17 March 2017

Symptoms of Growing Instability


There is a long list of gloomy quotations that writers on national and international politics keep handy for those occasions when nations and empires are suffering from sharp systemic upheavals. My own favourite is a line from the play, Juno and the Paycock, which Irish playwright Sean O’Casey puts into the mouth of an amiable Dublin wastrel, “Captain Jack” Boyle, in a drama of family and national collapse at the time of the Irish civil war: “Th’ whole world’s in a terrible state o’ chassis.” But because O’Casey is not as well known as he used to be, this line is not as well known as this quotation from W. B. Yeats’s poem, The Second Coming:

 

Things fall apart; the centre cannot

hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon

the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is

drowned;

                               The best lack all conviction, while the worst

                               Are full of passionate intensity.

 

In the mid-1970s when a combination of the OPEC-induced world stagflation and the multiple victories of Marxist guerrillas from Vietnam to Central America provoked a mood of civilisational pessimism throughout the West, this quotation became almost a cliché. More sensitive writers would sometimes apologise for using it but explain that nothing else expressed the situation quite so powerfully.

As things turned out, a number of saviours turned up to rescue the West – Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – and they were decisively assisted by the subject peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. What united these three individuals with their millions of anonymous allies was a belief in their own civilisation, in shorthand the West, and the virtue of Hope – hope for freedom, hope for a better life, hope for the recovery of a Western identity. Belief and hope inspired both Central European revolutions and the Western recovery of moral self-confidence between 1978 and 1989. Thereafter they were the foundation stones of a new European and world status quo known as the post-Cold War Order. What had looked like signs of collapse and retreat in the 1970s had in fact been the birth-pangs of a new stability.

Today they are shaking. There have been fresh sightings of Yeats’s The Second Coming. It is at risk of becoming a cliché again.

We can briefly list the symptoms of this growing instability – the 2008 financial crash, the Russo-Georgian War, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, increasing doctrinal disagreements in the Catholic Church under a new Pope, the euro crisis, the Merkel refugee crisis, Brexit, the rise of “populist” parties hostile to Brussels throughout Europe, the rise of Asian capitalism, and now the election of an American President who seemingly questions some of the fundamentals of the Western system of which the United States is the main guarantor. Whatever their significance or likely resolution, we can reasonably suggest that Central Europeans will look at these developments with a sense of déjà vu – indeed, a sense of déjà vu squared or multiplied – and with a sense of foreboding too.

One hundred years ago Hungary and Central Europe were embroiled in a war that had ended almost fifty years of astonishing progress in both industry and civilisation. By far the greater part of this Hungarian Review is devoted to examining and celebrating that achievement and its echoes today. As Péter Ákos Bod points out in his essay on economic convergence between Hungary and its neighbours, that half century “turned out to be the golden era for Hungarian capitalism … Budapest emerged as an industrial, trade and administrative centre second only to Vienna … Economic development indicators (incomes, wealth, living standards) had placed the Hungarian Kingdom at roughly 70 per cent of those of the Empire’s core provinces by the end of this era.” That peaceful development of the economy rested politically not on despotic government but on a carefully tended liberal constitutional settlement which, as David A. J. Reynolds in his essay on the Habsburgs quotes The Spectator of London as approving as follows: “[Franz Josef] must either be legal or weak, the very alternative which it is the first object of constitutions to secure.” On that blend of prosperity and constitutionalism was built a high civilisation that by 1914 was at least the equal of that built around London and New York and in which music, painting, drama, psychology, science, criticism and fiction flowered in both sober and fantastical ways Richard Godwin examines how Kafka’s fantastical fiction was inter alia a prescient exploration of how men were likely to survive (or be crushed by) the collapsing moral certainties of a traditionalist society threatened by a totalitarian future.

Would this civilisation have continued its extraordinary progress continuing to rival the Anglo-Saxons over the waters – and discovered a permanent peaceful resolution of its problems with nationalism if it had not been so rudely interrupted? We cannot know, of course. But the First World War will always be a nightmare in the collective mind of Central Europe because, as George Schöpflin reminds us in a review of book reflecting Anglo-Saxon perspectives, the region is Ady’s ‘ferry-land’ pushed back and forth from East to West”. It must therefore view the current rising instabilities of world and European politics with the peculiar anxiety of a bystander who is between the machine-guns of two rival gangs.

These erupting symptoms of disorder are examined in the pages following – and by a nice coincidence, they also involve a Pope, a President and a Prime Minister.

Daniel Mahoney paints a detailed and careful portrait of Pope Francis that depicts a more orthodox Catholic prelate on the major religious doctrines than the one who is quoted so often in the headlines. But there is no avoiding the fact that in his statements on secular politics he very often conflates Christian charity with a left-leaning secular progressivism, and that some of his recent off-the-cuff statements on Christian sexual morality have caused doctrinal confusion at all levels of the Catholic Church. That is of more-than-religious significance. In Poland John Paul II led the battle that freed Central Europe. If the region experiences a non- military invasion of migrants tomorrow, what will Pope Francis then counsel? It is hard to see him leading anything like a revival of Western moral self-confidence. More likely, he would rebuke one.

In the tradition of writers like James Burnham who root geopolitics in technological advances, Salvatore Babones examines the likely consequences of Prime Minister Theresa May’s commitment to a decisive Brexit. It will lead, he argues, to Britain gradually becoming an integral part of a US-centric trading bloc that, having absorbed the UK and other Anglophone countries, will retain its position as the world’s dominant geo-economic bloc. If Babones is right, a post-Brexit UK would be richer and more powerful. Mrs May was not an original supporter of Brexit, but she has embraced the task of achieving it with a kind of determined no- nonsense optimism. Almost any UK Prime Minister is likely to seek allies within Europe to limit the ambitions of the dominant power and to keep the US rooted in the old continent. So there is a quite good prospect that Mrs May would play a Thatcher-like role in preserving the West.

And in an arresting portrait of the new American president, Bruce Anderson sees Donald Trump as history’s unholy fool who solves – without ever understanding them – pressing problems that have baffled much cleverer statesmen. He proposes to sever these Gordian Knots with brash Yankee can-do self-confidence. It may be some comfort to sceptics that the President seems to have hired cleverer statesmen for his Cabinet to advise him on NATO and Europe. As Anderson also wonders, however, maybe there is more to Trump than his partisan rivals will concede. He has demonstrated an uncanny ability to outmanoeuvre rivals and forge large and enthusiastic political coalitions from quite disparate electoral blocs despite almost hysterical opposition from progressive elites. His appeal is a self-consciously patriotic one. And he has bags of self-confidence.

Naturally, much will depend on the kind of crisis that this new trio of Pope, President and Prime Minister faces. Just as the 1970s crisis turned out to be a winding path to a renewal of Western hope and self-belief, so these new crises might prove to be the trailer to a second Western revival rather than a car-crash into a second 1914. Insofar as their ideological character can be discerned, today’s main upheavals apparently involve a revival of nation and nationhood against ideas of supranational government and a revival of majoritarian democracy against the aggressive ambitions of post-democratic liberal elites. These are conservative goals rather than disruptive ones.

Alas, it is hard to see the new trio of Pope, President and Prime Minister proving to be quite as harmonious and successful as the three who helped to win the Cold War. President Trump and Mrs May have forged a practical alliance, but neither seems close to this Pope who himself has a post-Western view of Christianity and Europe. Two out of three ain’t bad, of course, and the European continent should anyway feel obliged to provide more of its own secular leadership in the common cause of national democratic sovereignty.

And Central Europe may have one or two candidates for that.




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