Scarcely anybody doubts that we must continue to move toward
socialism, and most people are merely trying to deflect this movement
in the interest of a particular class or group.
F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom
If one is searching for a resonant and comprehensive symbol for the state of mind that prevails in the Western world today, one need look no further than the Ravensburger Schutzmantelmadonna, or the Ravensburg Virgin of Mercy, a medieval scupture on exhibition in the Bode-Museum in Berlin. Standing about four feet in height, the painted limewood statue shows the Virgin Mary sheltering a cluster of diminutive worshippers beneath the folds of her outstretched mantle. The iconography dates back to the early 13th century and circulated in various forms throughout Europe, displayed in churches, cloisters, guild halls, confraternities and among prominent families. One famous observer, however, was not impressed by the popular image. Martin Luther ridiculed it as “a hen with her chicks.”
The Ravensburg hen is back, gathering her hatchlings under her capacious garment and shielding them from a world of pitfalls, temptations, political decisions, moral predicaments and the inevitable failures that attend the quest for individual achievement. Europe especially is in full Ravensburg mode, having evolved into a kind of super-state usurping the functions of the sovereign nation, legislating down to the details and conduct of everyday life and hastening the invagination of its subjects.
In a closely reasoned article for The Chronicle of Higher Education (August 9, 2007), Gadi Taub cogently argued that the European valorization of “institutions that transcend the nation-state” is, in essence, “a liberal assault on nationalism [that] is beginning to look like an assault on the principle of [consensual] government,” since such institutions “exercise great influence, even jurisdiction, over people and peoples who have little or no democratic control over them.” Presided over by a commanding administrative-technocratic deity, which is to say, an alpha class of “experts,” bureaucrats, technocrats and policy-makers who embody what they have determined to be the Collective Will, this new dispensation rides roughshod over the autonomous will of nations and the rights of the individual citizen. In Europe, the elect are no longer elected.
As a result, the idea and practice of what we might call “post-liberalism,” extending the mantle of a presumably benign protectiveness over its constituents, threatens to become a new kind of tyranny. For it is almost a law of human behavior that a small, unelected group invested with immense powers will not act in the interests of the mass of the people for any length of time. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? asked the Roman poet Juvenal. Who will watch the watchmen?
John Fonte of the Hudson Institute has given us the term “transnational progressivism,” which he defines as “a universal and modern worldview that challenges both the liberal democratic nation-state in general and the American regime in particular.” Writing in American Diplomacy for May 26, 2009, Fonte warns that transnational progressives “have been altering the definition of ‘democracy’ from that of a system of majority rule among equal citizens to one of power sharing among ethnic groups composed of both citizens and non-citizens.”
Inevitably, the individual citizen ceases to be the central political unit and is replaced by an “ascriptive group” predicated on race, ethnicity, language, class, immigrant or refugee status, gender and special interests, all understood as victims who must be compensated with preferential treatment and lavish reparations for their “suffering.” The ascriptive group, snuggling beneath the legislative cape of a transcendant political organization, is the Ravensburg congregation of today’s “socially advanced” West.
But it doesn’t stop there. The ultimate purpose of this canonical scheme is that, whether through apathy, laziness or selfishness, all the citizens of the superordinate polity are in the course of time to become members of the ascriptive group, exchanging ambition for sanctuary, risk for immunity, independence for refuge. There is little awareness that buying in is tantamont to selling out. Meanwhile a patrician caste of rulers incrementally asserts its supremacy.
The European Union has been in the forefront of this radical experiment in post-democratic governance, which is, in essence, not as radical as it might appear, being merely the revival of an antiquated worldview. The difference is that the latter offers spiritual redemption, the former assures material salvation, which is, everything considered, equally hypothetical. The promised upside is that everyone will be able to put bread on the table; the eventual downside is that there will be no table to put the bread on. The project of cradle-to-grave prophylaxis is, in the long run, economically unsustainable. Except, of course, for the administrative group, whose banquet is unaffected by scarcity. For them, the loaves are piled high on the trencher.
Should, then, the Tranzis—a word coined by blogger David Carr—eventually win the day, the political postlude would be unnerving. Transnational progressivism may be non-violent but it is demonstrably coercive in its plan to transfer power from elected representation to an unaccountable bureaucracy, specifically, to a commissariat of self-declared “progressives” who know what is best for the people. The aggregate result is inefficiency, stagnation and widespread public lassitude. Indeed, the tag “progressive,” adopted by socialist parties as well as cosmocrat organizations, has now become a synonym for its antonym, “regressive,” denominating, as I have suggested, a medieval mindset and theo-political structure of life carried over into the modern world.
What is perhaps even more alarming is that the United States, the so-called leader of the free world, under the stewardship of Barack Obama and the Democratic party is now backsliding rather precipitously from its Scoop Jackson legacy. Jackson’s robust patriotic feeling, his lobbying for an increase in defense spending and his call for a muscular American presence in the geopolitical theater are now regarded as passé and retrograde. This is clearly unfortunate for, as Robert Kagan in The Return of History points out, the “rise of great power competition and the clashing interests and ambitions across Eurasia” and indeed, across the entire world, poses an enormous threat to American prosperity and security.
But the gravest menace to America today resides not in an external foe but in its new collectivist orientation, based on the European neo-Ravensburg model with its emphasis on the redistribution of wealth, the nationalization in all but name of once-competitive industries, the development of a vast and supervening welfare bureaucracy and the privileging of upshot over input, that is, the parity of outcomes over the acknowledgment of merit. Compounding the dilemma, the current administration has shown a troubling hospitality toward the influence of international juridical institutions which seek to mitigate the authority of the American Constitution. As conservatives have recognized, this is nothing less than an ill-advised and dangerous assault on American sovereignty.
The international Left today, in its castigation of nationalism as an organizing principle of political life, has strongly endorsed the anti-democratic ideology. The democratic state, which ideally governs in the name of the electorate, is now considered by a growing number of people as obsolete, a transient and discriminatory arrangement which favors the few at the expense of the many. And the individual, accordingly, is coming to be regarded as a ward of the socialist super-state, his judgment, freedom and integrity subject to the whims and dictates of a new aristocracy of the politically dominant. This is what F.A. Hayek meant in The Road to Serfdom by his notion of deflection “in the interest of a particular class or group.” And this is what historian J.L. Talmon has aptly called “totalitarian democracy.”
But if transnational progressivism, aka totalitarian democracy, is the wave of the “utopian” future, the many, huddling once again under the Ravensburg cloak, will find that they are not so much sheltered as stifled, subordinated to an overarching authority and effectively re-medievalized.
And the hen will have her chicks where she wants them.