One of the stranger things about the current age is that very few people talk about the Cold War or the events that drove it. For people living from the 1950’s through the 1980’s, it was the central topic of politics. When the Soviet Empire collapsed, it was if everyone decided to forget about the whole thing. If it is mentioned at all it is usually a conservative trying to remind people that socialism does not produce high quality consumer goods or not enough choices in the cereal aisle.
The great ideological battle between socialism and liberalism has been reduced to a battle between market economics versus command economics. The winner was the one that made better home electronics. Yet, right up to the end of the Cold War, the battle was not about economics. Sure, the lack of blue jeans and rock music was a popular way to mock the Soviet system, but even there it was not about the products, but the reason why they existed in the West and not the East.
The West opposed communism not because of GDP numbers or cheap consumer goods, but because communism was not just immoral, but evil. Controlling the granular details of people’s lives was monstrous. Communist countries did not allow their people to voice their opinions or choose how they lived. They could not even choose where they lived, as the government assigned apartments. The image of the “iron curtain” was to compare the Soviet system to a penal colony.
On the other side, the Soviets were fond of pointing out how blacks in America were treated poorly. There was also the urban squalor and poverty. Some Americans might enjoy blue jeans and rock music, but millions lived in squalor. Of course, the existence of super rich living in mansions was immoral on its face, given that so many people were living in poverty. The communist could privately concede that their system was not making equal consumer goods, but it was still morally superior.
It’s strange how the great ideological struggle of the last century is largely forgotten or reduced to a contest over breakfast cereal selections at the market, while the short fight between liberalism and fascism is cast entirely in moral terms. The West won the fight with fascism on material grounds. America could make more planes, guns and tanks than the fascists. There was the normal wartime propaganda about the evilness of the fascist, but it was never an ideological struggle.
The battle with communism, on the other hand, was always a about the basic moral difference between the two systems. There was never any doubt that the communist could match the west militarily. In fact, a frequent theme of American politics in the Cold War was how we had to rededicate ourselves to liberty in order to keep pace with the Soviets in missiles, the space race and technology. Again, the material aspect was just a part of the much larger moral argument against communism.
Higher morality has largely disappeared from modern political discourse. There is the superficial and often nonsensical moralizing about individual dignity and inclusiveness, but that is just crude factionalism. The relationship between the citizen and the state or the relations between different groups of citizens no longer a topic. In the Cold War, this was a central topic, as it highlighted the difference between the systems. Even hack politicians could wax poetic about liberty or freedom.
Notice how the debate about the virus has been reduced to economics. One camp is minimizing the health risk because they want the economy open. The other side is wildly exaggerating the health risk to keep the economy closed, not because they care about public health, but because they hate modern economics. Amusingly, they don’t even understand what it is they hate about global capitalism. It’s often just a crude jealousy of those who enjoy the fruits of modernity.
If anyone cared to notice, this pandemic has proven that there is no hint of republicanism left in modern America. There are no protests against the impositions on our liberty, just protests about restaurants being closed. No politician is giving speeches against the tyranny of these restrictions. Instead it is either about the most primitive sense of safety or about the right to consume product. To speak of personal liberty is as anachronistic as speaking in favor of free silver.
The great conservative polemicist Joe Sobran pointed out decades ago that the colonists revolted against a king, who was a very mild tyrant compared to the American government at the time. The founders would have been horrified to see what their creation became in the 20th century. Something similar can be said about the men who set out to oppose communism. If they could see what has become of the West, they would probably rethink their opposition to communism.
In the decades since the end of the Cold War, the West has lost any sense of a higher morality. There was a time when religion would fill that role. It provided a transcendent purpose to life. In other times, the secular rulers would provide the purpose. Maybe it was modernization or public works projects. In the case of the 20th century, the fight against communism was the higher purpose. Today that is all gone and we’re left to squabble over the crudest of desires like safety and food.
Perhaps the reason for all of this is that liberal democracy was never a rational and complete political philosophy. Rather, like libertarian, it was always an ad hoc reaction to and critique of socialism. It first replaced republicanism in the economic crisis of the early 20th century, then it blossomed in the fight against fascism. Finally, it evolved into a containment vessel in the Cold War. Once that purpose was lost, what was a left was a massive economic and cultural machine with no reason to exist.
As a result, liberal democracy is devolving into petty authoritarianism. The people, stripped of their republican virtue, no longer have the means to resist. The ruling class, armed with a monopoly of force and need to legitimize themselves, is taking on the habits of the deranged tyrant. They push people around not because they want to, but because they need to in order to feel their own existence. What defines them is pushing people around, so they seek out reasons to push people around.
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