The collapsing new buildings of government

“In truth, the problem of declining trust in political institutions, is better conceived as the collapse of authority of the new nomenklatura in liberal democracies. And that, I hypothesise, has its roots in the disintegration of the civic cultures that these elites attempt to govern.” from The Burning Archive (22 April 2018)

My apologies for quoting from my own posts; but it seemed the simplest way to connect today’s post to last week’s and its promise to explore the cultural roots of the collapse of political authority in liberal democracies.

I find myself too enfeebled this morning to write in fluid prose and extended argument. The problems I point to in this concluding paragraph trouble me deeply. I dwell and labour among these difficulties each day at work. In response I have committed myself to a purpose: to write in my own voice on the ordinary virtues of governing well.

I write this testimony with the burden of sad prophecy. I can have no hope of seeing large scale transformations of the institutions I work in or the broader society.  I do not have the will, the temperament or the skills to direct changes in the world. I am no schemer. I am no powerful insider. I am rather an outcast who has embraced his exile, and made of its suffering an idea to teach to my tormentors. I do not seek to change the world, but  I turn instead to cultivate my own garden, and make of myself a more virtuous life. All I can hope for is to put my own garden in order, to know and to hold close to my true heritage (in tryst it will not be reft from me), and to give these words of self-transformation – for I too am full of weaknesses, temptation, folly and mistakes – to the infinite conversation that will succeed beyond me.

So, instead of a mini-essay, let me offer some stammering notes and quotations on my theme, which I may extend to better prose another day.

The collapse of authority

* The collapse of trust is the common way to see problems of democratic disobedience. But there is little substantial evidence to show that trust has declined in liberal democracies or even that trust is a problem for democracies.

* Elites blame their inability to command authority on the declining trust of the public. The public’s scepticism of the performance of elites is a more accurate judgement. Elites should look to their own failures to explain the disobedience of the public: they are not able to exercise power rightfully, with clear purpose, to make reluctant others serve a worthwhile purpose.

* Former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard once said of the then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, that she had a problem with authority: “It has neither ideals, or an idea of where it wants to take the country, and it is this lack of direction that is disabling (Julia Gillard), as well as, of course, her lack of authority.” What he said of this government is true more broadly of modern governments. Their authority has collapsed.

* Trust is a problem of commerce. Without trust, buyers are too wary of sellers. The problem of politics, the essence of governing, is authority. Without authority, citizens do not obey the state.

* Authority is an unusual attribute. It is a quality that the powerful seek, and that only those who are reluctant at first to follow them are able to grant.

* Authority rests in culture and institutions, not individuals. Individual political leaders only borrow the authority of the institutions and cultures which they scramble their way to the top of. Without a strong culture and institutions, these individual political leaders are the feckless pseudo-celebrities, confected products of political marketing machines – the “real Julia” – that we know today. However, skilled and professional they seem to be, however hard they work at “retail politics”, they lack the character that is the product of culture, and the authority that is the product of institutions.

The new nomenklatura

* The nomenklatura was the name given to the party officials and bureaucrats who ruled the East European communist states. Sometimes they were also known as the new class.  They were a caste apart whose careers were dependent on patron-client relationships that controlled government appointments and on submission to empty slogans of orthodoxy.

* The political institutions of Western liberal democracies are increasingly subjected to a new nomenklatura. It is a new class that is more open than the Soviet system, and composed of some competing factions: Labor vs Liberal, Democrat vs Republican, red vs blue. It is not identical to the old Soviet system; many of its characteristics are only imaginable in our infomercialised society.

* But it has some essential similarities. It spawns through patron-client relationships, fostered by appointments within governments, parties, and the para-political institutions of think tanks, lobbyists, interest groups, advocacy groups and consulting firms. It encloses the minds of the network members in orthodoxies that insulate them from the lebenswelt of ordinary people. It is a cultural world dominated by talking points and gesture politics that rarely breaks through to making substantial change in people’s social condition. It deforms political institutions by cultivating the loyalty to the network and the skill at positioning the individual within the network, rather than educating citizens and rulers alike in civic virtues.

* The new nomenklatura is in part the product of the growing professionalisation of politics – not political leadership but the subsidiary game of political marketing – over the last 50 years.

* It is also the product of the rising dominance in society since the early 1970s of the the merchant caste, to use David Priestland’s characterisation.  The careers of the new nomenklatura rely as much on affiliated business leaders, philanthropists and communications firms, who celebrate the creative energies of the private sector rather than the institutional cultures of government, as they do on appointments within parties and governments. They bring the same cast of mind – political marketing – to government, and view the institutions of government as arenas in which they perform, like parasitic celebrities, and not traditions in which they are born, live and die.

The disintegration of civic culture

* Zygmunt Bauman, the great cultural sociologist, wrote of the liquid modernity of our times. He also once observed that more British young people had voted in Big Brother evictions than had voted in the British general elections. Is there a better example of the degradation of civic culture, without which a virtuous state is difficult to enact?

* Or as Bauman also said: “Can notions of equality, democracy and self-determination survive when society is seen less and less as a product of shared labour and common values and far more as a mere container of goods and services to be grabbed by competing individual hands?” Or again, no-one is in control: and we are all flying in an unpiloted airplane: afraid, ignorant, impotent and unable to assume responsibility.

* He goes on to argue that over the last fifty years power – the ability to do things – has become separated from politics – the ability to choose together which things to do. The state has withered in affluence, and the proliferation of identities consequent of cultural fragmentation. The state is overwhelmed and overflowing with the projects of its captors. It is overtaken by viruses and parasites, and no longer has the inner strength of civic culture that enables resistance to its enemies.

* The disintegration of civic culture is part of the malaise of identity politics as diagnosed by Jordan B. Peterson.

* The warning bells on civic culture have been ringing deeply for a long time. Some samples:

“We had thought, or our forefathers had, that modern liberal democracy would be spared the kind of erosion and decay that both Plato and Aristotle declared endemic in all forms of state. Now we are not so sure…. The centralization and, increasingly, individualization of power is matched in the social and cultural spheres by a combined hedonism and egalitarianism, each in its own way a reflection of the destructive impact of power on the hierarchy that is native to the social bond.” Robert Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority (1975)

“Something like a vacuum obtains in the moral order for large numbers of people. Human loyalties, uprooted from accustomed soil, can be seen tumbling across the landscape with no scheme of larger purpose to fix them. Individualism reveals itself less as achievement and enterprise than as egoism and mere performance. Retreat from the major to the minor, from the noble to the trivial, the communal to the personal, and from the objective to the subjective is commonplace. There is a widely expressed sense of degradation of values and corruption of culture. The sense of estrangement from community is strong.” Robert Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority

The burden of sad prophecy

* Cassandra should not fool herself. But neither should we forget the truth of the laments of the past.

* In fin-de-siecle Europe a prophet wrote:

“In our time, the more highly developed minds have been visited with vague forebodings of a Dusk of Nations, in which the sunlight and the starlight are gradually fading, and the human race with all its institutions and achievements is dying out amidst a dying world.” Max Nordau, Degeneration (1892)

* And even longer ago, Gregory of Tours wrote

“With liberal culture on the wane, or rather perishing in the Gallic cities there were many deeds being done both good and evil: the heathen were raging fiercely; kings were growing more cruel; the church. attacked by heretics, was defended by Catholics; while the Christian faith was in general devoutly cherished, among some it was growing cold; the churches also were enriched by the faithful or plundered by traitors-and no grammarian skilled in the dialectic art could be found to describe these matters either in prose or verse; and many were lamenting and saying: “Woe to our day, since the pursuit of letters has perished from among us and no one can be found among the people who can set forth the deeds of the present on the written page.” Hearing continually these complaints and others like them I [have undertaken] to commemorate the past, order that it may come to the knowledge of the future; and although my speech is rude, I have been unable to be silent as to the struggles between the wicked and the upright; and I have been especially ­ encouraged because, to my surprise, it has often been said by men of our day, that few understand the learned words of the rhetorician but many the rude language of the common people. Gregory of Tours (539-594 C.E.) History of the Franks 

* Life is delay, to transform Salisbury’s adage. It is the burden of the sad prophet to know this.

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