The Decline of the Isms
The 20th century saw the rise of the isms. It started with nationalism, which dissolved into the First World War, as the Great Powers, with their entangling alliances, blundered behind their raised standards and their nationalist pride, into the worst war the world had ever seen.
In the throes of the Great War rose another ism, communism. Based on Marxist thought built upon the 19th-century Hegelian dialectic, communism became the governing theology of Russia, which quickly became the Soviet Union.
As Russia dropped out of World War I, America dropped in and helped the allies beat Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Woodrow Wilson promised a war to end all wars, but the French had other ideas as the Versailles Treaty humiliated the Germans.
That in turn led to Fascism, another philosophy based on a 19th-century theory, this one Darwinism. Social Darwinism morphed into a chilling theory of Aryan perfection, promoted by Adolph Hitler; Japanese primacy, promoted by Tojo; and Roman greatness, promoted by Benito Mussolini.
The Second World War happened because the rest of the world had a different opinion than those three. The Stalinists flirted with an alliance with the Fascists, before discovering that Hitler made a bad ally.
Upon the ashes of the Fascists came a new Cold War that pitted two philosophies, free-market capitalism and communism, against each other. Containment became the strategy as the threat of nuclear destruction stopped the Russians and the Americans from turning the Cold war into a total war.
As America fought communism, it also came to grips with its own legacy of hate. Racism, born from a morally repugnant system of slavery, had dictated how millions of Americans lived, worked and voted, in entire regions of the country. The Civil Rights movement was born as a movement to combat that ism.
The economic strength of the Western powers wore down and ultimately bankrupted the Soviet Union. The Chinese, who had adopted some of the principles of Karl Marx, moved slowly towards market capitalism, shedding some of the dumber aspects of communism.
As the millennium approached, free-market capitalism reigned supreme. Communism was thoroughly discredited, and its cousin, socialism, also was widely discarded.
And now, as the global financial system collapsed, capitalism is under greater scrutiny. Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, the godmother and -father of the free market, helped create and perfect a movement that preached that the freedom to prosper necessarily included the freedom to fail. Rand’s philosophy, objectivism, was the philosophical touchstone of free-market capitalists everywhere.
But objectivism required devotion to the marketplace at the expense of government, and its purity was hard to maintain in the real world. As the economic crisis spread panic across the globe, unfettered capitalism came under attack itself. Free-marketeers as orthodox as George Bush and Hank Paulson acknowledged that the marketplace needed the government’s help, and the government rushed in to take a major stake in the financial sector. The free market, already compromised by government meddling, is now in a serious downturn.
The McCain campaign has taken to calling Barack Obama a socialist as a campaign tactic. But the attack doesn’t have the bite it once did, because aside from the Castro brothers, and the idiot who runs Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, there aren’t too many open socialists out there. The charge seems so 20th-century, so Cold War-chic.
Obama may very well be a socialist, but he has successfully hidden his beliefs from the voters. The Junior senator from Illinois has based his campaign on poll-tested bon mots aimed to make the middle class feel that he’s with them. Yes, it might be class warfare, but it is clever class warfare. It took Joe the Plumber to make it real for people.
And that is the deeper truth about this age we are entering. We are departing the era of ideology and entering the age of practicality.
The ideologies of the 20th century — nationalism, communism, socialism, fascism, racism, objectivism — have all been discredited. The world has grown weary of ideology. It wants practicality and results. The world powers have dropped the intellectual crusades and are now defending their self-interests in an increasingly globalized economy.
Indeed, globalism might be the winning ism of the 21st century. But that is not a done deal. Globalism requires trust, cooperation, understanding and a certain sophisticated appreciation of the fact that we all live on this earth together. There were hopeful signs in the economic crisis that greater global cooperation could be a possibility. But there are plenty of obstacles, including Islamic jihadism and Russian thuggery, among others, that lie in the way.
This is important to American politicians because when ideology becomes an obstacle to progress, the ideologues will lose elections. Conservatives can argue ideology all they want, they can cry about socialism all they want, but at the end of the day, the American people want the mortgage meltdown solved. And liberals can talk about the need to spread the wealth around, but the American people don’t want higher taxes to pay for more government spending.
We are in a new century, and it requires a new way of looking at the world we live in. In the last century, philosophers created political philosophies and politicians tried to make people live like the philosophers wanted. In this century, it will be the people, not the philosophers, who will decide how we live our lives. And the people will require from their politicians a lot more pragmatism and a lot less ideology than we had in the last decade.