The intellectual and cultural iconoclasm of Vienna in the late nineteenth century shaped much of the West and provided the progressive nidi that would give it a competitive advantage over its peers across the globe. From music to architecture and statistics to psychoanalysis, the Viennese mavericks started a new era in intellectual and artistic inquiry; a foray that was scoffed at the time, but one that provided the breast milk that would nurture many an intellectuals in the later period.
But the fertile environment didn’t last too long. With rising ethno-nationalism, anti-Semitism, and totalitarianism, many intellectuals took flight to find safe havens in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Lessons learnt from the rise and fall of great civilizations, like Rome, and societies like late nineteenth century Vienna might aid the current ‘empires’ of the West to realize and forestall present-day circumstances that bear semblance to the events that led to the ruination of their ancestors.
Personal opinions and views notwithstanding, it ought to be the official and moral duty of the head of state to protect and uphold the highest law of the land. It is a total bonanza if the law of the land dovetails with Lockean liberalism, which adds an extra dollop of solemnity in upholding the law. This seemed to be the operational tenet of Joseph Franz, the ruler of Vienna, during the height of its intellectual revolution. A traditionalist and an admirer of neo-baroque architecture, Franz couldn’t bear the sight of the Looshaus structure across the Michaelerplatz Square so much so that he would leave the drapes on his windows drawn to avoid accidently catching a glimpse of the architectural carbuncle. He, nonetheless, let it be constructed and remain standing.
The above is a stark contrast from the threats President Trump has wielded towards the media, at least on three occasions: opening up libel laws, revoking licenses, and suggesting that outlets should pump out balanced coverage of him and the Republicans. Not only does this clash with freedom of press – a tenet enshrined in the first amendment – it also places disproportionate power in the executive office. Power imbalance has led to the downfall of many an empires and emperors.
The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, on the other hand, outdid his American peer and decided to take on NGOs critical of his administration and political work under the pretext of sabotaging India’s economic growth by bringing in a liberal western agenda.
Such words and actions by heads of state are disconcerting to say the least, as a liberal society, an anomaly, is always a few steps away from turning into an authoritarian debacle.
Globalization has led to an uptick in movement of labor across international borders. People all over the world are moving in much higher numbers and over larger distances in search of employment, business opportunities, and education. In addition, there is also a steady stream of refugees and asylum seekers moving across the globe.
Vetting, an essential pre-requisite to immigration, is a tricky process and requires cooperation from sender nations. Also, vetting doesn’t reveal the cultural compass of the immigrants. In other words, it doesn’t indicate the probability of immigrants assimilating into the host culture and enriching it.
One of the lessons we could draw from the Viennese intellectual revolution is that of shared understanding and social cohesion. Vienna of the late nineteenth century was a multi-ethnic venue, drawing in people from all corners of Europe. Intellectuals of the time showed a keen interest in studying the common denominators of human behavior and psychology, trying to look under the hood and, in the words of Otto Wagner, ‘show modern man his true face.’ It’s as if the entire movement was an endless pursuit of universalizing commonalities of human nature, thus, attempting to create a universal sense of belongingness, despite ethnic and linguistic differences, to advance social cohesion. Thus, people of different stripes could find a spot in this shared culture and transform what had started as a salad bowl into a melting pot.
This multi-ethnic and culturally cohesive society began to unravel, as separatist forces from within besieged it. The superlative success of Jews came to be despised and anti-Semitism became a political platform to campaign on. The Germans’ discontent with their lot started pouring out in to the streets in the form of violent riots and hatred for other nationalities. There developed a groundswell of support for an ethno-nationalist state exclusively for the Germans, a movement that segued into Nazism.
The Roman Empire faced similar cultural issues, which contributed to its decline and eventual collapse. During its period of ascent, Rome had taken under its control peoples from all over the Mediterranean, the British Isles, North Africa and the Middle East. The new entrants were granted citizenship, spoke Latin and were treated as Roman citizens. They would assimilate into the Roman traditions and identify themselves as Romans, leaving behind their previous affiliations.
This assimilation was greatly absent towards the end stages of Rome and new entrants would pledge loyalty to their commanders and would spend years without any association with Rome. A fractious society, with a lack of loyalty and commitment to a shared identity, poisoned Rome from the inside.
Western nations, on balance, attract more immigrants and refugees than any other quarter on the planet. The importance of cultural assimilation is paramount, if these nations endeavor to remain culturally intact and confident to defend their Western values. A divided society with little allegiance to the national identity can be dangerous, especially, if seeds of host-hatred find fertile grounds.
President Trump’s beefing up of vetting and support for economically-salubrious immigration doesn’t take into consideration cultural compatibility. While the former two are commendable amendments, the latter serves to preclude societal divisions along ethnic and religious fault lines leading to the formation of ethnicity-specific special interest groups and caucuses. It would be desirable if every immigrant group were to assimilate like the German-Americans.
Angela Merkel’s open-border ‘all are welcome’ policy for refugees has not only backfired, but it has come at the cost of her reputation and popularity. European nations are facing the socio-cultural and economic burden of a large influx of people from a culture radically different and anachronistic from theirs.
Immigration should be followed by mandatory assimilation and vetting should also include assessment for cultural compatibility, lest these nations want to turn up like Rome. Multiculturalism and identity politics are the death knell of any civilization. Infighting among a nation’s demographic can leave it susceptible to foreign assailment, particularly, of the cultural variety.
One of the other reasons Rome was emaciated was the economic quagmire it had gotten itself into with debt, inflation, and high taxation. The Empire couldn’t maintain its cities and its armies and a flagging morale coupled with despondency lead to an exhausted people; a people who were defeated well before being conquered by the northern barbaric hordes.
The US national debt in 2017 crossed the $20 trillion mark and in 2016, the debt was 106.18% of the GDP. The last time the debt-to-GDP ratio was this alarming was in 1946, when the US was coming out of the Second World War. Add to this, a growing enthusiasm for socialized medicine and education, which will, at any rate, require higher taxes across the board. Taxation and debt have an insidious creep on a population, as they saddle future generations and stifle growth.
This might seem as an opportune moment for countries like the US to return to classical liberalism and an important ideal of the founding fathers – small and restricted government. The sooner this is done, the lesser the damage control needed down the line.
The last lesson comes yet again from Rome, and while it seems obvious, it’s also strangely elusive to achieve – separation of religion and politics. With the administrative capital moved to Byzantium, Emperor Constantine, in an effort to consolidate the Empire, used the then growing and pervasive religion of Christianity and made it the official religion. Centuries later, Christian figureheads wielded extraordinary influence in policy-making and governance, leading the once great Empire awry.
Modern day examples of a marriage between state and religion leading to disastrous consequences can be found in Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and in much milder, yet creeping form, in India in Modi’s term and in Turkey under Erdogan’s hegemony.
While religion has its merit, it’s best to silo it from the political pulpit. History hasn’t been kind to those who wedded the two and this separation is one that needs to be reinforced as vehemently as one ever can.
Great ideas and values are easy to conceive in the mind but terribly expensive to achieve. Their careful sustenance, however, comes at an even bigger premium. The difficult work doesn’t end with establishing a liberal society; it, on the contrary, starts with it. Despite the cliché, history has a habit of repeating itself. And insofar as we refuse to learn from the view in the rear-view mirror, we certainly multiply our chances of ending up as an artifact in the wistful image in the mirror.