The New York Times’ headline for Thursday, July 4, 2013, printed above a nearly page-wide photograph showing a spectacular eruption of fireworks in the nighttime sky above Cairo, read Egypt Army Ousts Morsi, Suspends Charter. Almost an earth’s half-turn apart, Egypt celebrated the downfall of her year-old “democracy,” while the United States of America memorialized the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence 237 years after the Continental Congress proclaimed the birth of the world’s first modern democratic republic. (“Memorialized” rather than celebrated: Memorials remember dead things, not living ones.) The accompanying article, by David D. Kirkpatrick, quoted an American scholar at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, who explained to the reporter that the members of the Egyptian military “tend to think alike and they are a force to be reckoned with because, besides the [Muslim] Brotherhood, they are the only really cohesive institution in the country.” Kirkpatrick closed his story by noting, “The most important thing from the military’s perspective is preserving its place as the locus of power and influence in the system.”
Reading the Times’ account, I was reminded of a book published two years ago by Joseph S. Nye, Jr., an Ivy League professor and former U.S. foreign-policy official whose establishment status is as secure as that of a limestone statue lodged in the façade of Westminster Abbey. Pondering the prospects for the United States in The Future of Power, Nye largely dismisses the worries of people who fear the nation has passed the apex of her power and entered upon decline. In defense of this position, Nye argues that, although America has many undeniable social problems, none of them is worsening, while some (he cites “intolerance” as an example) are actually improving. He does concede what he calls “the American tragedy of the 21st century: a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke.” The reference is to “political gridlock” in Congress, which could be overcome only (though Nye does not say so) by the Republican opposition’s willingness to accommodate the Democratic Party’s efforts to reconfigure American political institutions and transform the social and demographic structure of the country. Beyond the polarization of American politics and political institutions, Nye recognizes two further threats to America’s lasting domestic and global power. These are “a failure in the performance of the American economy [that] would be a real showstopper”—I hadn’t known Harvard Ph.D.’s and honorary fellows of an Oxford college wrote prose like that, but change is always springing where one least expects it—and a turning inward by a xenophobic American public that “seriously curtailed immigration,” which so far has allowed the United States, alone among the developed nations, “to avoid demographic decline and keep its share of the world population.” Immigration is crucial to America’s future, Nye says, because it strengthens American power, economically and demographically, and because it increases the nation’s “soft power” by enhancing America’s international appeal and contributing to her positive image, making her a “magnet” for the rest of the world. Nye contrasts the United States favorably in this respect with China, “which has a larger population to recruit from domestically, but [whose] Sino-centric culture will make it less creative than the United States.” But if China, a generation or two from now, is still a more or less recognizable and homogeneous culture rather than a gigantic industrial park operated by two billion people and surrounding an antiseptic new Party Headquarters squatting at its center, the Chinese people will have their millennia-old Sino-centrism to thank for that; while, across the Pacific, her archrival will have ceased to be a country, in any historical sense of the word.
Joseph Nye, like the people with whom he has spent a lifetime in social and professional association, is plainly a nationalist of a sort—but what kind? Charles de Gaulle, Benito Mussolini, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher all were nationalists, too. But none of them was nationalistic in the narrow and rather brutal way that Nye, George W. Bush, and John McCain—for instance—are nationalistic. General De Gaulle would have been shocked by McCain’s statement in the presidential campaign of 2008 that the most recent arrival across the Rio Grande is as fully American as any member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. For De Gaulle, France was the geographical homeland, the native historical stock that inhabits it, the French language, French history, and French culture, in relation to which French power was the expression, not the means nor the end. Mussolini had a developed understanding of Italy, an intuitive sympathy for her people, and a sense of her complex history. And while Mrs. Thatcher’s enemies have never conceded, now or then, that she cared for anything but economics—capitalism and profit—the Iron Lady had a far deeper appreciation of British history, culture, and tradition than her critics ever credited her with, as Charles Moore makes plain in his authorized biography of Thatcher. (Thatcher discreetly backed Enoch Powell against Edward Heath, the Tory leader in opposition, following his “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968, and as prime minister in the 80’s worried about mass immigration from Mexico to the United States.)
The mental connection I made between the Times’ coverage of the Egyptian army’s deposition of President Morsi and Joseph Nye’s discussion of the future of power, American power particularly, so far left obscure, has to do with the phrase “cohesive institution” used by David Kirkpatrick to describe the public function of the army, and of the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt. A foreign visitor to the United States, a country whose basic institutions are becoming increasingly incoherent, would be equally justified in concluding that the primary cohesive institution here is “Power,” as Nye, in his rather abstract manner, conceives it, but which in more concrete terms amounts to what Americans since the 1960’s have learned to call “the System,” understood as a synthesis of corporate industry and finance and centralized government.
The System is what the people who operate the U.S. government in the 21st century think America is about, not the patria: not the American people and their civilization, their history and institutions, their cultural traditions and religious belief, their present and future well-being as a people—not even the native ground itself, which is scarcely what they have in mind when they speak of “homeland security” or “the environment.” Absolutely, it has nothing to do, except in a rhetorical sense, with “democracy”—“government of the people, by the people,” “self-rule,” “freedom,” the “open society.” Intellectuals, educators, the liberal churches, activists, and the lower and more naive sort of politician no doubt believe sincerely in advanced liberalism and the transformative agenda it imposes on society; for the System, these things are simply a means to regulate and control the great mass of potentially troublesome and uncooperative citizens, which it values chiefly for its population bulk and as an inexhaustible source of revenue. For the official class, America has no more identity or personality than a machine has, beyond the ideological character her rulers officially invest her with. Only the size of the American population counts; its makeup is irrelevant to the System’s sole end, which is Power, and the expansion of Power for Power’s sake. The aim of the Scientific Revolution was to establish human control over Nature, which implies, necessarily, control over Man. Modern science made the Industrial Revolution more than possible; it made it inevitable. And the Industrial Revolution guaranteed the creation of a strong central government to control the power of the new industrial economy, with which it eventually merged. The final phase of industrial capitalism is not, as Marx predicted, the disappearance of the state, but its metamorphosis into a machine modeled after the means of industrial production on which the entire System depends. That machine, as Henry Adams foresaw over a century ago in a flash of poetic insight, is the dynamo: a device that simultaneously generates power and profit for its owners and operators.
The recent scandals involving the Internal Revenue Service and the National Security Administration, and the demagogic and dishonest campaign being waged by the White House, the Democratic Party, and one half of the GOP to legalize 11-20 million illegal immigrants under pressure from governmental, corporate, and agricultural interests supported by dozens of ethnic, ideological, and religious activist groups, demonstrate the System’s thoroughgoing contempt for American legal and political traditions under English common law and the U.S. Constitution, for the American national identity, and for the future of the country understood as an historical nation, instead of a mechanical political-commercial Leviathan supported by a gigantic secretarial pool and defended by a private mercenary army equipped with costly electronic toys. During the Vietnam War, the notion of destroying a village in order to save it was made a global laughingstock. Half a century later, the federal government defends with a straight, if nervous, face a patently unconstitutional policy of spying on whomever it wishes—at home or abroad, without legal warrant and under cover of official lies brazenly uttered on the floor of Congress—by implying that, in order to preserve our freedoms and our privacies, we must first destroy them. The War to Make Democracy Safe From the World is the greatest threat to democracy at home.
Max Frankel, an old-fashioned liberal newspaperman who spent his career at the New York Times, is dismayed by the casual reaction of the American public to learning that the federal government for years has been collecting and storing its phone logs and overseeing its internet traffic. Americans’ reaction to Edward Snowden’s leaked computer files compares unfavorably with the response by the Germans, whose loss of historical innocence in the last century allows them to imagine how easily a state, by attempting to achieve absolute security against even the smallest terrorist incident, could become a bureaucratic conspiracy of potential terrorists itself.
The security for which the modern state is ultimately concerned is not the security of its citizens but of the state apparatus. The raison d’être of modern democratic government is not the nation and its people, but itself. The state is a self-justifying system—Nietzsche’s “coldest of cold monsters”—with a ruthless determination to survive, and to expand, at all costs. In a democratic world of individual solipsists, government is the greatest solipsist of them all.