theory- go on indefinitely.
But, of course, at some point Growth would come to a stop and a "Time of Troubles" would ensue- because a given "creative minority" would either rest on its laurels and not deal with a new challenge or- heady with hubris as a result of its victory over a previous challenge- convince itself it was the only elite which could effectively deal with the next challenge. Breakdown would come as the masses would slowly cease to mimic the actions taken by the elite and the elite would then be put in a position of using force to institute its will; what had been only the latest "creative minority" now established itself as a "dominant minority" in response to this rebelliousness among the minority- what Toynbee saw as the beginning of the Disintegration of the Civilization.
Eventually, the "dominant minority" would establish what Toynbee calls a "Universal State" (an Empire, much like Spengler's "Imperium")- but this would be but a temporary respite- as an "external Proletariat" (peoples in the marchlands along the border of the Civilization having become a Universal State who once benefited from their proximity to the Civilization but who would now find themselves increasingly shut out as the border becomes the military frontier of the Universal State) would put increasing pressure on the Civilization from within while the masses at the center would turn away from the "dominant minority" and become an "internal Proletariat" under the sway of Religion not Politics- Religion that would become a Universal Church which would eventually come to subsume the imploding Universal State and eventually replace it; there would now be a new challenge- the demise of the Civilization- which would require a response by a new "creative minority" under the sway of the Universal Church in order to begin the Genesis and Growth of a new Civilization in place of the old.
In Toynbee's opinion, in the 1930's- as the first half of his A Study of History was being published, only 5 of his 21 mature Civilizations remained: the West, the Orthodox Christian Civilization (dominated by the Soviets- as the lineal descendants of Czarist Russia, itself a lineal descendant of the Byzantine Empire), Islam, the Indian (what Toynbee called "Hindu") Civilization and the Far Eastern Civilization (China and Japan as separate prongs of a single seed). Of these, Toynbee thought 3 were in their decline, having already passed into the Universal State phase (the Orthodox Christian: with dead Czarist Russia having already been its Universal State- though clearly, by the 1930s, the Soviet Union could be seen as a continuation of this; the Indian: with the then-still ongoing British Raj [though would the Indian Union which would replace it be considered a continuation of the Raj?], itself a successor to the Mogul Empire, as its Universal State; and the Far Eastern: with the recently ended Manchu Empire [though, again, would the People's Republic be seen as a continuation of this?]); Islam had not yet entered a "Time of Troubles", let alone a Universal State (the Caliphates post-Muhammad were seen by Toynbee as the Universal State of a decaying Semitic "Syriac" Civilization: he dated modern Islam from the end of the Baghdad Caliphate and the establishment of the il-Khanate by Hulagu [in this case, 13th Century Islam would have been the "Universal Church" coming out of dying "Syriac" early Islam]); the West, meanwhile, was clearly already into its "Time of Troubles" to the Toynbee of the 1930s.
It is very easy to see the similarities between Spengler and Toynbee, especially if one accepts- if only for the sake of the argument- both men's position as to where Western Civilization between the two World Wars stood in their respective schemes: Spengler's "Democracy" (the transition between the Revolution which had changed his desired "Culture" into unwanted "Civilization" and the Caesarism that would eventually bring this "Civilization" to its knees) was the equivalent of Toynbee's "Time of Troubles"- particularly at the beginnings of Disintegration- it was here the West was seen, by both men, as standing in the 1920's (Spengler) and 1930's (Toynbee). As for other phases of their respective schemata, Toynbee's "Universal State" corresponded to Spengler's "Imperium"; Spengler's "Revolution" was Toynbee's "Breakdown" that first heralded the "Time of Troubles". Thus, Toynbee's Growth phase of a Civilization was, in its essence, equivalent to Spengler's Reformation and Zenith of his beloved Kultur.
But these are, of course, only surface correlations between two essentially different systems: for example, while Toynbee's internal Proletariat turning to the nascent Universal Church in lieu of the force-politics of the Universal State mimics Spengler's "Second Religiousness" under the increasing despotism of the Imperium, the establishment of the Universal Church is the Revolution to Toynbee; whereas Spengler's "Revolution" well precedes his "Imperium". Toynbee's proletarian Revolution is a means to a Civilization's final end, while Spengler's bourgeois Revolution is the end having come to a once-desired means.
It is very like the difference between postmillenial dispensationalism in evangelical Christianity (in which the World has so improved that God will bring an end to History, and the millennium- 1000 years of peace and prosperity for Mankind- will then ensue, culminating in the "final dispensation"- Christ's eternal reign on Earth) and premillennial dispensationalism (in which- with a "world gone mad"- Christ's Second Coming is imminent, at which time he will personally institute the millennium and, with it, the "final dispensation") : except that- to these two men- the "dispensation" is Revolution, Spengler here being the "premillennialist" and Toynbee being the "postmillennialist", with Spengler's and Toynbee's "millenia"- their respective Pax Oecumenicae - being rather more the result of darker forces than, I presume, Christ's would be (though the result- a "world at end"- would pretty much be the same!)
Still, the point of all of that which I have written above is to clearly illustrate that- while Toynbee may have rejected Spengler's biological analogy for Civilization and his methodology of determining Civilization's phases as well as their length (indeed, to Toynbee, the length was open-ended and, in some cases, even variable [Toynbee, in fact, refused to sign the "death warrant" for Western Civilization in his seminal work by insisting that even the "Time of Troubles", in which he currently saw the West, was reversible: only the establishment of the Universal State "sealed the deal"... Spengler, on the other hand, would have made no such concession to "Revolution" and its child "Democracy"])- he did not completely escape the influence of his German predecessor, nor that of the English title of Spengler's book The Decline of the West. This is important to note in order to grasp that of which I write next.
In 1952, well after the end of the second "great war" of the century- World War II- and with the Cold War well frozen in place, Toynbee was asked by the British Broadcasting Corporation to be their Reith lecturer. Toynbee did a series of 6 lectures- drawing largely on the volumes of his A Study of History yet to be published- on the topic of "the World and the West"; the lectures were published in book form under that title a year later. In his lecture series, Toynbee opined upon the impact the West had had on the other four surviving mature Civilizations (as he had defined them already in earlier volumes of his Study, as already noted above) : Russia, Islam, India and the Far East, did a fifth lecture on the psychological impact of such intercivilizational encounters and finished up with analogies between the West's present-day impact on the outside world to the impact on the outside world the Greeks and Romans of what Toynbee called "Hellenic" Civilization- the parent to Western Civilization- had had some two millenia before.
Toynbee's opinion was that the West's impact on the rest of the world had been largely negative and he made this clear from the very start when he explained why he would speak of The World and the West and not "the West and the world". "In the encounter between the world and the West that has been going on by now for four or five hundred years", he said, "the world, not the West, is the party that, up to now, has had the significant experience... it is the world that has been hit- and hit hard- by the West; and that is why... the world has been out first." Toynbee did accept the fact that "[t]his indictment will surprise, shock, grieve, and perhaps even outrage most Westerners today."
It did do so to at least one Westerner- Douglas Jerrold- who was so moved to write a response to Toynbee in 1954- the year after The World and the West was published in book form- under the title of The Lie About the West. Jerrold scored Toynbee for taking a position- in his Reith lectures of two years earlier- in which "[t]o him Western civilization has degenerated into technology, applied to worthless purposes by men without a mission or a creed. That which has appeared to countless millions of our race as a civilizing process wherein man has been awakened to the knowledge of God, and through that knowledge, to the understanding of his own potentialities and a consciousness of his responsibilities, which has made man at once a morally responsible being and a free moral agent, is represented in [The World and the West] as nothing more than the march of armies trampling ruthlessly on the hopes and aspirations of mankind. His story is the story of wars waged in the interest of dominant minorities. Such august concepts as the rule of law, the rights of conscience, the right of free speech and free association, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the right, sacred above all else, of men to save their souls by fulfilling the purpose of their being as free moral beings in correspondence with Divine Grace: none of these supremely important things which have been won for millions of men through the slow, painful and laborious processes of Western civilization finds a direct mention in [The World and the West ]."
Jerrold especially bristled at Toynbee's use of the Graeco-Roman experience as an analogy to the contemporaneous West. Toynbee had- in his lecture series- taken the position that "We westerners being human are inclined to feel that what we have done to the world within the last few centuries is something unprecedented. An effective cure for this Western illusion of ours is to glance back at what, not so very long ago, was done to the world by the Greeks and Romans. We shall see that they too overran the world in their day and that they too believed for a time that they were not as other men." To Jerrold, this statement was proof that, to Toynbee, "those Western liberal humanist concepts which have derived from the fusion of the classical and Christian cultures are not absolute values in the sense of being absolutely necessary to the good society, but are only relatively good in relation to our particular society, which is no better absolutely than any other." Jerrold naturally rejected this concept of Toynbee's as expounded in The World and the West.
Jerrold also scored statements Toynbee made to clarify some of the things he had said in the Reith lectures just before Jerrold's own book was published. On 16 April 1954, in the Times Literary Supplement, Toynbee stated that he felt that the West (and, through the influence of the West upon it, the World at large) would eventually "become converted to an Oriental religion coming neither from Russia nor from the West. I guess that this will be the Christian religion that came to the Greeks and Romans from Palestine with one of two elements in traditional Christianity discarded and replaced by a new element from India. I expect and hope that this avatar of Christianity will include the vision of God being Love. But I also expect and hope that it will discard the other traditional Christian vision of God as being a jealous god, and that it will reject the self-glorification of this jealous god's 'Chosen People' as being unique. This is where India comes in, with her belief (complementary to the vision of God as Love) that there may be more than one illuminating and saving approach to the mystery of the universe."
To Jerrold, this was anathema. He noted that while Toynbee's statement, quoted above, "does, indeed, show that he neither greatly expects nor at all desires the triumph of Communism... it is hardly reassuring, nonetheless, to the great Christian majority in the West, who are asked to expect a new dispensation which involves their admission that the religion they have hitherto confessed is compounded of a variety of errors." Noting a comment by Toynbee in the Times Literary Supplement two weeks after that in which his earlier statement appeared to the effect that, while he denied the "uniqueness" of western Christendom, he only did so because all persons, non-Christian as well as Christian, were sinners and that "Christ's unique merits cannot be appropriated by any human being or by any institution", Jerrold bored in: "I fail to see that this is relevant, even if it is true. No one has ever asserted that all men, or all institutions, in the West were superior to those in the East- merely that our society bears witness, however imperfectly, to certain truths, and derives such strengths as it possesses from its fidelity to certain principles of social organization enjoined on it by the Christian religion in which it believes."
And so we are here presented with two competing world-views, the Toynbeesque and the Jerroldist (for lack of better terms for purposes of this essay). How much do they appear as themes in this very Presidential Election nearly half a century later? For Governor Bush talks of instituting a "responsibility era" based on certain core values; he talks also about how the American military should only be used when "national interests" are clearly at stake (keeping in mind that, with the United States being the center of a constellation of Western Nations [notably through NATO], "national interests" is clearly equivalent to "interests of the West" [at least as the United States would interpret these]) - how much does this echo the essential thrust of Douglas Jerrold's The Lie About the West? Vice President Gore, meanwhile, talks of well preserving the Earth for the benefit of all its inhabitants- regardless of Civilization or Culture- as a core belief of his own; he sees nothing wrong with using the military for purposes of peacekeeping or even "nation-building" even when the nation being built is not necessarily Western in Civilization- how much does this dovetail with Toynbee's The World and the West?
I could, of course, go on with even more congruences between Bush/Jerrold and Gore/Toynbee if I wanted to but this Commentary is fast becoming one of my longest and I want to stick to my essential point which is that, beyond the arguments over which candidate will better protect Social Security and more likely preserve Medicare as well as provide a more effective prescription drug benefit, there are two much larger- as well as very different- perspectives at issue here as we go further into this nascent 3rd Millennium Anno Domini: they are both in play in this Presidential Election and they are not merely American perspectives but Global ones!
One would preserve the concept of America (and the American interpretation of "the West") as continuing to be and act the "New Israel", the contemporary "Chosen People" promoting the virtues of Democracy and Market Economies of Scale to the World but not allowing the American "City on the Hill" to be tainted by that outside World which lacks the proper conditioning, the proper training, the proper Democratic and Market traditions- this one is essentially Governor Bush's and, again, matches Douglas Jerrold's world-view; the other sees the American/Western Civilization and its norms and values as not necessarily the superior ones, sees the West as inherently damaging to that outside World if not handled wisely and with great forbearance- this one is essentially Vice President Gore's and, again, matches the world-view of Arnold Toynbee's The World and the West which Jerrold so strongly decried.
In the end, we are left with the words the Texas Governor
often said in the course of the Debates: There's just a difference of
opinion; however, does either major Party candidate- or, for that matter,
the average American voter- see just how widely that "difference of opinion"
might reach around this Earth? Seeing this Election as, in at least one of its
facets, the essential argument Douglas Jerrold had with Arnold J. Toynbee more
than 45 years ago just might allow one to also see the Global effect of Election