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Thinking Seriously While There Is Still Time: Classical Economic Wisdom at the Eleventh Hour

Prof. Louis René Beres

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 “The rich man glories in his riches, because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world….At the thought of this, his heart seems to swell and dilate itself within him, and he is fonder of his wealth, upon this account, than for all the other advantages it procures him.”-Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

 President Donald Trump’s jumbled economic policies, resembling his corona virus policies and public policies in general, remain fundamentally anecdotal and conspicuously incoherent. Because they are detached from any sound theoretical foundations,[1] these programs will be continually disruptive without adding any compensating benefits for the United States.  Lamentably, all this largely self-imposed economic dislocation is taking place at a time when rampant biological plague is quite literally decimating the American Republic.

This decimation is palpably sweeping, and includes precipitously rising population levels of food insecurity. In brief, under President Donald J. Trump, the United States is becoming an increasingly disadvantaged and sorely imperiled nation. Along certain explicit and authoritative criteria of taxonomic division or status-differentiation, we are now a “third world country.”

Irrefutably.

It is high time for appropriate warning bells to go off. It is finally time, therefore, to think seriously and to properly value serious thought. Though it has been more than two centuries since Adam Smith, a capable look back over his classical and well-catalogued insights would still be well advised. In terms of the pertinent parlance of contemporary social scientific classification, such a retrospective look would prove “cost-effective.”

Assuredly.

As is true for any other disciplined sphere of human study, the American economic realm is a product of antecedent thought. For better or for worse, this means not just self-centered considerations of money and finance, but rather the cumulative result of genuinely human and humane examinations. Always, moreover, these examinations must be premised upon the core idea of “system,” that is, on the persisting interrelatedness “of all things.”[2]

There is more.  Economics and the pandemic are inextricably intertwined; it would be foolish and futile, therefore, to expect any progress in the former without achieving corresponding scientific advances in the latter. In relevant philosophic terms, death is the prototype of all injustice –  including economic failure –  and American death rates during the current plague have had a great deal to do with prevailing distributions of national wealth. Contrary to Mr. Trump’s very curious sense of logic, death rates will not decline if the nation cuts back on Covid19 testing.  Indeed, that any single American with an elementary school education would be unable to recognize the overwhelming fallacy of such “logic” is altogether difficult to process.

There are overriding intellectual obligations here that warrant mention. Americans must go beyond the barren observations and clichés of current presidential policies; inter alia, this means purposefully recalling classical economic theory in its most densely-layered and meticulously nuanced content. Soon, we should look with suitably “modernized” detail at Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and also his better-known Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). To be sure, very few Trump-appointed policy makers or followers  actually read books – especially books that call for some serious analytic or scholarly exertions –  but there would still be some tangible recompense. This recollected scholarship would “pay for itself.”

Already, back in the 18th century, and quite plainly without benefit of any computers or electric light, Smith managed to examine certain bewilderingly complex elements of international trade within an impressively broad intellectual context.

Adam Smith knew many things. For one, he had already understood that thoughtful economic insights were not just about disjointed numbers or reassuringly growing  bank accounts. Wealth was not written to advance the monetary or social interests of one particular class over another. On the contrary, at a time when cultural and historical literacy were expected of European public commentators, he openly acknowledged the essential “oneness” of all human affairs.

This meant a core human singularity hailed, among others, by Marcus Aurelius, Lucretius and the Jewish Scriptures,[3] not to mention Hinduism and Buddhism.[4]

Without such an acknowledgment, Smith would have amounted to little more than the current crop of half-educated Trump commentators one is now forced to endure on television, in  the newspapers and online. Abjuring banalities, the seminal economic thinker from Scotland sought to understand genuinely intricate operations of society and the market place. More than likely, he would have agreed with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s later instruction in Zarathustra not to seek the “higher man” at any place of commerce. In essence, Adam Smith took special pains to highlight the prospective errors of analytically-baseless protectionist strategies, most notably of tariffs that could very plausibly and quickly be reciprocated.

Most famously, of course, Smith identified an “invisible hand,” or a credible “convergence of satisfactions.” Together with such a markedly gainful fusion, he reasoned, the perpetual collisions of individual self-interest and the myriad interests of nations could somehow be reconciled. Moreover, in the trendy language of today’s career economists or financial managers, such reconciliations could eventually prove “optimal.”

But how might these classical insights help us today? What might this 18th-century stance on money and markets have to do with our present American economic system, a complex network functioning as part of a much larger worldwide economy and civilization? In part, the best answer must begin with the widespread American belief that accelerating consumption is per se indispensable to economic well-being – both individual and collective.

Though never a plutocrat, Smith had argued persuasively that certain arrangements of private wealth enhancement could at least permit the poor to live tolerably. Rejecting his contemporary Jean Jacques Rousseau’s fully contrary position –  that is, that “the privileged few…gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life” –  he foresaw in capitalism not just an enviably rising productivity, but also the necessary foundations for an enduring political liberty. Naturally, whether or not he was actually correct in this assessment depends pretty much upon who exactly is being queried.

 Karl Marx had offered a plainly alternate view to Smith’s general optimism concerning capitalism. From his own formal disciplinary framework – a multi-layered academic context that was fashioned with intellectual underpinnings and a corollary analytic dexterity (this point is frequently overlooked amid the visceral chorus of dismissals shouted by American politicians, especially those who could never make it through even a single page of Capital) –  Marx had seen in capitalism a hideously corrosive source of  personal defilement and communal self-destruction.

 In his own time, Adam Smith was undaunted by any determinedly specious political arguments that were detached from core considerations of intellect. By applying various capitalistic modes of production and exchange, he asserted, an inextinguishable social inequality might still be favorably reconciled with measurable increments of human progress. In those especially troubling cases where the prevailing facts could have taken him in variously different directions, we may presently assume, he would have felt bound to accept certain corresponding modifications of his own basic theories.

Conspicuously, even among US President Donald Trump’s most senior economic advisors,  there is no Adam Smith, not one who is even close intellectually. However much these shamelessly servile advisors may seek to wrap themselves in the presumed propagandistic messages of Wealth, they wittingly ignore the daunting depth and visible exertions of Smith’s conceptual thought. Unsurprisingly, in light of their almost uniformly undistinguished academic  credentials, they freely disregard that Adam Smith’s preferred system of “perfect liberty” can never be consistent with narrowly partisan encouragements of crude and feveredaccumulation.

Back when the United States was born, on a date that coincides exactly with publication of Wealth, Adam Smith already understood what present-day Trump trade policies so blatantly disregard. This is the fact that certain inexorable laws of the marketplace, driven by a natural human competition, demand a principled disdainfor all vanity-driven consumption. It’s not a particularly complicated set of laws; nonetheless, it does call for some modicum of intellectual exertion.

 Adam Smith could never have abided a Black Friday-type “conspicuous consumption,” a phrase that would later be used more popularly and more effectively by sociologist Thorsten Veblen. This especially vulgar species of consumption, one driven by variously recalcitrant cravings related to assorted feelings of individual self-worth, ought never expect to become a rational engine for economic or wider social improvement. This still crucial point should resonate loudly and instructively with all who could still heap gratuitous praise upon a White House that equates personal success with the elicited envy of others. 

To be sure, the Trump White House makes its principal stand upon precisely such a humiliating equation. Reciprocally, at a moment when substantive wealth gaps in the United States augur fundamentally undemocratic odds of living and dying, Donald Trump’s endlessly committed supporters stay “loyal” for one presumed reason above all others. This is the notion that their own personal economic success – including the “elicited envy of others” – requires another four years of Trumpian ant-reason.

In essence, this means another four years of communal citizen disdain for more serious and challenging thought.

There is more. Under no imaginable circumstances could Adam Smith have championed a system of consumption premised on the demeaning notion that material acquisition ought to stem from a craven wish to impress other people.

 Although Adam Smith had already understood the psychological and economic dynamics of “conspicuous consumption,” he also feared and even loathed these dynamics. From his personal point of view, it was entirely reasonable that the marketplace should routinely regulate the price and quantity of available goods according to certain unchanging and “natural” arbiters of public demand. This marketplace, he had urged accordingly, should never be manipulated from above, by governments,  and by way of deceptively manipulative policies.

Now, in the withering declensions of Donald Trump’s dissembling rule,[5] America is losing all residual sight of Adam Smith’s “natural liberty.” In vain, this nation still attempts to construct a viable economic posture upon great oceans of shallow slogans and on twisting rivers of hideously empty witticisms. At their core, our derivative national problems of orchestrated trade barriers and manipulated hyper-consumption are not primarily economic. Rather, as Smith would himself have warned, because they are spurred on by seemingly ineradicable personal doubts of self-worth and self-esteem, these problems should be examined at a more appropriately psychological level.

But who today even wants to undertaken such an examination?

All Americans already believe, and more or less directly, that our national economic efforts must be oriented toward status-based purchasing.  Oddly enough, however, disregarding Adam Smith altogether, almost no one seeks to inquire: “What sort of society can we ultimately expect from an economic system that is based  upon feverish social imitation and on absolutely crass conformance”?  The answer in part, is a flaccid society of “mass,” a disordered and disordering amalgam of unreasoning people who are no longer thinking individuals.[6] 

Hence, we elect Donald J. Trump.

Writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, the American Transcendentalist philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had remarked presciently on  “self-reliance.” Any foolish “reliance upon property,” Emerson warned, is the predictable result of a “want of self-reliance.” What suitable corrective was needed? Emerson had answered succinctly, and without any discernible hesitation: “High thinking and plain living.”

How far have we now come from this once hopeful conjunction? Today, the relentlessly conformist call of American mass society remains loud, manipulative and seemingly persuasive. This is especially the case under the aegis of a president who is conducting ceaseless and systematic war upon intellect, education and all vulnerable elements of genuine learning. “I love the poorly educated,” said Trump during the 2016 presidential election campaign. “Intellect  rots the  brain,” said Third Reich Minister of Propaganda in 1934.

The true difference between these sentiments is not as great as might first be presumed.

In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith noted that human beings are not made any happier by their possessions, but that the rich, in seeking the “gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires,” may still advance the “interest of society.” With remarkable originality, therefore, Smith explained, the wealthiest members of the nation, without ever consciously intending any such generalized benefit, “are led by an invisible hand” to bring forth necessary reductions in social inequality.  

Back in the 18th century, however, Adam Smith would likely have shuddered with any foreknowledge of today’s brutally callous system of American economic exchange, not only because he would have been unsympathetic to the self-seeking supporters of such an injurious plutocracy, but also because he recognized the implacable consequences of any market theory founded upon  delusion. As long as our American economy remains animated, at its core, by rabid conspicuous consumption and by generally correlative trade wars, an accelerating process of class/cultural  warfare will be our sole driving narrative. As long as we inhabit a society that. at least in significant part, takes an evident pride in a presumptive presidential infallibility and a doctrinaire anti-intellectualism,[7] disease and economic dislocation will not merely coincide.

They will crush out any tangibly discernible remnants of a once-promising American civilization.[8]

Looking ahead to the November 2020 election, Donald Trump will remain fixedly intent upon garnering “the attention of the world.” Among many other grievous consequence of this president’s incoherent war against intellect and thought, this childlike objective will undermine America’s economy, safety and national security at the same time. Though Adam Smith could likely never have imagined any such far-reaching impairments spawned by crudely self-centered national goals, the largely unexamined synergies of pandemic and anti-reason could prove authentically lethal to the United States.

Perhaps even sooner rather than later.

At this fearful moment, when plague and nuclear war could erupt more-or-less simultaneously, the “whole” of  any American catastrophic outcome could far exceed the mere sum of its grievous “parts.” In the end, learning from Adam Smith, warnings about this portentous product could be anything but hyperbole. As always, thinking seriously is indispensable,[9] but such thinking must also always be undertaken in advance, “while there is still time.”

Very few “loyal” followers of Donald J. Trump could conceivably read and understand Adam Smith, but there is still abundant cause for the broader American society to favor Reason over further presidential manipulation and contrivance. Failure to understand this utterly vital obligation during a time of disease pandemic and economic uncertainty could prove not just discomfiting. It could also be abundantly lethal.


[1] “Theory is a  net,” we may learn from the German poet  Novalis, “only those who cast, can catch.” Later, this statement was famously cited by philosopher Karl Popper in his path breaking

work, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Eng. tr., 1959).

[2] “The existence of ‘system’ in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature,” says French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man, “no  matter whom….Each element of the cosmos is positively woven from all the others….”

[3] “The earth from which the first man was made was made was gathered in all the four corners of the world.”  (Talmud.)

[4] Apropos of such unassailable “oneness,”  we may learn from Epictetus, the ancient Greek Stoic philosopher, “You are a citizen of the universe.” A still-broader idea of human singularity followed the death of Alexander in 322 BCE; with it came a coinciding doctrine of “universality” or interconnectedness. By the Middle Ages, this political and social doctrine had fused with the notion of a respublica Christiana, a worldwide Christian commonwealth, and Thomas, John of Salisbury and Dante were looking upon Europe as a single and unified Christian community. Below the level of God and his heavenly host, all the realm of humanity was to be considered as one. This is because all the world had been created for the same single and incontestable purpose; that is, to provide secular background for the necessary drama of human salvation. Here, only in its relationship to the universe itself, was the world considered as a part rather than a whole. Says Dante in De Monarchia: “The whole human race is a whole with reference to certain parts, and, with reference to another whole, it is a part. For it is a whole with reference to particular kingdoms and nations, as we have shown; and it is a part with reference to the whole universe, which is evident without argument.” Today, the idea of human oneness can and should be fully

justified/explained in more purely historical/philosophic terms of human understanding.

[5] One ought not to set aside the single most fearful risk of such undisciplined rule, the risk of a catastrophic nuclear war by mistaken or calculated Trump decision. See, by this writer, Louis René Beres, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists  https://thebulletin.onuclear rg/2016/08/what-if-you-dont-trust-the-judgment-of-the-president-whose-finger-is-over-the-nuclear-button/  See also, by Louis René Beres, https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/nuclear-decision-making/ (Pentagon).

[6] As we may learn from Swiss psychologist and philosopher Carl G. 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.” At this point of almost fevered US citizen surrender to impresario Donald  J. Trump, a time also of ravaging disease pandemic, it is no longer difficult to imagine such a sweeping social downfall.

[7]  Twentieth century German writer  and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann would have called Trump a lethal champion of anti-reason, an aspiring “Fuehrer,” a sinister “magician.” See, on this extrapolation, Mann’s classic novella on the rise of Nazism, “Mario and the Magician” (1929). Regarding the post-Nazi idea of “anti-reason,” see too Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952). Thinking originally of Adolph Hitler, but still perfectly applicable these days to Donald Trump, is the German philosopher’s generic and timeless warning: “Reason is confronted again and again with the fact of a mass of believers who have lost all ability to listen, who can absorb no argument, and who hold unshakably fast to the Absurd as an unassailable presupposition….” Apropos of  this warning, at the end of July 2020, literally millions of Americans were openly describing the Covid19 pandemic as a “hoax.”

[8] This brings to mind a timely warning by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, in The New Spirit and the Poets (1917): “It must not be forgotten that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.” In the expansively demeaning time of Trump, such an allowance has not only been tolerated. Now, nationally, it has been made de rigueur.

[9] “All our dignity,” says Pascal in his Pensées, “consists in thought. It is upon this that we must depend….Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Among past American presidents, such sentiments would have been most conspicuously shared by Thomas Jefferson. Said the nation’s third chief executive: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Third world needs ideological shift

Samudrala VK

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As nations across the world have been pooling their efforts to contain the COVID-19 spread, the looming economic crisis has caught the attention of global intelligentsia. In the light of health emergency, The policy makers of Asia, Africa and Latin America have been struggling to steer the economic vehicle back to normalcy. Although, the reason for the economic slump could be attributed to the pandemic, it is also important to cast light on the economics of these tricontinental nations. Been as colonies for more than two centuries, these players had adopted the style of economics which is a mix of market economics and socialism. The imperial powers of the then Europe had colonised these nations and had subjugated them with their military and political maneuvers. Under the banner of White man’s burden, the Imperial masters had subverted the political, economical, social and cultural spheres of the colonies and had transformed these self-reliant societies into the ones which depend on Europe for finished products. The onslaught on the economical systems of colonies was done through one way trade. Though, the western powers brought the modern values to the third world during colonial era, they were twisted to their advantage. The European industrial machines were depended on the blood, sweat and tears of the people of colonies. It is clear that the reason for the backwardness of these players is the force behind the imperial powers which had eventually pushed them towards these regions in search of raw materials and markets i.e., Capitalism. Needless to say, the competition for resources and disaccord over the distribution of wealth of colonies led to twin world wars. Capitalism, as an economic idea, cannot survive in an environment of a limited market and resources. It needs borderless access, restless labour and timeless profit. While the European imperial powers had expanded their influence over Asia and Africa, the US had exerted its influence over Latin America. Earlier, at the dawn of modern-day Europe, The capitalist liberal order had challenged the old feudal system and the authority of church. Subsequently, the sovereign power was shifted to monarchial king. With the rise of ideas like democracy and liberty, complemented by the rapid takeoff of industrialization, the conditions were set for the creation of new class i.e., capitalist class. On the one hand, Liberalism, a polical facet of capitalism, restricts the role of state(political) in economical matters but on the other hand it provides enough room for the elite class and those who have access to power corridors to persuade the authority(state) to design the policies to their advantage. Inequality is an inescapable feature of liberal economics.

The powerful nations cannot colonise these nations as once done. The Watchwords like interconnectedness, interdependency and free trade are being used to continue their domination on these players. As soon as the third world nations were freed from the shackles of colonialism, they were forced to integrate their economies into the global economical chain. Characterized by the imbalance, the globalization has been used as a weapon by the Western powers to conquer the markets of developing nations.

The Carrot and stick policy of the US is an integral part of its strategy to dominate global economical domain. The sorry state of affairs in the Middle East and Latin America could be attributed to the US lust for resources. In the name of democracy, the US has been meddling in the internal affairs of nations across the developing world. Countries like Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Libya, Iraq and Syria have challenged the US,a global policeman. Back in the day,soon after assuming the power, the Left leadership in Latin American countries had adopted socialist schemes and had nationalised the wealth creating assets, which were previously in the hands of the US capitalists. Irked by the actions of these nations, the US had devised a series of stratagems to destabilize the regimes and to install its puppets through the imposition of cruel sanctions and by dubbing them as terrorist nations on the pretext of exporting violent communist revolution. With the exception of the regimes of Fidel castro in Cuba and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, the US is largely successful in its agenda of destabilizing anti-American governments in the region. The US has a long history of mobilising anti-left forces in Latin America, the region which US sees as its backyard, in an attempt to oust socialist leaders. At present, by hook or by crook, the trump administration has been trying to depose Nicolas Maduro, the president of Venezuela, a socialist.

In addition,The US has been colonising the minds of the third world citizens psychologically with its cultural hegemony and anti-left indoctrination. It is important to understand that the reason for the neo-fascism, which is unfurling across the developing and developed world alike, is rooted in capitalism.The third world citizenry is disgruntled and the ultra-nationalist right wing forces in these countries have been channeling the distress amongst the working class to solidify their position. Growing inequalities, Falling living standards, Joblessness and Insecurity are exposing the incompetence of capitalism and have been pushing a large chunk of workforce in the developing countries into a state of despair.Adding to their woes, the Covid-19 has hit them hard.

The US, with the help of IMF and the world bank, had coerced the developing countries to shun welfare economics.The term “Development” is highly contested  in the economic domain.Capitalists argue that the true development of an individual and the society depends upon economic progress and the free market is a panacea for all problems.Given the monopolistic tendencies in the economical systems across the developing world, the free market is a myth, especially in a societies where a few of business families, who have cronies in policy making circles, dominates the economical and social scene.The time has come for the governments of these nations to address these issues and ensure that the wealth would be distributed in a more equitable manner.

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The Election Circus and an Event in the Cosmos

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The election in the US is held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  A  Tuesday was chosen to allow people enough time to drive to the election site after Sunday, reserved for religious services and rest.  Those were the horse and buggy days and it took a while. The people clearly had greater ardor for democracy then considering we get a less than 50 percent turnout now when voting sites are usually less than a five-minute drive. 

Most states are either heavily Republican or Democrat so the results there are a foregone conclusion.  The winners get the electors assigned to the state on a basis of population.  The electors then vote for the nominees receiving the most votes in the state when the electoral college meets. 

There are about a dozen battleground or swing states; among them Pennsylvania and Florida are prized for their high electoral votes — hence the repeated visits by the candidates.  Trump won both in 2016.  Will he this time? 

Meanwhile two New York papers are busy running negative stories on candidates they oppose.  The New York Times offers tidbits against Trump.  The latest this week is that Trump has a Chinese bank account.  The fact is not new since the information was filed with his tax returns — one has to report foreign bank accounts over $10,000 — but the news is intended as an example of Trump’s hypocrisy for he has been speaking out against doing business in China.  The accounts in the name of Trump International Hotels have been moribund since 2015. 

The New York Post, much less distinguished than the Times, is after Hunter Biden and through him his father, candidate Joe Biden.  Last week the Post unearthed a dubious email purporting to show then Vice President Biden possibly meeting with Hunter’s potential business partner.  This week there is a photograph of the Bidens, father and son, flanked by a Kazakh oligarch on one side and a former president of Kazakhstan on the other.  The latest on the email issue has a certain Tony Bobulinski, one of the recipients, confirming the Post email adding that Hunter sought Dad’s advice on deals.  There is also a proposed equity split referring to ’20’ for ‘H’ and ’10 held by H for the big guy.’  

New York State may be a secure prize for Democrats but news stories these days are picked up on the internet and spread nationally and internationally.  Surely the two newspapers have something really big up their sleeves for the week before the election.  

Charges and counter-charges in the final presidential debate.  Biden repeatedly blamed Trump for deaths from the Covid 19 epidemic.  On almost everything Biden promised, Trump’s rejoinder was why he had not done it in the 47 years he was in public office including 8 years as vice president.  This included mimicking Biden’s previously successful tactic of talking directly to the public.  The same interests fund both major parties and they generally  get what they want except that Trump mostly funded his campaign himself. 

From all the ridiculousness to the sublime.  Images of M87 are the first of any black hole swallowing whatever is within range.  We are told of the discovery of a black hole in the center of our own Milky Way, presumably the eventual destination of everything in our galaxy.  From this perspective the Trump-Biden debate, although quite important for our immediate future, seems to diminish to nothing in significance.  

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Building World Order from “Plague”: Utopian, but Necessary

Prof. Louis René Beres

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Pieter Bruegel's The Triumph of Death

“In the end, we are  creatures of our own making.”-Goethe, Faust

From the start of the current worldwide “plague,” US President Donald J. Trump has claimed the corona virus crisis can be easily managed. “Soon,” he has predicted again and again, “it will  go away, miraculously.” This stubborn expectation is silly at best and homicidal at worst.[1] Founded upon nothing of recognizable intellectual consequence, that is, of any actual tangible evidence, it remains a grimly false and self-serving expectation.

               Prima facie, in view of its palpable human costs, it is one of the most heinous presidential derelictions in American history.

               An antecedent question also arises. Why should an American president in the 21st century openly prefer gibberish-nonsense to science or “mind”?[2] The correct answer is discoverable, at least in part, in the unchanging mentality of  “mass man.” This all-too-conspicuous , nefarious and universal historical figure, as we may learn from twentieth-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset  (The Revolt of the Masses,1930), “has no use for Reason.”

               “He learns,” warns Ortega famously, “only in his own flesh.”

               When Donald Trump went to Singapore for his initial summit with North Korea’s Kim Jung Un on June 12, 2028, he volunteered that he needed “no preparation,” just “attitude.” Here, incarnate, was the conspiracy-believing “mass man,”  figuring things out only  “in his own flesh.” Here was an American president who blames catastrophic multi-state fires on “forest management,” not climate change, who recommends injecting Covid patients with household disinfectants, and eagerly plays obedient lap-dog to Vladimir Putin.

               Here, in short, was a fearful archetype, the American herald of  continuously approaching misfortune and fatality.

               Though there can be no persuasive reassurances in any such president’s anti-science/anti-reason diatribes,  an unhidden potential for good may still lie latent  in this pandemic. More precisely, purposefully exploiting the vast pathogenic challenge of corona virus could help all affected peoples to reaffirm their integral human interdependence. Beyond any question, this obviously unwanted and unwitting “benefactor” now confronts humankind indiscriminately, in toto.

               There is more.   This plague delivers its toxic and corrosive debilities without any regard for national, racial, ethnic, religious or ideological differences. The basic lesson here is simple, yet powerful: In primal matters of biology, of “being human,” we are all essentially the same. Still, that evident “sameness” is not exclusively biological. Instead, it carries over to humankind’s multiple and intersecting needs as communities, nations and planet.[3]

               Fittingly, pandemic can be approached not only as a pathological scourge, but also as a prospective global unifier. In this regard,  corona virus harms could become a genuine source of a fragmented world’s long-sought human unity.

               How could this happen? It is a sensible query, one that merits serious and systematic attention. It’s not just a silly or offhanded thought. In reality, of course, it is utopian, but nonetheless necessary. What happens, we must now inquire, when  what is improbable is also necessary? It’s not a question for the intellectually faint-hearted.

                Where do we stand today? As a partial but important response, Donald J. Trump’s United States remains oriented toward the diametric opposite of global community, of solidarity, of what Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardon  in The Phenomenon of Man (1955) imaginatively calls “planetization.” This president’s incessantly cynical postures of belligerent nationalism represent a gratuitously rancorous rejection of human commonality. This ill-fated rejection has no recognizable jurisprudential basis in either codified or customary international law.

               Background matters. In 1758, in The Law of Nations, famed legal scholar Emmerich de Vattel affirmed the irrefutable primacy of human interdependence. Said the great Swiss jurist: “Nations….are bound mutually to advance human society….The first general law …is that each nation should contribute as far as it can to the happiness and advancement of other Nations.”  Vattel’s visionary ideals have never held any tangible sway in global politics, but today, in the grievously tarnished Trump-era, these ideals have been pushed farther away than ever before.

               Why should one allegedly “powerful” country, the United States, seek prosperity at the expense of other countries? Left unmodified, the most palpable effect of this unprepared American president’s retrograde policies will be a more starkly accelerating global tribalism .[4] To the extent that the corrosive effects of this false communion could sometime display or ignite even a nuclear conflict, these effects (whether sudden or incremental) could propel this imperiled planet toward irreversible catastrophe and enduring chaos.[5]

               A timely example would be Trump’s continuing references to the “China Virus,” a defiling derivative of this president’s “America First” posture. Among other things, a firm rejection of any such atavistic American tribalism could prove generally clarifying and indispensably gainful.

                There is more. Ultimately, if we humans are going to merely survive as a species, truth must win out over political wizardry. For Americans, one unavoidable conclusion here is that any continuance of national safety and prosperity must be linked inextricably with wider global impact. It is profoundly and unforgivably foolish to suppose that this nation – or, indeed, any other nation on this bleeding earth – should ever expect meaningful security progress at the intentional expense of other nations.

               The bottom line? We humans are all in this together. The current pandemic is universal or near-universal, and could thus provide impetus not only for mitigating a particular and insidious pathology, but also for institutionalizing wider patterns of durable global cooperation.

                By its very nature, the US president’s core mantra of celebrating a perpetually belligerent nationalism is crude and injurious. Now, instead of “America First,” the only sensible posture for Donald J. Trump or his successor must be some plausible variation of “we’re all in the lifeboat together.” Such an improved mantra might not be all that difficult to operationalize if there were first to emerge some antecedent political will.[6]

               The basic idea behind underscoring and exploiting a basic human “oneness” is readily discoverable in the elegant words of Pierre Teilhard De Chardin: “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of everyone for himself,” summarizes the French Jesuit scientist and philosopher, “is false and against nature. No element can move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.”

               The key message here is simple, straightforward and illogical to contest or oppose. This message communicates, among other things, that no single country’s individual success can ever be achieved at the planned expense of other countries. Correspondingly, we should learn from the very same primal message that no national success is ever sustainable if the world as a whole must thereby expect a diminishing future.

               Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers: “I believe because it is absurd.” The pandemic can bring many discrepant civilizational matters into striking focus. No conceivably gainful configuration of Planet Earth can ever prove rewarding if the vast but segmented human legions which comprise it remain morally, spiritually, economically and intellectually adrift.

               It is, however, precisely such a willful detachment from more secure national and international moorings that is the legacy America’s Donald J. Trump.[7]

               In every important sense, the philosophers are correct. For the world as a whole, chaos and anarchy[8] are never the genuinely underlying “disease.” Always, that more determinative pathology remains rooted in certain ostentatiously great and powerful states that fail to recognize the overriding imperatives of human interrelatedness. This core incapacity to acknowledge our species’ indestructible biological “oneness” (a fact more utterly obvious with today’s Covid-19 pandemic) has been a long-term problem.

               It is not particular to any one American president or to the United States in its entirety.

                Now, in the literal midst of a worldwide pathological assault from the corona virus, what should we expect from President Trump’s unhidden contempt for cooperative world community?  Increasingly, if  left unimproved, world politics will further encourage an already basic human deficit. This deficit or shortfall  is the incapacity of individual citizens and their respective states to discover authentic self-worth as individual persons; that is, deeply, thoughtfully, within themselves. Such an enduring deficit was prominently foreseen in the eighteenth century by America’s then-leading person of letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

               Today, unsurprisingly, the still-vital insights of Emerson’s “American Transcendentalism” remain recognizable to only a tiny minority of citizens. How could it be any different. In the current United States, almost no one reads books. As for serious books of literature or science, the revealed minority of readers becomes excruciatingly small. This cryptic observation is not offered here in any offhanded or gratuitously mean spirited fashion, but, quite the contrary, as a simple fact of American life, one famously commented upon during the first third of the nineteenth century by distinguished French visitor to the new republic, Alexis de Tocqueville (See Democracy in America). This same fact led the Founding Fathers of the United States to rail against uneducated mass participation in the new nation’s formal governance.  

               The United States was never even imagined as a democracy.[9] Back then, in the 18th century, creating a republic was revolutionary enough.

               Today, our relevant focus must be on world politics, and on getting beyond state centrism. From pandemic control to war avoidance, belligerent nationalism has always been misconceived. Left to fester on its own intrinsic demerits, this atavistic  mantra will do little more than harden the hearts of America’s most recalcitrant state enemies. What we need now, as Americans, citizens of other countries, or as worried inhabitants of an imperiled planet, is a marked broadening of support for global solidarity and human interconnectedness.[10]

                From the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the last of the religious wars sparked by the Reformation, international relations and international law[11] have been shaped by an ever-changing  but perpetually unstable “balance of power.” Hope still exists, more-or-less, but now it must sing softly, sotto voce, in an embarrassed undertone. Although counter-intuitive, the time for any visceral celebrations of nationalism, military technology and even artificial intelligence is at least partially over. 

               What is to be done? Always, the macrocosm follows microcosm. In order to merely survive on a fragmented planet, all of us, together, must seek to rediscover a consciously individual life, one that is wittingly detached from all pre-patterned kinds of  nationalistic conformance and from mass-determined visages of some imagined tribal happiness.

               Only then might we finally learn that the most suffocating insecurities of life on earth can never be undone by militarizing global economics, by building larger missiles, by abrogating international treaties or by advancing ”realistic” definitions of national security.

               In the end, whatever happens in the crumbling world of politics and nationality, truth must remain exculpatory. Accordingly, and in a uniquely promising paradox, disease pandemic  can help us see a much larger truth than the ones we have wrongly cultivated for centuries. This particular truth, a conclusion broadly pertinent and intellectually cosmopolitan, is that Americans must become more explicitly conscious of human unity and relatedness. Significantly, such a heightened consciousness or lucidity is not a luxury we can simply choose to accept or reject.

               Its selection is indispensable.

               It represents an ineradicable prerequisite of national and species survival. “Civilization,” offers Lewis Mumford In the Name of Sanity (1954), “is the never-ending process of creating one world and one humanity.”[12] The visionary prophets of world integration and human oneness ought no longer be dismissed out of hand as foolishly utopian. Now, more than ever, they define the residual wellsprings of human survival.[13]

               Macrocosm follows microcosm. All things must be seen in their totality. By itself, the corona virus pandemic is uniformly harmful and grievously corrosive. At the same time, and precisely because it represents such a conspicuously lethal threat to the world as a whole, it could be viewed as a prospectively life-affirming human unifier.

               “In the end,” Goethe reminds us, “we are creatures of our own making.” To continue,  every national society, but the United States in particular,[14] will need to embrace leaderships who can finally understand the irrevocable meanings of human interdependence and human “oneness.” In this auspicious embrace, all will need to understand the differences between a “freedom” that is uniformly gainful and one that selectively disregards the needs of certain others. In this regard, as President of the United States, Donald J. Trump has supported the most strikingly nefarious meaning of freedom, a freedom not to care about  other people (Americans and “foreigners” ). He has displayed such injurious orientations primarily with his retrograde anti-mask policies on Corona Virus, and by his corresponding antipathies toward science and scientists.

               In the words of this lethal  president, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other properly-credentialed epidemiologists have now been reduced lexically to the status of “idiots.”[15]

               What we require are not refractory affirmations of homicidal indifference, but a renewed awareness that true knowledge is inevitably much more than a manufactured contrivance. Going forward,  public policy must follow disciplined logic (correct reasoning) and rigorous science. Anything else would be inexcusable “wizardry,” and would lead us even farther astray from residual pandemic-based opportunities.

                In essence, the prescribed task still before us is complex, daunting, many-sided and bewildering, but there are no sane alternative options. None at all. Whatever policy particulars we should ultimately adopt, America’s initial focus must remain steadfast on considerations of human interrelatedness and “mind.” Until now, the grotesque Trump paradigm of bitter rancor and endless conflict has driven us further from both survival and law.[16] It is time to sweep that ill-conceived paradigm into the oft-referenced “ashbin of history.”

               Wittingly, Trump policies have produced devastating misfortune, mass dying and mounting casualties. Surely America can do better. Surely there must be more capable and decent leaders discoverable in the wings. Surely we can all do much better than merely cling to corrosive presidential postures of callous indifference and murderous egocentrism.

               If not, it’s time to inquire, what can even be the point of our being here? We are, after all,  “creatures of our own making.”


[1] Though a jurisprudential stretch, one might also think here of “genocidal” harms. In  effect, the number of Americans who are currently dying and still apt to die in more-or-less direct consequence of this rabidly anti-science American presidency resembles certain actual historical genocides. The key difference lies less in the measurable magnitude of “plague death” than in the absence of intent, or mens rea. Under pertinent international law, primarily the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), before authentic genocide can be taking place, there must first be discernible evidence of an “intent to destroy.” Whatever else may be said about Donald J. Trump’s gross indifference to American mass dying facilitated by his abject policies, it still likely lacks this express law-specified intent.

[2] The Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin coined a new term to denote the vital sphere of intellect or “mind.” This term is “noosphere;” it builds upon Friedrich Nietzsche’s stance well-known (especially in Zarathustra) that human beings must always challenge themselves, must continuously strive to “overcome” their otherwise meager “herd”-determined  yearnings.

[3] We may recall here the pertinent parable from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: “What does not benefit the entire hive is no benefit to the bee.” Unless we take meaningful steps to implement an organic and cooperative planetary civilization – one based on the irremediably central truth of human “oneness” –  there will be no civilization at all.

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

[5] Though composed in the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan still offers a timeless vision of chaos in world politics. During chaos, says the English philosopher in Chapter XIII, “Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery,”  a “time of War….  every man is Enemy to every man… and…. the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes believed that the condition of “nature” in world politics was less chaotic than that same condition among individual human beings because of what he called the “dreadful equality” of individual men in nature – that is, being able to kill others – but this once-relevant differentiation has effectively disappeared with the spread of nuclear weapons.

[6] In modern philosophy, the evident highlighting of this useful term lies in Arthur Schopenhauer’s extraordinary writings, especially The World as Will and Idea (1818). For his own inspiration (and by his own expressed acknowledgment), Schopenhauer drew freely upon Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Later, Nietzsche drew just as freely (and perhaps 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 centenary of Goethe’s death. It is reprinted in Ortega’s anthology, The Dehumanization of Art (1948) and is available from Princeton University Press (1968).

[7] Though very few in the United States would recognize or understand, iinternational law is integrally a part of United States jurisprudence. In the words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900))  See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).Moreover, the specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”

[8] Anarchy, unlike chaos, is the “official” structural creation of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the treaty that ended the Thirty Years’ War and created the modern state system.

[9] Nurtured by the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and the religion of John Calvin, the American Founding Fathers began their Constitutional deliberations with the core notion that a citizen must inevitably be an unregenerate being who has to be continually and strictly controlled. Fearing democracy as much as any form of leadership tyranny, Elbridge Gerry spoke openly of democracy as “the worst of all political evils,” while William Livingston opined: “The people have been and ever will be unfit to retain the exercise of power in their own hands.” George Washington, as presiding officer at the Constitutional Convention, sternly urged delegates not to produce a document to “please the people,” while Alexander Hamilton – made newly famous by the currently popular Broadway musical – expressly charged America’s government “to check the imprudence of any democracy.”

[10] One pertinent aspect of this interconnectedness concerns legal rights of refugees. When President Trump’s executive orders direct the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to expand his coercive program of “expedited removal,” he has been in flagrant violation of the legal principle known as non-refoulement. This principle is unambiguously codified at Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Automatically, owing to the prior incorporation of international human rights law into US law, these serious violations extend to the authoritative immigration laws of the United States.

[11] For the authoritative sources of international law, see art. 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice: STATUTE OF THE INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE, Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force, Oct. 24, 1945; for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945.  59 Stat. 1031,  T.S. No. 993,  3 Bevans 1153, 1976 Y.B.U.N., 1052.

[12] But,  Fyodor Dostoyevsky inquires: “What is it in us that is mellowed by civilization? All it does, I’d say, is to develop in man a capacity to feel a greater variety of sensations. And nothing, absolutely nothing else. And through this development, man will yet learn how to enjoy bloodshed. Why, it has already happened….Civilization has made man, if not always more bloodthirsty, at least more viciously, more horribly bloodthirsty.” See: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground 108 (Andrew R. MacAndrew, trans., New American Library, 1961)(1862).

[13] See, on these “prophets,” Louis René Beres, Reordering the Planet: Constructing Alternative World Futures (1974); Louis René Beres, Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (1975); Louis René Beres, People, States and World Order (1981); Louis René Beres, America Outside the World: The Collapse of US Foreign Policy (1987); W. Warren Wagar, The City of Man (1963); and W. Warren Wagar, Building the City of Man (1971).

[14] Sigmund Freud, however, was always darkly pessimistic about the United States, which he felt was “lacking in soul” and was  therefore 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.

[15]See: https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/trump-declares-americans-tired-hearing-200227368.html

[16] The core legal rights assured by the Declaration and Constitution can never be correctly confined to the people of the United States. This is because both documents were conceived by their authors as codifications of a pre-existing Natural Law. Although generally unrecognized, the United States was founded upon the Natural Rights philosophies of the 18th century Enlightenment, especially Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu and Rousseau. Thomas Jefferson, an American president before Donald J. Trump, was well acquainted with the classic writings of political philosophy, from Plato to Diderot. In those early days of the Republic, it is presently worth recalling, an American president could not only read serious books, but could also write them.

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