Winning the day and losing the war.
Another gloomy but brilliant essay. As an ex muck raking anti establishment journalist I think you can take a large parts of it and just change the word politicians to journalists, and it would sadly still be equally true.
How ever I think you are wrong on Macron. The purpose of every pension reform the last decades has been to destroy pensions as a right and hand the rubble that is left over to finance.
It started in Sweden, where I live. After the multi party agreement on a new pension system was signed one of the politicians, a woman social democrat that obviously was old school said “god how they are going to hate us when they discover what we just did!”
So it’s not that Macron didn’t know what he was doing, or protected his ego, he’s a bankman doing what he was selected to do while in the same time building his future career.
RE: "[Today's Western elites] generally come from higher-income families, and have had long and expensive educations at prestigious institutions, as well as benefitting from powerful family and professional networks. So they are on average better educated and prepared than their forbears fifty years ago: they have no excuses"
The quote assumes that today's Western elites are better educated and prepared than their forbears fifty years ago because they come from higher-income families, have had long and expensive educations at prestigious institutions, and benefit from powerful family and professional networks. However, this argument ignores the fact that education is not only measured by the quantity of years spent in formal schooling, but also by the quality of learning and the motivation of the learners. A counter-example that illustrates this point is Lewis Strauss, who was recently portrayed on screen by Robert Downey Jr in the Oppenheimer film, who had no degree yet he learned a great deal about nuclear physics through personal study because he took his responsibilities very seriously.
Lewis Strauss was an American businessman, philanthropist, and public official who served as the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1953 to 1958. He had no formal education beyond high school, but he became interested in nuclear physics after meeting Albert Einstein in 1921. He studied the subject on his own, using books and journals, and became one of the leading experts on atomic energy in the United States. He was involved in the development of the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, and the peaceful uses of nuclear power. He also played a key role in shaping the national and international policies on nuclear issues.
Strauss's example shows that today's Western elites are not necessarily better educated and prepared than their forbears fifty years ago, because they may lack the curiosity, dedication, and self-discipline that Strauss had. They may rely too much on their family background, academic credentials, and social connections, and not enough on their own intellectual abilities and interests. They may also be less willing to challenge themselves and learn new things outside of their comfort zones. Therefore, the quote is not valid, as it does not take into account the different dimensions of education and preparation that are relevant for leadership and innovation.
This article is interesting to the extent it grapples with what on it's face appears to be a political breakdown. Indeed, the decline in political leadership in the west since WW2 is undeniable.
I spent time in a serious political group and to illustrate this fact they would show a pictures of the leadership of the Roman Empire from it's early years and then the last several emperors to make the point. Then they'd put up pictures of American presidents from Eisenhower to present, making the same point.
However, it's not merely a decline of personalities or parties so much as a decline of economic power and social health in the west that has given us this cast of blind "pilgrims". For many years after WW2 the US had progressive tax rates which limited the economic polarization of the country to a workable maximum. There were nearly no billionaire oligarchs. Until Vietnam, military conflicts were approached with the goal of avoiding a disaster.
Things have clearly changed in these areas. The US is no longer the economic power it once was. It produces billionaires not infrastructure. It's GDP is almost totally attributable to unproductive financial transactions, not real production. All of its economic advantages over the rest of the world and especially China have disappeared or are in a state of severe decline. The dominance of the dollar being the most important.
A few decades ago, the decision was made to press western imperialism's military advantage against it's competitors in a desperate attempt to stave off it's economic decline. Trillions must now go to foreign wars that are fought almost exclusively for the economic benefit of the ruling class.
In this context, skilled or principled politicians are to be kept out of the decision making process. Rather, they seek only half wits they can control and give them the job of selling war and austerity to the public. These things are not surprisingly unpopular with the broad mass of voters, so the political elite is increasingly despised. Yet, the billionaire oligarchs who actually run things shower money prestige and influence on those half wits that can sell war and austerity with some success. It's easier to do if you identify with the ruling class and not the working population, so there are a number of ivy leaguers among them.
"They have no strategic vision or even rational medium-term objectives, just a series of symbolic totems: they are like a bunch of pilgrims heading blindly towards a fabled destination, holding hands, hoping for a miracle."
It is not rational, but they do have a strategic objective. The ruling class in the west sees it will lose world dominance to China very soon. It cannot complete economically because it produces very little of value and it's laws have been progressively altered to suit the needs of a very small group of oligarchs thereby indebting most of the population and reducing their economic activity and advancement. Therefore, it seeks to exploit it's wanting military advantage by provoking WW3 with China/Russia in the doomed hope of reducing both countries again to the status of vassals.
Their political servants aren't blind. They know what the program is. That's the point of those think tanks they all pass through. The fact that they know and carry it out and try to sell it to us is proof positive that the dregs of humanity in the west have been deliberately called up to lead us into WW3.
So, in the end this is a class question. Will we have politicians that represent the interests of the oligarchs in the west or will we have politicians and parties that represent the vast majority who struggle to work and survive?
There are three issues that reliability aid anyone interested in telling the difference. Do they oppose capitalism? Do they oppose imperialist wars? Do they oppose police state attacks on the basic political rights of the working population?
This criteria must be applied by all working people in the west if they wish to find a healthy and sane leadership from now on. Western imperialism's time is up.
This was the essay that broke the camel's back. I don't know if it was the right thing to do but I posted a link to substack on my Facebook page encouraging all of my 400 or whatever friends to start reading this newsletter. Many of my friends are in the theater. We've studied Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Stringberg on down the line. Beyond content, If only for the fact that the WRITING here addresses me AS THOUGH I were an adult (questionable) instead of a five year old, I feel it is must-read. For this iteration of the newsletter and all before: thank you thank you.
The transition you describe from people who get stuff done to a professional class of elite careerist position-holders/yes-men describes not just politics but executives in the private and NGO sector and the career path to get there. I think it's important and no coincidence that during the same transition phase the trans-national capitalist class largely regained control of politics, certainly in the USA, where political donations are effectively unlimited, but also in Europe where conflict-of-interest investments and the revolving door are the rewards given to useful politicians and bureaucrats. The most powerful families and organizations have so much monopoly strength that efficiency isn't their top concern and what matters more is sucking up as much stuff that they can control as possible (the more you control the more rent you can seek). The political elite you describe are tools of the oligarchs as are the managers of the corporations they control, and are interchangeable with them. No wonder then that the political policy positions of all major parties are pretty-much acceptable to finance and industry. There are exceptions, I know, but you know what I mean. And this explains why no political party is in a position to offer an alternative.
So once again I feel looking at this as just a cultural shift is not sufficient. As a conspiracy-minded quasi-Marxian (not a Marxist) I have to fit the trans-national oligarchy in to the analysis somehow.
Fixing this will require reducing concentrations of wealth and power.
The United States cannot be seen to back down. In part, this is because the United States is an empire in decline, and any overt weakness might cause vassals to start getting ideas.
But the real reason the West is out of options here is because of the fundamentally third world nature of contemporary USA and European politics. Without unduly belaboring the point, if you have ever spent more than a few hours living in a Third World country and you were sort of paying attention during this time, you will note that politics in such a country is a zero-sum game. Anything that helps your opponents hurts you, and anything that helps you hurts your opponents. So even a policy that benefits the country as a whole must be bitterly opposed, if your opponents are for it or it also benefits them. (War and the military seem to be the exception in the United States. Wars that in no way benefit the country enjoy unswerving bipartisan support, rising even to the status of sacred cows that can never be questioned. This is also not an uncommon feature in the third world.)
This means that if a western politico calls for anything less than Total Victory, his opponents will pounce, calling for the fainting couch and rending their garments most piteously while wailing something about "appeasement" and insisting that the opposition "leader" is the reincarnation of Winston Churchill who would have pushed The Button sooner and better. Again returning to the US, it doesn't help that Team D was pushing wackadoodle conspiracy theories that were contradicted by all available facts and by just about everything that the Trump maladministration did, to boot.
So the opportunity to call the other guy an appeaser and weakling acting on behalf of foreign powers is especially sweet.
In sum, the political class leadership stratum is fill to the brim with people who have been educated beyond their intelligence. And since the people running the show are part of the problem, no workable solution is imminent, or indeed likely. History shows where this is heading …
Warren Buffett, the US investor billionnaire, once said: "it is true that there's a class war between the rich and the poor. And the rich won". Could this be the underlying cause of the degrading of the qualities of our politicians? Reality disappears from view because (from the viewpoint of politician) there's effectively NO reality out there to cope with: the war has been won, now it's only a matter of elbowing to get some more crumbles falling off from the table of the winners. If anything, the fixation with image of ALL politicians across the West (for ex. the remarkable 180° turnaround of "populist" Meloni in Italy the very minute she acceded to power) is a performative act: one can easily feel that the performance is directed towards a very specific audience. It is just that the audience does not include at all the populace. Sometimes, as with Germany's foreign minister, this is admitted explicitly. Democracy has been, by all measures, gutted - if it ever existed - and is now just an empty shell.
*sigh* For most people most of the time, the fastest and surest way to wind up dead or seriously disadvantaged has been at the hands of our fellow humans. At the same time, "our group", whether by faith, family, tribe, regiment, whatever, are the people we can trust to have our back.
Therefore, whatever else happens, whatever we have to do, believe absurdities, blindly follow barking insane leaders, parrot obvious lies to our detriment, do or suffer terrible things, but please whatever you do, please don't kick us out of the group!
Those who have lived in the Third World and in developed countries should have a light come on about now.
What this also means is that when we are presented with incontrovertible proof that the group narrative is wrong or that the group leaders are mad or charlatans or worse, rather than change leaders or change beliefs or change groups, most people, most of the time will instead double down. Witness the behavior of cultists.
The process is called "cognitive dissonance" and it is abundantly documented. As alluded to earlier, there are entire religions organized around the principle.
Cognitive dissonance is not limited to stupid people. In fact, the intelligent are at least as prone, perhaps because they are better at rationalizing. In fact, much so-called "knowledge work" is basically learning symbol manipulation in order to rationalize something.
A very good post, thank you. However, you have misrepresented the situation with Prime Minister May, and Brexit. Far from being desperate to 'get Brexit done' and flailing around without a plan, she had a very Machiavellian plan, cooked up in association with the European Commission - if she had to deliver Brexit it would be a terrible Brexit that was directly against British interests, a Brexit in name only, which would keep Britain in hock to all the EU institutions yet without any say in their running. The chaos around the negotiation process was quite deliberate, as it was designed to buy time to convince the public that the vote was a temporary aberration that need not be honoured. The negotiators were always negotiating in bad faith. This situation inadvertently provides an answer to your initial question as to why politicians are so incompetent qua politicians. It's quite simple; the public no longer matter, so being a competent politician is an irrelevance. Policy is not made at the domestic level, but in the numerous supranational organisation of which the public know nothing. This means that politicians no longer have any role, other than to posture and prance at election time, and concentrate on the serious business of feathering their own nests. As for why individual politicians are so loyal to these supranational organisation, part of the reason is the opportunity for enrichment they provide. The cushiest retirement jobs aren't at home - they are in Brussels or similar. Think of Ben Wallace throwing a hissy fit because he didn't get to be Secretary General of NATO. He just wanted to follow a well-worn groove.
“Congress deliberately transferred most of its role to the executive branch, partly by eliminating much of its internal research staff and capabilities, among other things.”
Thank you for saying this. Few people realize how crippled Congress is compared to the the late 1980s and early 1990s when the support staff started to be cut. Even the staff for the individual representative or senator. It gotten to where much of the legislation is not written by Congress, but by lobbyists, and sometimes the bills are purposely pushed to a vote before anyone can read them.
Personally, I do not think that it is stupidity or a lack of education, but the lack of desire to be competent except in maintaining appearances.
I concur with previous commenters: brilliant essay.
I believe that much of what is said here about the political class extends to much of the business managerial class which is part of that nomenklatura. Particularly those within the largest and more influential corporations. How many who belong to the board of directors of company A have the same position in companies B and C where they meet some of the very same members they know in companies D and E by friendship, familiar ties...
Imagine you work for a company that designs and builds renewable energy installations for industrial and commercial buildings. You are a salesman and identify Company A as a potential client, contact them. They feel interested and you have a meeting. A second meeting with technical support and an offer. They look interested! Your offer goes up the food chain in Company A until some in the Board of Directors takes a look at it and realises that the very good project you have presented could be done by Company B which is owned or managed by some in her/his family. No matter if Company B cannot match the skills, services and costs your company can offer. You are done. Network capitalism?
If you want to know why the rot happened so fast: the Soviet Union is gone, and as a result, People Of Influence And Authority no longer feel that they have to toss the masses a bone or two.
One aspect of today's politics, especially in the US, is the level of corruption. Politicians enter congress worth very little but soon become multi-millionaires. Even ordinary congress critters end up rich. while those at the top become very wealthy. Joe Biden and Barak Obama are worth tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions. Neither of them had any life accomplishments before they entered politics. Peter Schweizer has documented the widespread corruption in a series of books - Secret Empire: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends, Profiles in Corruption: Abuse of Power by America's Progressive Elite, and Red-Handed: How American Elites Get Rich Helping China Win.
The War in Ukraine - the new phrasing adopted by the G20 - is going to shatter Western ruling classes complacent assumption that they still control events. NATO has proven a paper tiger in actual combat against a peer, not some goat herders in Afghanistan, although even the goat herders won against the US military in the end. The West is looking for a way out and wishing they could negotiate a freeze in the fighting before the 2024 election. Putin is telling them to go pound sand; fool me once - the Minsk agreements - shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Ukraine will be demilitarized, neutralized and denazified and NATO cannot stop it short of nuclear war. Actual statesmen, such as Willian Burns, a former US ambassador in Moscow, had warned the US not to cross Russia's redlines by expanding NATO eastward to Russia's borders. He was ignored by Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden.
The sanctions war on Russia has failed; it has fueled the expansion of BRICS and dedollarization. The mighty petrodollar is on its way out, replaced by Yuan, Rubles and national currencies, and maybe a gold based currency to be used by BRICS members for trade.
The highly educated bureaucrats and politicians who exported America's industrial base to China and Mexico did not understand that Russia still had an industrial base and could move it to a war footing. Thus, we had the continued litany that Russia was running out of ammunition, missiles, drones and troops.. That turned out to be true, but only for Ukraine and NATIO. Russia and China are closer than ever yet the same bureaucrats and politicians are even talking about war with China.
Above our three branches of government sits a fourth branch that is only answerable to itself. Together, the intelligence and law enforcement agencies of the Federal government - DHS, ODNI, DOJ and FBI - have immense power. They managed to derail Trump's term with the Russia hoax, assisted by their lackies in the media. They were crucial in stopping Trump's reelection. Remember the tractor trailer load of 280,000 completed ballots that was shipped from New York to Pennsylvania. The FBI investigated the whistleblower, the USPS contractor who drove the truck. Bill Barr closed down any investigation of the ballots. Biden won Pennsylvania by 80,555 votes. The FBI exerted immense control over Social Media, telling Facebook and Twitter what could be said and what had to be censored. Operatives of the fourth branch called the revelations found on Hunter Biden's laptop "Russian disinformation", a lie that got them past November 2020.
Zephyr Teachout has written a good book on the corruption in the US, which she described it as a set of networks interlinked and interdependent. Financial system likes such an arrangement because it can foot the bill for financing the right political class and the right pundits. It is not a coincidence that in the period described by Aurelien leading to the decadence of the political class - and much of everything else, the finaciers grew in power and strength by leaps and bounds.
Simone Weil's argument made in the late 1930s against political parties sounds very actual, 100 years later: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/simone-weil-on-the-abolition-of-all-political-parties
Some retired politicians still provide living examples of quality. It is very refreshing to watch and listen to Paul Keating, former Australian PM goring the press and the secret services, which he claims are in fact running the foreign affairs of the Anglosphere and much of the western dominated world:
I also think the ethics as well as grass-roots democracy have been taking (were relegated) a beating and while being payed lip service, that is all pantomime and theatre, since in fact actual ethics and democracy have been put in an induced coma for quite some time.
David Graber describes in an article in Lapham Quarterly an interesting approach taken by Tlaxcala, a polity that had a different structure than the Aztec empire, and which resisted the Aztecs for hundreds of years prior to Spanish conquest, approach in selecting leadership:
"Far from being expected to demonstrate personal charisma or the ability to outdo rivals, those who aspired to a role on the Council of Tlaxcala did so in a spirit of self-deprecation—even shame—and were required to subordinate themselves to the people of the city. To ensure this was no mere show, each was subject to trials, starting with mandatory exposure to public abuse, regarded as the proper reward of ambition, and then—with one’s ego in tatters—a long period of seclusion, where the incumbent politician suffered ordeals of fasting, sleep deprivation, bloodletting, and a strict regime of moral instruction. The initiation ended with a “coming out” of the newly constituted public servant amid feasting and celebration. Clearly, taking up office in this indigenous democracy required personality traits very different from those we take for granted in modern electoral politics."
PETER TURCHIN - "End Times"
Your premise and supporting text sits well next to Turchin's. What Turchin brings is a big driver, if not the root cause of the symptoms. The system now breeds excessive "elites" who spend much of their time combatting each other for positions / power within the system. This leads to gamesmanship where objectives which have very little to do with the common good arise, or even the good of the very system. Rather the destruction of the system is a way to open up opportunities, and the ossification of the system is a method by those who already got theirs to stifle competition.