Balkinization  

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Why Weimar?

Sandy Levinson

Not for the first time, some readers have objected to my analogizing contemporary American politics to Weimar. Do I really believe that we have a Hitler in our future, for example? The answer is no. So why not find a "nicer" analogy, perhaps Paul Krugman's "banana republic" or something similar? One reason that Weimar is the best analogy to discuss is simply that the greatest social theorists of the early 20th century, Max Weber, Franz Neumann, Otto Kircheimer, and, yes, Carl Schmitt, all addressed the situation facing German after World War I. Weber died before the Weimar Republic fully developed, but his writings on German politics, and his fear about plebescitarian politics, were certainly prescient, as former Chicago Law School Dean and Stanford President Gerhard Casper argued about three years ago, when he talked about the caesarist aspects of our presidentialist system.

As it happens, I spent the day today celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Social Studies program at Harvard, in which I was a tutor during 1967-68. The essence of that program is an intellectual confrontation with the greatest social theorists of the past, including Weber (and Adam Smith, Marx, Durkheim, Tocqueville, and Freud). No analogy is perfect, obviously, whether it is to Munich, Vietnam, or whatever. No one should think there is a one-to-one correspondence between the United States in the 21st century and Germany following defeat in a catastrophic war (which became, of course, the prelude to an even more catastrophic war). But it is whistling past the graveyard, I believe, to pretend that there are no similarities at all, and, as already suggested, the advantage of looking closely at Weimar is precisely that it drew the attention of unusually acute social analysts. To repeat once more, anyone who can read Schmitt's critique of the Weimar Parliament without thinking of the contemporary United States Congress, particularly the egregious Senate--E. J. Dionne, a graduate of the social studies program, was a speaker today and noted that he would actually favor abolition of the Senate (something he has said in one of his columns for the Washington Post)--is simply deluding him/self. No one could possibly take the Senate seriously as a "deliberative body," for precisely the reasons brilliantly set out by Schmitt. And, I must say, Schmitt's analysis is far deeper (and more depressing) than that set out by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their accurately named The Broken Branch, where they ultimately plead for a return to civility by members of Congress. That is like pleading for a return to Madison's notion of civic virtue as set out in the Federalist Papers. It's never going to happen because of fundamental transformations in the society, which began literally within a few years of the adoption of the Constitution (i.e., the rise of the party system, which Madison in 1787 simply saw as a recipe for "factionalism") and continuing on today with the ever-further-development of what Marx recognized as the dynamo of a capitalist economy that would destroy stable cultures and polities that stood in its way. That's the meaning of globalization. And none of these thinkers could have foreseen the development and implications of modern mass media and networks like Fox who have no compunction about employing and building up the power of fascists who exemplify a pure will to power.

Come to the Caberet....

Comments:

I doubt they could have foreseen legislative leaders who'd force members to vote on legislation they never had a chance to read, either. But, really, if you want prescience at the Founding, it's the anti-federalists you should be looking to, not the federalists... Reading the anti-federalist papers side by side with the federalist papers, it really becomes clear who had a better grasp of the situation.

I must confess that that my history teacher was obsessive about the Civil war, and so my grasp of Wiemar history is shaky at best. Obviously the whole "humiliating military defeat followed by oppressive treaty" thing doesn't (yet) apply in our case, so what exactly are the parallels you see?

I suppose I could see some parallel between the Reichstag fire decree and Obama's claim of power to assassinate American citizens he deems enemies of the state. And the Enabling act could be considered analogous to the regulatory state enabled by a deferential judiciary, in that the REAL laws are being drafted by the Executive branch with constitutional constraints pretty much interpreted out of existence.

But I suspect that's not really what you mean.
 

The vast majority of people define Weimar as simply an economic crisis. I know little of the political machinations of the time or how they played into the monetary crack up but I've always understood that hyper inflation like famine is the result of a failure of governance. A failure of the political economy.

Our current economic crisis must be seen as a failure of governance. The failures of the economy as the result of this failure to govern. The biggest worry to me is this is setting up a self reinforcing trend, as the economy devolves radial reaction is reinforced further gutting governance.

The dominant political ideology of the day takes non governance as a founding principal and is happily going about the business of destroying governance and the Treasury. It is almost impossible to construct a good scenario out of this when one adds in the ever increasing cost of energy, the foundation of our economy and way of life.
 

"The dominant political ideology of the day takes non governance as a founding principal..."

I think that, in priciple, we can distinguish between the notion that the government should govern well in a limited domain, from the notion that it should do a crappy job of governing everything. The former is the ideology of limited government. The latter is the reality we've got at present.
 

You can defend the use, but the word as do others have implications that including emotional laden ones that complicate the discussion in ways that sometimes seems counterproductive.
 

"continuing on today with the ever-further-development of what Marx recognized as the dynamo of a capitalist economy that would destroy stable cultures and polities that stood in its way."

The problem with this interpretation is that the Framers were themselves fairly well cognizant of the nascent capitalism of their day, and some strongly supported it. Not only was it not predictable, some of the Framers knew nascent capitalism was already destroying stable polities at the time and supported that destruction - they didn't like those polities and thought that commerce would improve them.

"And none of these thinkers could have foreseen the development and implications of modern mass media and networks like Fox who have no compunction about employing and building up the power of fascists who exemplify a pure will to power."

This is also, I think, a questionable claim. The Framers were quite aware that the modern media of their day could (potentially) drive the people to tyranny. Their hope was that a free press without barriers to entry would create significant debates and so on. Again, this was an intentional decision.

Where they erred was in (at least) two dimensions:
1. they overestimated the power of markets as opposed to firms. (Firms or organizations won, markets lost).
2. they overestimated the overall rationality of the demos.
 

It's disappointing that intelligent people indulge in such hyperbole when they don't get their way. Excuse me, but where are the foreign troops occupying the U.S. following the greatest war in history, the one in which millions of Americans died? Where are the tens of thousands of crippled veterans, and the millions of unemployed ones? Where is the hyper-inflation? Where is the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary terror? Where are the communists? Where are the Nazis?
 

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