Astringencies

Commissars at the End of History

Who won the Cold War? asked Daryl McCann in a recent issue of Quadrant. At first sight, this is an absurd question: of course America and its allies won. After all, it was the Soviet empire that folded, and for a time—a very short time, admittedly—it seemed as if large-scale geopolitical conflicts were a thing of the past. Francis Fukuyama suggested that history had come to a full stop. He had seen the future and it was universal liberal democracy; any little local resistance was futile and would quickly be overcome. To try to stop its spread would be like trying to plug a volcano in mid-eruption.

We now know different, if ever we gave credence to Fukuyama’s very dilute Hegelianism (I did not).  Interestingly, the reading of a book by John Laffin, an Australian writer on military subjects, published in 1979 in a popular, sensationalist style under the prophetic title The Dagger of Islam, might have sufficed by itself to warn us against all complacency in however sophisticated a form, and that ideology was far from dead albeit that its Marxist incarnation, or one of its Marxist incarnations, had so obviously failed even according to the most Machiavellian of criteria. 

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Nevertheless, no one could seriously claim that the Soviet Union other than lost the Cold War, or that its leaders at any time in its history would have welcomed the denouement of that conflict. It was a victory for freedom over tyranny, indeed one of the most complete forms of tyranny known to human history.

And yet I suspect that few people would subscribe wholeheartedly to the proposition that, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, liberty has progressed from triumph to triumph in the world, even—or perhaps especially—in the lands of the victors of the Cold War. The fact is that for people to feel free, more is required than a political system with certain legal or constitutional guarantees, all of which can be subverted by the kind of rationalisation to which intellectuals are often given, and the absence of overt or obvious tyranny.

I was startled not long ago when a couple of taxi drivers in Paris of African origin told me that they intended to return to Africa from France in order to recover their liberty. What, leave a liberal democracy for a continent of weak institutions, corrupt and avaricious political psychopaths and an absence of the rule of law, in order to feel free again?

Some people might say that this reflects upon France rather than upon liberal democracies as a whole, but I think this would be a mistake. In essence, France is not so very different from other such democracies, even if the proportion of its gross domestic product attributable to state activity is the highest among similar countries. Everywhere, people are cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d by hosts of regulations. Every householder in Britain receives at intervals a letter demanding that he register on the electoral roll, enjoining him not to lose the right to vote (a great benefit or privilege conferred on him), and threatening him with a fine of £1000 if he does not comply. In Australia, everyone must vote, or attend to vote, as children must attend school assembly. There may be arguments in favour of these regulations, but one of them cannot be that they are designed to make the average citizen feel free.

In daily life, in professional life, one is subjected (or so it seems to me) to ever more bureaucratic procedures of no conceivable value except to make us feel that we are small and under surveillance, or tiny cogs in a large machine. Form-filling has sometimes expanded to the point at which completion of such forms comes to be the very object of work itself, though no one consults the information gathered by them. From time to time I write for publications supposedly devoted to the cause of freedom, which require me to avow that I am not engaged on some disreputable activity such as plagiarism or tax evasion. Of course I comply though I know it is absurd (what tax-evader is going to reply, “Yes, I evade taxes”?), but I want to be paid, and filling the form is a precondition of being paid. Thus my probity is destroyed by a thousand cuts and I begin to despise myself for my habitual cravenness and pusillanimity. These are not qualities that assort well with the exercise of freedom.

Again, it might be objected to the taxi drivers that they will feel freer in Africa than in France only because the latter has given them the opportunity to accumulate some money, no doubt a small amount by French standards but a large one by African, their relative wealth increasing by a factor of ten or more once they take it to Africa.

No doubt this is true. If they were to return to Africa with no money at all, it is doubtful whether they would feel freer than they were in France. Nevertheless, in their particular situation (and everyone, after all, lives in a particular situation) they would be freer, or think they would be freer, in Africa than as a taxi driver in France. A sample of two is a very small one upon which to erect a theory, but it is not impossible that there might one day be a reverse migration of people in search of greater liberty.

For people such as these taxi drivers, the freedom to speak without restraint on political matters was probably not a very important component of their idea of freedom, absence of regulation (or regulation that is easily avoided by the payment of a small bribe) being much more important. But even for those who care for intellectual freedom, such freedom seems to be in retreat in liberal democracies (to call it dead would be an exaggeration), curtailed not so much by tyrannical governments as by the action of the very class of person who one might have supposed was most attached to it, namely the intelligentsia.

Most of us inhabit not only countries but smaller environments. In institutions such as universities, freedom of opinion (if the reports I read are true; I do not frequent them myself, not even by disinvitation) has receded because diversity now means uniformity and tolerance means shutting people up.

This might seem something of a consolation prize to supporters of the Soviet Union for the otherwise comprehensive defeat it suffered, since the kind of arguments used by students and others to justify the attack on free speech in universities are precisely of the same kind or form that the Soviet Union employed in casting doubt on the reality and sincerity of the Western world’s commitment to human rights. What use was it to have the right to free speech if the press and other media were all owned by the capitalist class, and moreover there was no assured right to housing, healthcare, education and so on, which the bourgeoisie appropriated to itself alone? The freedom of expression in such circumstances was, therefore, merely formal rather than real. There could be genuine freedom only after social equality had been brought about. Until then, freedom of expression was a snare and a delusion, a covert way of maintaining the hegemony of the privileged.

Though this argument was obviously bogus (otherwise it could hardly even have been made in the West), and was merely a tool or instrument in the struggle, it entered the soul of the West, so to speak. Now, nearly thirty years after the demise of the Soviet Union, one often hears that it is right to stifle free speech to redress the balance of power between traditionally privileged and unprivileged groups. Only today, for example, I read an article in the Guardian newspaper inveighing against public debate, not only because as currently practised it is often trivial in content and trivialising in format, but because it offers advantages to “posh boys” and is “structurally biased in favour of conservative bromides”.

In other words, the very demand for or existence of debate is evidence that it is at best pointless and at worst harmful, insofar as it reinforces current hierarchies of power; and that once the proper radical reforms have been undertaken there will be no need for it because everything will be so perfect. Debate will, like the state itself, wither away.

So, with a becoming sense of proportion and irony, we may indeed ask with Daryl McCann: Who won the Cold War?  

Anthony Daniels’s most recent book, co-authored with Kenneth Francis, is The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd (New English Review Press), published under his pen-name, Theodore Dalrymple.

 

8 comments
  • lloveday

    I well remember an article in Time re Fukuyama’s 1989 essay “The End of History?” titled “The Start of Nonsense”, but the author’s name eludes me.
    .
    I’ve defied the law and not voted, or attended, for 39 years, so had to check that they still ask the question, similarly absurd to asking if you evade tax, “Have you voted elsewhere today”?, but it seems they’ve got even more absurd and my sister was asked “Have you voted here before”?, to which she, well versed in pedantry through many years of debating me, replied “Yes”, as she had done so 3 years ago. A lengthy conversation established that she had not voted there today, or pre-voted for the May 18 election, but she thinks the young woman just thinks she’s a dottery old woman, and can’t understand the import of the original question and answer.
    .
    A few years back, as reported in SA’s “The Advertiser”, a SA family claimed to have voted 159 times, including 31 times by a 17 year old, in an election – so much for their absurd question. Even the AEC, which in the past has buried its head in the sand conceded it is possible, and if it’s possible, it is done, with only the extent being in question.
    .
    So correct about freedom – outside of Australia, I was talking to a policeman on point duty at traffic lights when there was a 200m gap in traffic, so I bid him farewell and crossed against the lights – common sense prevailing over regulation. I ride a motorcycle helmet-less because I prefer the comfort and can afford the occasion small fine (imposed on main roads only). Some restaurants have separate smoking and non-smoking rooms, some non-smoking only, and some no non-smoking area at all – despite it being illegal to smoke in the restaurants, it’s not enforced and the market sorts it out. Buses stop where a passenger wants to get off……

  • Stephen Due

    Communist China is a worse oppressor of its people and a greater threat to the free world than Soviet Russia ever was. Why do people in Australia not want to know what is happening in China? There is a cold war going on right now, but we are not engaging the enemy.

  • en passant

    Anthony & lloveday,
    ll, you are clearly not living in Oz.
    This was published in Quadrant in 2018:
    “I was persuaded to invest $2.4M in a building development. Let me tell you about the reality of doing business in Oz and battling Agenda-21, the nanny state and Mr. & Ms. Council Pettifogger.
    1. It took 8-months for the Council to approve a fully-compliant town house complex, before we could even start.
    2. Since then, the rules have been changed several times (after the approvals were issued) requiring expensive rework.
    3. We must be ‘NBN capable’ to receive sign-off for occupancy (even though nobody in their right mind would sign up to this boondoggle). The nearest NBN cable is over 1km away. In a stroke of bureaucratic genius (and I really do honestly admire it!) after 16-months and 3x orders by the Telecoms ombudsman NBN turned up, dug a 1M hole, put an NBN cover over it and signed off that we were NBN capable. The nearest NBN cable remains over 1km away, but honestly I do really, really appreciate what they have done for me as it saved me a call to Julia at ‘Beyond Blue’ suicide watch. [NOTE: THIS YEAR THEY INSTALLED THE NBN CABLE. IT TOOK THREE TEAMS 5X VISITS DUE TO ‘DEMARCATION’ ISSUES].
    4. The Council (after the event) decided that one of the sub-division boundaries should be moved 87cms. Why not 86cm or 88cm I hear you ask, but ours is not to reason why. That cost $1,600 in survey fees for no known purpose as no fence separates the properties.
    5. The first property was sold in early June for $1.xM. We have been drowning in the bowels of mindless bureaucracy for nearly 2-years – and time really IS money:
    a. The Council has demanded that we provide ‘professional’ photographs of the landscaping as only native plants are allowed. They want to make sure we do not sneak in a dastardly foreign ‘rose bush by any other name’ at a later date. I recommended that we plant poisonous native oleander, Patterson’s curse and poisonous berry plants, but the builder overruled me.
    b. The Council are querying how we connected to the sewer without opening the road. The builder tunneled.
    Now in retrospect we find that we:
    i. did not seek approval to open the road we did not open;
    ii. did not have a ‘tunneling’ license or approval for the 3m hole that did not require disrupting traffic
    iii. the inspector eventually reprimanded the builder, but that was all …
    This is not the Australia I grew up in and it is an Oz I no longer know, nor want to even recognise.
    So, where to from here?
    THIS NIGHTMARE IS [NOW] OVER AND I WILL NEVER INVEST A SINGLE $1 IN OZ AGAIN.
    I [have now] moved much of my assets to investment friendly countries.
    This is what you and [our politicians] have done to Oz. [Our politicians] cannot pay the bills Oz is incurring so, like every junkie, you are running up the international credit card to keep going. One day the overdose will financially kill Oz, but you have your pension for your years of service to …. what? Yourself?
    Until the Oz swamp is drained of political hacks.
    So where to from here? Well, nowhere for me. I am already overseas in a coal-fired paradise with cheap electricity, a vibrant culture and economy and no terrorist or criminal threats.
    You know, the way Oz used to be …

  • lloveday

    “Why do people in Australia not want to know what is happening in China? There is a cold war going on right now, but we are not engaging the enemy.”
    .
    I was taught to check the numbers before getting into a fight – China has over 50 times the population of Australia, with the fighting capability imbalance likely worse due to demographics, and well over 30 times the number of military personnel.
    .
    Also taught to not bring a knife to a gun fight. China has tested a nuclear bomb with 200 times the yield of Nagasaki’s Fat Man and has hundreds of nukes while Australia has none (Russia has tested one with 2,500 times the yield of Fat Man, maybe China has similar in its arsenal).
    .
    I’d not know how to engage such an enemy other than by endeavouring to stay very much in Trump’s good books; thankfully Wee Willy “Trump’s barking mad” Shorten lost.

  • whitelaughter

    the simplest way for a government minister to free us from bureaucracy is with his delegation power: simply delegate to every citizen the right to approve themselves vs annoying rules. More sensible rules can be delegated more carefully; frex “X years as a builder without being charged with negligence” for some of the examples above.

    All of China’s neighbours have at different times seen off the Chinese threat; given we have several thousands of miles of ocean protecting us as well, it should not be difficult to stomp on their efforts to control OZ.

  • lloveday

    Bill Muehlenberg wrote an article “Could we repeat D-Day?” in Spectator Australia
    *****.
    “And one vital question that remains unanswered is this: is the West today capable of raising up such an army again? Would we have enough young people who are brave enough, manly enough, and willing enough to sacrifice their very lives for a cause greater than themselves?
    Those are some very good questions, and one is fearful of ever getting affirmative responses. As one meme making the rounds on the social media puts it:
    1944: 18-year-olds stormed enemy beaches, parachuted behind enemy lines, and charged into German machine gun fire.
    2019: 18-year-olds need safe spaces, blankies, bubbles, colouring books, gun free zones, and counselling for ‘ptsd’ caused by opposing views and offensive words.
    Today most young people have a hard time simply getting out of bed. These virtue-signalling weaklings would be no match for any foe in any war. Such a marked contrast to those brave young men who gave everything 75 years ago.”
    *****.
    The Chinese Armed Forces recruitment video, “Peace behind me; war in front of me” is a clear indication of what China sees in the future.
    .
    https://youtu.be/l_qr-4AKM18
    .
    Contrast with Australian Armed Forces recruitment ads – they are more concerned ensuring they recruit “appropriate” numbers of transgenders, homosexuals, Muslims, females, dwarfs, handicapped… you name it (other than big, strong, brave men, especially white men), and in the meantime hunt down heroes like Ben Roberts-Smith and desk-jockeys like Brigadier Lyn McDade, who has never seen war let alone been in one, bring charges of man-slaughter against Australian soldiers.
    .
    https://youtu.be/kV9mg3HIpaQ

  • lloveday

    Bill Muehlenberg wrote an article “Could we repeat D-Day?” in Spectator Australia
    *****.
    “And one vital question that remains unanswered is this: is the West today capable of raising up such an army again? Would we have enough young people who are brave enough, manly enough, and willing enough to sacrifice their very lives for a cause greater than themselves?
    Those are some very good questions, and one is fearful of ever getting affirmative responses. As one meme making the rounds on the social media puts it:
    1944: 18-year-olds stormed enemy beaches, parachuted behind enemy lines, and charged into German machine gun fire.
    2019: 18-year-olds need safe spaces, blankies, bubbles, colouring books, gun free zones, and counselling for ‘ptsd’ caused by opposing views and offensive words.
    Today most young people have a hard time simply getting out of bed. These virtue-signalling weaklings would be no match for any foe in any war. Such a marked contrast to those brave young men who gave everything 75 years ago.”
    *****.
    The Chinese Armed Forces recruitment video, “Peace behind me; war in front of me” is a clear indication of what China sees in the future.
    .
    youtu.be/l_qr-4AKM18
    .
    Contrast with Australian Armed Forces recruitment ads – they are more concerned ensuring they recruit “appropriate” numbers of transgenders, homosexuals, Muslims, females, dwarfs, handicapped… you name it (other than big, strong, brave men, especially white men), and in the meantime hunt down heroes like Ben Roberts-Smith and desk-jockeys like Brigadier Lyn McDade, who has never seen war let alone been in one, bring charges of man-slaughter against Australian soldiers.
    .
    youtu.be/kV9mg3HIpaQ

  • RKARGE

    Yes I agree! Many of my Greek friends have left the comforts and order and chains of Melbourne to return to the chaos and freedom of Athens. And how I love to drive around Greece on holiday with no seatbelt on purpose.! What a liberating exciting feeling!!

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