In the two and a half years of silence that passed since my last post, I engaged with two colleagues (Marielle Kronberg and my wife Vivian Freyre Zoakos) in a comprehensive, ongoing study of what we believe to be certain critical philosophical problems on whose eventual treatment will hinge the future evolution of Western civilization. We decided to begin with those of Plato’s dialogues that ought to be regarded, for reasons that will be elaborated in future posts, as the founding documents of western science: the Parmenides, Theaetetus, Sophist and Timaeus. The result of our work thus far has been a new translation of the Parmenides, to be made available on these pages as soon as the supporting footnotes and commentary are completed.
Physics not Political Philosophy drive long-term political evolution
The day to day developments in world politics during these two and a half years of silence validate the view that a colossal civilizational transition is in progress, or rather has been in progress for quite a while and has now reached a critical phase with the processes that have been unleashed in the United States since the 2016 presidential election campaign.
Contrary to the dominant views and practices of modern academia, what drives the longterm political and cultural behavior of a civilization is not the ideological narrative or the political philosophy behind it. Instead, the ultimate driver is that mental image of the physical world that the physical sciences of the civilization impart – by teaching and by osmosis – to that civilization’s general population. Populations understand their lives by situating themselves in a physical world, but they understand that physical world according to what physical science teaches about it. Their judgments and their actions are based on these understandings.
The beginnings of our broader political and cultural crisis (of which the last few years’ developments are merely a critical turning point) date back to the First World War and correlate with a parallel crisis in mathematical physics that has been brewing for the approximate one hundred years since the “paradoxes” of quantum physics were first formulated.
Western civilization’s transition from the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian understanding of the physical world to the Copernican/Newtonian view took about 200 years, from about 1500 to around 1700 – a turbulent era that saw the collapse of the idea of universal Catholic Empire, the emergence of Protestantism, the Thirty Years War, the Enlightenment and the Westphalian nation-state: the modern Western civilization.
Right now, our broad culture seems to be halfway through a similar 200 year transition from the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian worldview to what may well turn out to be, eventually, a modified quantum-mechanical/Platonic perspective of physical reality.
Our chronological distance today from the founders of quantum mechanics is similar to the distance that separated Galileo and Kepler from Copernicus: about a century. Another century or so separated Galileo from Newton and the completion of that transition. Presumably we have another century or so to go until the completion of our transition and the emergence of what will eventually settle as the actual post-modern Western civilization.
The political struggles that we are going through today do not belong to the post-modern era, despite ostentatious claims to the contrary. They are merely struggles to determine what the eventual content of Western civilization’s post-modernity will be. Despite the claims of the so-called “post-modernist” movement, we are not yet living in the post-modern era; we are living in an era of conflict to decide on what terms to settle the disintegration of the Copernican/Newtonian worldview.
The first pivotal transition period of Western civilization, its founding period, was between 450 B.C. and 212 B.C., symbolically bracketed by the legendary encounter of the elderly Parmenides and the young Socrates in the summer of 450 B.C., and by the death of Archimedes in the autumn or 212 B.C. That was when the Western scientific outlook first emerged, with a transition from Hesiodic mythology to the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian worldview. It is also when the most spectacular political events of Western civilization occurred: first the triumph and then the collapse of the classical city state, the world conquest of Alexander, the rise of the idea of transnational empire based on a single (Hellenistic) ecumenical culture, and the emergence of Rome as the administrator of this idea.
Each transition from one scientific world outlook to the next has been accompanied by profound political transformations that had to be implemented forcefully. The old outlook always resisted. The amount and degree of force always depended on the ability of statesmen to distinguish the authentic new truths that will constructively replace the discredited old truths, from the shining counterfeit impostors that claim novelty in order to defend the old.
The Clash is within Western Civilization, not among different civilizations
To situate the controversial Trump Presidency in this long-view context: Samuel Huntington’s 1997 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order was wrong because it was based on the premise that more than one civilization exists at this time. That is not so. If by “civilization” we mean unique modes of social acting and of collectively conferring meaning on such acting, then there is no sizable political or social formation in the world today which does not interpret reality and its interaction with reality in any mode other than the mode of Western civilization.
In every country, every single functioning institution of society tasked with administering the necessities of life operates on the scientific assumptions supplied by Western civilization alone. The last Taliban mujahid and the highest ranking Chinese PLA General depend on quantum mechanical principles not only for their cell phones and their transportation but also for their food on the table. The physical infrastructure of the global supply chain is implemented by quantum mechanical technologies – the pinnacle of Western science. People around the world may delude themselves into believing that they are the living embodiments and heirs of ancient, non-western civilization, but they are not. The entirety of their behavior, even their academic research, the physical writing or visual presentation of their arguments and dissemination of these polemics against Western civilization are controlled by the technologies of Western civilization: web browsers and spreadsheets for research, word processors and digital video for presentation, lasers for communication.
We are in the middle of a clash, but it is not a clash among civilizations. It is a clash within Western civilization caused, ultimately, by reactions of our populations and of our institutions to our gradually shifting scientific understanding of physical reality. These reactions move with glacial speed across decades and centuries and influence in a variety of ways how different peoples organize their societies, their states and their politics.
The United States of today emerged from a unique reaction of certain dissident European minorities to the transition from the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic worldview to the Copernican/Newtonian view. The original groups that settled in the American colonies were dissenting from both sides of the European conflict of the Thirty Years War – from both the Catholic Imperial side that reflected the Ptolemaic view and the mainstream Protestant view that reflected the Copernican revolution.
These two sides settled their differences with the Peace of Westphalia, which for the first time sanctioned the legal notion of “nation-state” as a legal equal to the ecumenical (“globalist” in modern parlance) claim of Catholic empire. Both sides of the 1648 European peace settlement at Westphalia sanctified the sovereignty of the state over civil society.
The American experiment was launched by settlers and later colonists who preferred the sovereignty of civil society over the state – the very opposite of the European idea of the sovereignty of the nation-state. So, the political consequences of post-Ptolemaic modernity were very different in the United States and in Europe. They are two different strands of one and the same Western civilization.
The European strand does not break out of the historical European tradition of the Imperial state established during the Hellenistic and Roman eras; it merely distributes the sovereign attributes of this state to more than one sovereign as an expedient to salvage the peace among irreconcilable economic interests. The American strand breaks radically with this Imperial Roman and Hellenistic European tradition of state sovereignty; the American strand attempts the assertion of civil society over against the sovereign centralized state, as the Constitution and the Federalist Papers attest. The original 13 colonies were run more like a bunch of pre-Hellenistic ancient Greek city-states or Republican Romes rather than anything resembling European practices of their time.
But the strain of ecumenical empire, i.e., political “globalization”, is almost irresistibly powerful in the Western political tradition. Political “globalization” is what Alexander the Great’s armies did, what Imperial Rome did, and what the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon, Hitler and the European Union attempted to do. The main argument in support of political globalization has always been the same as that of Beauty Pageant contestants: world peace. Alexander toppled the Achaemenid Empire and unified the ancient world in the name of ending the military conflicts which that empire was sponsoring; Rome gave us the Pax Romana; Napoleon and Hitler promised that by uniting all Europe under one authority they would end all wars. The European Union promises the same.
The Trump Presidency in this context
The allure of political globalization infected the United States ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. It was a program intended to transfer political power from the accountability of national institutions to opaque global bureaucracies whose strings would be pulled by the grandees of Western civilization – the hereditary political, financial and academic dynasties that have viewed themselves as the custodians of Western civilization. These grandees and their junior nouveau riche associates that emerged from the information and communications revolution formed a sort of transatlantic steering committee best symbolized by the Davos Conference.
The political globalization program took off first in Europe, (the alma mater of globalization since Roman times) in 1988-89, coinciding with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism. It then began infecting the US federal bureaucracy and senior academic elite at the end of the Bush, Sr. administration and accelerated with the Clinton administration’s accession to NAFTA and the WTO. Since then, a whole generation of senior federal bureaucrats, politicians and academicians pursued successful careers and rose in power by pursuing the objectives of political globalization.
As discussed previously, this program of political globalization requires the destruction of the legal authority of existing national states. A wave of challenges to traditional legal authority engulfed the United States over this last quarter century, taking a great variety of forms.
It is in reaction to these challenges to traditional legal authority that the Trump presidency emerged as a political phenomenon.
The Trump presidency is a push-back against the globalization agenda. It has two distinct and altogether different components: Donald Trump himself and the popular constituencies that drafted him into service. As some wag from the more angry vocal fringes of the Trump base put it, “Trump is not our candidate, he is our murder weapon to finish off the globalists”. Trump’s base pines for a return to a real or imagined golden age of authentically American values, rule of law, accountability of elected officials, federalism, republicanism and liberalism in their original sense. Trump himself as an individual largely shares these sentiments and often embodies the reckless American character that lurks beneath them.
This combination of the Trump base and of Trump the person represents an attempt to restore the ancient virtues of the Republic in a way that recalls Cato and Cicero’s “Make Rome Great Again” struggle against Julius Caesar’s “globalization” agenda of transforming the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. Like the political globalizers of our day, Julius Caesar represented Roman economic interests whose prosperity depended on global imperial operations. That ancient struggle between Roman republicans and Roman globalizers lasted 22 years from 49 B.C. to 27 B.C, and resulted in the complete victory of the globalizers.
The people of Rome in the end threw their support behind the globalist Caesar Octavian because they were exhausted by the incessant political warfare. In their war fatigue, the people calculated that the republicans would never stop fighting and would never win, whereas the globalists would never stop fighting until they won. In the eyes of the war-ravaged people the only way to stop fighting was to give victory to the globalists. Octavian won and Pax Roman took hold.
The analogy between USA now and Rome in 49-27 B.C. ends here. The ultimate outcome of the struggles embodied in the Trump presidency will most like surprise everybody, both friend and foe. But some invariant parameters will abide throughout the duration of the conflict:
The American Republic will remain far more powerful relative to any of its potential rivals than ancient Rome ever was, in military, financial, economic, technological and scientific terms.
Unlike that of ancient Rome, American economic prosperity does not depend on the rest of the world; only the prosperity of some private US economic interests so depend. If the Trump administration succeeds in reshaping world trade flows in ways that destabilize the global economy, the US economy will still thrive. Individual, global-depended US economic players may suffer and even disappear, the composition of the US stock market may become unrecognizable, but the US economy as a whole, Main Street and its labor force, will continue to flourish even in a Trump-induced global slump.
American science and technology is and will remain the dominant driver of progress for the whole world. They depend on us far more than we depend on them.
American national security, based on unparalleled technological and logistical depth, is the guarantor of the security of others and not the other way around.
Unlike Rome and before it Athens, American society does not depend on overseas empire to feed its middle classes. The contrary has been the case for over a century: the traditional American middle classes have been feeding overseas populations.
It is against this background that the agenda of globalization has targeted the economic and political interests of these traditional American middle classes. If the Trump presidency can organize these traditional middle classes into a lasting political force that stands for something more than mere reaction to globalization, then the Trump presidency could avoid the terrible fate of Cato and Cicero’s republic.
If not, the globalization agenda will be implemented; and this will put an end to the age of Westphalian nation-state sovereignty and will launch a new age of rival imperial states. The American experiment will have ended in failure after two and a half centuries of spectacular achievement.
Mere instinctive reaction to globalization (i.e., the current phase of the Trump phenomenon) may perhaps prove not enough to stem the globalization agenda. What is required is a positive articulation of the type of social organization that will best reflect the quantum mechanical/Platonic perspective of physical reality. Globalization, despite its airs of wisdom and sophistication is an attempt to return to the Ptolemaic state of affairs by arguing that the modernist Copernican/Newtonian model has failed.