Monday, January 15, 2007

Blessed Among Nations

[posted by Callimachus]

In the course of reading Eric Rauchway's book "Blessed Among Nations," my opinion of it went from "annoying but necessary" to "more annoying than necessary" to "drowns in its own annoyingness," to "WTF?" By the end, it got to be almost horrifying.

Which is unfortunate, because a book like this one, as it was advertised to me, is necessary. His overt topic is how globalization shaped America. I was hoping for a book that would explain in straightforward, but statistically lush, terms the role British capital and worldwide labor played in the dynamic success of 19th century America.

Rauchway's book arrived in the mail at a lightweight 240 pages -- footnotes, index, and all -- barely adequate for an introduction to the topic as it had been advertised on the site where I bought it. It does have some valuable, brief treatments of the subjects I was looking for. But it turns out this book takes a much broader compass than foreign investments in 19th-century America.

A better title might have been "Why There is No Socialism in America." But that one already was taken. Instead, "Blessed Among Nations" attempts to be an argument for why America, braced by its unique demographics and political structure and coddled by globalized finance, missed the boat on big welfare statism as practiced by all the "civilized" nations of Europe, and how America ruined the 20th century for the world by clinging to its outmoded notions of its own "specialness."

Very well; not what I was looking for, but that could make a good, short book. I was curious to see, for instance, how Rauchway would address the Confederacy -- a highly planned, centralized American economy that anticipated 20th century Europe's experiments along those lines. But he passed it by without a word.

Instead, it seemed the book was promoting the familiar "left-wing exceptionalism" view of U.S. history, in which America is decried for its historical ignorance of the sort of advanced social welfare state that evolved in Western Europe. I still suspect that's what Rauchway would write about if he weren't trying to do something else here. It slips through at times, such as when he writes:

After all, once the U.S. government began publicizing infant mortality rates among immigrants or the poor, reasonable Americans might draw the conclusion that their government ought to legislate minimum wages or maximum hours to ensure the health of families. [p.111]

I marked that one in the margin with a "!" Somewhere in the 19th century there were handfulls of Americans who thought exactly like a modern socialist historian, and perhaps I can forgive such a historian for roping them off from the rest of us as the "reasonable" ones. But my experience of 19th century Americans tells me most of them would have reacted to infant mortality statistics by proposing more Christian charity and moral reform.

In other ways, despite the clear effort to write a neutral prose, I detect the whiff of dislike of essential American character in this book. Americans are ignorant, vain, entirely self-interested. American policy decisions are responsible for all the suffering in the world. America is "an indulged child entrusted too soon with the burden of maturity."

By contrast, Rauchway tells us, British capitalism, in the first surge of globalization, had a benevolent effect on the whole world. Yet, as he admits at one point (and then seems at once to forget), this was an accidental result, discovered late in the game, and hardly the justification for the entire process.

So far it was all going as I expected. Then came World War I, in which the U.S. government quickly found that it "did not have the resources, authority, or will" to do what needed to be done. That was because it was not "an organized country."

All this is true, of course. By the time the United States decided to join it, the war was three years old, but "the country had blundered into mobilization, however heroically, as if its leaders had never thought about it before." Rauchway points out Americans who "lamented the easygoing national character that shunned the discipline of war."

This is hardly the kind of observation you expect from a squishy liberal defender of welfare states. It veers closer to a Mussolini position in praise of an active and authoritarian state. It puts the "national" in "socialism."

The U.S., Rauchway writes, erred after the Civil War when it "dismantled its defense establishment and, over the subsequent decades, grew powerful without much of an organized or organizing state."

This he holds up in contrast to the "efficient mobilization" of the European belligerents of 1914, who "had within days or even hours shifted gears so that industrial engines mighty in peacetime capacity could, without a hitch, switch from production to destruction ...."

And, admirers said, it happened so smoothly because the statesmen had planned it all in advance, plans whose "elegance ... filled ordinary Europeans with pride and delight."

This he contrasts to the "scrambling around, the duplication of effort, and the false starts the United States made while getting ready for war ...."

Furthermore, he explicitly connects this bureaucracy-driven war machinery with the welfare statism that European governments practiced and Washington, D.C., eschewed.

"They made individual people into numbers and the numbers went forward in good order and at speed to the trenches. The plans of a European power testified to the existence, age, and effectiveness of a national government ...."

As states grew in their power to care for citizens at home through social-insurance programs, they made their citizens feel part of a shared national responsibility.

My God, who writes this way? What thinking human being praises the avoidable war that fattened rats and depopulated whole nations and accomplished nothing? What's been called "the first European war to be planned by typewriter?"

The whole nightmare slide began with "mobilization," which, as was well understood at the time (and as is effectivey described in Rauchway's book), was an effective declaration of war. The process of getting your army in place on the border before your enemy had his there was thought to be the key to victory. Once you had set the trains in motion (and the food, horses, fodder, guns, ammunition, etc.), it was impossible to pause without blowing out the precise schedule. And if you did that, your enemy would have the jump on you. Bureaucratic efficiency greased the skids to hell.

Rauchway describes "the trains snaking in and out of Paris and Berlin" full of drafted soldiers on precise timetables drawn up years in advance by committees of generals, "assembling divisions and conveying them to ships or the front." Yet whenever I've walked up the cobblestones to the arched gates of the Paris train station from which the soldiers left for the Western Front, I hear the French poet's anguished cry that the Gare du Nord had "eaten our sons."

The "organizing state" marched its people to war in exquisite and archaic detail. Hugh Kenner, scholar of the Lost Generation's poetic vortex, noted that, "A standing order provided for the sharpening of every British officer's sword on the third day of mobilization."

They sharpened the officers' swords on August 7, for brandishing against an avalanche. "The wind of its passage snuffed out the age of unrivalled prosperity and unlimited promise, in which even poor mediaeval Russia was beginning to take part, as Europe descended into a new Dark Age from whose shadow it has yet to emerge." Within three weeks Louvain's 15th-century library had been rendered blackened stone and its thousand incunabula white ash, in a gesture of admonitory Schrecklichkeit."

In Rauchway's book, however, everything that goes wrong thereafter in the world is the fault not of the wonderful European war-making bureaucracy, but of America's want of the same.

Rauchway hasn't got a bad word to say about World War I until he comes to note the role of America's lending institutions in financing the British effort. Then, suddenly, the war ceases to be a triumph for state-organized economy and turns into a terrific calamity -- to be blamed on America:

The war made the United States into the world's great creditor, but unlike British investment in the last century, American investment went into destructive rather than productive enterprise. The war loans, serving their intended purpose, made the world a poorer place, as the armies they funded systematically laid waste to the riches of their enemies.

Ah, poor, innocent Europe: Dragged unwittingly into self-destruction by America's childish greed.

The essentially unmilitarized American character seems to me to be one of our saving graces. Certainly the spike in organization and government control that accompanied America's entry into World War I also coincided with the most harsh repression of dissent and innocent free speech since the Civil War, and it certainly has not been matched in the 90 years since. The lurid fantasies of modern people deranged by fear of George W. Bush and Guantanamo were realized in the Palmer raids.

The essential thing in Rauchway's book is left until the very end, post-conclusion, in "A Note on Motive, Method, and Metaphor." He writes: "In this book I've tried to depict American development in [an evolutionary biological] fashion, judging it as neither especially good nor especially bad in itself, just as suitable or unsuitable to circumstances."

He identifies five separate readers who vetted the manuscript to "alert me to where even my most mellow efforts at avoiding the judgmental note had sometimes failed."

Yet economies don't exist independent of people's lives. Governments, too, exist to serve peoples, not the other way around. Take out the good or bad, right or wrong, presume a world where what's good for the state is good for the citizen, and nationhood ceases to be a human activity at all. The repulsive ruthlessness of natural selection is a bad metaphor for deliberate human imitation.

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