The Resumption of History: Part 1 — The Davos Consensus, And Its Discontents
by Carlo Graziani
A Turning Point
I’ve been trying to capture what it is about this moment that feels different from the usual tawdry occasions of televised war served up in our media-hypnotized age. It’s not easy. Sometimes a simile is useful. The most helpful simile that I’ve been able to come up with is this: history is like a mile-wide printed paper scroll that emerges from a slot, usually at a glacial pace that allows its contents to be read at leisure, although coherent interpretation of the contents generally must wait until much later. In the past two months, however, the extrusion rate of the scroll has suddenly speeded up to a fantastic rate, so that no reader can keep up with all the new history that has just been written. It seems very clear that a lot of things just changed in the world all of a sudden. But it’s impossible to take a census of everything that just changed, or of exactly what the implications are for the world that we expect to live in when the scroll eventually slows down again.
We seem to be at some kind of turning point in history, a time that we will come to recognize as having brought to a head conflicts long a-brewing, and, I believe and will argue, bookending a period that began at the end of the Cold War, when the long struggle between the West and the Soviet Union ended with the latter’s collapse in 1991. I do think that period has some lessons for this one.
At the time—actually, a couple of years earlier—a young scholar named Francis Fukuyama published an essay, later expanded into a book, called The End of History, which argued that the impending global triumph of liberalism would remove the drivers of historical development (this summary does not do justice to Fukuyama’s argument), leading to a new era in human development. The argument was greeted with a mixture of celebration for its foresight in predicting the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, and mockery for its oversimplifications. And of course, today it is apparent that its predictions were simply wrong. But all of this is quite unfair to Fukuyama, who was one of the very few people who not only noticed at the time that big changes were in the wind, but was also actually trying to make a structural effort to peer into the future. Getting it right in 1989 would have required superhuman clairvoyance. Perhaps the lesson to learn from The End of History is that at such moments, merely identifying the correct intellectual tools to use, and the right trends to watch, might be more modest and achievable goals than actually attempting to scry the future.
That’s what I’d like to attempt here, at any rate. I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last few years mulling over various versions of the “how the hell did we get here” question. The last two months have been very clarifying of a number of issues for me, and helped me unify a number of rather scattered threads. I’d like to try to tell a coherent story of our relatively recent past as a means of sorting out some issues of political philosophy that in my opinion we, in the West, have allowed to become entangled, confused, and corrupted, to the point that we nearly forgot how to believe in the ideals that make us “The West” as something other than a geographical descriptor.
With that accomplished, I’d like to do some accounting of the elements at our disposal for understanding the world described by the scroll still shooting out of that slot.
The result will be a work of synthesis, bringing together a bit of history with some political philosophy in a very informal way, in an attempt to form a basic coherent picture. Such pictures are always wrong, in some sense, because they oversimplify. But they can be useful nonetheless as crude guidance. I doubt that we could expect much better tools for understanding the present, much less the future, from a much more refined treatment.
Even so, I’m not entirely sure I can pull this off. Someone ought to try, though.
Why Did The West ‘Win’ The Cold War?
I want to establish a premise: when asking a question like “Why did the West win the Cold War”, I am not inviting a full-up academic debate on this vast, nuanced, textured, difficult, potentially-hard-to-even-articulate-properly question; nor am I extending an invitation to the run-of-the-mill morality-play types of explanations that frequently devolve into NFL-style sack-dances. I don’t have the space in this type of essay for the former, or the patience for the latter. So I will simply state a view that I believe ought not be controversial. The West prevailed over the Soviet Union in the Cold War in virtue of two logically distinct advantages:
- The tangible economic advantage: Western capitalism was organised in a manner that was unarguably more efficient than the Soviet command economy. Even though the latter was, in fact, a war-mobilization economy for almost its entire 74-year history, and hence capable of generating terrifying combat power, its actual economic power was disproportionately small and immiserating to the people imprisoned in its system. In the end, the competition did not turn out to be primarily military. To the extent that the competition showcased economic success, the Soviet bloc started behind, and only fell farther back as technological progress accelerated.
- The intangible ideological advantages: There were aspects of the respective politics of the two blocs that held different attractions to different people. I am going to return to these in some detail later, because I feel that it is important to disentangle some of the confused political discussion that later issued from that era. For now I just want to state that by the late ’80s, it was clear that the justice politics of Marxism-Leninism were quite discredited, whereas there was still credibility to the Enlightenment ideology animating the Western politics of liberty. Basically, “Freedom”. Really, I know how oversimplified this reads. I promise, we’ll get back to this, because it’s important.
I’m sorry if this seem kind of obvious, but my point is that these two apparently innocent, distinct philosophical threads became entangled in damaging, even toxic ways. Have you ever noticed the sleight of hand that occurs in phrases such as “The Free Market”? The word “Free” does two distinct jobs in that phrase: in the technical sense of the phrase (as a neutral, resource allocation algorithm) the word “free” describes the agility of agents in a market to meet each other collectively so as to establish efficient market equilibria; but in the ideological sense it means something very different: it acts as ideological evidence for the validity of what ought to be a value-neutral technical argument. In one implicit portmanteau phrase, we have a conflation of the tangible and intangible “weapons” that “won” the Cold War. Likewise for “Free Trade”, “Free Enterprise”, and so on. Conservative ideologues routinely use that bit of wordplay to cordon off commerce from taxation and government regulation. What sort of pervert would want to tax or regulate freedom, after all?
Of course, by the 1980’s with the advent of Ronald Reagan in the US, and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, it was perfectly clear that the erosion of the philosophical distinction between liberty and capitalism was the way of the future, and that the two were destined for fusion into a “neo-liberalism” whose character principally emphasized inviolable international trade relations and national fiscal and budget policies favoring business development, rather than national democratic arrangements.
Well, as the saying goes, you can’t argue with success. In 1991 the Soviet Union, against almost everyone’s expectations, fell down without triggering nuclear armageddon. The new neo-liberal order had won.
The Davos Consensus
Another reason one could argue the West “won” is that at the beginning of the Cold War the challenge presented to the West by the Soviet Union was met by US policymakers through the creation of an international architecture designed to manage the conflict that eventually became known as the Cold War. The purpose of this architecture was to contain the Soviet challenge while limiting the risk of all-out war, and the nuclear global annihilation that was the almost certain outcome of such a war. That architecture, the product of cold, realist, amoral, but mindful calculation, succeeded beyond the hopes of its architects in 1991. In doing so, it rendered itself obsolete.
In a perfect world, a careful reconceptualization of that architecture in light of issues likely to arise in the decades to come would have been thought timely at that point. In the absence of a new existential challenge to replace the Soviet Union, this was too much to hope for. What we had instead was a smug triumphalistic victory celebration. Communism had been defeated by—wait for it—“Free Enterprise”. Forget about liberty—the tangible benefits of Western democracy had won the day. Coca-cola and Benetton and Gucci; Intel, and IBM and Microsoft; Boeing and Airbus, CNN and Disney and Mercedes: these were the manifestations of the West’s obvious superiority over the Soviet system.
This narrative was too dazzling and overpowering to be gainsaid. The Western economies were generating wealth, and wealthy people, at such incredible rates, that it didn’t seem utterly stupid at the time to believe the implication: this is it—economic utopia. Get as smart as we are, and we can all be rich.
This, for want of a better term, is the Davos Consensus. The elite government, business, and media figures who meet and issue positions papers at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual Davos meetings can stand in quite well for the smug, detached, entitled stakeholders who subscribed to this “get smart/get rich” outlook on modernity.
Something went wrong with Utopia, though. There were discontents.
The Rise Of The Demagogues
Signs of trouble began to appear almost immediately. You would think that if the neo-liberal social order was so wildly successful at producing prosperity as its elite so clearly believed it to be, then voters would systematically reward the order by electing rulers who subscribed to that order. But increasingly, there were flies in the ointment. Rulers were appearing who didn’t fit the neo-liberal mold.
Alexander Stille once wrote that “Italy has had a rather remarkable record in the twentieth century as a laboratory of bad ideas that have then spread to other parts of the world. Fascism was invented in Italy, as was the Mafia, and left-wing terrorism went further in Italy than in any European country”. This quote is from the introduction to “The Sack of Rome”, his 2006 book on Silvio Berlusconi. This observation seems very prescient to me now, because I believe that Italy did indeed do the honors on a very bad idea due to infect the world (as an Italian-American, I’m not particularly proud of this). Berlusconi, contemptuous of democratic norms, fawningly admiring of power, proudly uncultured, intuitively populist, militantly ignorant, corrupt to the core, and utterly determined to evade all limitations on his own power by any means at his disposal, was indeed a warning and a portent of things to come.
He was just the first. Within a few years there came Zhirinovsky, Putin, and Orban. Yanukovic, Erdogan, and Modi. Farage, Duterte, and Salvini. Bolsonaro, Le Pen, and Trump. All in the Berlusconi mode: an eager appetite for power married to an utter lack of interest in democratic norms.
At first all these leaders and wannabes seemed sui generis. They germinated in wildly dissimilar terroirs, so that it seemed absurd to assimilate them. But they certainly seemed to have no difficulty in finding affinities among each other. For example, there is now ample documentation—in the Mueller report—that Russian military intelligence, undoubtedly at Putin’s direction, explicitly set out to aid the Trump election campaign at a critical phase in 2016, by hacking the Clinton campaign and releasing damaging documents at times calculated to do maximum political damage, and later cultivated and groomed Trump and his acolytes using classic spycraft techiques of agent recruitment and maintenance. Muller also documented the unselfconsciously corrupt enthusiasm with which Trump confidantes such as Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, Eric Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Roger Stone and many others embraced their seduction by the GRU.
Trump and Bolsonaro’s bromance needs no re-hashing here. Marine Le Pen felt her connection to Putin worth playing up until recently. Narendra Modi’s circumspection on condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine decidedly contradicts his country’s lopsided trading preference for the US over Russia.
Recep Erdogan—who, note, is the leader of a NATO country, with a recent history of military tension with Russia, and a clear zero-sum competition with Russia over Black Sea primacy, is playing both sides in the Ukraine conflict, furnishing weapons to Ukraine, but refusing to take a political stand against the Russian invasion. And, why should he? Where are his political affinities, really? Ideologically, he has more in common with Putin than with Biden.
And all of this without even going into the frenzy of democratic norm-breaking practiced by Donald Trump during the squalid midden that was the Trump Administration itself, and the consequent stomach-turning spectacle of Putin’s effective commandeering of US policy towards Ukraine. How did we get from the “triumph” of 1991 to this? How do we explain the cancerous metastasis represented by this challenge to the neo-liberal order?
I have a candidate explanation: anxiety.
Tomorrow: The Age of Anxiety
All 5 parts, once published, can be found here: The Resumption of History