There is much talk these days regarding Chancellor Merkel’s management of the European crisis about the return of Bismarck’s Realpolitik. But there is no such talk, as far as I am aware, of the American copy of it. However the most conspicuous reminder on the social struggles of the late 19th century is President Barack Obama imitating Bismarck with his recent double blow of disenfranchising health care reform and precipitation of a “culture war” on religion, particularly Catholicism. It has got an immediate and unprecedented response by representatives from the Jewish-Christian community (WSJ, Feb. 10, 2012: “United We Stand for Religious Freedom”).
Obama’s inspiration Bismarck in a clever strategy of imposing mandatory health care as part of a comprehensive social security reform in 1883 after he had launched his decade long “Kulturkampf” (culture war) attacking the Catholics, the very communities that had along the lines of subsidiarity provided a lot of health care for the needy. And Catholics and other religious institutions do the same in the United States today. More importantly as in the US today, Catholics were a fast growing community in Bismarck’s Germany. Obama has combined both issues of class and culture warfare by way of imposing on religious charitable institutions a coercive policy for the provision of what he revealingly calls “preventive services” against pregnancy, implying it was to be just another odd disease. This is of course meant to instigate ideological controversy and invigorate the fight for his grand health care reform. Among many other parallels this move of the present US administration confirms once again the actuality of the 19th century in recent politics especially on the left who have lacked political inspiration and new ideas for quite some time. Thus “progressives” and Democrats find themselves in full reverse to Victorian class struggle. It appears that the ongoing financial crisis has unearthed all the old layers of class warfare and envy politics fuelling a revival of socialist concepts, despite the embarrassing collapse within recent memory of the Eastern socialist economies, based on the very same concepts.
What is not revived though up to now is the spirit of religious and neighborly communities. Rather the bipartisan feeling of the loss of a sense of community or a degree of neighborliness still marks our modern predicament. Historians have blamed this erosion of community spirit on the privatization of religion in the 19th century that went on in most Western countries. Once the impact of the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself!” had faded away, they argue, moderns felt no longer the need to respect let alone assist people next door. This is where Obama’s recent mandatory provision of contraceptive services comes in. It is so offensive to people who believe in God and the sanctity of life and for this reason Jews for the first time since immigration to the United States voiced complaint over such patronizing state interference.
For instance Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of New York's Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, said the distinction between those religious organizations that serve other faiths and those who don’t with the former not being entitled to protection from providing contraceptive services goes counter the grain of all monotheist religions. More importantly it resumes forced secularization exactly where the 19th century reformers left it and amounts to total privatization or rather isolation of religion. For it is attempting to prevent communication beyond the congregation by morally engaging with the world. This would be the undoing of an arrangement on behalf of the American Jewish community dating back to August of 1790, when Moses Seixas of Newport, Rhode Island, on behalf of his Hebrew congregation wrote a letter to President George Washington. Therein Seixas praised America and its liberties: "Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free citizens, we now behold . . . a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance." In response Washington granted every one in the Jewish community “…liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship." This precious gift has now been taken away by the Obama administrations Department of Health and Human Services. For obvious reasons with this European style onslaught Obama wants to prepare or rather empty the playing field of competitors for his one-size-fits-all state health care. For this purpose he wants to reduce religious practice to secret forms of worship and strip it from all public altruistic and brotherly services. Rabbi Soloveichick rightly charges “the administration denies people of faith the ability to define their religious activity. Therefore, not only does the new regulation threaten religious liberty in the narrow sense, in requiring Catholic communities to violate their religious tenets, but also the administration impedes religious liberty by unilaterally redefining what it means to be religious.”
This new battle on secularization of religious charitable work seems to confirm an observation first put forward by the historian Robert Kagan in his book “The Return of History and the End of Dreams” that contradicted Francis Fukuyama’s premature diagnosis of the “End of history” which assumed liberalism had after all won the ideological struggles of modernity for good. By contrast Mr. Kagan identified a return to patterns of politics reminiscent of the 19th century, namely the return of nationalism in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This would suggest that the 20th century with two world wars and two totalitarian reactions reflecting the crisis of modernity have come to nothing, utterly lacking of any progress. How prescient, we might wonder, were conservatives like historian Gertrud Himmelfarb, whose research and writing (mostly favorably) about Victorian Virtues started in the 1950ies with a biography of Lord Acton? All “progress” of the 20th century seems forgotten and here we are, back again in the middle of the Victorian Age. Therefore even Thomas S. Elliot’s famous statement about WW II seen as a defense of modernity against Nazi barbarism, needs to be reconsidered. What modernity? This is to say that President Obama emulates late 19th century politics, which were under the spell of then still ascending revolutionary socialism. Interestingly this was also the time when in US academia the devastating effects of the pre-WW I wars of ideas, in fact won by German idealism from Kant to Hegel rather than Marxism – both of which Obama as a candidate took pains to pay attention on a Berlin visit - made themselves felt. For it was at the turn of the 19th century, as astute contemporary observer George Santayana, then professor of philosophy at Harvard, has demonstrated, that German idealism had replaced Calvinism as the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) raison d’être (George Santayana, „The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy“, lecture given at the University of California, Berkeley Campus, on 25. August 1911).
This resulted in a surge of progressive politics under Woodrow Wilson undermining the principles of the founding fathers and inexorably for the first time watering them down. To be sure this happened also at a time when a fast growing German economy emerged as the main challenger of the United States. Here the news that Germany in 2010 has replaced the United States as the second biggest world exporter after China comes as another déjà vu.
Just like Bismarck President Obama ventures the cunning attempt to destroy the conservative tradition of subsidiarity and the kind of Burke’s “little platoons” of good will that are a mainstay of Compassionate Conservatism. By virtually dislocating charitable work from religious communities Obama is trying to undermine their reputation, grown by condensing the experience of well over two thousand years of Christian social ethics, and firmly usurping and centralizing them within his nanny state. This is no minor issue since the reversal of the revered principle of subsidiarity that sound governance requires geting things done at the lowest possible level along the lines of the most decisive American virtue: self-reliance. What we detect here common with both Bismarck and Obama are unhealthy authoritarian appetites.
Another intriguing case on the opposite side of the Atlantic is the revival of the Entente Cordiale of 1904 between Britain and France, first with the navy last year and now with nuclear power and defenses in general – a revival of the late 19th century liaison against Germany under Prussian rule. With the widening of the gap between the Anglo-Sphere and Europe, with the US reorienting itself away from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, Eliot’s question raised during WW II as to who represents modernity best, might be thrown up again. As in the past a major force driving this is the re-emergence of nationalism in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Empire and the rise of former threshold economies of the BRIC group, which might trigger yet another burst of the European bubble as it did before WW I. Numerous other trends in culture and politics make themselves felt such as the rebirth of the back-to-nature movement in the environmental groups of our day. We could add many smaller signs such as a return of Nietzschean nihilism and some degree of religious awakening with Evangelicals and Catholics in the lead. Not the least contributing to this are celebrity conversions to Catholicism in the West (Newt Gingrich, Tony Blair among many others). Unfortunately anti-Semitism also makes it ugly appearance reminiscent to the time of raised nationalist sentiments in the fin-de-siecle period.
It does not satisfy anyone if we attempt to offer simple explanations for all those deja vus. However among the major impacts of the second half of the 19th century was a serious financial crisis following the founding euphoria in Germany in the 1870ies. Bismarck’s “Kulturkampf” may have served as a distraction here. Its main push against the Catholic Church represented a push for secularization with a surge in socialist politics. This is probably what Obama is reckoning as well.
However we have to remember that the socialist surge in Germany in the 1880ies was predated by a widely unsuccessful attempt of an outright attack on Marxism by Eugene Böhm-Bawerk (1851-1914) and others from Vienna, founders of the radically free-market Austrian school of economics. All the same the revival of the latter by Milton Friedman and others in the 1980ies followed president Johnsons Great Society and fueled the Reagan supply-side Revolution which is now fiercely opposed by the Occupy Wall Street people. Obviously here the parallel ends. Germany always kept a strong anti-market sentiment, let alone free markets. It was Helmut Plessner, the German refugee to the Netherlands, who coined the phrase of “Germany the belated nation” based on tight folkloristic and tribal cohesion contrasted by a general lack of consumerism. Germany for most of her history lacked the relaxed, civilized bonds of a consumer society. After the unification the tribal cohesion gathered strength again and who knows what might happen when eventually Europe falls apart and Germany loses its new European identity. On its own again will she revert to a new combination of both recent currents of nationalism and eastern socialism? What will the Germanized and Balkanized Europe, envisioned by Niall Ferguson (in “2021, The New Europe” in the Wall Street Journal), with its new Capital Vienna look like? With Brussels gone and Britain, Benelux and Scandinavia either out or on the margins while most of the small countries of south and eastern Europa included, the new center will be closer to Sarajevo, where WW I started, than to, say, Copenhagen.
The best clue to the actuality of the politics and culture of the 19th Century is the permanent weakness of the Enlightenment to own up to its ideals of equality and freedom, two admittedly nearly irreconcilable principles. What we ended up with after WW II could be defined as license to do what you like nurturing nihilism reminiscent of late 19th century decadence. The treacherous enlightenment keeps leading modern societies astray, incessantly falling into political clashes because the fundamental order is undermined by those inconsistent or inimical principles of modernity which seem to be unable to create self-reliance and confidence anymore. The green sustainability concept is only the latest surrogate of sound political arrangements based on values everyone actually can believe in. Environmentalism might turn out to be the last of the endless Mandevillian attempts to transform private evil into public good via free markets and consumption.
However the power to maintain within modern society a stable moral order and functioning communities still seems to be the prerogative of traditional monotheistic religion. But the power religion could create for the cohesion of modern societies is something never accepted by liberal intellectuals since the enlightenment. To the contrary, progressives keep castigating religion as stupid, themselves prey to the conceit of rationality and unable to tolerate people who are honest enough to insist on the limits of human intelligence and the role of empathy and compassion. If liberals in a multicultural society where capable and willing to make their peace with this idea and with God in general, the future of the West would probably be safe. If not it is likely to fail. The history of the Jewish people offers a case in point here: their 5000 years success of survival rests on nothing but the Tanak, encompassing the Torah and the Prophets. For an individual version of the latter we may refer to the late liberal historian Isaiah Berlin. All his life long he held the bond with Jewish orthodoxy dear and accordingly was buried in an orthodox London synagogue. Berlin had convinced himself that liberals, cut off from the moral wellspring of religion, would be inevitably led astray.