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Will Mexico Go Down the Populist Route in 2018?

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In less than a year time Mexico will have its presidential election and the country may well elect leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as its new president. AMLO faces a weakened ruling party and a deeply divided National Action Party (PAN).

AMLO’s winning Mexico’s presidency on his third attempt since 2000 is a prospect that thrills many Mexicans and terrifies others. Mexico may now be ready for more drastic politics since majority of the population has stopped believing that either of the two political parties that have ruled Mexico, PAN and the Institutional Revolutionary Party, (PRI) will do anything different to change the current situation.

The PRI’s nominee whoever it will be, will be tainted by association with the current administration and the 71-year dirty baggage of the PRI regime; the likeliest candidate of the PAN, Margarita Zavala is the wife of a former president blamed for the upsurge of violence triggered by his clumsy crackdown on drugs. AMLO has ranted against privilege, corruption and what he calls the political establishment made up of every single political actor bar his newly created party, National Regeneration Movement, (MORENA). Sweep away all that and, according to him, Mexico will suddenly improve. Many others hear in that message the latent message of a charismatic populist who would only weaken institutions and roll back reforms.  

AMLO has capitalised the fact that people are fed up with corruption and he has presented himself an honest politician committed to cure Mexico of the cancer of corruption. His political career and performance though, show a different story. He has shown a common contempt for norms; separation of power and the rule of law. Obrador’s lack of respect for institutions and the easiness with which he is willing to discredit rules that do not suit him would make him an ineffective corruption-fighter. He has also been involved in several acts of corruption: René Bejarano, now a close supporter of AMLO again, was taped several years ago when he was the personal assistant of AMLO receiving enormous amount of money. He backed AMLO in both presidential elections of 2000 and 2006, and has now again made it public he is ready to work closely with him again; the finance minister of AMLO when he was the major of Mexico City, Gustavo Ponce, was also shown betting huge amounts of  public money in a casino in Las Vegas; Carlos Imaz, husband of Claudia Sheinbaum, the most likely candidate of AMLO for the governorship of Mexico City, was also taped being bribed by the businessman Carlos Ahumada; AMLO also received the continuous support of the Abarca family of Guerrero who were later involved in the Iguala incident where 48 students went missing and presumably killed; Ricardo Monreal, a prominent figure in Obrador’s newly created party, was also known for conceding millionaire contracts to the friends of his daughter, a total of 16 contracts for 27 million pesos to supply his administration of stationery material; in 2012, a conversation of Luis Acosta Bonino, a campaign strategist of AMLO, was leaked in which he said 6 million dollars would be more than enough to make sure AMLO won the elections; and the most recent case was the local deputy and ex-candidate of MORENA for municipal president in Veracruz, Eva Cadena Sandoval, who was caught taking a bribe of half a million pesos for AMLO.

AMLO created MORENA in 2014, and its launch came at the expense of his membership of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). MORENA is a one-man party, and AMLO is not willing to let anyone else dictate what he wants or what needs to be done. The creation of his own party will also enable him to run for president for as long as he likes. The past July elections in the state of Mexico have again put his worst qualities at the forefront: his inability to hide the most unappealing aspects of his persona for a long time; his personalism; and the structural limitations of his strategy. Following the loss of his candidate, Obrador blamed the defeat just like he did in 2006 and 2012 on electoral fraud. For him democracy is only democracy once him or anyone of his party is elected.  The loss of that election can only be blamed on himself and his inability to negotiate deals and put his personalism aside. One natural place for AMLO to look for allies would be his former home, the PRD. Teaming up in the State of Mexico would have delivered a 49% victory over the PRI candidate who got 34%. He cannot blame anyone for his lack of vision in that election, and this could also well be a forecast for the 2018 presidential election.

Coming up 3% points short in the State of Mexico left AMLO and his party with hone of the 31 governorships of the country and no access to potential funding. Under such conditions. If he is to win the presidency next year, tapping into voter outrage at graft, crime, and Donald Trump will not be enough. He will need to broaden his appeal and curtail his threats against and establishment that he sees as the mafia of power and that ironically AMLO was part of for nearly 40 years, first in the PRI and then in the PRD.

In a one-round election, AMLO would win with as little as 30% of the vote; if that happens, Mexico will embark upon a perilous political experiment. What would a presidency of AMLO look like? Just like with Trump and Brexit, the world will have to wait and see. For AMLO opponents in Mexico, there are 2 worst-case scenarios. One would be a northern version of Hugo Chávez who upon gaining power set to radically change institutions and concentrate power around himself. The other would be left-wing version of Donald Trump, who would go at politics like a solitary gunslinger without regard for counsel or consequences.

The fear of AMLO has triggered coalition talk by other parties, namely the PAN and the PRD, who have already teamed up at state level and have had a proven track of victories. If AMLO wants to win the presidency rather than go down as a self-proclaimed martyr of a so-called fraudulent system, he has to be able to convince the voters that he will be less like Hugo Chávez and Donald Trump and more like Brazilian Lula Da Silva. He also needs to rely on the entire left. His loss at the State of Mexico shows that a divided left will only continue losing. The electoral successes PRD has had by uniting with PAN also reduces AMLO’s ability to bully his former party leaders into supporting him. He would then have to do with more negotiation and less personalism. AMLO needs to somehow reconcile with the PRD and unite the left to have a real chance at victory.

AMLO is at heart a populist authoritarian and if he continues with his incendiary speech and non-democratic, authoritarian practices within his own party along with corruption and tainted alliances, he could easily lead voters to settle for unappealing but safer choices. Ultimately, candidates matter more than elections in Mexico, a PRI candidate who can show enough distance from the present administration and a solid career may yet be able to overcome the disaster of this administration. PAN, with or without the PRD need to deal first with its internal divisions just like the PRD, and for the perpetual candidate AMLO, his liabilities remain overwhelming and too serious to claim an easy victory in 2018. At the same time, it is also clear that whoever becomes Mexico’s next president will have little chance of changing the facts on the ground, particularly the unspeakable violence of the drug cartels and the endemic corruption of the Mexican political system despite empty, vague populist promises.

Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza is a politics and international relations tutor at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She gained her Bachelor's in International Relations at the Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City and her MA in International Relations and World Order at the University of Leicester, England. She holds a PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She has spoken at numerous international conferences and has written on topics such as democracy, migration, European politics, Contemporary Mexican Politics and the Middle East. Her research interests include: Democratisation processes, governance and theories of the state, contemporary Mexican politics, Latin American politics, political parties, international relations theories, contemporary USA-Latin America foreign policy.

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How Uncle Sam views the world by 2040

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How the US is seeing the future world is revealed in a recent report, Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World, published by the National Intelligence Council of the US. This report of political, social and economic estimates is prepared through an integrated process for every incoming President of the USA. For Biden, the report was published in March this year. The world, its politics, economics and societies, is going to change under the forces stemmed in changes in demographic modalities, environmental fluctuations, economic preferences and technological transformations. These together are going to impact on societies, states and international systems which would end in sketching five different futures of the world. Uncle Sam seems to be shaking the world, and this time even more intensely.

Starting off how the forces will interact and intersect, it all begins with the changes in demographics. The developed economies are aging bringing a global slow economic growth whereas the contracting working age will weigh on the economies of these developed countries as Japan and South Korea will reach the median age of 53 and Europe the median age of 47 by 2040. On the other side, in developing countries the converse will be happening as Sub Saharan Africa will reach median age of less than 15 years whereas Pakistan, Egypt and Afghanistan will reach the median age of 30 years. This seems opportunity but these economies will be challenged to meet the demands of the growing working age populace in their economies with the slow global economic growth remaining constant dragging the societies into  social volatilities while testing the performances of states too.

The forces of environment will leave no country unaffected especially the developing countries that lack in adaptations skills and technologies. The occurrence of heat waves, melting of Arctic, land degradation, water misuses, food insecurity, loss of biodiversity, rising sea levels and pollution will erode the ‘human security’ while affecting states and societies, politics and economics coequally. For curtailing environmental threats, countries may apply geoengineering by interacting with the natural system of earth to counteract threats of climate change like releasing the sun’s energy back into space through Solar Radiations Management or Stratospheric Aerosol Injection spraying to cause global dimming. The developed countries especially US and China will see suspicions on sincerely working on environmental threats as this would require economic sacrifices.

In the sphere of Economics, the national debt management will push countries to avoid funding on the issues of environment as they will already be pressed hard for matching the needs of the growing demands of their elderly and younger populations alike. Covid 19 has already left indelible imprints on the economies of the world especially the developing countries two fifths of which, according to 2019 IMF assessment, were at debt distress. Automation and rapidly growing AI will reduce 9 percent global jobs and transform one third by 2040 while at the same time creating massive new technology and automation stemmed jobs which will test the states adaptability to manoeuvring technology. This will have disproportionate effect across the countries and regions. The element of Superstar firms, the new multinationals, will critically affect world economies and make definitive inroads in the affairs of politics.

The technological forces will surpass all other forces in intensity especially with the significant rise of AI and Biotechnology. The US-China rivalry in this sphere will be rampant. AI will disrupt global current workforce while also creating new dimensions of labor compelling the countries to remodel their working force structures. The application of AI in warfare will be on the rise and will be adding a new element to the geopolitical dynamics. AI is well positioned to fly and reach space which will turn the space diplomacy in new form and bring the two global rivals face to face. AI will siphon out the human element of emotions in making decisions having social effects.

As these forces interact, world will see five possible scenarios in which the first three are the prominent.

In the first scenario, it will the US and allies led democracy which will manipulate the world. Being democratic, there will be more space for innovation and the rise of technology with robust public private partnerships will prosperously affect economic growth of the countries. This will enable the states to be responsive to their people’s needs while the same time making adaptations unlike in the repressive regimes of Russian and China whose policies will let them on steady decline.

In the second scenario, it will be China which will be mastering the world arena but not exactly acting like leading it due to its inherent repressive dynamics. This will happen on account of failure of international organizations with least interest paid to them by the major powers. The factors of high national debt, the costs of caring for aging populations, and hazardous environmental occurrences will havoc states’ budgets and keep them away from spending on education, infrastructure, and scientific research. In these circumstances due to the integrally centralist and controlled Chinese centralism will help China gain global attention through its global infrastructure packages and other initiatives. Many countries will thus tilt to the Chinese sidelines.

In the third effectual scenario, it will be a contested coexistence of US and China which will emerge. This will be based on shared economic and growth preferences and agreements.

Much of what is stated in the report must be happening in the world ahead but much of what is left unstated is more critical. Summed up, there will be more instability, pandemics, economic recessions, state conflicts and disorders in the five different worlds that lay ahead.

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Understanding Ronald Regan’s approach to the Cold War

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President and Mrs. Reagan at the 1981 inauguration parade. Image source: Wikipedia

President Ronald Reagan’s ascendency in the political hierarchy of the United States, ending in him becoming the President is often regarded as a triumphant victory by American conservatives. His conception of the world order, domestic and international relations show a reflection of a conservative understanding of issues. His legacy as president remains as having effectively brought down the Soviet Union and the threat of Communism. His policies towards the Soviet Union have a transformative nature, as his understanding and approach to US-Soviet relations changed radically after his first term. Though being a staunch Anti-communist and regarding the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”, he sought to ensure that America and its idea of a “Free World” prevailed and later on, that the two most significant military powers would reach common ground in order to make peace more sustainable.

In studying his approach to tackling the Soviet threat, it’s important to first understand the correlation between the policies adopted by previous administrations and Reagan’s own pursuit of defeating the Communist threat which at the height of the Cold War, threatened to spill into a full-scale conflict between the two regional hegemons. Previous administrations had traditionally approached the threat posed by the Soviet Union with a policy of preventing the collapse of European allies at the hands of the Soviet Union. This included stymieing the spread of Communism across the world and the consistent development of Ballistic missiles in order to deter a Soviet military advance into Europe by providing a “nuclear umbrella” to European Allies.  Before the Reagan administration this policy was in large part accepted as the means through which the Soviet threat could be effectively challenged. President Reagan followed a similar policy by pursuing aggressive military buildup and focusing on development of a vast range of ballistic missile platforms which would act as a comprehensive deterrent in preventing the Soviet decision-making elite to pursue a path unacceptable to US strategists (ARBATOV 2019). Being disillusioned with the far left, his opinions and campaign slogans had strong ideological underpinnings which would later on influence his dealings with the Soviet Union.

 The changes in Reagan’s policy weren’t without the influence of another very important personality, Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet leader’s role in Reagan’s change in policy from antagonism to rapprochement is widely claimed by academic scholars as a major contributing factor for the rethink in Reagans approach to Communist Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s revolutionary approach to International Relations was followed by America’s “reactionary response” in the shape of pursuance of arms control and softening of political rhetoric (Fischer 1997). Ronald Reagan second term in office was marked by a change in his policy of pursuing aggressive development of arms and making space-based missile defense systems having the capability of destroying incoming Soviet missiles. The Strategic Defense Initiative was seen by many in the Soviet ranks as a dangerous escalation of arms race which had the potential of transforming into military conflict. (Britannica, T.Editors of Encyclopaedia 2021). Seeing and acknowledging Gorbachev’s new approach as “revolutionary” President Reagan sought to rely on an intense sustained engagement with the Soviet leader in order to achieve what his previous approach had failed to do (Talbott 2004).

Mikhail Gorbachev’s approach to the subject of foreign policy was based on establishing relations with the west and a recalibration of ties with the United States. At the time of the Cold War a large part of the effort by the two nations was to prevent the other state from gaining a definitive edge in the area of technology, military and nuclear weapons. Apart from the ideological conflict the Cold War witnessed many states in the world becoming the conflict grounds in which the US and USSR sought to establish their control and influence. Mikhail Gorbachev’s arrival into the political spectrum and pursuing a policy of peace and prevention of creation of arms was in large part influenced by the domestic environment of his country. The Soviet Union after Brezhnev had a weakened economy due to extensive spending building and maintaining large military industries and sophisticated missile delivery and defense systems. The Russian political elite largely dominated by Russians. Gorbachev’s “restructuring” in order to improve the economic conditions of the state was also followed by a rethink at the foreign policy front. In his famous interview at Harvard University he described how the conditions of repression, arrests and suppression of critical voices against the state were silenced. This led to perestroika which gained support from the Russian masses. (The Harvard Gazette 2004).

The question as to the extent to which the effect of President Reagan and Gorbachev’s relationship caused “reversal” of US foreign policy with regards to the Soviet Union should be considered through different metrics. Firstly it’s important to study how the “Reagan doctrine” which formulated the plan of tackling soviet expansionism into countries across the globe evolved during the time of Reagan’s Presidential terms. Ronald Reagan’s doctrine was a shift from previous administrations approach to the Soviet threat. In what was previously termed as “containment” of Soviet expansionism, Reagan’s approach constituted of a “roll back” of Soviet expansionist forces across the world. From “Afghanistan to Nicaragua” Reagan’s approach was an active effort to subdue Soviet expansionist forces seeking to gain a foothold in important areas such as South Asia and Central Americas. (US Department of State archive 2001). While toning down the harsh rhetoric and signing important arms control treaties, US efforts to prevent Soviet expansionism continued despite a thaw in relations and a warm cordial relationship between the two world leaders. 

Reagan’s original agenda of an aggressive military buildup and development of ballistic missiles saw a reversal during his second term. Both leaders sought to control the arms race and roll back on the creation of such weapons. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT-1) and other similar treaties was a ‘break away’ from Reagan’s original doctrinal approach. Gorbachev’s willingness to engage in talks was what initiated this change. What is also interesting to note is that despite belonging to radically different ideologies, both leaders shared a similar view on important matters. This is significant as both leaders expressed the desire to regulate arms control and to promote peace.

Another important element is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which saw an all-out Soviet effort to establish control over the region and reach the warm waters of the Arabian sea. The United States, eying an opportunity and realizing the threat of a possible soviet hold of South Asia, actively supported the Afghan Mujahedeen. Through Pakistan, the US pivotal role resulted in the Soviet forces failing to defeat the guerrilla forces despite huge numbers of troops and highly sophisticated weapon systems. This costly conflict was to prove detrimental to Soviet morale and the economy. After having effectively taken over, Gorbachev became heavily involved in restoring the economy and control over the production of arms between the United States and the Soviet Union. Gorbachev sought to move away from previous Soviet leaders doctrines and open diplomatic channels which would result in the final culmination of the Cold War.

President Ronald Reagan’s presidency was marked with a significant contrast in approaches to the Soviet threat. Having become president, his strong ideological standpoints were the driving forces behind his policies. With the Soviet Union, Reagan’s original approach was that of confronting, condemning and a protectionist mindset. Being a vocal proponent of American values of free speech, liberty and democracy his political campaigns to his televised addresses portrayed the Soviet Union as the principals threat to the very principals that America stood for. Like previous administrations, combating soviet expansionism and attaining global hegemony were prized objectives which defined much of US policies during the first term of President Reagan. His second term however saw a ‘shift’ in part of Reagan’s understanding of greater and more pressing issues at hand which demanded attention. Having originally promoted military spending and development of sophisticated missile weapon systems, Reagan’s view changed by the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Both leaders, seeking initially to control production of arms, sought other means to create an environment more conducive for peace. While motivations differed, there was consensus between the two leaders on important matters which made diplomatic summits productive and resulted in many arms treaties. Both leaders established a relationship of trust and warmth which had largely been unseen since the start of the Cold War. These meetings were then followed by confidence building measures and trips to respective capitals which allowed a further thaw in the relations. Despite continued conflict in other states, both leaders relationship saw a significant reversal in the policies of US under the Reagan administration.

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A Time For Candor: What Have We Learned From The Pandemic?

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“The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”

Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1971)

By definition, Covid-19 has been a crisis of biology. Nonetheless, certain core explanations for American death and suffering are discoverable outside the boundaries of medicine and pathology. In essence, at least to the extent that these tangible costs express America’s deeply-rooted antipathy to various considerations of intellect – to what twentieth century philosopher Karl Jaspers would call a “spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth” – we have also been enduring a crisis of philosophy.

               This is not an easy argument to make in the United States. “Philosophy” is a tough term to embrace for an American audience. Prima facie, it is “elitist.” At a minimum, it is (allegedly) impractical, contrived and “highfalutin.” In this country, after all, even the most casual mention of “intellect” or “intellectual” will normally elicit cries of disapproval or howls of execration.

                No “real” American, we have been instructed from the start, should ever be focused on such a needlessly arcane subject matter or pretentiously elevated discourse.

               Big words be damned. Plainly, this a nation of impressively tangible accomplishments, of conspicuous “greatness” and “common sense.” Who needs abstract and disciplined learning, especially when so many philosophers were themselves never “real Americans”?

               Still, truth is exculpatory and any proper answer ought to be prompt, unhesitant and unambiguous. Accordingly, there are times for every nation when history, science and intellect deserve an absolute pride of place. Recalling Plato’s parable of the cave in The Republic, our politics are always just reflection, merely a misleading “shadow” of reality, merely epiphenomenal.

                In the United States, as anywhere else that has built carefully upon millennia of dialectical education, politics can offer only a deformed reflection of what lies more meaningfully below. It is largely because of our collective unwillingness to recognize this telling relationship, and not just a virulent virus per se, that we Americans have now suffered substantially more than a half million pandemic fatalities.

               This lethal unwillingness represents a self-evident result of American anti-intellectualism. Though unverifiable by science-based standards,  it also reveals a palpable vacancy of “soul.”[1]  Sometimes, such less tangible or “soft” problems still warrant very close attention.

               This is one of those times.

               There also remains more to consider. Donald J. Trump is gone, but the crudely retrograde and “common sense” sentiments that first brought him to power endure unabated. Generally lacking the refined intellectual commitments of mind, We the people should not express undue surprise or incredulity at the sheer breadth of our collective failures. Over too many years, the always- seductive requirements of wealth and “success” were casually allowed to become the highest ideal of American life. Among other things, these vaunted requirements turned out to be very high-cost delusions.

               Too-many American debilities remain rooted in “common sense.” Over the years, American well-being and “democracy” have allegedly sprung from an orchestrated posture of engineered consumption. In this steeply confused derivation, our national marching instructions have remained clear and shameless:  “You are what you buy.” It follows from such shameless misdirection that the country’s ever-growing political scandals and failures were the altogether predictable product of a society where anti-intellectual and unheroic lives are actively encouraged. Even more insidiously, American success is measured not by any rational criteria of mind,  compassion and “soul,” but dolefully, mechanically, absent commendable purpose and without any “collective will.”[2]

               There is more. What most meaningfully animates American politics today is not a normally valid interest in progress or survival, but a steadily-escalating fear of personal defeat or private insignificance. Though sometimes most readily apparent at the presidential level, singly, such insignificance can also be experienced collectively, by an entire nation. Either way, its precise locus of origin concerns certain deeply-felt human anxieties about not being valued, about not “belonging,”[3] about not being “wanted at all.”[4]

                For any long-term national renaissance to become serious, an unblemished candor must first be allowed to prevail. Perpetually ground down by the demeaning babble of half-educated pundits and jabbering politicos, We the people are only rarely motivated by elements of real insight or courage. To wit, we are just now learning to understand that our badly injured Constitution was subjected to variously dissembling increments of abrogation, assaults by an impaired head of state who “loved the poorly educated,”[5]  who proudly read nothing, and who yearned not to serve his country,[6] but only to be gratifyingly served by its endlessly manipulated citizens.

               Openly, incontestably, Donald J. Trump abhorred any challenging considerations of law, intellect or independent thought. For the United States, it became a literally lethal and unforgivable combination. At the chaotic end of his self-serving tenure, Trump’s personal defeat was closely paralleled by near-defeat of the entire nation. Lest anyone forget, the catastrophic events at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 were designed to undermine or overthrow the rule of Constitutional order in the United States.

               Nothing less.

               There is more. To understand the coinciding horrors of the Corona virus and Trump presidency declensions, we must first look more soberly beyond mere “reflections,” beyond transient personalities and the daily news. Even now, in these United States, a willing-to-think individual is little more than a quaint artifact of some previously-lived or imagined history. At present, more refractory than ever to courage, intellect and learning, our American “mass” displays no decipherable intentions of  taking itself more seriously.[7]

               None at all.

               “Headpieces filled with straw…” is the way poet T S Eliot would have characterized present-day American society. He would have observed, further, an embittered American “mass” or “herd” marching insistently backward, cheerlessly, wittingly incoherent and in potentially pitiful lockstep toward future bouts of lethal epidemic illness. About any corollary unhappiness, let us again be candid.

               It is never a happy society that chooses to drown itself in limitless mountains of drugs and vast oceans of alcohol.

                What’s next for the still-imperiled Republic? Whatever our specific political leanings or party loyalties, We the people have at least restored a non-criminal resident to the American White House.[8] At the same time, our self-battering country still imposes upon its exhausted people the hideously breathless rhythm of a vast and uncaring machine.Before Cocvid-19, we witnessed, each and every day, an endless line of trains, planes and automobiles transporting weary Americans to yet another robotic workday, a day too-often bereft of any pleasure or reward or of hope itself.  Now there is good reason for greater day-to-day political hope, and for this we should be grateful.

               But there is still no American “master plan” for a suitably transformed national consciousness.

               “I think therefore I am,” announces Descartes, but what exactly do I think?”

               Answers come quickly top mind. Even now, We the people lack any unifying sources of national cohesion except for celebrity sex scandals, local sports team loyalties, inane conspiracy theories and the comforting but murderous brotherhoods of war.[9] As for the more than seven million people stacked cheek to jowl in our medieval prisons,  two-thirds of those released will return to crime and mayhem. Simultaneously, the most senior and recognizable white collar criminals – in part, those Trump-era sycophants who managed to effortlessly transform personal cowardice into a religion – can look forward to lucrative book contracts. These agreements are for manuscripts that they themselves are intellectually unfit to write.

                We Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once we displayed a unique potential to nurture individuals to become more than just a “mass,”  “herd” or “crowd.”[10] Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson had described us as a people animated by industry and self-reliance, not by moral paralysis, fear and trembling.  Friedrich Nietzsche would have urged Americans to “learn to live upon mountains” (that is, to becomewillfully thinking individuals), but today an entire nation remains grudgingly content with the very tiniest of elevations.

               In Zarathustra, Nietzsche warned decent civilizations never to seek the “higher man”[11] at the “marketplace,” but that is where America first discovered Donald J. Trump.

               What could have gone wrong? Trump was, after all, very rich. How then could he possibly not be smart and virtuous? Perhaps, as Reb Tevye remarks famously in Fiddler on the Roof, “If you’re rich they think you really know.”

                There is more. Many could never really understand Vladimir Lenin’s concept of a “useful idiot,” or the recently-pertinent corollary that an American president could become the witting marionette of his Russian counterpart. But, again, truth is exculpatory. The grievously sordid derelictions we Americans were forced to witness at the end of the Trump presidency resembled The Manchurian Candidate on steroids.

               And in what was perhaps the most exquisite irony of this destructive presidency, the very same people who stood so enthusiastically behind their man in the White House had themselves been raised with the fearful idea of a protracted Cold War and ubiquitous “Russian enemy.”

               “Credo quia absurdum,” said the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               The true enemy currently faced by the United States is not any one individual person or ideology, not one political party or another. It is rather We the People. As we may learn further from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “The worst enemy you can encounter will always be you, yourself; you will lie in wait for yourself in caves and woods.” And so we remain, even today, poised fixedly against ourselves and against our survival, battered by an unprecedented biological crisis nurtured by the former US president’s unforgivable policy forfeitures.

                Bottom line? In spite of our proudly clichéd claim to “rugged individualism,” we Americans are shaped not by any exceptional capacity but by harshly commanding patterns of cowardly conformance. Busily amusing ourselves to death with patently illiterate and cheap entertainments, our endangered American society fairly bristles with annoying jingles, insistent hucksterism, crass allusions and telltale equivocations. Surely, we ought finally to inquire:  Isn’t there more to this long-suffering country than abjured learning, endless imitation and an expansively manipulating commerce? Whatever we might choose to answer, the available options are increasingly limited.

                “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” observed the Transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman, but now, generally, the self-deluding American Selfis created by stupefying kinds of “education,”[12]  by far-reaching patterns of tastelessness and by a pervasive national culture of unceasing rancor and gratuitous obscenity.

                There are special difficulties. Only a rare “few” can ever redeem courage and intellect in America,[13] but these quiet souls usually remain well hidden, even from themselves. One will never discover them engaged in frenetic and agitated self-advertisement on television or online. Our necessary redemption as a people and aa a nation can never be generated from among the mass, herd or crowd. There is a correct way to fix our fractionating country, but not while We the people insistently inhabit various pre-packaged ideologies of anti-thought and anti-Reason, that is, by rote, without “mind” and without integrity.[14]

               Going forward, inter alia, we must  finally insist upon expanding the sovereignty of a newly courageous and newly virtuous[15] citizenry. In this immense task, very basic changes will first be needed at the level of microcosm, the level of the individual human person.  Following the German Romantic poet Novalis’ idea that to become a human being is essentially an art (“Mensch werden ist eine Kinst“), the Swiss-German author/philosopher Hermann Hesse reminds us that every society is a cumulative expression of utterly unique individuals. In this same regard, Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung goes even further, claiming, in The Undiscovered Self (1957), that every society represents “the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption.”[16]

               One again, as in our earlier references to Sigmund Freud, the inherently “soft” variable of “soul” is suitably acknowledged.

               Looking to history and logic, it would be very easy to conclude that the monumental task of intellectual and moral reconstruction lies well beyond our normal American capacities. Nonetheless, to accede to such a relentlessly fatalistic conclusion would be tantamount to irremediable collective surrender. This could be unconscionable. Far better that the citizens of a sorely imperiled United States grasp for any still-residual sources of national and international unity, and exploit this universal font for both national and international survival.

               We have been considering the effects of an “unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”[17] During the past several years, huge and conspicuous efforts have been mounted to question the “cost-effectiveness” of an American college education. These often-shallow efforts ignore that the core value of a university degree lies not in its projected purchasing power, but in disciplined learning for its own sake. When young people are asked to calculate the value of such a degree in solely commercial terms, which is the case today, they are being asked to ignore both the special pleasures of a serious education (e.g., literature, history, art, music, philosophy, etc.) and the cumulative benefits of genuine learning to a mature and viable democracy.

               These commerce-based requests are shortsighted. Had these benefits been widely understood long before the 2016 presidential election, the United States might never have had to endure the multiplying horrors of Covid-19 and of variously still-heightened risks of a nuclear war. Only by understanding this underlying point about learning and education could Americans ever correctly claim that they have learned what is most important from the pandemic.

               On its face, such a claim would have potentially existential import. Wanting to partake of authentic truth rather than reflections or shadows, it ought never be minimized or disregarded. At some stage, the costs of any such forfeited understanding could be immeasurable.


[1] Freud was always darkly pessimistic about the United States, which he felt was “lacking in soul” and a place of great psychological misery or “wretchedness.” In a letter to Ernest Jones, Freud declared unambiguously: “America is gigantic, but it is a gigantic mistake.” (See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (1983), p. 79.

[2] The origin of this term in modern philosophy lies in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, especially The World as Will and Idea (1818). For his own inspiration (and by his own expressed acknowledgment), Schopenhauer drew freely upon Goethe. Later, Nietzsche drew just as freely (and perhaps still more importantly) upon Schopenhauer. Goethe also served as a core intellectual source for Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, author of the prophetic work, The Revolt of the Masses (Le Rebelion de las Masas (1930). See, accordingly, Ortega’s very grand essay, “In Search of Goethe from Within” (1932), written for Die Neue Rundschau of Berlin on the occasion of the centenerary of Goethe’s death. It is reprinted in Ortega’s anthology, The Dehumanization of Art (1948) and is available from Princeton University Press (1968).

[3]The extent to which some young Americans are willing to go to “belong” can be illustrated by certain recent incidents of college students drinking themselves to death as part of a fraternity hazing ritual. Can there be anything more genuinely pathetic than a young person who would accept virtually any such measure of personal debasement and risk in order to “fit in”?

[4] “It is getting late; shall we ever be asked for?” inquires the poet W H Auden in The Age of Reason. “Are we simply not wanted at all?”

[5] Said candidate Donald Trump in 2016, “I love the poorly educated.” This strange statement appears to echo Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels at Nuremberg rally in 1935:  “Intellect rots the brain.”

[6] This brings to mind the timeless observation by Creon, King of Thebes, in Sophocles’ Antigone: “I hold despicable, and always have anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”

[7] “The mass-man,” we may learn from Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses, 1930), “has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.”

[8] In this connection, cautions Sigmund Freud: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind, and not merely when the accident of birth had bequeathed them sovereignty. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.”

[9] War, of course, is arguably the most worrisome consequence of an anti-intellectual and anti-courage American presidency. For the moment, largely as a result of the intellectually dissembling Trump presidency, the most plausible geographic area of concern would be a nuclear war with North Korea. https://mwi.usma.edu/theres-no-historical-guide-assessing-risks-us-north-korea-nuclear-war/

[10] “The crowd,” said Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “is untruth.” Here, the term “crowd” is roughly comparable to C.G. Jung’s “mass,” Friedrich Nietzsche’s “herd” and Sigmund Freud’s “horde.”

[11]We can reasonably forgive the apparent sexism of this term, both because of the era in which it was offered and because the seminal European philosopher meant this term to extend to both genders.

[12] In an additional irony, these already unsatisfactory kinds of education will be supplanted by even more intrinsically worthless forms of learning. Most notable, in this regard, is the almost wholesale shift to online education, a shift made more necessary and widespread by the Covid-19 disease pandemic, but unsatisfactory nonetheless.

[13] The term is drawn here from the Spanish existential Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, especially his classic The Revolt of the Masses (1930).

[14] “There is no longer a virtuous nation,” warns the poet William Butler Yeats, “and the best of us live by candlelight.”

[15] As used by ancient Greek philosopher Plato, the term “virtuous” includes elements of wisdom and knowledge as well as morality.

[16] Carl G. Jung eagerly embraced the term “soul” following preferences of Sigmund Freud, his one-time mentor and colleague. Also, says Jung in The Undiscovered Self (1957): “The mass crushes out the insight and reflection that are still possible with the individual, and this necessarily leads to doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny if ever the constitutional State should succumb to a fit of weakness.”

[17]Although this present consideration has been offered as a pièce d’occasion, it also has much wider conceptual applications and implications.

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