Simone Weil Center Roundtable Discussion with Michael Lind: On Blocs, Civilizations and Causation in Politics
Notes from the Simone Weil Center round table with Michael Lind at the Cosmos Club, Washington, DC, April 13, 2018
Michael Lind, author of numerous articles and books on economics, politics and international affairs, is the ASU Future of War Fellow at New America in Washington, DC, which he co-founded. He is a contributing editor of Politico and The National Interest, and currently is Visiting Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin. The Simone Weil Center invited him to join us in a round table discussion this April (2018) to discuss, among other topics, his concept of bloc politik (see article in The National Interest). The evening was made possible through the kind generosity of Jonathan Snare.
Michael Lind’s concept of the American-led bloc coincides in many, though not all, respects with views expressed earlier by Boris Mezhuev (ISEPR, Moscow) and Richard Sakwa (Univ. of Kent). Like Mezhuev, Lind sees the world as divided into integrated blocs that share a single industrial-military-political space. Like Mezhuev, Lind believes that the avoidance of conflict between these blocs requires the creations of border areas that act, in effect, as neutral territories that have ‘trip wires’ that prevent aggressive movement. Like Sakwa, Lind sees the rise of globalization—a form of hyper-liberalism that largely ignores national communities and the welfare of national labor forces—as dating essentially from 1989, i.e. the end of the first Cold War. Lind emphasizes that this hyper-liberalism truly does undermine the welfare of place-bound communities (i.e. all but the information elites). It does so by playing workers off against one another, similarly to how corporations did the same thing on the level of American states, by moving to non-union areas in the south. There is no such thing as a ‘free world’ or ‘liberal global order,’ however. What exists are blocs. The American bloc is not ideologically defined, and never has been. It is a hierarchical order that achieves higher levels of efficiency and greater power in two ways: by expanding in terms of size (population, productive capacity) and by country-level specialization (e.g. the US as military specialist, while others focus on production). Unlike Sakwa, Lind believes that all the members of the bloc benefit by this specialization: the loss, e.g., by Europe, of freedom to conduct its own foreign policy is not a loss for them. Unlike Mezhuev, Lind does not think that the civilizational aspect is defining for the blocs, including for the Russian bloc. In the case of China it is less clear. It is not quite clear, in the case of Lind, what it is that is defining for the bloc other than the advantages of scale, efficiency and power.
An interesting and unexpected (for me) moment in Lind’s presentation came when he described how he saw the future course of global political-economic development, assuming a linear continuation of present day trends. The world will see states develop into two types: strong states will manage to do a deal with international capital and extract benefits for the national economy and labor. Weak states will find themselves dominated by a comprador class of oligarchs who do a deal with international capital for their own private benefit, selling out their country’s interest in the process. The concept of comprador capitalism is very well known and popular in Russia today, and is regularly applied by these internal critics to Russian elites. I am not sure exactly where the nationalist populist fits into this scheme, but that is also an option (e.g. a Ross Perot)—presumably the choice here is to withdraw from the globalized economy (?). All the same, it seemed clear that, given his druthers, Lind himself would prefer a political economy in the US closer to what it achieved under FDR—i.e. national in orientation, large industries self-interested in high wages so workers can buy their own product, with strong political parties that are well developed at the local and state level, and thereby able to protect the interests and stability of the local communities where most workers live the whole of their lives. The Democratic Party is not that party today.
A further topic of discussion had to do with the ideological flaws, if any, of the liberal order. Grenier suggested that aggressive expansionism (e.g. whether in the form of the neoconservative or liberal democratic ‘idealist’ drive for hegemony/universal human rights) looks a lot like an urge intrinsic to liberalism as such. In support of that thesis, Grenier offered the arguments of Ryszard Legutko, who states that liberal ideology acts like a religion, one with its own liturgical process. Its rite, per Legutko, requires the ritual condemnation of the non-liberal and the celebration of the constant forward movement of progress. This explains why, for the US-led bloc, Saudi Arabia (as a pre-historic, pre-progress entity) is unproblematic in ideological-liberal-liturgical terms. Russia, Hungary, and present-day Poland (to say nothing of Brexit), by contrast, are highly problematic to the extent they suggest linear progress toward ever greater liberalism is reversible.
Lind’s response to this picture was, unsurprisingly, complex. On the one hand, he supposed that the recognition of limits need not be problematic for liberal America. It just needs to meet a wall, and to that it will respond pragmatically. Grenier found this unconvincing: faced with a wall, won’t liberalism demand it be torn down? And even if it is not pragmatically possible to do so in the short term, it will see waiting as simply a temporary expedient until active measures can be taken. In other words, is the logic of peace (Raymond Aron, Joseph Cappizi) compatible with liberalism’s fundamental self-concept, at least as regards what is different, or other, from itself?
Lind by no means dismissed Legutko’s picture. He said that, while he was not convinced that Locke was important for explaining the faults of the liberal order, and while he did not find Deneen’s genealogy convincing, he did think that there is something definitely wrong with present-day American political orthodoxy, including very much in its foreign policy. Lind traced the ailment to two sources. One he described as a kind of obsession that entered the American political imagination after WWII, which has made it feel the need for a Hitler at every subsequent moment. Russia is the only convenient Hitler today—for the US and its NATO allies. (Especially for Germany, China is not an acceptable Hitler, however. Germany has every intention of maintaining good relations with China).
This Hitler argument sounds very close to a similar argument made by Stanley Hauerwas in his essay “America’s God.” It is also similar to a point made by the theologian Alexander Schmemann in his journals, one which Schmemann traces to the sectarian tradition in the US affiliated with a form of Protestantism that has a non-symbolic eschatology, if one can express it that way. In other words, avers Schmemann, from this sectarian perspective, the cosmos is not (already) ‘saved,’ in the sense that it does not participate in any way in the good: but the impulse to save is an absolute. We must be the saved (and therefore the good) ones. This requires finding some evil out there to be overcome, because the good as such, for the sectarian, is impotent and not really present in the world. This argument resonated with Lind and he described his own version of it in some detail. A day after the conference, Lind sent us an intriguing article (The Protestant Deformation, by James Kurth) that describes an allied version of this argument.
Lind also raised the question as to the relative weight of ideas vs. other factors in determining domestic and international behavior. While by no means denying the importance of ideas, Lind said intellectuals are prone to exaggerating their importance in history. Other factors may often be far more decisive—for example such technologies as the industrial revolution, or the ‘pill’, brought about massive social change, though these are not political ideas at all, but material possibilities brought about by applied science.
Though there was too little time to develop this last point of discussion in detail, it does open several new avenues for further consideration. For example: when we talk about ideas, don’t we need (as Adrian Walker has suggested) to distinguish between explanations taken at face value (“what people think they are thinking”) vs. the logic of actions which may be given by ‘ideas’ no longer even consciously thought? Compare in this connection Steven Smith’s discussion of the pervasive influence of Descartes for Americans’ anti-traditional, pragmatic and experimental habits of thought and action; and yet, as Tocqueville noted wrily, “America is the one country in the world where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed” (cited in Steven Smith, Modernity and Its Discontents, Yale Univ. Press, 2016, 66).