History, All Over Again (Again...or "Part II")

If this is the price to be paid for an idea, then let us pay. There is no need of being troubled about it, afraid, or ashamed. This is the time to boldly say, “Yes, I believe in the displacement of this system of injustice by a just one; I believe in the end of starvation, exposure, and the crimes caused by them; I believe in the human soul regnant over all laws which man has made or will make; I believe there is no peace now, and there will never be peace, so long as one rules over another; I believe in the total disintegration and dissolution of the principle and practice of authority; I am an Anarchist, and if for this you condemn me, I stand ready to receive your condemnation.”

— Voltairine de Cleyre, Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine de Cleyre-Anarchist, Feminist, Genius


We left off last week wondering where we are. The fresh, countryside air was playing tricks with our head…the kind of tricks that lead one to a quiet riverbank, dog-eared book in hand and staring at the sky, ruminating in terms and scales ordinarily discouraged by the workaday drudgery of city living.

The subject at hand was cycles. Short ones…Long ones…Fat ones…Skinny ones… We spoke about immediate cycles, the day-to-day, year-to-year variety, ones you can see by enlarging the font on your computer screen, by turning up the volume on the nightly news, or picking up the daily newspaper. Election cycles, say, during which time prestidigitating pontificators of every stripe bamboozle mobjorities with an endless litany of dot.gov statistics, shamelessly propagandizing young men and women into thinking “enemies” of foreign nations are deserved of immediate and ruthless military misadventurism. Though relatively short, these cycles can, with the help of aforementioned Newspeak, appear to drag on and on, as George Orwell captured in his dystopian classic, 1984:

“Oceania was at war with Eurasia; therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.”

The cast of characters occupying central roles in these presidential/prime ministerial/dictatorial cycles reads like a who’s-who of regrettably-promoted sociopaths. They are the Clintons, Bushs and Obamas…the Blairs and Browns, the Putins, Sarkozys, Rudds and Draghis…the Alis, Mubaraks, and Gaddafis…Chavez and Morales, the Peróns and the Kirchners…and a colossal archive of jabbering, human-shaped embarrassments besides.

Pan out, however, and these names begin to fade into a washed, slate grey background. True, this or that decision might have seemed pivotal in the color of the moment, with magnified font and front page coverage, but engage a wider perspective and one comes to realize that these individuals no more guide the hand of history than a single lump of coal shoveled into the midnight furnace guides a steamship across the Atlantic.

Caution: Political figures in the rearview mirror of time are often closer than they appear.

The cycles of history must be ready to carry one or the other leader to the fore. They must coincide, just at the right moment. Without this near-imperceptible collusion, the most prominent (and repugnant) leaders might simply rot on the vine. The German post-war twenties, for example, were not ready for the upstart nuisance of one Adolf Hitler. Such was the prevailing mood of the time, in fact, that following his failed Beer Hall Putsch coup d’état, in Munich, Hitler was thrown headlong into the slammer…an unthinkable proposition just ten years later, when, in 1933, the formidable orator was appointed chancellor and immediately set about transforming the battered Weimar Republic into the single-party dictatorship that would go on to ride a horrifying crest of centralized power for the next twelve years. Same heinous man…from prisoner to leader in the flash of a decade.

Pull the camera still further back and we begin to notice the slow undulations not just of decadal or even generational cycles, but of the expansion and contraction of broader, more sweeping historical trends. In Part I of this bitty missive, we described these movements, broadly, as centralization and decentralization…the inhalation and exhalation of history, whereupon political power flows from the many to the few…then back again.

The post-Renaissance cycle of centralization, for example, witnessed an era tending generally toward political coalescence.

“During this period,” we observed, “stronger principalities, those that had prospered in trade and were therefore better equipped to withstand military attacks and plagues, started working together and expanding their territories. Once again began a cycle of centralization, of disparate states coagulating into a mass of cells, fused together by broader, overarching legal and political systems, trade agreements and strategic alliances…

“By the 18th and, especially, the 19th century, principalities had fallen almost entirely out of favor…and the world witnessed the birth of the modern nation state.”

By and large, the trend toward centralization withstood a great many attacks from those arguing against it, from intellectuals and idiots alike.

When Mikhail Bakunin, a not-insignificant Russian philosopher and theorist of collectivist anarchism, broached the subject of political decentralization with one Friedrich Engels, co-author of The Communist Manifesto, the latter famously retorted: “how these people propose to run a factory, operate a railway or steer a ship without having in the last resort one deciding will, without single management, they of course do not tell us.”

The cycle of history did not then agree with Bukunin’s desire for (albeit collectivist) anarchism, for decentralization…just as the roaring twenties were not yet ready to inflict a curiously-moustachioed Führer und Reichskanzler on the unsuspecting peoples of Europe. The tides were against him. Elsewhere too, the trend of centralization held sway.

In North America, federal power was gradually ceded, though not without resistance, to Washington, DC. On the European continent, borders bled into one another, with power centers for 27 different countries eventually coming to rest in three relatively tiny capitals — Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg.

But the nature of cycles is such that their trends can seem at once both inexorable and untenable. It is often immensely difficult, for example, to imagine a reversal of this great super cycle…an historical exhalation…a new dawn of political decentralization, where individual nodes become empowered unto themselves, freed from the central planners and world-improvers who have enjoyed so long a run.

And yet, the escalating concentration of power in the European and American capitals cannot go on forever, in large part because of the enormous amount of debt these power structures require to “keep the show going.” Many thousands of words have been devoted to this subject in these here pages. The empires are collapsing as we type this very line…

Could we, in fact, be witnessing the modern day zenith for centralized power? And if so, what lurking catalysts might disrupt the future most people are softly, passively expecting? More on this later in the week. Stay tuned…

Joel Bowman
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning