Post-Industrial Politics

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

The quote is from Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 publication, The End of History and the Last Man, but the view it represents was common among Western elites even while the Cold War was still very much in progress. It could just as easily have come from Daniel Bell’s book, The End of Ideology, published in 1960, as from Fukuyama’s.

The various versions of this world view differ in their details, but they have one principal thesis in common, namely that the Twentieth Century will shortly be (is already) over, and that all of the isms which threatened to lay waste to civilization during the last seventy years of it have now had their day. (Presumably this list of pernicious isms has been updated recently to include Free-market Capitalism, but no one’s quite gotten around to saying so yet, at least not at any length.)

Politics and economics, in this view, are now settled issues, except in the more backward regions of the world, and conflicts in such remote places needn’t concern us, so long as we can isolate them behind a kind of cordon sanitaire, through which we are able to extract such raw materials and human talent as are needed for our own more advanced civilization. Eventually, of course, we’ll get around to extending that civilization to them as well, once we’ve finished tidying up closer to home.

Admittedly, not all formulations of  the end of history are as arrogant as I’m making them out to be here, but the idea that the major problems left in the Twenty-first Century are problems, not of politics, but of management, is common to all of them. In my view, this is not only a profoundly anti-democratic idea, (I’d even go so far as to call it un-American, if I were speaking only theoretically) but it’s also just plain wrong. What it leads to — has led to, in fact — is not a managerial state which selflessly wields the key to the greatest good for the greatest number, but a corporate state, which isn’t the same thing at all.

o see the difficulty, one need only consider that a state which manages things must also of necessity manage people, and that to do so without politics, it must resort within its own borders to demagoguery and propaganda at the very least, while outside them, when it can’t persuade other states to see the world as it does, it must resort to force. To believe otherwise, one must ignore not only much of what has been known for centuries about human nature, but also much of what is already happening in our not-so-shiny new century.

To be fair, Fukuyama doesn’t actually speak of replacing politics with management; he asserts instead that Western liberal democracy is the final form of human government. I would argue that as far as the United States is concerned, this is a distinction without very much difference, in that our version of Western liberal democracy has, since the end of World War II, evolved into something which is neither liberal nor democratic.


What isn’t liberal about it? Here’s a partial, but telling list:

1. The chronic and systematic underfunding of public education. The government has withdrawn funding for the public school system while creating a tax structure which favors the creation of privately-run academies, in many cases religious or ideological in nature, to compete with it.

2. The abandonment of any pretense of support for independent public institutions. The Federal Reserve Bank has become a captive of what, in more candid times, we rightly called the moneyed interests. The balance sheets of banks, however chimerical, are guaranteed, and the effect of those largely unconditional guarantees—a shortage of capital available to the real economy of small business enterprises and wage earners — is ignored. The reports of the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration are censored by appointed political commissars. So are the programming choices of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the funding choices of the National Endowment for the Arts.

3. Institutionalized disrespect for the rule of law. An American President who employed the full powers of his office to conduct what was, for all intents and purposes, a secret war on an opposition political party, was allowed to resign from office when his crimes against democracy were revealed, but was immediately pardoned by his successor. An American Vice-President has openly boasted, on nationally-broadcast television programs, of ordering acts defined as war crimes by American laws and treaties, yet despite his brazen confession, there isn’t the slightest chance that he’ll ever be prosecuted for his crimes, even though he’s now out of office. When compared to the fact that the United States currently incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other Western liberal democracy, or many totalitarian states, for that matter—mostly for drug offenses, and mostly poor, or members of minority groups, or both—there’s ample reason, surely, to ask whether or not justice in our country is truly blind.

4. The militarization of law enforcement. Helicopters, combat uniforms, flak jackets, night vision goggles, automatic weapons, armored vehicles, training in counter-insurgency techniques by Blackwater Xe—even the police forces of modest-sized towns and the sheriff’s departments of depopulated rural counties lust after such toys, and many already have, or soon will have them, thanks to the generosity of their fearful neighbors and the rapacity of our ever more diversified defense industries, (While admittedly the Israelis, African dictators and nervous ex-Soviet satellites have more money to spend, capitalism wouldn’t be capitalism if it lost the knack of expanding its markets.) The new equipment and training will, of course, be accompanied by new responsibilities, prestigious and important ones, such as domestic anti-terrorism surveillance, and the enforcement of immigration laws.

No doubt it’s a new and more dangerous world which we inhabit, particularly as we live out the final days of our imperial pretensions, and our egregiously misnamed war on drugs, but surely it wouldn’t hurt if we were a little more careful about what we wished for. In my own town, population 10,000, the newer, beefier police force seems to be engaged mostly in pursuing and harassing teenagers and people who look like Mexicans, and in beating up black people who inadvertently find themselves on back roads after sundown. I’ve encountered any number of such incidents myself. Here’s just one example: eight fully-equipped police cruisers — eight of them — strung out along the shoulder of the road at a major intersection, with the sixteen cops who’d gotten out of them them surrounding what appeared to be a single middle-aged farm worker of Mexican descent in a 20 year-old station wagon with shot piston rings, and all of his personal belongings stuffed into the back. What genuine democracy considers scenes like this an unremarkable part of its everyday landscape?


When I consider a list of achievements as dubious as these, I’m afraid I see neither the end of history, nor the triumph of Western liberal democracy over any possible future politics. What I see instead is power attempting to disguise its appetites as rationality, which is precisely the maneuver which history most often records as the prelude to political chaos.

This is neither an accident, nor—as Fukuyama seems to believe—an unavoidable but temporary station on some uniquely Western via crucis. We’re all creatures of history, and as such capable of accumulating knowledge over the course of generations, yet despite our powers for good or ill, anything even remotely resembling omniscience remains beyond our reach. The impressive intellectual and physical resources now at our disposal are indisputable, yet we’re clearly every bit as vulnerable as our less capable ancestors were to events which we can’t foresee.

For us it doesn’t actually matter whether nemesis arrives as irreversible global warming, a world-wide pandemic or grain harvest collapse set in motion by unsafe economies of scale in agriculture, or even as the failure of the light of reason in our struggle to reconcile irreconcilable differences among the world’s major economic and political powers. What matters is that when nemesis does arrive, it’s unlikely that a managerial state which has already proven itself to be part uncontrollable dynamo and part house of cards will be able to fend it off.

I consider myself a faithful child of the American Constitution. Like many other Americans who share my faith, perhaps even Fukuyama himself — particularly since he’s come to see the moral and intellectual flaws in neoconservatism — I feel a certain native contempt for oligarchs and imperialists, for demagogues and fanatics. Much as I despise them, though, I don’t think that they deserve the blame — certainly not the exclusive blame — for the mess we’ve made of our heritage. Our problem isn’t a lack of virtue in our governing classes, it’s a failure to understand the role of scale in determining the viability of human institutions.


The population of the United States is now more than 304 million. In order to live the way we’ve become accustomed to living, we consume almost 21 million barrels of oil a day. The figures for natural gas and electricity consumption are similarly daunting. In this context, speaking of governance in terms of representative democracy requires more than an act of faith, it requires some knowledge of the dynamics of control systems.

When a society relies so absolutely on a technological infrastructure as large and as complex as that implied by the current energy consumption of the U.S., the legitimate question to be asked is whether it serves us, or we serve it. This isn’t a new question; Marx asked it, Sartre asked it, and so have many others who aren’t embedded philosophically in Fukuyama’s end of history. Frankly, the answers to date have not been reassuring.

It’s hard to understand, after all, how interminable wars in distant places benefit us, why universal health care is unnecessary, or what’s so unique about our modern age which makes civil liberties a luxury we can no longer afford. The real answer, the only answer, in my view, is that democracy has come to be seen as an inconvenient way to manage the large systems — economic, technological and political — which we’ve inherited from the industrial revolution. Since Word War II, this perception has in fact become the governing subtext of our politics, regardless of how scrupulously we avoid mentioning it either in public or in private.

Those charged with the responsibility for managing large, complex enterprises interest themselves primarily in how to accomplish their goals; questions of why they should have such goals are at best treated as diversions from the task at hand, and at worst as irresponsible — questions of interest only to fools who have no real responsibilities, and therefore have the time to waste on trivialities. This is understandable, but it’s also dangerous.

Consider just one example: once a national consensus is established that the key to continued prosperity lies in increasing our consumption of affordably priced fossil fuels, the mining of coal by mountain-top removal in the Appalachians may be looked upon as a welcome innovation. The expense of maintaining the largest mobile military force on the planet, however insupportable, may come to be considered a worthwhile investment, if it guarantees us access to oil which lies, for the most part, in remote and contentious parts of the world.

When, later on, evidence mounts that the negative consequences of this earlier consensus might outweigh the benefits — destruction of the Appalachian ecosystem, a possibly disastrous rise in the Earth’s average temperature, and a Global War On Terror which has revived colonialism and re-legitimized torture, among its other evils — we may find, to our dismay, that the original consensus has hardened into  a military-industrial complex. We may also find an army of lobbyists with satchels full of cash camping out in the halls of Congress, none of whom have any interest in anything except defending what their masters have built.

Even worse, decades of media consolidation now allow the machinery of the status quo to employ all the techniques of mass manipulation pioneered by the advertising industry, and perfected by the unlamented totalitarian governments of the last century, to smother any meaningful discussion of reforms which might threaten its interests. Not all have been as crude as Glenn Beck’s assertion that believing in global warming is treason, but taken as a whole, they’ve been tragically effective.

The problem is that when representative democracy becomes a shadow play, and the supremacy of those who ask how over those who ask why is complete; as the conventional wisdom narrows, and the status quo advertises itself as a self-fulfilling prophecy, we’re all at risk from events which we may be able to see coming, but have lost the power to deflect.

I’m sorry, Professor Fukuyama, but what we have now in no way represents the end of history, unless by the end of history we mean Armageddon. It’s far too monumental, far too brittle, and far too fond of looking admiringly in the mirror at itself.

A true post-industrial politics, one which might be flexible enough to restructure even its most dominant, and most resistant institutions in the face of impending calamity, cannot rely on the benevolence or expertise of a managerial class, be it capitalist, socialist, or teetotalitarian. We must invent new technologies of decentralization, and rediscover the benefits we once understood to be exclusive to democracy — its openness to the contributions of all, and in the collective, its clear-eyed view of the world as it is, unencumbered by the baggage of either privilege or ideology.

If we don’t, we might not be facing the end of history, but what remains of it is unlikely to be as pleasant as you imagine.

19 thoughts on “Post-Industrial Politics

  1. Karen M June 28, 2009 / 8:25 am

    Thanks for this post, William, despite its lack of optimism.

    Utilitarianism run amok. The only important question ever is “Who is expendable (i.e., exploitable) and who is not?”

    I posted something on the 23rd that included some extracts from a book about our Empire.* The extracts were about Ford and his role in expanding Empire and his inability to restore what he thought we had lost, because of what he had already let loose.

    * Touring Empire’s Ruins: From Detroit to the Amazon, by Greg Grandin.

    • William Timberman June 28, 2009 / 8:44 am

      Yes, this is what they inevitably call realism. Henry Kissinger was probably its best-known proponent in our era, but he wasn’t alone. Virtually the entire pre-Bush foreign policy establishment seemed proud of having reduced itself to a kind of reptilian calculating machine.

      Its remnants still are — it doesn’t matter whether you talk to Zbigniew Brzezynski, or Madeleine Albright, or James Baker, what you hear is the Raymond Chandler-style quote from Blade Runner: You know the score, pal…if you’re not cop, you’re little people.

  2. karrsic June 28, 2009 / 9:41 am

    Is China the model? The West likes to believe that the recent “reforms” that have opened the Chinese economy will inevitably lead to a more open and free society based on the Western model. But if one looks at the diminishing relevance of democracy, it may be worth asking whether East and West will meet in the middle? Is a blend of rampant commercialism and totalitarianism the governmental model of the 21st century?

    Americans define freedom as the ability to criticize the government, to produce and consume freely, and to be safe. China is arguably closer to achieving this than the West. You can criticize as long as you do not organize, commercialism is encouraged and protected by the state, and the big cities of China are perhaps the safest in the world. That the shallow freedoms are carefully crafted and safety is implemented by a brutal regime are means that Americans would (are) happily ignore(ing) to enjoy the ends.

    • William Timberman June 28, 2009 / 9:51 am

      I would emphasize — again — that such systems are not stable, principally because they rely on a static system of control. (Having ruled out democracy, they of course have no other choice.)

      The Chinese government is more realistic in one sense than ours is, in that it’s terrified of instability. The U.S. government is far more smug, but in my opinion just as vulnerable.

      • pieceofcake June 28, 2009 / 1:10 pm

        Hi! – and here is the optimism!
        No way with this ‘end of history’- but an end of ideology wouldn’t be all that bad – (considering the more or less negative definition of the Webster) –
        And about this list of liberties – That’s really fascinating and a few weeks ago we tried to create a similar one – after a somehow heated discussion about the ‘State of Progress’ SINCE THE SEVENTIES!

        And here are our pro and cons in order of my Priorities.

        1. The enviroment +
        (We finally seem to get It)
        1. Racial relations +
        (an amazing progress)
        2. Economic situation -/+
        (a disaster but hopefully a valuable lesson – If a very small minority is wealthy and the rest lives on debt everything will collapse)
        3. Health Insurance +/-
        (A lot of hope but will there be a decent program?!)
        4. Education –
        (a disaster – with no end In sight)
        5. Let’s call It ‘Personal Liberties’ -/+
        (a obvious ‘tougher’ and more annoying police – or perhaps – not?! Depending on the color of your skin? – A more ‘rigid’ society with a lot less liberty in your everyday life, from getting a driver license to – living by your credit rating)

        And I know this is a much simpler list (and I left out ‘National Security’ on purpose)- but the whole thing came with a lot of back and forth with the ‘older folks’ and it’s not easy to have them realize that someway – somehow there was some kind of progress and – and I don’t know if it is a ‘management’ problem – It definitely needs a ‘clear-eyed view of the world as it is, unencumbered by the baggage of either privilege or ideology’.
        But somehow I imagine what remains of history is likely to be more pleasant as the past – as history has proven over and over!

        • William Timberman June 28, 2009 / 1:32 pm

          It’s the job of the old to be critical, the job of the young to be optimistic. Whether or not the world will be better off tomorrow than it was yesterday, well…that’s for your generation to sort out, isn’t it? Just so’s you know, though, nothing in this piece, pieceofcake, should be construed as a vote against you. Like all parents and grandparents, I’m a good deal more hopeful for the next generation than the sour look might indicate. (Prouder, too, although it’s usually considered a bit patronizing to say so.)

  3. bystander June 28, 2009 / 2:45 pm

    WT, have you read a little treatise entitled, Has Freedom a Future, by Adolph Lowe (1988)? My apologies if I’ve asked you that before, as I suspect I may have – on more than one occasion. You so often prompt me to pull it off the shelf. I keep rereading snippets to test my recollection, but with this essay I now feel the need to sit down and read it cover to cover once again.

    • William Timberman June 28, 2009 / 6:17 pm

      No, I haven’t read it. I take it you’d recommend it?

      • bystander June 28, 2009 / 8:41 pm

        Dunno if I’d recommend it to you. It’s just that you keep teasing me to go back to it. Something jiggles memory. Will reread and then decide whether to suggest… In the meantime, I’m sure you have a stack already waiting. Will come back to you on it.

  4. cocktailhag June 28, 2009 / 3:08 pm

    Great essay, William. Probably the only unfinished book in my library is Fukuyama’s, a combination of both fury and boredom sent me running to Powell’s for something more readable. I only saved it because I thought I might satirically quote it later.
    You’re definitely onto something here; those running the “system” seem never to tire of telling us it’s too big and complicated for us to understand, much less comment upon, such impertinent backtalk being inimical to its smooth operation.
    I remember the dread I felt when the mantra “they hate us for our freedoms” came into vogue. It was so obvious those hated freedoms would be soon be tossed aside like chewed gum, and sure enough, that’s what happened.
    Thanks for an excellent and riveting, if a bit depressing, post.

    • William Timberman June 28, 2009 / 6:30 pm

      Well, you know, despite my reply to pieceofcake, I’m something of an optimist after all. In Faulkner’s sense, you understand. As I see it, we’re all victims of our own successes. The key to me is to return things to a human scale. We’ll still have corruption and cruelty, but perhaps we can avoid H-bombs.

      That’s what I mean by technologies of decentralization. The Internet is one, certainly. Perhaps solar panels, or local food movements are another. None of them will come into being, though, unless we can find a way to stop putting so much energy and talent into defending what we already know is seriously flawed. A new way of looking at prosperity and growth would help, as would an understanding that power is a commodity with a rapidly diminishing marginal utility. Get enough of it, and you’re in as much or more trouble than if you had none.

      • pieceofcake June 29, 2009 / 5:22 am

        ‘we re all victims of our success’

        truer words were seldom spoken and as Mr. Jackson (and Mr. Bush before) – has shown the world – this century might become THE century where every ‘system’ which doesn’t ‘work’ anymore (including all these ‘isms’ like ‘capitalism’) – is destined for self destruction whatever the efforts to ‘prop’ it up –
        And I feel bad now – because I realize it sounds pretty contra dictionary to my usual optimistic disposition. But I always hope that ‘hitting rock bottom’ might bring as much change as the Bush disaster has brought and if ‘the visionaries’ only would stop being so awfully ‘democratic’ (with all these wishy-washy compromises) it perhaps could become a respectful ‘oligarchy’ again –
        just like in the good ole times of the founders!

      • Karen M June 29, 2009 / 3:09 pm

        Here is a bit of optimism that I can share, WT…

        The little community where I live is trying its best to implement some of those decentralization ideas…

        A few years ago, the economic development committee managed to start a farmer’s market. We also have a new coffee and bake shop (not Starbuck’s– it’s independent) a couple of new restaurants, and I was finally able to contribute to something almost like a CSA, but without the large initiation fee. I can order what I like via email on a weekly basis, and the order form lists whether items are organic or IPM (integrated pest management). Then I pick it up on Saturday before I go to the farmers market.

        Some of our businesses (the coffee shop and Mexican restaurant) have free wifi. We also have a new independent film venue. Only 41 seats, but it’s also a subscription-based video rental store.

        Every year in September, there is an arts festival, with music, an art show, a few crafts, home-made food, and the like.

        I’m on a committee that was initially trying get an informal film venue going. We originally used a church, but have since joined forces with the small theater (which did not exist at the beginning of our project), though we still hope to keep doing our own programming: documentaries, foreign films, interesting animation. We recently hosted a film in connection with a book that was our “one book, one borough” selection. The library had applied for a grant for the project, and had funds to help subsidize the film.

        Of course, none of this happened until after many elections, when the Democratic party in this borough passed the tipping point, and could exercise some control over the agenda.

        A few weeks ago, the local high school put on a global warming conference. The attendance was not large, but it was their first attempt. However, the content was excellent. And I think it’s going to be ongoing. One of my neighbors is a science teacher at the school and he was the faculty sponsor, and was also assisted by an English teacher with a lot of environmental knowledge at his finger tips.

        The borough has had a single-stream recycling program for awhile, which they are considering expanding to weekly pick-ups, rather than the current bi-weekly pick-up. And there are plans to refine the program even more, both for environmental reasons and financial ones.

        I wonder if such things could even be possible in a larger town or city. I honestly don’t know… but it does seem that the scale is important. Which was, I believe, one of the main points of this post.

        • William Timberman June 29, 2009 / 3:52 pm

          Yes, that’s part of what I mean, but not all of it. In order to change our society from a passive into an active one for the majority, we need a multiplicity of techniques. The sort of thing you describe here is a good example because it connects ideas to actions. Modest as it might appear to the CEO of Exxon, it prepares people for much more ambitious undertakings.

          We’re going to need a lot of people like this — used to thinking in new ways — when we start to get serious about how to make steel in the future, or rebuild our cities into something more sustainable, or decide what comes after aircraft carriers.

          I’m already working on follow-up posts which aren’t so much about what’s wrong, but about what, realistically, we can do about it. What do we know already, and what will we have to learn? The problem of scale not just described, but addressed. That oughta keep me busy for a while, I reckon….

          • Karen M June 29, 2009 / 4:05 pm

            Just keep it up, William… I may have to share some of this with some locals of TPTB. Or, maybe just with my science teacher neighbor.

            For several election cycles, I did bend the ear of a former election judge during the lulls, about the importance of artists in transforming geography and making it desirable. I later learned he was on that economic development committee. I don’t really know if any of what I said made a difference, but I feel as if it did.

  5. LWM July 6, 2009 / 3:09 am

    This is a common paleocon critique of neoconservatism. You are familiar with James Burnham?

    Like it or not, I find management part and parcel of, akin to, regulation. And a well regulated commons is the key to survival. I suppose it is a matter of scale and locality.

    • William Timberman July 6, 2009 / 6:23 am

      There are similarities, yes, and I’m well aware of them — I have been for at least forty years. In fact, back in my SDS days, when we were trying to explain to Politburo-style leftists what it was exactly that the New Left found objectionable about the Old Left, there were some lovely sectarian arguments about the Role of Democracy in Central Planning, etc. We veterans of such arguments laugh about it now, but trying to explain why it was that the Dictatorship of the Proletariat was a non-helpful mythology turned out to be the kind of scholasticism which frustrated everyone, and got nobody anywhere.

      This is why I hate reading the kind of shallow historicism which shows up now and again in places like the NYT about how New Leftists spent more time reading Lenin and Mao than they did Locke or Hume. Shiny thirty-somethiings trained in the Columbia School of Journalism who literally know nothing about anything that happened before they were twenty. The latest versions of this sort of drivel appeared during the Ayers controversy — maybe you read some of them.

      What makes me a leftist, as opposed to a paleoconservative, is that, apart from my choice of romanticisms, I have no objection to scale in government per se, and accept its necessary role in acting as a counter-weight to our malefactors of great wealth. This is a reasonable position to take, I think, even though I’ve also seen — as we all have — that social democracies can be hijacked as easily as revolutions.

      So, the reservations expressed by the New Left about the authoritarian flavors of socialism apply equally to our ultramodern corporate states. As a social democrat of sorts, of course I see the irony when the so-called nanny state despised by conservatives and libertarians is co-opted and turned into an imperial state by an oligarchy which ignores the welfare of the polis. It’s just that I can’t say much about it without egging them on.

      The basic problem is one of scale, or more properly the rigidity of control mechanisms which are simultaneously too narrow in their focus and too devastating in their effects– the political labels are less important, even though they have to be dealt with along the way.

    • William Timberman July 6, 2009 / 7:00 am

      I should add that most genuinely serious thinking about the problems I’m trying to address here — from Gramsci to Burnham to Marcuse to Chomsky — originated on the left. This is, if anything, a tribute to the impact of Marx and his insights, but also to the dumb power of the bourgeoisie, which swept away the last vestiges of the European aristocracy without adopting any coherent political philosophy of its own. (Yes, I’ll admit that some of the most poisonous political theories of our time also originated on the left — from Lenin to Mao to the latter-day comedy acts of Podhoretz and Kristol. The ironies are too delicious, and the threads too tangled not to get a bit of a larf out of the whole mess. If only heru had a sense of humor….)

      • Karen M July 6, 2009 / 4:10 pm

        Indeed. (about the sense of humor)

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