There is a concept in physics called the wave–particle duality. The current scientific theory holds that all particles also have a wave nature. A simple way to think of it is light can be the flashing you would see from a signal lantern, but also a range of colors depending upon the wave length. Similarly, history can be described as the great forces sweeping men along like corks bobbing around the sea, the wave nature, but it also can be described as events, set in motion by great men, the particle nature.
The fact that both are most likely true, is probably at the root of our inability to learn from the past. People in the present will naturally look for figures in history to emulate, thinking if they act like them, they will get the same results. The trouble is, the forces that acted on men in the past were different from those of the present. Similarly, people often assume they are “on the right side of history” meaning they are riding historical forces that have an inevitable end. They foolishly ignore serendipity and the actions of important figures.
Consider what has been going on with the FBI scandal that appears to be heading to some sort of denouement this summer. On the one hand, the managerial inertia of an agency that has come to see itself as the policemen of the ruling class, drove all of these people into something close to treason. There’s simply too many people involved for it to be viewed as just a conspiracy. Frankly, guys like James Comey are too dull and mentally fragile to have followed along with a conspiracy. He was dragged along by events.
On the other hand, this on-going crisis has come to a head due to the actions of men. If Trump was a slightly different guy or had better advisers, this crisis would be at a different stage at this point. Similarly, if the oleaginous Rod Rosenstein had fallen down a flight of stairs on election night, the events he set in motion after the election, most likely would not have occurred. While all of these men are being pushed along by social forces much larger than them, they are not without agency and their actions alter the flow of events.
Interestingly, this crisis has a lot of similarities to what happened with Soviet espionage in the last century. In the early 20th century, being a communist or some sort of boutique socialist was a fashionable thing for ruling class types in Britain and America. That’s what it was though, fashion. At least that’s what people in the ruling classes assumed. The problematic communists were the trade union organizers. During the war, the main concern was with those sympathetic to the fascists. No one doubted the elites.
The people who decided to become spies for Russia in the last century, were largely drawn from the elites of America and Britain. These were not people drawn from the lower classes, bitter at their condition. Alger Hiss had a great life. What started as an immature fascination with communist ideology developed into a group identity. These people were pushed along by a sense of communal identity that took on a life of its own. Spying was affirmation and confirmation. Their conspiracies confirmed what they believed.
The same thing is on display with this burgeoning FBI scandal. The intelligence community still selects from the best and brightest of the American elite. This sense of elite status, within the managerial state, seems to have metastasized into a belief, in many of these people, that they are a class of priestly warriors. Like the men and women who spied for the Soviets almost a century ago, the people in this present conspiracy truly believed they were acting honorably. Comey called his book “Higher Loyalty” for this reason.
Where the comparison with Soviet espionage breaks down is that the spies did not represent a threat to the intellectual underpinnings of the system. Granted, the people in charge could no longer trust people from their own ranks to be loyal to the state, but that was manageable within the system. This FBI scandal is a direct threat to the very structure of the managerial state. Replacing the people is not going to fix the fundamental flaw in the system. The managerial state is devouring popular government.
History is not simply the playing out of a great narrative, even though it fun to frame it that way. The people involved in this have agency. They can and will do things that shape the forces acting on them. Sometimes serendipity changes the course of events. Ögedei Khan got drunk and died unexpectedly, thus forcing the withdraw of the Mongol army from Hungarian plain, rather than sweeping into the heart of Europe. The course of Europe was forever changed, because the Mongol ruler had a serious drinking problem.
That may be what we are witnessing with this FBI scandal. The great paleoconservative thinkers saw the managerial state forming up half a century ago. They could imagine it slowly swallowing up the institutions of American society, including the state itself. They could not see the unexpected. Trump’s election and the popular revolt going on may be revealing things to the political class that truly frightens them. This FBI scandal could be that bit of serendipity that changes the natural course of events.
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